The Margay: A Beautiful Wild Cat of Central & South America
What Is a Margay?
The margay is a wild cat that lives in Central and South America. It has some very interesting adaptations for an arboreal life. The animal sleeps and hunts in the trees but also comes to the ground to find food. Its beautiful, plush coat is light brown or grey in colour and is covered by darker stripes and spots. The spots are sometimes multicoloured. Margays are solitary animals, except during and shortly after mating, and are generally nocturnal. Their scientific name is Leopardus wiedii.
Unfortunately, the margay population is in trouble. It's classified as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and is decreasing in size. The destruction of trees in the animal's forest habitat is a serious problem. The cats have a low reproductive rate, so it's hard for them to recover from environmental stress.
The genus Leopardus contains small, spotted cats living in North, Central, and South America. It doesn't contain the leopard, which belongs to the genus Panthera. The margay, the leopard, and the house cat belong to the family know as the Felidae. The members of the family are often referred to as "cats", even though they have different scientific names.
Physical Features of the Animal
The margay is an attractive animal. Its coat is yellow-brown to grey on the top and sides of its body and white or buff on its chest and belly. The stripes and blotches on the coat are black, but the blotches often have a paler centre. There are spots on the undersurface of the animal as well as on the rest of the body. The mottled appearance helps to disguise the animal as it moves through the tree canopy in moonlight or in dappled sunlight.
The margay has a small head. Two vertical back stripes travel up its face. A horizontal line extends from the outer corner of each eye. In addition, a vertical line slants downwards from the inner corner of each eye to the outer corner of the mouth. The eyes are large compared to the size of the face.
An adult margay is about two feet high at the shoulder and about three feet long (not including the tail). The tail is long, thick, and beautiful. It has black bands and a black tip. It often reaches a length equal to 70% of the cat's body length. Estimates of the animal's weight vary widely. The maximum weight that is quoted is twenty pounds, but most margays are thought to be lighter than this.
Although all margays belong to the same species, a number of subspecies exist. The members of each subspecies have slightly different features from the members of the other subspecies. In addition, margays are quite similar in appearance to oncillas and ocelots. These factors can make identification difficult.
Oncillas, Margays, and Ocelots
The margay can be confused with the oncilla and the ocelot, which belong to the same genus, have a similar coat pattern, and can be found in the same habitat. Some differences between the species are described below.
The oncilla has the scientific name Leopardus tigrinus. It's also known as the little spotted cat and the little tiger cat. Like the margay, it's found in trees in Central and South America and tends to be nocturnal, so it's often hard to distinguish the two species from one another. The oncilla is smaller and lighter than the margay, however. In addition, the oncilla has larger ears relative to the size of its head and has a narrower muzzle.
Margays also resemble ocelots. The scientific name of the ocelot is Leopardus pardalis. Unlike the margay and the oncilla, the ocelot is found in the southern United States as well as further south. Differences between margays and ocelots include the following.
- A margay is smaller and lighter than an ocelot. The first animal may reach twenty pounds in weight while the second may reach as much as forty pounds.
- Margays have longer tails in proportion to their body. The animal's tail is generally longer than its hind legs. The tail of an ocelot is shorter than its hind legs. The ocelot's tail is said to be one third of the length of the body.
- Margays also spend more of their time in trees. They are sometimes referred to as “tree ocelots”.
Some researchers refer to the "ocelot effect" when describing the distribution of the margay. They have noticed that in some areas a margay moves out of a habitat when an ocelot moves in, perhaps because of competition for prey. There are claims that ocelots sometimes kill margays in their habitat.
In 2018, researchers recorded the first instances of melanistic Margays, photographing one black individual in Columbia, and another in Costa Rica.— Big Cat Rescue
Margay Adaptations for Life in the Trees
Margays live in the evergreen and deciduous forests of Central and South America. They are very well adapted for travelling through the tree canopy. They are excellent climbers and move well through the tree tops. The animals make skillful leaps from one branch to another.
Margays have large feet with flexible toes. They also have very flexible ankles on their hind feet. The ankles have the amazing ability to turn through an angle of 180 degrees. As a result of these features, the animals can grasp tree branches firmly with all four feet. They are also able to hang from a branch attached by only their hind feet. Margays can walk down tree trunks head first when they descend to the ground.
The animals have other useful features for life in the trees. Their long tails help them to balance in the tree canopy. Their large eyes help them to see at night, and their big ears enable them to hear well.
Since margays spend so much time in trees and are usually active at night, it’s hard for researchers to discover all of the details of their lives. Some researchers believe that though the animals do have some impressive adaptations for life in the trees and probably spend a considerable amount of time above the ground, they are not as arboreal as is commonly stated. Further studies of their behaviour are needed.
