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What Is a Margay?

By Meg Higa
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The margay is a jungle cat that makes its home in the rainforests of Mexico and Central and South America, as far south as northern Argentina. Biologists have settled on its classification in the genus Leopardus, a group of small spotted cats that includes the wider ranging ocelot, commonly called the dwarf leopard. Its species name is wiedii, named after an explorer and naturalist from the German region of Wied.

In size and appearance, the margay resembles a large, modern domestic cat with rather long legs and tail. Its body is 19 to 31 inches long (48 to 79 cm), and its tail is an additional 13 to 20 inches (33 to 51 cm). It weighs from 5.7 to 8.8 pounds (2.6 to 4.0 kg).

Ten subspecies of margay have been identified. They vary slightly in coloration, and this is believed to be an adaptation to their specific geographic habitat, from the rainforests of the Amazon River basin to the cloud forests of the Andean Mountain foothills. They are all predators of the sun-and-shade dappled canopy of dense forests. Their base fur is light brown, and characteristic of many camouflaged predators in this environment, it is broken by seemingly random vertical streaks and rosettes of darker brown or black color. Black highlights include the backs of their ears and a banded and tipped tail.

The margay has sometimes been called the "tree ocelot" because it is unusually arboreal for a cat, spending most of its life up in the trees. It is an agile climber, being one of only two cats known to be capable of climbing down a trunk head-first. True to most cats, it can accurately jump from branch to branch up to 12 feet (3.7 m) apart. It has even been known to traverse the length of a tree branch hanging upside down. This skill is enabled by a long tail for balance, and long legs which end in an exceptionally flexible ankle joint and sharp claws.

Aided by its large eyes, the margay is primarily a nocturnal animal, actively hunting by night and resting in the safety of tree branches by day. Their diet is believed to be mostly small mammals, birds and their eggs, and other animals like tree frogs and lizards. Dietary analysis from their scat droppings also reveal some fruit and other vegetation believed to aid in digestion. Though rare, they have been known to ambush larger terrestrial prey on the ground, such as guinea pigs. Testament to their arboreal agility, one of their preferred large prey are monkeys.

Similar to the life of many other cat species, the margay is solitary. They maintain a territorial home range of 4.2 to 6.2 square miles (11 to 16 square kilometers), defined by claw scratch and urine scent markings. Adults communicate vocally with each other and meet only to mate. After a relatively long gestation period of about 80 days, females typically give birth to just one kitten, which will, in turn, need to survive 12 to 18 months to reach reproductive maturity.

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