The Ocelot

Ocelots belong to the family Felidae, which includes 36 species of cats. Ocelots are classified under the genus Leopardus. Leopardus includes three species of “small cats,” the ocelot, margay and little spotted cat. Felis pardalis is still an accepted scientific name for the ocelot. There are eleven subspecies of ocelots. They are distributed throughout Mexico, Central and South America to northern Argentina, with remnant populations still in the southwestern United States. The ocelot inhabits a wide range of habitats. It can be found in tropical forests, savannah grasslands, and dense thorn scrub.

The ocelot can be found in a variety of habitats in Belize and is the most commonly seen of all the cats in the country. The Belizean name for the ocelot is the same as the margay “tiger cat”. The name “ocelot” comes from the Mexican Aztec word “tlalocelot” meaning field tiger. The ocelot was once a common animal in its region, but has been hunted to near extinction for its beautiful fur. Its fur resembles that of a jaguar and was once regarded as particularly valuable. It was so popular the ocelot remains one of the most well known of the small wildcats. Several hundreds of thousands of ocelots were killed for their fur; therefore this cat is now an endangered species in many countries.

The ocelot is often referred to as one of the most beautiful of cats, with a graceful, strong body and long, powerful legs. The short, slick coat is creamy yellow marked with rosettes and spots which tend to run parallel to the sides of its body. The head has bold, black spots and bars. The tail is ringed and tipped with black. It is a medium sized cat weighing from 12 to 30 pounds, and its length varies from 30 to 41 inches. They have an extraordinary sense of vision at low light levels, as well as an acute sense

The ocelot has a graceful, strong body and long, powerful legs. It is a medium sized cat and has an extraordinary sense of vision at low light levels, as well as an acute sense of smell and hearing.
of smell and hearing. The average life span is about ten to thirteen years in the wild and up to twenty years in captivity. It is not surprising that ocelots are nocturnal hunters, although they will sometimes venture out during the day for a drink of water. During the night, they tend to hunt along open trails, while during the day they stay hidden within the deeper bush. Ocelots do most of their hunting on the ground, their slender bodies enabling them to capture prey in the thickest thorn brush. Although they are mainly ground hunters, ocelots will expertly climb trees for birds or squirrels and can easily swim in rivers and ponds for fish. Its diet consists of small to medium sized animals, such as iguanas, rabbits, mice, birds, rats, guinea pigs, monkeys, hares, small deer, peccaries and sometimes poultry. Ocelots are solitary animals who occupy small, exclusive areas of land, approximately 20 square miles (52 sq km). They mark their territory with urine and scent markings. Male ocelot ranges are often larger than that of a female. Male ocelots avoid other male ocelot territories; however, they will overlap into other female ranges. Although individuals roam and hunt separately, research indicates that ocelots will frequently contact one another and probably maintain a network of social ties. During the day, when they rest in trees or other dense foliage, they will occasionally share their spot with another ocelot of the same gender. Ocelots communicate by meows, and during courtship, yowls in a manner similar to that of a domestic cat.

Ocelots sexually mature at about 20 to 24 months in age. Mating in the wild or in captivity may occur at any time, usually once or twice a year. Gestation lasts about 70 days. Female ocelots usually give birth to one to four kittens, averaging two young per litter. Females give birth in well protected areas such as a dense thorn thicket or hollow tree. Ocelot kittens are highly reliant upon their mother for survival, and the mother cares for her young alone. When it becomes necessary for her to hunt, the mother will conceal the litter in a den surrounded by thick shrubs. Kittens are dependent on their mother for five to six months. At around six months of age, kittens start to practice hunting techniques alongside their mother, but they will not hunt alone until 18 to 24 months of age. By that time, they are ready to leave their mother’s side to look for their own territory and mate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the ocelot as Endangered.

Ocelot kittens are highly reliant upon their mother for survival and are dependent on their mother for five to six months. At around six months of age, kittens start to practice hunting techniques alongside their mother.
They are listed by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) as Appendix I. IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) lists the ocelot as Least Concern. Ocelots are protected by national legislation over most of their range. Only Peru still allows hunting, and only Ecuador, El Salvador and Guyana offer no protection. Ocelots are primarily threatened due to loss of habitat through deforestation, although they seem to adapt to environmental changes easier than other animals in their region.

Ocelot caught on camera in the Chiquibul. Photo from PhD student, Lauren N. Watine, and the Program for Tropical Ecology and Conservation Science (PTECS).

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