Conservation news

With ‘psychological cunning’ wild cat lures monkeys by mimicking their babies’ calls

It sounds like something out of a fairy-tale: the big bad predator lures its gullible prey by mimicking a loved one: ‘why grandma, what big teeth you have!’ But in this case it’s the shocking strategy of one little-known jungle feline.

In 2005 researchers with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) were watching a group of eight pied tamarins ( Saguinus bicolor), squirrel-sized monkeys, feeding on a ficus tree in the Reserva Florestal Adolpho Ducke in Brazil. They then heard the sound of tamarin babies, but were surprised to see that the sound was not coming from young tamarins, but a hungry margay (Leopardus wiedii), a small cat native to Central and South America, which was hidden from the tamarins.

Attracted to the margay’s mimicry, the on-guard tamarin climbed down to investigate the sounds rather than run-away. Four other of the tamarins followed. The margay then moved toward the small monkeys. The tamarins saw the margay before it could get close enough for an attack and escaped, this time, with their lives.

A pied tamarin. Photo by: A. Antunes.

Despite the margay’s failure in this instance, the researchers write in Neotropical Primates: “we suggest that this strategy is very effective in attracting prey, facilitating the attack and reducing energy expenditure during a possible pursuit.”

While there have been reports of other American cat species, such as pumas and jaguars, mimicking prey sounds in order to draw them close, this is the first time that researchers have confirmed a feline species in the Americas uses mimicry to draw its victims near.

“This observation further proves the reliability of information obtained from Amazonian inhabitants,” said Dr. Avecita Chicchón, director of the WCS’s Latin America Program. “This means that accounts of jaguars and pumas using the same vocal mimicry to attract prey—but not yet recorded by scientists—also deserve investigation.”

Given the margay’s low density and nocturnal habits, their have been no studies on its hunting strategy. Perhaps, this new finding will change that.

“Cats are known for their physical agility, but this vocal manipulation of prey species indicates a psychological cunning which merits further study,” says WCS researcher Fabio Rohe.

WCS is currently monitoring populations of the pied tamarin, listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. The margay is listed as Near Threatened due to habitat loss throughout its wide range.

CITATION: : Fabiano de Oliveira Calleia; Fabio Rohe; and Marcelo Gordo. Hunting Strategy of the Margay (Leopardus Weidii) to Attract the Wild Pied Tamarin (Saguinus bicolor). Neotropical Primates. 16 (1). June 2009.

The wild margay is nocturnal. Photo by: Tófoli/Rohe.

Close-up of a margay in Belize. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

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