If you’ve never heard of the Andean mountain cat, you’re not alone. These magnificent animals are one of the rarest, most elusive wild cats in the world. And because scientists can go many years between sightings, there is still very little known about this beautiful species.
Andean mountain cats (Leopardis jacobitus) were identified and described as a unique species in 1865, but were so rare and difficult to observe in their rough terrain that they remained unphotographed until 1997. And even then, this famously evasive cat has only been sighted about ten times in the last 25 years!
For those who have been lucky enough to see an Andean mountain cat, the experience is one to cherish. These vibrant cats are undeniably cute. They are arrestingly beautiful with stripes, spots, dashes, and rings in many shades of gray, black, brown, and gold. This wild species is about the size of an average house cat, but is perfectly specialized for its unforgiving environment. Andean mountain cats’ thick fur is perfect for keeping out the chill in their high-altitude habitat, and their extra-long, extra-fluffy tail gives them an exceptional sense of balance. They need that balance boost to navigate the loose rocks that make up their steep mountain homes.
But if we know how to identify them and where they live, why do we still know so little about this species? Here’s why Andean mountain cats remain so mysterious.
They can be confused with the more common pampas cat.
Andean mountain cats share their home with a very similar-looking and wide-ranging relative. Pampas cats can have similar coat patterns as Andean mountain cats if they happen to live in an environment that encourages gray and brown spotted camouflage. Even though their territories and markings sometimes overlap, there are a couple quick ways to tell them apart. Andean mountain cats differ from pampas cats because of their irregular spots, long tails measuring up to 75% of their body length, and noticeably dark noses. Pampas cats generally have rosette spots, short tails, and pink noses. Both species are quite rare, so observing either feline would be cause for celebration!
They are masters of camouflage.
That eye-catching multicolored pattern is actually great for hiding in rocky outcroppings. Their ash-colored fur blends into the stone, while the darker spots and markings break up the silhouette like shadows. This helps the cat sneak up on its quick-footed prey with relative ease.
With modern technology and tracking devices, scientists can monitor and film Andean mountain cats with great accuracy. They can even be identified by their spots alone! But with so few known individuals living in this challenging terrain, these small cats still have their secrets.
Scientists aren’t sure how they behave.
Because there have been so few opportunities to observe Andean mountain cats, nobody is sure how long they live, how and when they reproduce, or even when they’re most active. The Andean mountain cat has only been held in captivity once, but unfortunately it did not live long enough to teach us much about its behavior.
Based on the handful of detailed recorded observations in the wild, we can assume they are active at night. But they’ve also been spotted hunting during the day. Adult Andean mountain cats have been seen with one or two smaller cats that scientists assume are juveniles, but nobody has ever observed their reproductive habits. We’ve seen that Andean mountain cats are very similar to pampas cats, and we know those animals live to be about 17 years of age, but assuming Andean mountain cats have the same lifespan would be conjecture.
There are a lot of educated guesses we can make about Andean mountain cats because of their close relatives, but until we have a better sampling of carefully recorded observations, none of it can be confirmed.
They live in challenging, disappearing terrain.
All Andean mountain cat sightings have been in the Andes mountains (naturally) and usually at extreme altitudes. They prefer to live in the highest peaks of Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina – usually in the rockiest, harshest environment in the region. It’s not so easy for humans to navigate this area safely!
This limited range also happens to be a hotspot for mining for minerals, which has fragmented and reduced their habitat. As cities and agriculture encroach on this environment, Andean mountain cats have less and less space to roam. We don’t know how much territory they require to survive, but because their population is in decline, habitat reduction is a serious concern for the species’ survival.
They are becoming rarer every day.
In 2016, the IUCN Red List counted just under 1500 individual Andean mountain cats. Because of hunting for fur, habitat loss, and prey reduction, this number continues to dwindle. Andean mountain cats will probably eat any small mammal or bird, but we think their primary prey is the chinchilla – a fluffy rock-dwelling rodent that is often hunted for its fur or for export as pets. Hunting chinchillas makes the survival of the highly-specialized Andean mountain cat more challenging. Threatened by mining and habitat fragmentation as well, Andean mountain cats are struggling to thrive.
But there has been a recent breakthrough.
In the winter of 2021, conservationists caught an Andean mountain cat on video. Since there had only been a handful of recorded sightings before, and always far from civilization, this was nothing short of groundbreaking. To the surprise of the researchers, this film was taken right outside Santiago, the capital of Chile. Before this sighting, it was believed Andean cats exclusively in rugged terrain, but it appears they’re closer than we ever imagined. The Andean Cat Alliance (AGA) identified at least 3 adult cats in this area and there is great hope that this new information will lead us to a better understanding of this magnificent species.