Jungle Cats » Jaguarundi

Otter Cat-Jaguarundi-Eyra Cat

English Common Names: Otter Cat, Jaguarundi, Eyra Cat.

Spanish common Names: León Breňero, Leoncillo, León de la Montaňa Pequeňo, Gato Colorado, Gato Moro, Tigrillo.

Scientific Name: Herpailurus yagouaroundi.

Survival Status: This cat is not particularly sought after for its fur, but it is suffering decline due to loss of habitat and an increase in competition for prey with the Ocelot whose numbers are rebounding. Most biologists believe that it is already extinct in southern Texas. Because of their large territory requirements most experts believe that other than in the mega wildlife reserves of the Amazon Basin there are not sufficiently large enough protected areas to permit viable populations of Jaguarundis in the future. Their IUCN status as of a 2008 assessment is “Least Concern” which puts it in the same class as the Puma and Ocelot but many experts claim that this needs to be reevaluated. For many years this cat was thought not to be endangered because it was more frequently seen relative to the other felines. Researchers clearly believe that this was not because it was more common but because it is diurnal and therefore more easily spotted during the day.

The IUCN Conservation status order is as follows: 1) Least Concern 2) Near Threatened 3) Vulnerable 4) Endangered 5) Critically Endangered 6) Extinct in the Wild 7) Extinct

Characteristics: In appearance the Jaguarundi is unlike any other cat and shows resemblance to a large weasel or otter, hence its English common name ‘Otter Cat’. About the size of a domestic cat, they have very small heads, short ears, short legs and a tail almost as long as their body. They also have many different color variations including pure black, gray, brown and chestnut red. The two predominant color variations were once thought to represent two distinct species; the gray/black one called jaguarundi, and the red one called eyra. However, these are the same species and both color variations may be found in the same litter.

They weigh between 10-20 lbs (4.5-9 kg) their length is between 22-30 inches (55-77 cm) and have a tail length of 13-23 inches (33-60 cm).

They can inhabit dry forest, rain forest, high mountain cloud forest, swamp, scrubland and even agricultural areas. They like to live close to a source of running water. They are perceived to be more tolerant of human disturbance than other American felines.

Jaguarundis are mostly diurnal as indicated by their round pupils. They have 38 chromosomes, and are not closely related to the other small Central American cats, which have 36 chromosomes. They are more related to the puma than to any other feline. It is believed that the relatives of this species entered North America from Eurasia via the Bering land bridge approximately 8 to 8.5 million years ago and that the Puma and Jaguarundi are actually more closely related to the modern day Cheetah of Africa than to their American cousins.

These cats have scent glands between their hind toes and use them to mark their territory along with scat and urine. The physical act of spreading the scent from these special glands appears very similar to Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk”. These felines also have scent glands on their cheeks, rump and anus as well as between their toes.

Jaguarundis have as many as 13 separate vocalizations, suggesting they are relatively more social than other cats, as vocal communication implies a recipient. Even though most observations in the wild indicate that they are solitary, there is evidence of them forming groups in captivity and of sightings of pairs hunting together in the wild. In this respect they are different than all of the other tropical felines. They are also more social in the rearing of their young and fathers are allowed contact with their offspring when they are as young as three days old.

Distribution: The Jaguarundi is found from Mexico south to southern Brazil, including Paraguay, Uruguay and central Argentina. This is predominantly a lowland species ranging up to 6,500 feet or 2,000 meters, but in Colombia it has been reported to inhabit forests up to 10,400 feet or 3,200 meters. It is thought to be extinct in south Texas which was its previous northernmost limit.

Hunting and Feeding: These cats chase down their prey and are extremely fast and agile runners with incredible acceleration. They are also adept climbers and jumpers and can swim relatively well. They eat small mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and insects. Their habit of raiding domestic poultry has caused some conflict between them and farmers, normally resulting with them on the losing side of the battle. Pound for pound they eat more than any of the other cats without gaining weight which means they must have a higher metabolism. Although they are diurnal (active during the day) evidence suggests that they hunt at dawn and at dusk and can be active at night. Although they are comfortable in the trees this species prefers to hunt on the ground.

Reproduction and Lifespan: It is still unknown as to whether these felines have a defined reproductive season or give birth throughout the year. The gestation period lasts between 65 and 70 days and the average litter consists of 2 kittens but can be as few as one or as many as four. The mother looks for the most impenetrable tangles of forest or for a hole in the trunk of a tree to birth her kittens. Like cougar and lion cubs they are born with spots that eventually disappear. They begin to consume solid food around 6 weeks and attain sexual maturity between 24 to 36 months. In captivity Jaguarundis have lived up to 15 years.

Future Survival in the Wild: Of all the wild felines found in the tropical Americas the Jaguarundi has the bleakest future for two reasons. The first is that there are so few in captivity that there is not a viable genetic bank to continue reproduction in captivity or to reintroduce the species should a large enough “Mega” reserve be found to place them. The second is that the males require incredibly large territories of 40 square miles (100 km2) and must share these with the ocelot and jaguar who compete with them for food resources. Even the most protected forests do not yield the same food resources as they did when unaffected by human intervention. To maintain a genetically healthy population you need a minimum of 500 individuals with half (250) being male. This would equate to the need for a minimum connected area of 10,000 square miles or 25,000 km2 to maintain just one healthy breeding population.

Although this cat demonstrates a unique ability to adapt to human altered habitats most studies show that it only has a limited time left in the wild and in captivity until inbreeding damages the gene pool. Let us hope this is not the case. Mother Nature has proven scientists wrong in the past.

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