By Julie Etra
Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis, ocelotes in Spanish) are beautiful animals found here on the southwest coast of Mexico. They are medium-sized cats (adults are 70-100 cm long – 28-40 inches – not inluding their tails). They resemble the oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus), also called the tigrillo, which occurs from Central America to central Brazil.
Ocelots and People
The ocelot is endangered in the very small area where it lives in southern Texas and in Mexico, as a result of illegal poaching for their prized pelts (records show 566,000 ocelot pelts were sold in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s), along with habitat loss and fragmentation. Collisions with vehicles have become an increasing threat. Hunting them is now forbidden throughout their range, which runs from southernmost Texas, through Mexico and Central America, and across the northern half of South America (except in Peru, where it is regulated but not forbidden).
In the heyday of ocelot fashion, people kept them as pets as well, most notably the surrealist artist Salvador Dali, who took Babou with him to all sorts of places, often to the dismay of the people in those places. He is reported to have told an upset diner at a Manhattan restaurant that it was just an “ordinary house cat,” painted up like Op Art.
In Mexico ocelots have been culturally significant since at least the Aztec (Mexica) civilizations, as depicted in their multimedia art and mythology, although whether the Aztecs distinguished between ocelots and jaguars is unclear – the Nahuatl word for jaguar is ocelotl. The ocelotl appears on the Aztec sunstone as the day sign for fourteenth day of the Aztec religious calendar (there was a different calendar to govern agriculture), and was considered auspicious for battle with success and valor.
Ocelots in Nature
Ocelots are cryptically colored in that they blend into their typically dense forest environment. They have a small, speckled brown head with two stripes on either side of the cheeks and four to five parallel black stripes along the neck. Their ears are short, wide, and rounded. Ocelot fur is spotted with elongated, irregular, rosette-shaped rings. Their bellies are dark, and tails are 26-45 cm (10-18 inches) and tapered with dark colored rings or spots. Individuals have their own unique pattern, making them easy to distinguish.
In Mexico, the ocelot’s distribution is discontinuous, but includes the coastal Pacific and Gulf of Mexico, the eastern slopes of the state of Tamaulipas to the Yucatán peninsula, and south from Sonora in northwestern Mexico. It is both diurnal and nocturnal, meaning it is active both in the day and night, but is more active at dusk and at night when it hunts. They are solitary, and make their homes in caves, hollow tree trunks and tree canopies for protection. In Mexico habitat includes tropical forests, tropical deciduous forests (which we have here on the coast), mangrove forests (also on our Costa Chica), temperate forests, and thorny desert scrub.
The ocelot is a predator, like other wild felines, but is opportunistic in its diet. It is an agile animal that climbs and swims as well as leaps after its prey, which includes small terrestrial mammals, reptiles, fish, and small birds, and even insects. In tropical Mexico, iguanas are a preferred quarry.
Litter size is typically between two and three kittens. Gestation averages two to three months, and they can reproduce year-round. Their life span has been observed to be as long as ten years.
Camera traps have been used for decades to monitor wildlife. In Mexico they have been used to study ocelots and other mammals in the Mexican states of Campeche, Veracruz, and Tabasco, and here on the coast of Oaxaca, Starting in 2016, the Huatulco National Park (Parque Nacional de Huatulco) installed at least three camera traps in different points in the Park to monitor native mammals as well as feral dogs (the latter have become problematic on the beaches of Huatulco where they have killed egg laying turtles as well as the hatchlings). The camera traps have captured images of ocelots as well as white-tailed deer, rabbits, anteaters, opossum, coyotes, and armadillos. My stepdaughter Joy caught one on film at her place on the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
Time to set up our camera again, as the back of our place faces the forest. So far, we have only captured photos of the ubiquitous opossum and the pygmy skunk, an endemic. I have my doubts, given the number of barking dogs in the neighborhood (including our own barky), but we will give it a try. Or maybe I’ll get lucky and see one while employing one of the local nature guides.