Long Live the Ocelot King: Evaluating Costa Rican Ocelot Populations

By Roberto Salom-Pérez, Ph.D.
Latin America Director

Ocelot camera trap 5

This blog from Panthera Costa Rica and Mesoamerica Director Roberto Salom Pérez examines one of the most iconic small cats in the world — the ocelot. Learn about his recent study examining their population status and connectivity across Costa Rica and find out more about how dogs are integral in this work. Discover why these ocelot “kings” need their forest realm to survive! 

Adorned with a beautiful yellow coat with irregular black spots, big front paws and a relatively short tail, ocelots are the biggest of the small cats in the Neotropics. Ocelots are usually the most abundant wild cat in the places where they occur, from the southern United States to northern Argentina. In some places, researchers have found that their presence can limit the population of other small cat species; this has been called the “ocelot effect”. Therefore, you could say that the ocelot is the “king” of the small cats in the Americas. 

Ocelot 1

Our king rules in areas with good forest cover, but can sometimes extend its realm to less pristine areas (e.g., crops and pasture lands), provided that there are forest patches and enough prey. This “habitat plasticity” allows ocelots to use areas where their larger cousins, the puma and the jaguar, are absent.  

While ocelots have been one of the most studied Neotropical cats, genetic investigations that focus on free-ranging populations in Mesoamerica are limited, and most of them have been based on small sample sizes. To start filling this gap, we wanted to assess the population status of this species in Costa Rica by evaluating their genetic diversity and finding out if they were connected across the country. But, why should a king worry about these apparent trivial matters, you may ask. I’ll tell you why — a reduction in genetic diversity and the isolation of populations may decrease the long-term survival of a species by reducing its ability to adapt to environmental changes (e.g., climate change) or human-related threats (e.g., poaching, deforestation, diseases).  

Ocelot 2

As with all wild cat species, ocelots are very secretive and difficult to see in the field. So, how on earth do you obtain enough genetic material to be able to evaluate how they are doing? We gathered samples from museum specimens, captive individuals or roadkills. As an interesting side note, Panthera, along with the Wildlife Friendly Roads group (VAVS; Spanish), has found that ocelots are the most frequently roadkilled wild cat of the six species present. But, then again, these samples were not enough, so we had to appeal for the help of one of our four-legged staff members at the time, our scat detecting dog. He was trained to find scats of all six wild cat species in the country and his name was “Google”, as he was the “ultimate search engine”. Google´s nose increased our chances to find scats immensely. Sadly, he passed away due to an aggressive cancer. Now his shoes — or, shall I say, his paws —are being filled by “Tigre”, a tireless yellow Labrador. We collected feces found by Google and Tigre and extracted ocelot DNA from the epithelial cells of the colon wall attached to the scat samples. Cool, isn´t it? 

After the lab analysis, we found that ocelot populations in Costa Rica have a relatively high genetic diversity and are well connected, which suggests that there are no strong barriers to their movement. We also found that Costa Rica’s ocelots have greater genetic diversity when compared to jaguars and pumas. This finding is unsurprising, considering the ocelot’s flexibility in the use of habitats, its reliance on smaller prey and its higher population densities when compared to these larger cats.  

Ocelot 3

We were also able to determine that ocelots in Costa Rica had a higher diversity than ocelots in Belize, corroborating the south to north gradient in genetic diversity reported in other ocelot and jaguar studies. In simple terms, the “older” the population, the more time it has to diversify genetically. Wait, isn´t it true that ocelots and jaguars originated from ancestors that came from the Bering Strait into North America? Yes, this is true, but what is also true is that both species colonized South America and were separated during the last glacial period from their North American relatives, whom eventually became extinct. After the ice melted down and North and South America were connected again, the now older ocelot and jaguar populations from the south recolonized the north. There´s your history in a nutshell. 

Investigations such as this are critical in properly informing management decisions of ocelots and other species, guaranteeing its long-term survival in the wild. Ocelots are able to use fragmented habitats, but they will always need forested areas. Other species like jaguars and pumas are even more sensitive and require larger and more intact habitats. We cannot afford to lose these beautiful and important species. We must continue to defend their forest kingdom. Join Panthera and its partners in this vital task, and shout it out with me: Long live the ocelot king! 

You can take a look at the scientific publication here

Ocelot 4

*This study was made in collaboration with partners from University of Idaho, CATIE University, American Museum of Natural History, City University of New York and Universidad de Costa Rica. 

**Google was trained by Hablemos de Perros. Tigre was trained by Working Dogs for Conservation with funding from IFC. 

***Thanks to all the governmental, NGOs, private landowners and other partners that collaborated with us for this project. 

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