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CITES Appendix I (CITES)[1]
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Feliformia
Family: Felidae
Subfamily: Felinae
Genus: Leopardus
L. tigrinus
Binomial name
Leopardus tigrinus
(Schreber, 1775)[2]
Distribution of the oncilla, 2016[1]

Oncifelis tigrinus, Felis tigrina

The oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus), also known as the northern tiger cat, little spotted cat, and tigrillo, is a small spotted cat ranging from Central America to central Brazil. It is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and the population is threatened by deforestation and conversion of habitat to agricultural land.[1]

In 2013, it was proposed to assign the oncilla populations in southern Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina to a new species: the southern tiger cat (L. guttulus), after it was found that it does not interbreed with the oncilla population in northeastern Brazil.[3]


The oncilla resembles the margay (L. wiedii) and the ocelot (L. pardalis),[4] but it is smaller, with a slender build and narrower muzzle. Oncillas are one of the smallest wild cats in South America, reaching a body length of 38 to 59 cm (15 to 23 in) with a 20 to 42 cm (7.9 to 16.5 in) long tail.[5] While this is somewhat longer than the average domestic cat, the oncilla is generally lighter, weighing 1.5 to 3 kg (3.3 to 6.6 lb).[6]

A melanistic oncilla in a tree in Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica

The fur is thick and soft, ranging from light brown to dark ochre, with numerous dark rosettes across the back and flanks. The underside is pale with dark spots and the tail is ringed. The backs of the ears are black with bold white spots. The rosettes are black or brown, open in the center, and irregularly shaped. The legs have medium-sized spots tapering to smaller spots near the paws. This coloration helps the oncilla blend in with the mottled sunlight of the tropical forest understory. The oncilla's jaw is shortened, with fewer teeth, but with well-developed carnassials and canines.[4]

Some melanistic oncillas have been reported from the more heavily forested parts of its range.[5]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The oncilla is distributed from a disjunct population in Costa Rica and Panama, and throughout the Amazon basin to central Brazil. It was recorded in Costa Rica's cloud forests, in the northern Andes at elevations of 1,500 to 3,000 m (4,900 to 9,800 ft) and in dry Cerrado and Caatinga landscapes of northern Brazil.[1] In Panama, it was recorded in Darién,[7] and in Volcán Barú National Parks.[8] In Colombia, it was recorded in the Cordillera Occidental at elevations of 1,900 to 4,800 m (6,200 to 15,700 ft) in Los Nevados National Natural Park,[9] and in Antioquia Department.[10]

Ecology and behavior[edit]

The oncilla is a primarily terrestrial animal, but is also an adept climber. Like all cats, the oncilla is an obligate carnivore, requiring meat for survival. This cat eats small mammals, lizards, birds, eggs, invertebrates, and the occasional tree frog. Occasionally, the cat will eat grasses. The oncilla stalks its prey from a distance, and once in range, it pounces to catch and kill the prey.[11][page needed]

They are generally nocturnal, but in areas such as Caatinga, where their main food source consists of diurnal lizards, they are more likely to be active during the day. Young oncillas have been observed to purr, while adults are known to make short, gurgling calls when close to one another.[5]


Estrus lasts from three to nine days, with older cats having shorter cycles. Females give birth to one to three kittens after a gestation of 74 to 76 days.[12] The kittens' eyes open after 8 to 17 days, an unusually long period for a cat of this size. Their teeth erupt more or less simultaneously at around 21 days of age.[13] The kittens do not begin to take solid food until they are 38 to 56 days old, but are fully weaned at the age of three months.[5]

Oncillas reach sexual maturity at around two to two and a half years of age. They have a life span of about 11 years in the wild, but there are records of oncillas reaching an age of 17 years.[12]


The following are the traditionally recognized subspecies:[2]

Although the Central American oncilla is listed as a separate subspecies, based on analysis of mitochondrial DNA, Johnson et al. (1999) found strongly supported differences between L.t. oncilla in Costa Rica and L.t. guttulus in southern Brazil, comparable to differences between different neotropical species. Researchers have argued that there should be a splitting of the oncilla into two species, as there is a pronounced difference in appearance between the oncillas in Costa Rica and those in central and southern Brazil. Further samples of L.t. oncilla are needed from northern South America to determine whether this taxon ranges outside Central America, and whether it should be considered a distinct species rather than a subspecies.[1]

In 2013, genetic research revealed that the former subspecies L. t. guttulus is a separate cryptic species that does not interbreed with the other subspecies, and proposes a classification into two species L. guttulus and L. tigrinus.[3]

A zone of hybridization between the oncilla and the colocolo (Pampas cat) has been found through genetic analyses of specimens from central Brazil.[14]

Results of a morphological analysis of 250 samples of skins and skulls indicate that there are three distinct oncilla groups: namely one in South America's northern, north-western and western range countries, one in eastern and one in southern range countries. Based on these results, the eastern group was proposed to be a distinct species Leopardus emiliae.[15] A further phylogenetic study published in 2021 supported the recognition of a third species.[16]


Oncillas are killed for their fur.

