Leopardus tigrinus

Quick Bio for Oncillas:

Status: Vulnerable
have from 1-3 kittens, usually 1
Weight: 2-3 kg
Diet: Carnivore

Physical description of Oncillas

At just 3 kg, the oncilla is a relatively small cat, and females are generally smaller. Their thick fur is light brown with a rosette pattern in a darker brown or even black. While lots of cats lose the rosettes on the underside, the oncilla still has them and has a ringed tail with a darker tip. Its legs are also spotted. Like all spotted cats, melanistic variants are known but very rare.

While they can be mistaken for ocelots or margays, as they tend to inhabit similar areas, oncillas are quite a bit smaller than Ocelots and generally smaller than Margays. The head shape is also a distinctive difference between the species, though you are very unlikely to see them side by side in the wild for comparison.

Distribution and habitat of Oncillas

The Oncialla is a South American cat, found throughout Brazil and through the bordering tropical countries up as far as Costa Rica.

They mostly inhabit forest like a lot of other smaller neotropical cats. The forest type is of no importance to them as oncillas are equally at home in the dry mountain forest as in the tropical jungle. More recently, they have been noticed to be using the savanna grasslands of South America, possibly due to deforestation and destruction, and a general reduction of their original habitat.

The oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) also known as tiger car is seaking safety in the undergrowth.
Licensed from Shutterstock
The oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) also known as tiger car is seaking safety in the undergrowth.

Oncilla behavior

Oncillas are nocturnal. This makes them rather hard to see in the wild. However, sightings are not unknown during daylight hours.

What do Oncillas eat?

Oncillas will eat most small mammals and birds, whatever is available to them. They are even capable of plucking the feathers of birds before eating. Unfortunately, because of their hidden forest lives, little is known about the specifics of their diet.

Mating and Parental care of Oncillas

Like other small jungle cats, the information on reproduction in the wild is limited, as they tend to be somewhat secretive about it. Kittens are well hidden to keep them protected.

Oncillas tend to stay to themselves and only come together for breeding. Males can be quite aggressive. Once mating has taken place, the male leaves, and the female is fully responsible for her litter of kittens. It is thought that the most common number of kittens is just one, though captive animals have produced more.

Unusual for cats, the oncilla kittens are independent shortly after weaning. They are out on their own after only four months with barely any hunting training from the mother. Most other cat species need to learn more from their mother to survive.

Who are the Oncilla predators?

Oncillas don’t have many predators. Like most cats, they are at the top of their food chain and can avoid most predators by escaping up trees and, of course, using their spots to hide in the jungle.

There is one other cat, though, who is an Oncialla Predator. The Jaguar. This is rare. The two cat species tend to inhabit different parts of the jungle and avoid each other when possible. The Jaguar prefers big prey and the oncilla small prey, so they don’t compete too much.

How long do Oncillas live?

Age guesses for wild animals are 10 to 14 years, though they live longer in captivity.

Impact of Oncillas on the human economy

In certain areas, oncillas are still hunted for their fur, which is relatively thick. They are also captured as pets, the exotic cat trade still being a thing in the 2020s, sadly.

Being small, the oncilla isn’t a threat to humans or their livestock but can sometimes take a few hens if there is an opportunity.

An adult Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus), also known as the tiger cat, confidently traverses a dead tree, leaving no tracks in the soft forest ground.
Licensed from Shutterstock
An adult Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus), also known as the tiger cat, confidently traverses a dead tree, leaving no tracks in the soft forest ground.

Oncilla Conservation status

Hunting in the late 20th Century led to a severe reduction in the population of oncillas throughout their range. Today, they are classified as vulnerable as deforestation leads to a more fragmented range. The illegal trade and killing by farmers, who rarely like predators regardless of their size, are also threats.

Other Information about the Oncilla

For years, it was thought that the Northern and Southern Oncillas were the same species. In the 2020s, modern genetic testing has suggested that they are in fact two closely related species. I will need to update this page (or add another page dedicated to the southern) when this is fully accepted.

The Southern Tigercat would therefore be the Leopardus guttulus, instead of the Leopardus tigrinus guttulus.

Oncilla in French, German, Spanish ...

Latin Name
Leopardus tigrinus
Alternative Names
Little Spotted Cat, Tiger Cat, Northern Tiger Cat
French Names
Oncille, Chat Tigre du Nord
German Names
Tigerkatze, Nördliche Tigerkatze, Ozelotkatze
Spanish Names
Gato Tigre, Tigrillo, Tirica
Swahili Names
Tigrina, Onisila

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