Other Names
little tiger cat, little spotted cat (English)
chat tigre, oncille (French)
Onzille kleinflekenkatze, Ozelotkatze, zwergtigerkatze (German)
tigrillo, tirica, gato tigre (Spanish)
gato tigre chico, gato onza chico, gato pintado chico (Argentina)
gato do mato (Brazil)
chivi (Argentina, Guyana, Peru)
tigrillo peludo, tigre gallinero (Colombia)
caucél (Costa Rica)
tigrillo chico (Ecuador)
chat tigre tacheté, chat tig (French Guiana)
ocelot-cat, tigrikati (Suriname)
tigrito (Venezuela)

  • Description and Behavior

  • Biology

  • Habitat and Distribution

  • Population Status

  • Protection Status

  • Principal Threats

  • References

  • Action Planning

  • Description and Behavior
    With a silhouette and footprint resembling a house cat, the oncilla is small, having an average weight of 2.2 kg (n=3: Redford and Eisenberg 1992), with males slightly larger than females (Guggisberg 1975). The oncilla closely resembles the margay, and the two can be difficult to distinguish in the field (Vaughan 1983). The two cats are similarly marked, but the oncilla’s pattern of rosettes tends to be less dark and blotchy than the margay’s, its fur is not as thick, its body is more slender, and its tail not as long (TL=26.9 cm, 56% of head-body length, n=13: Redford and Eisenberg 1992). Melanistic individuals are occasionally reported (Mondolfi 1986, Eisenberg 1990, P. Quillen in litt. 1993). Prey taken from stomachs (n=3) has consisted of small mammals (rodents and shrews) and a passerine bird (Gardner 1971, Mondolfi 1986). Oncillas have been reported to prey on small primates in Brazil (P. Quillen in litt. 1993). J. Guix (in litt. 1993) analyzed the contents of one stomach and five scats from Brazil’s Atlantic coastal rainforest, and found feathers and hair from small mammals (rats and possibly one mouse opossum). Four oncillas were captured there in unbaited live traps set along armadillo trails.

    Gestation (C): average 75-78 days

    Litter size (C): 1-3, one most common
    (Leyhausen and Falkena 1966, P. Quillen in litt. 1993)

    Longevity (C): average 11, but up to over 17 years
    (Prater et al. 1988, P. Quillen in litt. 1993)

    Habitat and Distribution
    The oncilla shows a strong preference for montane cloud forest (Mondolfi 1986), in that it is found at higher elevations than the ocelot and margay. For example, Melquist (1984) reports that it is restricted to elevations above 1,500 m in Colombia, and has been found at up to 4,500 m, approximately snowline. Rodríguez and Paz y Mi&ntile;o (1989) also note that it has only been collected from the Andean highlands in Ecuador, a zone where the puma and pampas cat occur. Most specimens collected in Costa Rica (5 of 6) have been taken in cloud forest (Gardner 1971, Vaughan in press). In eastern Brazil, Koford (1973) remarked on its presence in the subtropical forest highlands, and J. Guix (in litt. 1993) reports it from early secondary forest and abandoned eucalyptus plantation at 600 m elevation, in areas close to human settlement and highly affected by deforestation and fire. Oliveira (1994) found oncillas in semi-arid thorny scrub in north-east Brazil. Bisbal (1989) also notes records from dry deciduous forest in northern Venezuela. To what degree the oncilla uses lowland moist forest is not clear, especially within the Amazon basin. It has not been reported from this area (J. Eisenberg in litt. 1993) and, according to L. Emmons (in litt. 1993), is unlikely to occur there. However, there are several records from the outer edges of the Amazon rainforest (Figure 4), mainly from riverine forest (Mondolfi 1986, Eisenberg 1990).

    The oncilla appears to have a naturally disjunct distribution, although further research is necessary to confirm this. The northernmost record is from northern Costa Rica, near the Tapantí Cloud Forest Faunal Refuge (Vaughan in press). It has been recorded from northern Panama (Melquist 1984), but the remainder of the country appears to be a gap in the species’ range (Eisenberg 1990). Gardner (1971) commented on the similarity of appearance of Costa Rican cats to one collected in Colombia, and this moved Melquist (1984) to state that the oncilla is probably found throughout Panama, as habitat there is suitable. There are only two museum specimens for Ecuador and Peru (Rodríguez and Paz y Miño 1989, V. Pacheco in litt. to L. Emmons). There are no museum records for Bolivia, although K. Cassaro has reported seeing captive animals originating from that country (pers. comm. to P. Quillen 1992). Figure 4 shows potential distribution if the oncilla is assumed to be absent from the Amazon basin, and otherwise present only in montane and subtropical forest.

    Population Status
    Global: Category 3
    Regional: Category 2
    IUCN: Insufficiently Known

    This species has never been studied in the wild, and there is little understanding of its habitat requirements, density, and coexistence with other small cats. It has been trapped in large numbers for the fur trade -- in 1971, 28,000 pelts were counted in Brazilian warehouses, and in 1983, 84,500 skins were exported from Paraguay (Broad 1988) -- although it is likely that other spotted cat pelts were mixed with oncilla. It is rarely seen by field biologists.

    Protection Status
    Protection Status: Upgraded to CITES Appendix I in 1989

    National Legislation:
    Protected over part of its range

    Hunting prohibited:
    Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela

    No legal protection:
    Ecuador, Guyana, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru (Fuller et al. 1987)

    Principal Threats
    It is difficult to assess threats to the oncilla when so little is known about it. Coffee plantations are often established in cloud forest habitat (Melquist 1984), but J. Guix’s (in litt. 1993) observations of it in deforested areas and eucalyptus monoculture on the outskirts of Sao Paolo suggest tolerance of habitat alteration. Although international trade effectively ceased after 1985 (WCMC unpubl. data), 675 spotted cat skins, mainly oncilla, were seized in Brazil, but came from Paraguay. The age of the pelts, however, was not ascertained (P. Crawshaw, A. Ximénez in litt. 1991)

    © 1996 IUCN - The World Conservation Union