The oncilla is mainly threatened by deforestation and poaching. Oncillas are killed for their pelts, which are highly prized and often sold or made into clothing.[1] Reports in 1972 and 1982 in South America showed that the oncilla is one of the four most heavily hunted of all the small wild cats.[17]

Another factor contributing to oncilla mortality is human expansion and conversion of land for settlements. Coffee plantations are most often established in cloud forest habitats, causing the reduction of preferred habitats.[18]

Hybridization of the oncilla with the Geoffroy's cat (Leopardus geoffroyi) has been found in the southernmost part of its range; hybridization with the Pampas cat (L. colocola) has also been found in central Brazil. Such hybridization may be a natural process, and the extent of this as a threat to the oncilla is unknown.[19]


The oncilla has been classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. It is listed on CITES Appendix I, prohibiting all international commercial trade in oncillas or products made from them.[1] Hunting is still allowed in Ecuador, Guyana, Nicaragua and Peru.[17]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Payan, E.; de Oliveira, T. (2016). "Leopardus tigrinus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2016: e.T54012637A50653881. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-2.RLTS.T54012637A50653881.en. Retrieved 16 January 2022.
  2. ^ a b Wozencraft, W. C. (2005). "Species Leopardus tigrinus". In Wilson, D. E.; Reeder, D. M. (eds.). Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 539. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494.
  3. ^ a b Trigo, T. C.; Schneider, A.; de Oliveira, T. G.; Lehugeur, L. M.; Silveira, L.; Freitas, T. R.O. & Eizirik, E. (2013). "Molecular data reveal complex hybridization and a cryptic species of Neotropical Wild Cat". Current Biology. 23 (24): 2528–2533. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.046. PMID 24291091.
  4. ^ a b Leyhausen, P. (1963). "Über südamerikanische Pardelkatzen". Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. 20 (5): 627–640. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0310.1963.tb01179.x.
  5. ^ a b c d Sunquist, M. & Sunquist, F. (2002). "Oncilla Leopardus tigrinus (Schreber, 1775)". Wild Cats of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 130–134. ISBN 0-226-77999-8.
  6. ^ University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
  7. ^ Meyer, N.F.; Esser, H.J.; Moreno, R.; van Langevelde, F.; Liefting, Y.; Oller, D.R.; Vogels, C.B.; Carver, A.D.; Nielsen, C.K. & Jansen, P.A. (2015). "An assessment of the terrestrial mammal communities in forests of Central Panama, using camera-trap surveys". Journal for Nature Conservation. 26 (26): 28−35. Bibcode:2015JNatC..26...28M. doi:10.1016/j.jnc.2015.04.003.
  8. ^ Rodgers, T. W. & Kapheim, K. M. (2017). "A High-Elevation Record of the Little Spotted Cat (Leopardus tigrinus oncilla) from Western Panama". The Southwestern Naturalist. 62 (3): 225−227. doi:10.1894/SWNAT-D-17-00024.1. S2CID 91002891.
  9. ^ Payan, E. G. & González-Maya, J.F. (2011). "Distribución geográfica de la Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) en Colombia e implicaciones para su conservación" [Geographic distribution of the Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) in Colombia and implications for its conservation]. Revista Latinoamericana de Conservación [Latin American Journal of Conservation] (in Spanish). 2 (1): 51−59.
  10. ^ Arias-Alzate, A.; Sánchez-Londoño, J.D.; Botero-Cañola, S. & González-Maya, J.F. (2014). "Recent confirmed records of the Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) in the department of Antioquia, Colombia". Notas Mastozoológicas. 1 (2): 4−5. doi:10.47603/manovol1n2.4-5.
  11. ^ Leyhausen, P. (1979). Cat behaviour. The predatory and social behaviour of domestic and wild cats. Translated by Tonkin, B. A. New York: Garland STPM Press. ISBN 978-0-8240-7017-5.
  12. ^ a b Nowell, K. & Jackson, P. (1996). The Wild Cats: A Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. Gland: IUCN.
  13. ^ Quillen, P. (1981). "Hand-rearing the little spotted cat or oncilla". International Zoo Yearbook. 21: 240–242. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1090.1981.tb01994.x.
  14. ^ Lucherini, M.; Eizirik, E.; de Oliveira, T.; et al. (2016). "Leopardus colocolo". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2016: e.T15309A97204446. Retrieved 15 January 2018.
  15. ^ do Nascimento, F.O.; Feijó, A. (2017). "Taxonomic revision of the tigrina Leopardus tigrinus (Schreber, 1775) species group (Carnivora, Felidae)". Papéis Avulsos de Zoologia. 57 (19): 231–264. doi:10.11606/0031-1049.2017.57.19.
  16. ^ Trindade, Fernanda J.; Rodrigues, Maíra R.; Figueiró, Henrique V.; Li, Gang; Murphy, William J.; Eizirik, Eduardo (2021). "Genome-Wide SNPS Clarify a Complex Radiation and Support Recognition of an Additional Cat Species". Molecular Biology and Evolution. 38 (11): 4987–4991. doi:10.1093/molbev/msab222. PMC 8557425. PMID 34320647.
  17. ^ a b Foreman, G. E., ed. (1988). "Felid bibliography 1781-1988". Columbus, Ohio: Felid Research and Conservation Interest Group: 34–72. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  18. ^ Fuller, K.S. & Swift, B. (1985). Latin American Wildlife Trade Laws. Washington, DC: Traffic (USA).
  19. ^ Eizirik, E.; Trigo, T. C. & Haag, T. (2007). "Conservation genetics and molecular ecology of Neotropical felids". In Hughes, J. & Mercer, R. (eds.). Felid Biology and Conservation Conference 17–19 September. Oxford, UK: WildCRU. pp. 40–41.

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