- The jaguarundi is a wild cat that occupies a broad range of habitat in the Americas from the scrublands of the borderlands between the U.S, and Mexico through every major ecoregion of Brazil and into southcentral Argentina.
- The jaguarundi is not very well-known due to their small size and lack of spots or stripes which put a target on the larger more charismatic wild cats.
- The International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN) currently classifies the jaguarundi globally as Least Concern, but scientists don’t know whether the population is stable or declining.
The jaguarundi, a wild cat found from southern Texas to south-central Argentina resembles a housecat but is twice as large with a flat face and rounded ears. It’s agile like a weasel and has a long tail like an otter, earning it the nickname name ‘weasel cat’ or ‘otter cat.’ Although generally considered the most common cat in the western hemisphere, a new study in the scientific journal Mammal Review finds that biologists and the public know very little about this enigmatic carnivore — and it may be more threatened than expected.
“Based on what I now know and suspect of the jaguarundi across their range, I’d advocate for increased conservation of several very endangered neotropical habitats,” said Anthony Giordano, the author of the study and founder of SPECIES (Society for the Preservation of Endangered Carnivores & their International Ecological Study). For his report Giordano conducted a thorough review of existing literature, including unpublished and peer-reviewed reports, documented and anecdotal sitings, and general mammal field surveys.
The International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN) currently classifies the jaguarundi globally as Least Concern, but scientists don’t know whether the population is stable or declining. Owing to its solid brown, rust, or silvery coloring, the jaguarundi escaped the past devastation of these other spotted cat populations targeted by the fur trade. While hunting them remains uncommon, it does occur locally and may increase as other predators disappear from the landscape.
Several factors have affected the jaguarundi’s perceived low priority conservation status, said Giordano. They have a relatively wide north-south distribution — after the mountain lion (Puma concolor) the jaguarundi is the most widely distributed cat in the western hemisphere — and the species is common locally in certain areas. They are active during the day, so more frequently observed firsthand by field scientists and the public. Even so, they are not very well-known due to their small size and lack of spots or stripes which put a target on the larger more charismatic wild cats.
The jaguarundi occupies a broad range of habitat in the Americas from the scrublands of the borderlands between the U.S, and Mexico through every major ecoregion of Brazil and into southcentral Argentina. Most of its preferred habitat — tropical lowlands — is endangered.
The jaguarundi has been listed as an Endangered Species in the U.S. since 1976. Jaguarundis are an often erroneously reported ‘mystery’ cat across parts of the U.S., including Texas, Arizona, and Florida. “It is highly unlikely that the animals being observed [outside their known range] are actually jaguarundis,” said Giordano. In an earlier study Giordano reviewed all documented observations of jaguarundis in Big Bend National Park. These sitings, which describe its unmistakable character as an otter-like cat, strongly suggest that a population may still exist but biologists need to conduct a field survey to confirm. Its status in the U.S. remains unresolved.
Giordano first became intrigued by the jaguarundi while studying jaguars and other large carnivores.
“Its behavior is decidedly different from that of other [cats] that share its habitat,” Giordano said. It is active during the day and rests at night, keeping a schedule opposite most other carnivores. This behavior may be a more recent adaptation to co-existing with other carnivores such as the ocelot, jaguar, and puma, that occupy similar a space and place in the food chain. Habitat loss, the greatest threat to jaguarundis and all other neotropical cats, could also result in competition becoming a major factor in the distribution of the jaguarundi.
Jaguarundis mostly live in lowland tropical moist forest where they spend their time on the ground but are also skilled tree climbers and jumpers. Dense undergrowth is key to their habitat preference as it harbors their regular diet of rodents, other small mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. They also exist in low scrub and thorn forest, grasslands, and gallery forests — the tree band along rivers in an otherwise treeless landscape. Reports indicate they also use fragmented or second growth forests with undergrowth and agricultural landscapes where rats are abundant — another reason why the species is considered relatively common. Additional studies of how jaguarundis use gallery forests and small forest fragments could help inform management plans and identify conservation corridors to connect fragmented habitat for other cats and carnivores, said Giordano.
Jaguarundis seem to tolerate human developments and disturbance more than other big cats and carnivores but it’s their taste for domestic chickens that’s the main cause of conflict with humans. The numbers of jaguarundis killed by farmers when raiding livestock pens is underreported and likely more common and widespread than believed, especially in expanding agricultural areas, according to one of Giordano’s studies.
While jaguarundis are the most common wild cat in the western hemisphere, they are still the least studied.
“Of critical importance to determining their conservation status is a better understanding of the jaguarundi’s habitat needs, and how the disappearance and conversion of this habitat across the Neotropics is impacting competition with other carnivores,” Giordano said, who noted that these factors will determine the jaguarundis long-term survival.
Note: this story was originally titled: ‘Mystery cat’ requires more conservation and research
Giordano, A. J. (2016). Ecology and status of the jaguarundi Puma yagouaroundi: a synthesis of existing knowledge. Mammal Review, 46(1), 30-43.
Giordano, A. J., Carrera, R., & Ballard, W. (2011). Assessing the credibility of jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi) observations using diagnostic criteria and witness qualification. Human dimensions of wildlife, 16(5), 360-367.