The Differences Between Ocelots, Margays and Oncillas

By Panthera

An ocelot

At Panthera, we know that it can be difficult to keep track of the 33 species of small wild cats. If you’re not a scientist or ranger, it can be hard to decipher the sometimes-subtle differences between the cat species that range over five of the world’s seven continents: Asia, Africa, South America, North America and Europe. This can be especially challenging when these cats inhabit the same territory. However, in the tropical forests of Latin America, Panthera has you covered. If you’re having trouble figuring out whether the cat you just saw is an ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), margay (Leopardus wiedii) or oncilla/southern tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus/Leopardus guttulus), make sure to read on!

a margay on the prowl in costa rica.

The New Look

Maybe you’re scrolling social media, watching TV or sightseeing on vacation and you see a small, striped, spotted small cat walk past. What cat was that? You may think it’s an ocelot, but then remember that there are other cats that look just like it. Look is likely the main source of confusion when identifying ocelots, margays and oncillas. Thankfully, there are slight differences that we can identify to tell them apart. 

The most obvious difference is size. Ocelots are undoubtedly the largest of the three cats, with margays in second and oncillas being the smallest. In fact, ocelot males can weigh up to 18.6 kg or 41 lbs and have a length of 101.5 cm or 40 in, while oncilla males top out at a mere 3.8 kg or 8.38 lbs and have a max length of 59.1 cm or 20.4 in. The latter two are not as well-built as the ocelot, a trait which allows ocelots to hunt larger prey (which sometimes includes both margays and oncillas on the menu!). Their size plays a factor in where they hunt — ocelots are more likely to hunt on the ground than margays, who prefer the trees. 

Other subtle differences include markings on their fur and eye size. Margays are more richly adorned with spots than oncillas and have larger eyes than both ocelots and oncillas, allowing scientists to more easily tell them apart. Tail size also plays a role — margays have longer tails than both oncillas and ocelots, allowing them to hunt in the trees. Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who may not be able to recognize these subtle contrasts. Scientists admit that telling the difference between ocelot, margay and oncilla kittens is exceptionally difficult.

Oncilla 1
the smallest of the three, an oncilla. see the subtle differences?

Where Do They Live?

Another potential source of confusion comes from where all three of these cats live. Over much of their ranges, ocelots, margays and oncillas share the same territory (along with their larger cousins, the jaguar and the puma). Margays and ocelots inhabit nearly identical ranges from Mexico to Argentina (ocelots have small, isolated populations in the United States, too). Oncillas inhabit much of the southern half of the Mesoamerican range and have disjointed populations in Costa Rica and Panama.  

It’s important to note that the oncilla was split into two distinct species: the oncilla and the southern tiger cat. Scientists made this distinction after observing that the northern and southern populations did not mate with one another. Additionally, the population of oncillas living in Costa Rica and northern Panama is geographically isolated from populations of both northern and southern oncillas in South America and may potentially represent another subspecies or even new species. 

While it’s easy to get confused, if you’re viewing a picture of a small spotted wild cat from Mexico, Honduras or Belize, it will be easier to tell which cat is which — you can exclude oncillas, since their populations don’t inhabit these areas. After that, let your eyes guide you to figure out body size, tail size and markings.

An oncilla.
an oncilla.

A Conservation Trio

While ocelots, margays and oncillas may have several differences, their large amount of territorial overlap makes their shared conservation convenient for researchers and rangers. Though all three have different IUCN Red List designations –– oncillas are listed as Vulnerable, margays as Near Threatened and ocelots as Least Concern –– they share many of the same threats. Since all three of these cats live in forests, habitat fragmentation and deforestation are a major concern, in addition to illegal hunting for their furs. Because of the habitat these cats inhabit and their relatively small size, it is difficult to design comprehensive conservation plans for them. To bridge that knowledge, Panthera conducts research on the three species in Costa Rica, Brazil, and Colombia.

Ocelot in Brazil 2
an ocelot.
©nick garbutt

Leopardus Ubiquitous?

Though it might be hard to tell them apart, it’s very important to correctly identify the differences between ocelots, margays and oncillas, as each species has their own specific conservation requirements. To address their conservation needs, scientists need to know the intricacies of the spots and stripes, as well as their size and range distribution. I hope you learned how to tell the difference between these amazing species. Don’t forget to share this with a friend! 

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