The Margay - A Wild Tree Cat of Central and South America
What is a Margay?
The margay is a wild cat that lives in the tree canopies of Central and South America. Margays sleep, hunt, mate and give birth to their kittens in the trees, only occasionally coming to the ground. Their 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. The destruction of trees in their forest habitat is a serious problem. The cats have a low reproduction 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.
A Margay in the Forest
The Margay's Appearance
The margay is an attractive animal. Its coat is yellow-brown to grey on the top and sides and white or buff on its undersurface. 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 cat has two vertical back stripes travelling up its face. There is also a horizontal line extending from the outer corner of each eye. In addition, there is sometimes a vertical line slanting downwards from the inner corner of each eye to the outer corner of the mouth. The eyes are large for the face size.
The beautiful tail of a margay is long and thick. It had black bands and a black tip. It often reaches a length equal to 70% of the cat's body length.
An adult margay is about two feet high at the shoulder and about three feet long (not including the tail). Estimates of its weight vary widely. The maximum weight quoted is twenty pounds, but most margays are thought to be lighter than this.
Spotted Cats Confusion
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.
The Margay, Oncilla and Ocelot
The margay can be confused with other wild cats that have similar coat patterns, especially the oncilla, or Leopardus tigrinus. The oncilla is also known as the little spotted cat and is smaller and lighter than the margay. Like the margay, the oncilla lives 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.
Margays also resemble ocelots, which often live in the same area. However, margays are smaller and lighter than ocelots. A margay may reach twenty pounds in weight while an ocelot may reach as much as forty pounds. Margays also have longer tails in proportion to their body and spend more of their time in trees. They are sometimes referred to as “tree ocelots”. The scientific name of the ocelot is Leopardus pardalis.
The Margay's 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 easily through the tree tops, making expert leaps from one branch to another.
Margays have large feet with flexible toes. They have very flexible ankles which have the amazing ability to turn through an angle of 180 degrees. As a result, they 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. They are the only cat that is capable of doing this.
Margays 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.
What Does a Margay Eat?
Since margays spend so much time in trees and are usually active at night, it’s hard for researchers to learn all the details of their lives. By examining their feces and the stomach contents of dead margays, scientists know that the cats eat monkeys, squirrels, tree rats, opossums, tree frogs, lizards, birds, bird eggs and insects. Interestingly, although the margay is usually thought of as a predator, remains of fruit have also been found in their feces.The fecal evidence also indicates that margays sometimes hunt on the ground and catch ground rats to eat.
Margays are reclusive animals. They are mainly but not exclusively nocturnal. 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 which is said to resemble a bark-miaow.
A Margay Kitten
Reproduction and Lifespan
A margay's gestation period is around eighty days. The male may stay with the pregnant female during gestation, but he leaves once the kittens are born. Only one kitten (very occasionally two) is born. Based on the observation of captive animals, the kitten opens its eyes at around two weeks of age and is weaned at around two months after birth. The mother has only pair of mammary glands.
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 margay population when it's under attack. In captivity a margay may live for twenty years of more, but it lives for a maximum of only twelve to fourteen years in the wild.
A Margay in Captivity
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.
Populations, especially outside the Amazon basin, are severely fragmented and are being reduced by habitat conversion to plantations and pasture.— IUCN
A Rescued Margay
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.
The main threat for the margay population is deforestation, which is done to create land for agriculture and roads. The loss of forest fragments the cat population. The isolated animals are reluctant to enter open areas to find a new habitat, which can lead to inbreeding and consequent health problems.
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 margays 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 greatly reduced this drain on their population size, Margays are still hunted for their pelts in some areas, however.
Margays are not as well known as their ocelot relatives due to their secretive nature and their arboreal lives. There's a lot that we still need to learn about the behaviour of these beautiful cats. If we understand more about their lives and their reproduction requirements, we may be able to protect them better.
© 2011 Linda Crampton
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