Oncilla : Among smallest American cats



The Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) is one of the smallest spotted cat species in the Americas. Found in the montane and tropical rainforests of Central and South America, it is also known as the tiger catlittle spotted cat or tigrillo. Though it usually remains active during the night and in the twilight, but has also been seen during the day. Melanistic oncillas are also found.

Resembles ocelots and margay cats

It not just resembles margay and the ocelots, but is a close relative of both. Smaller in size, somewhat longer than the average domestic cat, with a slim body and narrower head and a white line above the eyes, it is 35 to 60 cm long with 20 to 45 cm tail. Being smaller it is also lighter, weighing 1.5 to 3 kg.

Oncilla’s fur is soft and thick, ranging from light brown to rich ochre or grey, spotted with black or brown rosettes across the back and flanks. The rosettes are open in the center and are irregular in shape. The underside of the body is pale with dark spots and the long tail has spots at the root, developing into black rings. Cat’s legs have medium-sized spots which taper down to smaller spots near the paws. This pattern and coloration helps the feline to blend in with the mottled sunlight of the tropical forest understory. Its jaw is shortened, with fewer teeth, but with well-developed carnassials and canines. The large ears are rounded and black on the outside with conspicuous white and bold ocelli.

Primarily terrestrial, but an adept climber

Like all felines oncillas are also strict carnivores and depend on meat for their survival. They are primarily terrestrial, but are also expert climbers and are very agile in trees. They do not walk slowly down the tree trunk in headfirst position as does the Margay, which hunts mainly in trees. Oncillas take more ground dwelling prey that weighs less than 100 grams. Their main diet consists of small lizards, mammals especially rodents, birds and their eggs, invertebrates and occasionally tree frog. They stalk their prey from a distance and once in range, they pounce upon it. Young oncillas usually purr, while adults make short, gurgling calls when close to one another.

As mentioned above oncillas are usually nocturnal in nature, but in areas such as Caatinga, a type of desert vegetation, where their main food is diurnal lizards, they are more likely to be active during the day. The name “Caatinga” is a Tupi word meaning “white forest” or “white vegetation” (caa = forest, vegetation, tinga = white). Oncillas prefer peripheral areas between open and closed vegetation, where the number of small rodents is always high.

A strong preference for montane forest

Found from Costa Rica through Northern Argentina, oncillas show strong preference for montane cloud forests and usually occur at altitudes that are higher than those of the margay or ocelot. They have been observed on elevations as high as 4500m in Colombia, in the Andean highlands in Peru and Ecuador and in the subtropical forest highlands of Brazil. In addition to this they have also been seen in cerrado (a vast tropical savanna ecoregion of Brazil) and scrubland environments.

Oncilla range map (CC BY-SA 3.0) (Attribution-IUCN Red List of Threatened Species)

In the year 2013, the southern Brazilian population was assigned to a new species, L. guttulus (southern tigrina), after it was found not to be interbreeding with the L. tigrinus population in northeastern Brazil. Oncillas have also been observed and recorded in northern Panama, but the rest of the country seems to be a gap in the range of the species.

Genetic studies have revealed a divergence in the two populations found in central Costa Rica and Panama, suggesting that the two might be separate species that have been isolated for 3.7 million years.

A study conducted in Brazil has shown that these cats intensively use restinga habitat also, a coastal scrub characterized by medium-sized trees and shrubs growing in sandy soil. Interesting thing is that they are the only cats found in this habitat, with the estimated density of around 0.87 animals per sq km, which is very high for a Neotropical cat. A study in the restinga found their most activity was nocturnal (47 per cent) with substantial amount of crepuscular and daytime activity, probably due to the absence of other cat species.

Another study has shown that due to the presence of bigger cats, like jaguars and ocelots, in the protected areas, oncillas in the Amazon forest of Brazil are found in larger number outside these areas where the presence of bigger cats is minimal or they are missing. Story is same in northern Argentina also, oncillas are found in lower densities in parks and protected areas. Home ranges in Brazil were found to be larger than predicted from their small body size at 0.9-2.8 sq km for females and 4.8-17 sq km for males. Densities varied from one to five cats per 100 sq km.


