Leopardus tigrinuslittle spotted cat

Geographic Range

Leopardus tigrinus is found primarily in South America with a small populations also occurring intermittently in Central America. It can be found as far north as Costa Rica and as far south as the northern tip of Argentina. Its geographic range extends throughout Brazil and the Guianas (i.e., Guyana, Guyane, Suriname) and in parts of Venezuela, Colombia, Equador, Bolivia and Paraguay. There is also speculation that it may be found in some parts of Nicaragua, and Panama. ("Oncilla", 2010; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)


Oncillas, also known as little spotted cats and little tiger cats, have been recorded in elevations ranging from sea level to 3200 m. They prefer forested habitats and are found in a wide variety of forests ecosystems, including dense tropical forests at elevations ranging from sea level to 1500 m. From 350 to 1500 m, oncillas can be found in rainforests or humid premontane forests. At 1500 m and above, oncillas can be found in humid montane forests that or cloud forests. Evidence suggests that they are expanding into deciduous forests and subtropical forests, and in Brazil,they have successfully populated savannas and semiarid thorny scrub as well. Oncillas can also be found in plantations and eucalyptus monocultures. Although they are agile tree climbers, they are primarily terriculous. ("Notes on the Biology and Status of the Small Wild Cats in Venezuela", 1986; "Oncilla", 2010; Schipper, et al., 2010; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 3200 m
    0.00 to 10498.69 ft

Physical Description

Oncillas are one of the smallest wild cats in South America. They range in mass from 1.5 kg to 3 kg. Males are slightly larger than females and can weigh up to 3 kg, whereas females generally weigh between 1.5 and 2.0 kg. Male head and body length ranges from 805 to 830 mm, with tail length ranging from 317 to 360 mm. Females range in length from 763 to 780 mm, with tail length ranging from 270 to 305 mm. ("Notes on the Biology and Status of the Small Wild Cats in Venezuela", 1986)

Oncillas have short, thick fur that is light brown to grey and is spotted with rosettes that are dark brown with a black outline. The venter is typically paler than the rest of the body, but is still marked with rosettes. The tail is lined with 7 to 13 dark rings and ends with a dark tip. The limbs are covered in randomly placed black spots, and the back of the ears are black with a white spot near the centre of the pinna. The eyes range from light to dark brown. Although melanism has been documented in this species, albinism has not. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

Oncillas are often mistaken for ocelots and margays. Although oncillas are smaller than both of these species, they are otherwise very similar in appearance. Oncillas are more slender with larger ears and have a more narrow muzzle then ocelots or margays. The eyes are located more laterally than those of margays', and oncillas have longer tails than do ocelots. In addition, the skulls of oncillas are less robust than those of margays'. The brain case is more narrow, the zygomatic arches are less robust, and the auditory bullae are less inflated. The dorsal profile of the average oncilla skull is also less convex than that of a margay skull. The dental formula for an adult oncilla is 3/3, 1/1, 3/2, 1/1. ("Notes on the Biology and Status of the Small Wild Cats in Venezuela", 1986; Husson, 1978; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    1.5 to 3 kg
    3.30 to 6.61 lb
  • Average mass
    2 kg
    4.41 lb
  • Range length
    763 to 830 mm
    30.04 to 32.68 in


There is no information available regarding the mating system of Leopardus tigrinus in the wild; however, captive individuals appear to mate with the same partner for life.

Little information exists regarding the mating behavior of oncillas, and that which does exist, was recorded from observations of captive breeding pairs. Although oncillas are primarily solitary, occasionally a breeding pair may be documented. In captivity, oncillas appear to mate for life, however, this has not been confirmed for wild populations. In the wild, males are known to be very aggressive towards females, which may suggest that oncillas are highly solitary. ("Notes on the Biology and Status of the Small Wild Cats in Venezuela", 1986; Quillen, 1981; "DOMESTIC X ONCILLA AND BLACK FOOTED CAT HYBRIDS", 2008; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002; "Tiger Cat", 1998)

Female oncillas reach sexual maturity after 2 years of age, whereas males reach sexual maturity after 18 months. Estrous lasts from 3 to 9 days and decreases in duration with age. Mating occurs during early spring and gestation lasts for approximately 75 days. Males have no further involvement after mating. Oncillas typically give birth to 1 kitten per breeding cycle, but can have up to 3 kittens. Neonates range in mass from 92 to 134 g and can open their eyes between 7 and 18 days after birth. Kittens begin eating solid food 5 to 7 weeks after birth, and weaning is usually complete by 3 months of age. Teeth begin to emerge after 21 days which is later than most felines; however, teeth typically emerge all together, within a matter of hours. Most oncillas are full grown by 11 months of age and are completely independent by 4 months of age. ("Notes on the Biology and Status of the Small Wild Cats in Venezuela", 1986; Quillen, 1981; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002; "Tiger Cat", 1998)

  • Breeding season
    Captive bred oncillas breed from early to late spring.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 3
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    74 to 76 days
  • Average weaning age
    3 months
  • Average time to independence
    4 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    18 months

Most oncillas are completely weaned by 3 months of age, and young are completely independent 4 months of age. Paternal care is non-existent in this species. No further information exists regarding parental care in oncillas. ("Oncilla", 2010)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female


Oncillas generally live for 10 to 14 years in the wild, and although they have been known to live for up to 23 years in captivity, most captive individuals live for 16 to 20 years. ("Oncilla", 2010; "Oncilla - Leopardus tigrinus", 2006)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    23 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    10 to 14 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    11 years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    16 to 20 years


