Costa Rica's beautiful and elusive margay. Photo by Gab 2212, license CC SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Meet the Margay — Beautiful, Unusual, Unique, and Endangered (video)

Ever since my partner and I moved to Costa Rica all those years ago, we’ve seen many of the country’s amazing and iconic animals — mantled howler monkeys, two- and three-toed sloths, great green macaws (they fly over my house), and many species of toucans.

This margay is a former pet, and sadly, this means it’s unable to be released into the wild. Photo by Proyecto Asis, license CC SA 2.0 via Flickr

But one animal, padding through the cloud forest, remains elusive: the margay. Truth to tell, most people who live here never see this beautiful cat. You see because margays are largely nocturnal and arboreal they spend most of their lives up in the trees — out of sight.

The margay is only one of Costa Rica’s gorgeous cats

This tiny country has numerous species of fascinating cats, including:

The jaguar

Captive jaguar at a zoo in the Netherlands. Photo by Alias 0591, license CC 2.0 via Flickr

The puma

Captive puma at the Philadelphia Zoo. Photo by Art G, license CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The ocelot

An ocelot on the prowl. Photo by Tony Hisgett, license CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The jaguarundi

Captive jaguarundi in a Czech Republic zoo. Photo by Alena Houšková, license CC SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The oncilla

The oncilla is Costa Rica’s smallest cat. It isn’t even as big as a housecat! Photo by Groumfy69, license CC SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

And lastly, the margay

The house-cat-sized margay looks quite a lot like its relative, the larger ocelot but it has larger eyes relative to its size. Photo by Yessica da silva esteves, license CC Attribution 2.0 via Flickr

The margay (Leopardalis weidii) has a unique adaptation that sets it apart from all other cat species. It’s the only feline that can rotate it’s ankle joints as much as 180 degrees, note BigCatRescue and TheBelizeZoo. That’s just what the margay in the photos below is doing.

What’s this margay doing anyway? Screen capture by shugganomics via YouTube

This margay is looking for a tasty snack

The ankle bones in this beautiful predator allow the cat to run down a tree as quickly as a squirrel. It can even dangle by one foot!

This is easy-peasy for the margay. Not so much for other cats. Screen capture by shugganomics via YouTube

Researchers in Brazil have discovered something else that’s quite fascinating, National Geographic reports. Even though scientists have known about the margay for almost 200 years, they know next to nothing about their hunting habits.

Indigenous peoples in the area told researchers that the margay often mimics its prey. Researchers have observed animals like pumas, jaguars, and leopards hunting that way — but not margays.

Pied tamarin. Photo by postdlf, license CC SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

So, they decided to see for themselves. The researchers set their sights on a group of pied tamarins (small monkeys) that were feasting in a fig tree. A margay lurked nearby, but rather than stalking the monkeys or ambushing them, it called out, mimicking the sounds of their babies. Alas, the margay’s attempts were all for naught as one monkey who served as the lookout got the drop on the cat.

Margays range throughout Latin America

They are found in deciduous and evergreen forests and people have occasionally spotted them in shady cocoa and coffee plantations and riverine forests.

Map by Altaileopard license CC Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, these cats have been extirpated in Texas. They range through Mexico, much of Central America, the Amazon Basin, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. They are even found on the slopes of Volcán Turrialba, an active volcano close to where I live.

Volcán Turrialba which is close to where I live. Photo courtesy of the author.

These cats have some interesting dietary habits

While they certainly aren’t going to turn down a tasty big-eared climbing rat, squirrel or opossum, margays like fruit too. They also enjoy small monkeys like marmosets or capuchins, birds, porcupines, and three-toed sloths.

Obviously, these gorgeous cats, with their rich black rosettes and splotches against a tawny coat, are not picky eaters.

And this kitten is seriously adorable

Beautiful little margay kitten by citizen for boysenberry jam, license CC NC ND 2.0 via Flickr

As you can see, the margay has extremely large eyes, making it an excellent night predator. They weigh between 9 and 20 pounds and reach a length between 34 to 52 inches. And, of course, a substantial portion of that is tail, which the cat uses to help keep its balance as it climbs through the trees.

Kittens are born after a gestation period of about 76 to 84 days. In general, only one kitten is born, usually weighing less than six ounces. The little squirts open their eyes when they about two weeks old and mama weans them off when they are about two months old. Margays only reproduce every two years and kitten mortality is very high — around 50 percent.

Like seemingly every other creature, margays are in trouble

Part of the risk to margays is their low reproduction rate, but it’s also sadly due to the double evils of the fur trade and deforestation. The World Land Trust reports that margays rely on tracts of uninterrupted forest. As more forest falls for agriculture these beautiful cats wind up in tiny pockets of land and become victims of inbreeding and a dearth of prey.

Margays are still victims of illegal poaching. Photo by Mickey Bohnacker, Presse-Fotograf, Frankfurt/Main license CC Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

These elegant tiny predators are also victims of the cruel and unscrupulous fur trade. In 1977 at least 30,000 margay pelts surfaced in the international market. They are now protected from hunting in most of their range, but illegal poaching is still common. Big Cat Rescue reports that the outlook for this cat is very grim.

All is not lost — and you can help

The margay needs our help! Photo by Spencer Wright license CC 2.0 via Flickr

Listed as near threatened by the IUCN, some organizations are taking action to help preserve the cloud forests that these cats call home. One such place is Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda, which is working with local communities in rural Mexico to protect these forests as part of the Sierra Gorda Alliance. The alliance is helping local people to learn sustainable livelihoods and compensating landowners who are working to regenerate the forest. You can help by donating here. The International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) Canada is also dedicated to saving the world’s small wildcats and you can donate here as well.

And Costa Rica’s forest cover has greatly increased over the years, even though the poaching of trees still takes a heavy toll. The country’s law enforcement agencies are notoriously lax when it comes to poaching. Even so, the margay’s beautiful cloud forest home is increasing here, hopefully giving this cat the chance it needs to survive.

Photo by Gab 2212, license CC SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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