Found on the west Andean slope in central and northern Chile, the Colocolo (Leopardus colocolo) is a small cat with spots and stripes. Of late it included more commonly found Pantanal cat (L. braccatus) and Pampas cat (L. pajeros), which were claimed by some experts as the subspecies of colocolo. Now the confusion is that when they are accepted as the subspecies of colocolo, the “collective” species is sometimes referred to as the Pampas cat.
There was a time when this cat was classified under the genus Felis, like most other smaller cats, but later some experts placed it along with the Geoffroy’s cat and the kodkod under the genus Oncifelis. Today all major authorities put it under genus Leopardus.
Colocolo cats have expansive geographical range. In fact they are believed to have greater geographic range than any other small South American cat. The basis for separating Pampas cat and the Pantanal cat from the colocolo was distinct differences in colour and patterns of the fur and cranial measurements.
On the basis of genetic divergence, it has been assessed that the break up in the colocolo group took place around 1.7 million years ago. This divergence was lesser than what was found within Geoffroy’s cat (about 2 mya or million years ago) or the oncilla (about 3.7 mya). Besides this, the distribution pattern in the colocolo group based on genetics did not entirely match what is based on pelage colour/pattern and cranial measurements, and supported a few of the traditional subspecific division rather than species division. For instance, while the population found in northern Chile has been put in the colocolo on the basis of cranial measurements, genetics bracket it together with Pampas cats found in Bolivia, and while the population occurring in western Argentina has been placed under the Pampas cat on the basis of pelage colour/pattern and cranial measurements, genetics bracket it together with the colocolo. Genetic analysis conducted very recently also supports retaining the Pampas and Pantanal cats as subspecies of the colocolo.
When the Pampas and the Pantanal cats are categorized as separate species, the colocolo has two subspecies: L. c. colocolo and L. c. wolffsohni.
Description and habitat
With 55 to 70 centimeters body length and shorter tail of 30 to 35 centimeters, colocolo is a small cat with heavy-set body. It weighs around 3 kilos on average. It has two subspecies that differ in their colour and pattern:
- Leopardus colocolo colocolo : (nominate): It has reddish or dark grey body colour with rusty-cinnamon stripes on the flanks. There are two stripes on each cheek and cinnamon upper side of the ears have black edges and tips. Found in central Chile in subtropical, xerophytic forests at elevations of up to 1,800 metres (5,900 ft), the cat has 4-5 reddish rings on its tail (outer two are darker), black chest spots, dark brown stripes on the legs and whitish underparts with rusty-ochraceous stripes.
- L. c. wolffsohni: Found in northern Chile in spiny shrublands and Páramo, a variety of alpine tundra ecosystems, these cats are similar to nominate, but their flanks have large, reddish brown rosette-shaped spots with darker borders. Upper portion of their ears are black with a greyish base and with a small grey spot. Usually there are eight rings on the tail (of the same colour as the flank spots). Legs have stripes and the spots/stripes found on the underparts are very dark brown, almost black.
Two specimens of the subspecies were taken. One was from an altitude between 2,000 and 4,000 metres (6,600 and 13,100 ft), and the other was from the elevation of 4,100 metres (13,500 ft).
On the exterior, colocolo is different from the Pantanal cat, as its size is bigger and body colour and pattern is also dissimilar. However, some Pampas cats are as big as the colocolo, and some subspecies of the Pampas cats have the same fur colour and pattern as colocolos of the subspecies wolffsohni.
Little is known about the colocolo’s breeding and hunting habits. Litters generally have one or two kittens, rarely three. At birth they weigh around 135 grams. The average life span of colocolo is nine years, but some have been found living for over 16 years.
According to some experts this cat is chiefly nocturnal, but others are of the opinion that it is mainly diurnal. It is believed that it hunts mainly small mammals and birds. Guinea pigs are thought to form a large part of its diet, along with Viscachas or vizcachas (rodents in the family Chinchillidae that look similar to rabbits, apart from their longer tails) and other rodents and tinamous.
The IUCN has rated “combined” species that include Pantanal and Pampas cats. In this case colocolo is considered Near Threatened. Whether this cat will receive a higher rating if the Pantanal and Pampas cats are treated as separate species is not clear, but it may be Endangered, and its range is smaller than that of the Kodkod, rated as Vulnerable by the IUCN.