Since very little is known about these shy, reserved and aggressive cats captive breeding of oncillas is quite problematic. Males usually become fertile and sexually mature after 18 months, but the females do not generally give birth to their first litter until they are two years old. They mate in the early spring and summer.

Estrus in these cats is from 3 to 9 days, while the older cats have shorter cycle. They usually produce one kitten, but the number can go up to three, after a gestation period of 74 to 76 days. At birth kittens weigh from 58 to 116 grams. Males do not take part in rearing the young. Kittens open their eyes between eight to seventeen days, which is an unusually long period for a cat of this size.

In other cats incisor teeth tend to appear first, but in oncilla kittens teeth erupt more or less simultaneously, at around the age of 21 days. They do not start taking solid food until they are 38 to 56 days old (much older than in the domestic cat), but are completely weaned at three months. Oncillas usually live up to about 11 years in the wild, but there are records which show that they can live up to 20 years in captivity.


Following subspecies are recognized today:

  • Leopardus tigrinus tigrinus — northeastern Brazil, eastern Venezuela and Guyana.
  • Leopardus tigrinus guttulus — central and southern Brazil, Atlantic forest, Paraguay, Uruguay and northern Argentina (meanwhile recognized as a separate species)
  • Leopardus tigrinus oncilla Central America.
  • Leopardus tigrinus pardinoides — Peru, western Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia.

Although the oncillas found in Central America are listed as a separate subspecies on the basis of analysis of mitochondrial DNA, some scientists have found strongly supported differences between L.t. oncilla of Costa Rica and L.t. guttulus of southern Brazil, comparable to differences between different neotropical species. Researchers are of the opinion that there should be a splitting of oncillas into two species, as there is marked difference in appearance between the oncillas of Costa Rica compared to those in central and southern Brazil. The level of divergence indicates that the two populations have been isolated, perhaps by the Amazon River, for around 3.7 million years. After all these facts have come to light researchers believe that further samples of L.t. oncilla are needed from northern South America to determine whether this taxon ranges outside Central America, and whether it should be accepted as a distinct species rather than a subspecies. A zone of hybridization between oncillas and colocolos has been found through genetic analyses of specimens from central Brazil.

Oncilla skins


Classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Oncillas can easily be mistaken for young Ocelots or Margays as their geographical ranges overlap extensively, records of these cats are scarce in the Amazon, distribution is quite scattered and sightings or evidence of their natural rarity. In addition to this the cat is known by various common names, such as little spotted cat, tiger cat, ocelot cat or tigrillo, these terms are also used to describe Margay and Ocelots, which means their presence in any area may be difficult to determine. Only a few former hunters in Brazil and the most experienced locals could differentiate the three species

The first picture of Oncilla was taken in Brazil’s wilderness in 2003 with the help of camera trap. Vast tracts of land in the Amazon still remain to be surveyed to assess the presence of this cat.

Although it is difficult to assess the actual factors that threaten the species when so little is known about it, but still poaching and deforestation are the major threats. They are killed for their pelts, which sell in exorbitant price as they are used for making high-end fashion clothing. According to the reports released in 1972 and 1982 in South America oncillas are among the four most heavily hunted small cats. Human expansion in the areas which once belonged to the wild cats is another contributing factor for oncilla’s mortality. Coffee plantations are bringing major harm as they are usually established in cloud forest habitat, which causes reduction in the preferred habitats of these cats. Habitat loss for agriculture and cattle ranching, local trade for pets and trapped for raiding chicken coops are also bringing harm to the species.

CITES has placed these cats on Appendix I, which prohibits all international trade in oncillas or its products. Unfortunately hunting is still allowed in Peru, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Guyana.

Cross-breeding between oncillas and Geoffroy’s cats (Leopardus geoffroyi) occurs in the southernmost part of its range; it also occurs with pampas cats (Leopardus pajeros) in central Brazil. Such hybridization may be a natural process, and the extent of this as a threat to the oncilla is unknown.

Brazil does have breeding facility for several small native cats. In such facilities their natural conditions and native food encourages reproduction similar to that in the wild. A few oncillas are in captivity in North America, and a few in zoos in Europe and South America. In captivity, they tend to have a high infant mortality rate.

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