Fossil records show that the margay once lived in Texas as well as in Central and South America. According to one record, it was still present in the state in the mid-19th century.
What Does a Margay Eat?
By examining their feces and the stomach contents of dead animals, scientists know that the cats eat monkeys, squirrels, tree rats, opossums, tree frogs, lizards, birds, bird eggs, and insects. The fecal evidence indicates that the animal hunts on the ground as well as in the trees. It catches ground rats and other terrestrial vertebrates to eat. Interestingly, although the margay is usually thought of as a predator, the remains of fruit have been found in its feces.
Behaviour of the Animal
Margays are reclusive animals. They are mainly but not exclusively nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn). Males and females live alone except during mating and perhaps for a brief period afterwards. Each gender maintains a territory. The adults mark their territory with urine, feces, and secretions from their scent glands, which are located on their face and between their toes.
Margays have a variety of vocalizations. None of them are suitable for long-distance communication. The vocalizations include miaows, purrs, growls, hisses and snarls. When males are courting a female, they make a sound that is said to resemble a bark-miaow.
In 2005, researchers found confirmation of a rumour that they had heard many times. They witnessed a margay mimicking a baby tamarin's call. (A tamarin is a type of monkey.) The margay was hidden in some vines close to the ground. Some of the tamarins left the trees and came to the ground, apparently concerned about the nonexistent youngster. The margay then emerged. In this instance, all of the monkeys escaped. The ruse may sometimes be successful, however. Other wild cats of South America are also said to use the hunting trick.
Reproduction and Lifespan
Observations of captive animals have enabled researchers to make some discoveries about margay reproduction. Further research is needed to determine whether these features apply to the wild animals.
The margay's gestation period is around eighty days. Only one kitten (very occasionally two) is born. The kitten opens its eyes at around two weeks of age and is weaned at around two months after birth. The mother has only two teats.
Researchers think that wild margays first reproduce when they are between one and two years of age. They don't seem to breed very often, and kitten mortality is high. The slow reproduction rate and the fact that margays do not breed well in captivity make it hard to maintain or increase the animal's population when it's under attack.
Mating in the wild is thought to at least sometimes occur in the tree canopy. The wild kittens may be born in the hollow part of a tree, a hollow log, or a burrow. It's unknown how common the use of each site is.
In captivity, the margay may live for twenty years of more, but it apparently lives for a maximum of only twelve to fourteen years in the wild.
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has created a Red List of seven categories to classify an animal’s population status. From least serious to most serious, the categories are as follows.
- Least Concern
- Near Threatened
- Critically Endangered
- Extinct in the Wild
Margays are classified in the “Near Threatened” category, with the likelihood of moving into the “Vulnerable “ category in the near future. According to the IUCN, the population is decreasing. The last population assessment was performed in 2014.
Populations, especially outside the Amazon basin, are severely fragmented and are being reduced by habitat conversion to plantations and pasture.— IUCN
Threats to the Population
The main threat for the margay population is deforestation, which is done to create land for agriculture and roads. The loss of forest reduces the amount of habitat for the animals and fragments their population. The isolated animals are reluctant to enter open areas to find a new habitat, which can lead to inbreeding and consequent health problems. The creation of hydroelectric dams is thought to be a potential problem with respect to their population.
Margays are protected in most countries in their range, but not in all of them. Being hunted for their fur was a very serious problem for the animals in the 1970s and early 1980s. Since they are such small animals, at least fifteen margay pelts were needed to create a coat. Thankfully, new laws have reduced this drain on their population. The animals are still hunted for their pelts in some areas, however, reportedly including some places where they are officially protected.
Although popular with zoos and private owners, the margay is more difficult to breed than other small, spotted neotropical felids.— IUCN Wild Cats Book, via Big Cat Rescue
Protecting the Species
Margays are not as well known as their ocelot relatives due to their secretive nature. There's a lot that we still need to learn about the behaviour of these beautiful animals. If we learn more about their lives and their reproduction requirements, we may be able to protect them better.
Keeping animals in captivity is not ideal. If captive animals are well cared for, however, new and healthy individuals may be produced as a result of breeding. Captive margays don't breed well in zoos, so this strategy may not be very practical for increasing their numbers. It's important to protect the animals in the wild in order ensure their survival. I hope their status improves.
- Information about the margay from the International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) Canada
- The Leopardus weidii entry, Cat Specialist Group, Species Survival Commission
- Margay facts from Big Cat Rescue
- Wild cat found mimicking monkey calls from the ScienceDaily news service
- Margay status on the IUCN Red List
© 2011 Linda Crampton