Oncillas are primarily nocturnal but are occasionally seen during the day. Although they are primarily terriculous, they are well adapted for climbing. They are sometimes seen in pairs during breeding season, but are considered to be highly solitary. In the wild, males can be extremely aggressive towards females, and it is not uncommon for this species to kill animals larger than itself. ("DOMESTIC X ONCILLA AND BLACK FOOTED CAT HYBRIDS", 2008; Schipper, et al., 2010; "Oncilla - Leopardus tigrinus", 2006; "Tiger Cat", 1998)

  • Range territory size
    0.9 to 17 km^2

Home Range

Oncilla females have a home range size of 0.9 to 2.3 km^2, and males have a home range size of 4.8 to 17 km^2, which is larger than what is expected for cats of this size. (Schipper, et al., 2010)

Communication and Perception

Little is known about how oncillas communicate. Young oncilla kittens tend to purr, while grown oncillas have a vocalization described as a "gurgle" which is short and rhythmic. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

Food Habits

Little information exists on the feeding habits of wild oncillas; however, their primary prey likely includes birds and small mammals such as rodents. When preying upon birds, oncillas are capable of cleaning their prey free of feathers prior to ingestion. In some regions of their geographic range, they are known to prey upon lizards. Oncillas instantly kill their prey by piercing the back of the skull and severing the the brain stem from the spinal chord. (Kiltie, 1984; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002; "Tiger Cat", 1998; Wang, 2002)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • reptiles


There is no information available regarding potential predators of oncillas. Oncillas are well adapted climbers and likely evade terriculous predators by hiding in the canopy. In addition, their nocturnal nature and cryptic coloration likely reduces risk of predation as well.

Ecosystem Roles

Although there is no information on the potential ecosystem roles filled by oncillas, as small terrestrial predators, they may help control rodent pest species. There is no information available regarding parasites of this species.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Oncillas are illegally hunted at localized points throughout their geographic range for their pelt, which is similar to that of ocelots and margays. Oncilla pelts were one of the most heavily traded cat furs between 1976 and 1982 and is occasionally traded in various domestic markets. They are also sought for illegal trade on the exotic pet market. (Schipper, et al., 2010; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Positive Impacts
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Oncillas are known to occasionally attack and kill poultry throughout its geographic range.

Conservation Status

Oncillas are classified as "vulnerable" on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species. Their population was significantly decreased during the 1970's and 80's due to overhunting, and current threats include habitat loss, fragmentation, roads, illegal trade (pets and pelts), and retaliatory killing by poultry farmers. From 1982 to 1990, oncillas were classified as vulnerable by the IUCN. After an 11 year period as a "near threatened" species from 1996 to 2007, oncillas began declining once again in 2008 and were subsequently reclassified as "vulnerable". Although oncillas are protected under Appendix I by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), they rarely occur in protected habitat. The phylogenetics of this species are not well established, and it has been suggested that populations occurring in the northern-most part of their geographic range could be a distinct species. (Schipper, et al., 2010)


Chetna Patel (author), University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, Doris Audet (editor), University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, John Berini (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.



living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night


"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.


Sarah Hartwell. 2008. "DOMESTIC X ONCILLA AND BLACK FOOTED CAT HYBRIDS" (On-line). http://www.messybeast.com. Accessed October 11, 2010 at http://www.messybeast.com/small-hybrids/nigripes-oncilla-hybrids.htm.

1986. Notes on the Biology and Status of the Small Wild Cats in Venezuela. Pp. 138-139 in Cats of the World: Biology, Conservation, and Management. United States: National Wildlife Federation.

Tigerhomes.org. 2006. "Oncilla - Leopardus tigrinus" (On-line). Tigerhomes.org. Accessed September 20, 2010 at http://www.tigerhomes.org/wild-cats/wc-oncilla.cfm.

Feline Conservation Federation. 2010. "Oncilla" (On-line). Feline Conservation Federation. Accessed September 20, 2010 at http://www.felineconservation.org/feline_species/oncilla.htm.

2009. "Oncilla" (On-line). The Animal Files. Accessed October 02, 2010 at http://www.theanimalfiles.com/mammals/carnivores/oncilla.html.

Walton Beacham. 1998. Tiger Cat. Pp. 694-695 in Beacham's Guide to International Endangered Species, Vol. 2, 1 Edition. Osprey, Florida: Beacham Publishing Corporation.

Husson, A. 1978. The mammals of Suriname. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill. Accessed November 11, 2010 at http://books.google.ca/books?id=1s8UAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=the+mammals+of+suriname&source=bl&ots=izmM1f7-HZ&sig=MlfYbe-LldRbtopwWi1wGq-NYT4&hl=en&ei=eTLcTJKcBc2YnAeA_K0X&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=true.

Kiltie, R. 1984. Size ratios among sympatric neotropical cats. Oecologia, 61: 411-416. Accessed November 11, 2010 at http://www.springerlink.com/content/w1n16217u1v15x26/fulltext.pdf.

Quillen, P. 1981. Hand-rearing the little spotted cat or oncilla Felis tigrinus. International Zoo Yearbook, 21: 240-242.

Schipper, J., R. Leite-Pitman, E. Payan. 2010. "Leopardus tigrinus" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed October 09, 2010 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/11510/0.

Sunquist, M., F. Sunquist. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Wang, E. 2002. Diets of ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), margays (L. wiedii), and oncillas (L. tigrinus) in the Atlantic Rainforest in southeast Brazil.. Studies on Neotropical Fauna and Environment, 37/3: 207-212.