Small Cat Spotlight: Ocelot

By Wai-Ming Wong, Ph.D.
Director, Small Cat Conservation Science

Ocelot 1

This is the fifth installment in our series meant to shine a light on the 33 species of small wild cats found around the globe. You can read our first blog on the flat-headed cat here, our second installment featuring the fishing cat here, our third blog about the jaguarundi here and our last one spotlighting the serval here.

The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) is one of the largest small wild cats found in the Americas. They are recognized by their stocky build and soft, beautiful fur coats. They co-occur with a large number of wild felids throughout their range, from apex predators like jaguars and pumas, to other small wild cats such as jaguarundis, oncillas, and pampas cats. Ocelot populations are decreasing due to habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as persecution related to conflict with humans and small livestock predation. 

As predators, ocelots play a role in keeping prey populations like small and medium-sized rodents in check and ensuring healthy forest regeneration. By studying ocelot movement and density in Panthera’s research base in the northern Brazilian Pantanal, we can better understand how ocelots respond to seasonal changes in habitat and resource availability, other felid species, and human activity and land use.


Closely related to and somewhat resembling other Latin American wildcats including the oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) and the margay (Leopardus wiedii), the ocelot is the largest of the trio. They are robust in shape with thick limbs and a relatively short tail. Ocelots have blocky muzzles and black rounded ears with white spots. Their fur ranges from various shades of tan, beige and yellow overlaid with dark spots, stripes and blotches.

Ocelot range map

Distribution and Habitat:

The ocelot’s wide range stretches from northern Mexico down to Argentina, with a few isolated populations in the United States. They have been known to live in a wide variety of habitats including savanna grasslands, woodlands, mangroves and swamps and various types of dense forests. Ocelots have also been spotted in more open habitats such as pasture and grasslands during their hunting excursions.

Ecology and Behavior:

Often nocturnal hunters, the ocelot’s strong forepaws and skull allow it to prey on bigger species such as sloths, monkeys, peccaries and deer. However, these small cats are known to eat a wide variety of prey including small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and crustaceans. Despite being observed climbing trees, most hunting is done on the ground.

Ocelots are also known to be strong swimmers and have been observed not only foraging in shallow waters but also crossing deeper rivers. Like most wild cats, ocelots are mainly solitary with males having larger home ranges than females. Their main predators are larger wild cats (jaguars and pumas) and dogs but they are also susceptible to harm from anacondas, caimans and large eagles.

Ocelot 2

Status and Threats:

While considered secure across much of its range, ocelots are facing rising threats including range loss. This small cat relies on dense habitat and as that habitat disappears, so too does their home range and prey availability. The low reproductive potential of the ocelot makes it that much more susceptible to increasing human threats like habitat destruction and illegal hunting. 

Hunting of ocelots has been officially prohibited for a number of decades, yet it is still relatively widespread for recreation and for domestic and international trade. These small cats have occasionally been known to prey upon livestock and have been targeted for retaliatory killings. Additionally, ocelots are thought to be the most likely small cat to be hit by cars in Mesoamerica.

Panthera’s Work:

Like most small cat species, we don’t have enough information to adequately determine the conservation status and needs of ocelots. Conservation research is needed to gain a greater understanding of their population size, distribution and trends. Ocelots occupy various of our study sites including the Brazilian Pantanal and Costa Rica and is considered a priority species in our regional plans, especially in South America.

Panthera’s research base in the northern Brazilian Pantanal offers a unique opportunity to study ocelot ecology and behavior in a multi-use landscape. We’re examining how ocelots navigate a highly seasonal landscape, interact with other species and respond to human activity. We expect to gain important insights into little-known aspects of ocelot behavior through our detailed data collection, ranging from collars to video camera traps.

We are studying ocelot population genetics throughout Mesoamerica to evaluate population connectivity and better understand potential barriers and how to mitigate them. Panthera is also studying how wild cats — and especially small cat species — interact with each other. For example, the ocelot is known to dominate other small cat species such as the jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi), margay and oncillas (something we call the “ocelot effect.”)


Learn more about Panthera’s Small Cats Program.