The margay looks like a smaller, thinner ocelot with huge eyes. So it’s basically the animé version.
It was partly named after German naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, who, overburdened with imagination, described it as a “long-tailed tiger cat” when he first spotted it in Brazil. The actual name “margay”comes from the Tupi Guarani word for the species, Mb’arakaya, just with some French flair thrown in.
Since it was named after royalty, only lives in forests, and is incredibly cute, you can probably hear alarm bells ringing. Considered Near Threatened, the margay certainly needs help, but unlike some other cats, never because it’s stuck up a tree.
If there’s 16km2 of undisturbed forest between lowland Mexico and northeast Argentina, then a margay can make itself at home. If you don’t think that’s too common, you’re right, and you’ve spotted one of this little jungle cat’s biggest problems. And since it refuses to cross areas of open land and steers clear of humans, it’s becoming more and more isolated. Fortunately, it’s less fussy about its food.
Up for experimentation
Rodents, monkeys, birds and other small creatures all make a good snack, and it’s even been known to eat fruit. Montezuma, a pet of the New York elite, enjoyed snuffling down bowls of watercress as well. But as people keep telling me, the 60s were a different time.
More astonishingly, we recently discovered the margay can mimic its prey to lure it closer. One was spotted (badly) imitating the call of a baby pied tamarin monkey, enough that the adult sentry of the group clambered over to investigate.
The plan ultimately didn’t work, but the squeaks and squeals of most of the margay’s prey are comfortably within its vocal range, so who’s to say how many times it has? Another surprising fact: although most of its prey lives on the ground, the margay is an arboreal acrobat.
It’s using the trees
Its plush tail, about 70% of its body length, is a handy counterbalance for when it’s leaping and scrambling between trunks, and it’s been seen leaping up to 4 metres (13 feet) horizontally, 2.5 metres (8 feet) vertically, and scampering across clothes lines. Like the kinkajou, it can run head-first down a tree, and is the only cat that can do this thanks to ankles that swivel 180 degrees. Not only that, it can comfortably hang from its hind feet while fiddling with its front paws if necessary.
Being at home in the trees helps it grab the odd aforementioned tamarin monkey and bird, but we think it mainly uses branches for resting and hiding. What does it have to hide from? Well for a start, jaguars and ocelots would love an entrée of margay, but food isn’t the only thing it’s hunted for.
The previous owner died in it
If something has a beautiful rosette pattern, somebody somewhere will want to wear it, and in 1977 alone, 30,000 margay pelts were traded on the international market. Since it’s a small cat, you’d need about 15 of them just to make one coat, so you can imagine the effect this had on its numbers.
Fortunately it’s now illegal to hunt the margay for its fur, and by 1985 the number of traded pelts had plummeted to about 138 – not necessarily counting the underground market, of course. The exotic pet trade isn’t helping much either.
Not pet friendly
The margay is incredibly difficult to breed in captivity, so it’s likely that most “pets” are in fact wild-caught. Her exact origin was unknown, but Sasha, for example, rescued by Bolivia’s La Senda Verde Wildlife Sanctuary, made her wildness abundantly clear, first by scratching the face of her owner’s daughter – hence why she ended up at the sanctuary – and later killing a pet macaw on sight. She’s now happily paired up with male Guanay, who was also initially kept as a pet, spending the first year of his life in a tiny wire cage. At least they had something in common on their first date, although there were probably other types of awkward silence.
Speaking of margay dating, even that’s a bit of a slow burner.
Slow and steady won’t win the race
Unlike other wild cat species, the margay only has one pair of teats and usually only one kitten, and while females can breed all year round, they like to take a year off in between births. Add to that a 50-50 survival rate for said kitten, and you have an agonisingly slow population growth, especially for such a small mammal.
It’s never a good sign when the Amazon basin populations are the ones least under threat, especially as fires and deforestation are already taking a toll there. But those in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest and other areas have an even bleaker future thanks to isolation, inbreeding, and the associated vulnerability to disease. That’s before we even get to the odd poultry raid and resulting retaliation.
Perhaps if we took a leaf out of its book, and loved trees as much as the margay, there would be more space for its jungle gymnastics.
Latin: Leopardus wiedii
What? Small, beautifully patterned jungle cat.
Where? Forests of Central and South America, from lowland Mexico down to northern Argentina and Uruguay.
How big? Head and body from 46-69 cm / 1.5-2.2 feet long, tail from 23-52 cm / 0.75-1.7 feet long.
Endangered? Considered Near Threatened due to deforestation and poaching.
Probable motto: The trees need more rescuing than I do.
They look beautiful. Do they need my help at all?
Unfortunately yes. Habitat loss due to deforestation is enough to cut them down, let alone the illegal fur and pet trades.
Big Cat Rescue in the US has a sanctuary for abused pets as well as a campaign to end the private trade in exotic big cats.
The World Land Trust has various conservation projects in Central and South America that can benefit this little jungle cat.
And, if you want to adopt a margay from afar, the UK’s Welsh Mountain Zoo has your back.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Cosgrove, Ben. 2014. “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a margay kitten in a New York apartment!” Time
de Oliveira, T. et al. 2015. “Leopardus wiedii. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2015: e.T11511A50654216.
de Oliveira Calleia, Fabiano et al. 2009. “Hunting Strategy of the Margay (Leopardus wiedii) to Attract the Wild Pied Tamarin (Saguinus bicolor),” Neotropical Primates 16(1):32-34.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Maximilian, prince zu Wied-Neuwied“. Britannica.com.
Krakauer, Alan. No date. “Leopardus wiedii – Margay“. Animal Diversity Web.
“Leopardus wiedii – Species fact file“. No date. La Senda Verde Wildlife Sanctuary.
“Margay“. No date. The Belize Zoo.
“Margay“. No date. Cat Specialist Group.
“Margay“. No date. Felidae Conservation Fund.
“Margay“. No date. International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) Canada.
“Margay“. No date. Lamar University.
“Margay (tree ocelot)“. No date. World Land Trust.
“Margay facts“. No date. Big Cat Rescue.
2018. “Small spotted bodies with multiple specific mitochondrial DNAs: existence of diverse and differentiated tigrina lineages or species (Leopardus spp: Felidae, Mammalia) throughout Latin America“, Mitochondrial DNA Part A, 29(7):993-1014
Wang, Ellen. 2002. “Diets of Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), Margays (L. wiedii), and Oncillas (L. tigrinus) in the Atlantic Rainforest in Southeast Brazil“, Studies on Neotropical Fauna and Environment, 37(3):207-212.
Featured image credit: “Margay portrait (Felis wiedii)” by Jeff Grabert