We Discovered a Black Oncilla

By Amaia Autor
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Montana

Melanistic oncilla

Amaia Autor is a graduate student affiliated with Panthera. She conducts research on small cats in Costa Rica with our partners at the La Huella del Tigrillo Project. Her goal has been to capture and fit elusive oncillas (one of the 33 small cat species) with GPS collars to track them and study their behavior. Read on about the incredible discovery she made: a melanistic oncilla.

Oncillas are one of the most fascinating wild cat species in the world. The smallest small cat species in Central America, they inhabit the dense tropical rainforests of Costa Rica. Much smaller than their larger cousins like jaguars and pumas, they scour the forest floor and canopy in search of food. Very little is known about these small cats within the conservation community — something I am desperately trying to change. 

Like all wild cats, oncillas are important to their ecosystems, regulating prey species populations. And like other wild cat species here in the Americas, they face several threats, including habitat fragmentation and poaching. As a wild cat researcher, I’ve made it my mission to study their behavior and draw back the curtain on the secretive life of this mysterious species. Analyzing their habits, diets and movement patterns will aid in their conservation. To do that, I am fitting oncillas with GPS tracking collars which will provide myself and my colleagues with much-needed information about these cats’ movements. There’s only one major challenge — oncillas are excessively difficult to find and capture.

An oncilla with normal pigmentation
An oncilla with normal pigmentation.

Finding the Black Cat

That is, until that fateful day of March 21, 2023. For four long months, we had been waking up early and setting cage traps, with no luck to be found. Just when it seemed that our hard work might not pay off, our radio transmitter started to beep very quickly. The team jumped up and raced to one of the sites where we had left our traps. There he was staring back at me — the most beautiful animal that I had ever seen. 

The oncilla’s yellow eyes were piercing, sending chills of excitement down my spine. I was elated. Not only did we finally encounter an oncilla after months of searching, but we had captured a rare color variant of oncilla — the oncilla was melanistic, meaning that it had a black pigmentation. The black fur went down to its lower legs, where it abruptly transitioned into patches of grey. Due to his unique appearance, we gave the cat the name “Calcetines”, which means “socks” in English.

An encounter with another melanistic oncilla named sigiloso.

The Community Responds to Our Good News 

The nearby community took part in our celebration. I live in the same neighborhood as a local guide, one of our field assistants. When we told his family the news, they matched our excitement. His wife began preparing food for our return journey to the jungle, and his grandchildren begged for photos of Calcetines upon our return! 

When we came back with photos, his grandchildren once again celebrated by our side. Once we fitted Calcetines with his collar and released him back into the dense jungle, it took a long time to locate his signal and download the data. However, when we were able to access these data, points began to appear on a map — we could see all of Calcetines’ movements throughout the forested, tropical landscape. One of the grandchildren joined us in jumping up and down in triumph as we tracked Calicetines’ movements across our software. This was truly wild cat conservation in motion!

Oncilla walking in forest
We need all the helping hands we can get in order to protect jaguars, pumas, ocelots, jaguarundis, margays and oncillas of Central America.

To protect the wild cats of the Americas, all people need to be involved in wildlife conservation. There is power in a community that backs cat conservation. We need all the helping hands we can get in order to protect jaguars, pumas, ocelots, jaguarundis, margays and oncillas of Central America threatened by habitat fragmentation, poaching and human-cat conflict. We hope everyone joins us in supporting wild cat conservation and “walks” a day in Calcetines’ socks! 

Learn more about Panthera Costa Rica.