The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) looks like a miniature jaguar, with a tawny coat covered with darker spots. On the head and
along the back some spots merge to make rough stripes of darker fur. The spot pattern is the ocelot's
"fingerprint," being unique to each individual. The ocelot is similar to a house cat in build,
although rather larger. Males reach about 12 kilograms; females are a bit smaller. It has relatively large
paws compared with a house cat and large eyes, indicating a nocturnal lifestyle.
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
Among the most widely distributed cats in the Americas, the ocelot ranges from northern Argentina in South
America to southern Texas. It is tolerant of a wide range of habitats, being found to about 1,000 meters
elevation in rainforest to desert scrub, where they inhabit riverside woodlands. The ocelot prefers tangled
undergrowth along wooded riverside habitats, where their tracks may be seen along muddy banks. It is mostly
terrestrial and seems to not like climbing trees much, although they will use branches to move around the
forest or across a river. Although the ocelot will come out during the day, it hunts primarily at night,
sometimes patrolling man-made trails. Ocelots are tolerant of human presence and often roam close to
villages where they might prey on chickens. However, it is likely they play a beneficial role by hunting
pest rodents and snakes. As they remain secluded in dense vegetation during the day, they are rarely seen
in the wild.
FEEDING AND DIET
Like all cats, the ocelot is an efficient predator. Hunting is done almost entirely on the ground, where
its main prey is rodents although snakes, birds, lizards and other small vertebrates are also part of its
diet. In the Amazon, typical diet includes the larger rodents such as agouti and paca.
Females outnumber males about two to one. Mating is non-seasonal, taking place any time of year. Kittens
are born after about 70 days gestation. Dens are located in dense undergrowth and a single female may use
several dens, moving the kittens from one to the other as the kittens are growing. One to two kittens are
born in a litter in dry areas, up to four in wet forested regions. Once a kitten is about six months old,
its chances of surviving increase. If the litter fails, the females quickly come into breeding condition
and may thereby produce more than one litter a year.
The ocelot was listed as endangered in the USA in 1982 and globally is considered threatened.
Importation of ocelot pelts into the United States was prohibited in 1972. It appears safe from
extinction since hunting for its skin is less intensive than previously. Decline in the fur trade for
clothing has led to lower demand for the skin. Ocelot populations are robust in some areas. It is
locally common in places where habitat and prey abundance are favorable. The main threat is habitat
reduction due to human activities. They are prone to automobile collisions where roads are built, and
this can be a significant cause of mortality. Reduction of prey populations and loss of suitable habitat
for breeding are detrimental to the long-term survival of ocelots.
NAME AND MYTHOLOGY
The Aztecs and other native American Indians revered the ocelot, for its beauty and hunting skill. Its name
comes from from the Mexican Aztec word "tlalocelot" which means meaning "tiger of the field."
The claws and skin were used in ceremonial garb. In the British Museum, a statue of Quetzalcoatl (the Aztec
God of civilization and learning) has ocelot claw ear-rings. The constellation of stars in the night sky
that we call the Big Dipper (or Great Bear) was known to the early Mexicans as Tezcatlipoca who took the
form of the ocelot. This god transformed himself into the sun to light the world for the first time. The
other gods were angry so they created a race of giants to destroy Tezcatlipoca. These giants lived wild and
did not plant crops or till the soil. They ate acorns, roots, and berries. One of the jealous gods was
Quetzalcoatl who was benevolent and the founder of civilization, agriculture and the arts. Tezcatlipoca was evil
and the patron of magicians. He was god of the night, all-powerful and could assume many forms. Quetzalcoatl
took a staff and struck down Tezcatlipoca, casting him into the waters whereupon Tezcatlipoca assumed the form of
the ocelot. In the darkness that followed, this cat devoured all the giants. Before then humans had also
lived wild, without reason, but after the fall of Tezcatlipoca they could live the way Quetzalcoatl showed
them. The day of the week this happened is known by the Aztecs as "Four Ocelot," which is how it
is called on the calendar.