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  • Author: Sarah Czarnecki
  • Publication Date: February 10, 2022
  • Focus Species:

Most of us are familiar with mountain lions and bobcats living in the continental United States, but did you know we have ocelots here, too? There aren’t many, and they are exclusive to a very limited habitat, but we do indeed share our home with these amazing wild cats. Our ocelots play a unique role in the ecosystem, but if they don’t get the support they need soon, we risk losing them forever.

Ocelots in the Americas

Most ocelots live in Panama, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and other Central and South American countries. If you look at a map of their distribution, you’ll see they occupy quite a lot of territory in South America, then the population creeps up the western part of Mexico, ending with a tiny portion of cats living just over the US border.

Their habitat is expansive, so ocelots are very adaptable cats. They thrive in thick jungles, but they’ll also live in scrublands and the mountain foothills of the Andes. Wherever they live, they require dense foliage for camouflage and cover. Their chain rosette coat pattern looks just like dappled sunlight streaming through the trees onto the forest floor.

Ocelots use their camouflage for great advantage when climbing up tall trees and hunting small animals like mice, rats, birds, snakes, and sometimes monkeys. They’ve even been known to fish! Their big round eyes boost their low-light vision, and sensitive whiskers help ocelots navigate their dense forest homes. Their big, all-terrain paws are perfect for hunting, climbing, and dashing away from larger predators.

As the largest Leopardus species weighing up to 15kg, they’re the biggest small cats in Central and South America. They’re about the same size as bobcats, but with a much leaner profile. Ocelots’ adorable faces and sleek spotted fur have crowned them one of the most attractive wild cats we have.

Because of their exceptionally beautiful fur, ocelot pelts were a popular fashion choice in the 19th and early 20th century. But thanks to strong conservation efforts, including bans on hunting and trafficking these animals, their population has grown in some protected areas. Today, there’s an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million ocelots in the world, and the species is considered Least Concern.

But here in the United States, the ocelot is more threatened than anywhere else. In this country, they are endangered.

Ocelots in The United States

Of the six wild cat species living in the US, ocelots are the rarest. Their habitat is limited to only a small region at the southernmost tip of Texas, right along the border, and a portion of Arizona. This population of ocelots belongs to its own subspecies, Leopardus pardalis albescens.

There are only around 100 ocelots in the United States – maybe even fewer.

Ocelots used to live in Louisiana, Arkansas, and more of Texas and Arizona, but because of habitat loss and fragmentation, they have been pushed out. 

The most significant and closely monitored ocelot habitat today is part of the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge in south Texas. 

The US Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the ocelots in this area, and sometimes they even manage to spot one. When officials spotted adorable ocelot kittens on a trailcam in 2021, conservationists’ hopes were refreshed. Because ocelots’ spots are unique, they were able to identify five individual juveniles in the area. What a great sign for species success!

There aren’t any confirmed population estimates in other parts of the country, but because of continued habitat loss and extremely rare sightings, most researchers assume the pocketed populations are declining or gone entirely.

Ocelots are flexible in their living arrangements, but they’re struggling to keep their foothold in the United States.

Ocelots’ Uncertain Future

Ocelots are at a high risk of going locally extinct in the United States. While habitat fragmentation, hunting, and animal trafficking are serious threats to their success, one of their biggest dangers is traffic collisions. To help keep the cats safe from traffic accidents, underground tunnels were built in 2017 near the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge. With luck, this will help combat habitat fragmentation as well.

Currently, our ocelots face another unique issue: politics. Because of the border wall currently being erected at the US-Mexico border, their small habitat is further disrupted. The levees slice right through their small territory, effectively cutting them off from the rest of the ocelot population. Habitat fragmentation is a major disruptor for all felidae species, and a literal wall would isolate the US population of ocelots in the extreme. Losing access to other members of their species will damage the genetic diversity, eventually driving them to local extinction.

But conservationists haven’t given up yet. Since the ocelot populations are succeeding elsewhere, Texas A&M University is looking into rewilding and reintroducing new ocelots to the area. Prime ocelot habitat in Texas is very small – only about 1% of the state would be suitable today – so supporting a vibrant population would be a challenge. Still, focused conservation efforts like rewilding just might be the key to keeping America’s ocelot population safe.

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