The margay (Leopardus wiedii) is a small spotted wildcat native to the Americas, found all the way from Mexico to northern Argentina and Uruguay, including Peru and Tambopata National Reserve. It is very similar in appearance to the much larger ocelot (Leopardus pardalis). In addition to its smaller size, it can be distinguished from the ocelot by its larger eyes, smaller head and longer tail and legs.
Margays can measure between 50 and 80 centimeters in length (20 to 32 inches) and weigh from 2.5 to 4 kilograms (between 6 and 9 pounds), while the larger ocelot can measure up to one meter in length and weigh as much as 16 kilograms (35 pounds). The margay’s fur is brown and covered in dark brown or black spots, arranged in horizontal rows, while its chest and belly are a yellowish-white color.
The margay is a nocturnal feline and inhabits remote undisturbed rainforest like that found within the borders of Tambopata National Reserve. Like other felines, including the jaguar, the margay lives alone in the forest, only straying from its large individual territory in order to seek out another margay for mating.
Unlike its larger cousin the ocelot, the margay is not a ground-based cat; in fact, it is an extremely skillful tree climber, and tends to spend much of its time among the rainforest branches, where it hunts small mammals, lizards, birds and even medium-sized mammals, such as the Amazon red squirrel, agoutis and small monkeys.
Remarkably, the margay is able to turn its ankles 180 degrees, an adaptation which enables it to descend head first down the tree trunks of its preferred primary rainforest habitat. Much more agile than the ocelot, the margay can also grip tree branches with both its hind and fore paws, and it is said to be able to leap as far as 3.5 meters (almost 12 feet) horizontally. It is the margay’s agility and tree climbing ability which has led to it also being known as the “tree ocelot”.
The margay was hunted illegally until the 1990s for its fur, leading to a severe decline in numbers across its entire range, including the Tambopata river basin. More recent threats to surviving margay populations include the illegal international pet trade, habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as the so-called “ocelot effect” of its more abundant and dominant relative, and currently the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List classifies the margay as “Near Threatened” across its extensive natural range. According to the IUCN “over the next 10 years it is predicted that degradation of the Amazon by roads, hydroelectric dams, fire and deforestation will fragment and isolate remaining populations of its main strongholds”.