Pint-Sized Leopards Appear to Be Returning to Texas

Wildlife biologists in December trapped an ocelot kitten at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, just east of Rio Hondo according to officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). 

“The kitten was first discovered in early March in trail camera photos taken in mid-February. At the time, biologists could not be certain of the kitten’s gender, but trapping it allowed them to check the gender and re- evaluate its age. Ocelot biologist, Hilary Swarts, can now confirm that the kitten is approximately 10-12 months old, and is a healthy female. She was fitted with a small radio collar and her movements will be tracked as part of the ongoing monitoring of ocelots in and around the refuge. So far, monitoring indicates that she has remained in the general area where she was photographed and trapped.”



Service officials reported of the twelve identified ocelots at the refuge, the discovery of this kitten brings the number of females to five. 

“The other four females are of breeding age. Therefore, biologists are hopeful the population will continue to increase over the next several years. Planning is underway to bring an adult female ocelot from Mexico to the refuge within the next year. Wildlife biologists are also continuing to increase habitat for ocelots by planting native thornscrub seedlings on land formerly cleared for agriculture. In the event that ocelots leave the refuge in search of habitat or mates, FM106 is soon to undergo major construction which will include 8 wildlife crossings. These crossings, or underpasses, will allow ocelots and other wildlife to safely cross under roads and prevent deaths from vehicles, as well as protect the safety of drivers.”

The illegal trade in ocelot hide still impacts the species throughout the Americas.

Ocelots have an interesting history in Texas as does another close cousin of theirs. Let’s take a look a profile of the ocelot and the margay to broaden our understanding of these unique species.

Species: Ocelot (Leopardus paradalis)

Size: Adults range from 20-40 pounds with females being 10-20 percent smaller than males.

Description: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) officials who are intimately involved in all ocelot studies in Texas note the ocelot has a graceful body that may be up to four feet long, including the tail. Varying in color from pale to dark tawny hues, the ocelot’s coat has brown spots with black borders that are elongated, like chain links, and follow downward sweeping lines. A black line above each eye extends to the back of the head. 

Status: Endangered in Texas. Common in other parts of their range.

Range: Ocelots range from southern Texas into the interior of the South America rainforest.

Notes: Service officials claim fewer than 100 ocelots exists in south Texas at Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, both near Alamo; Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge near Brownsville; and on a private ranch several miles away.  The species has also been known to occur in Arizona. Listed in 1982 as endangered, the ocelot is protected by the Endangered Species Act. 


Ocelots were once valued for their coats and this brought the demise of hundreds of thousands of them. They were also once favored as a pet in fact there were clubs dedicated to their captive rearing including the Long Island Ocelot Club which still exists today and now focuses on other species such as servals.

Species: Margay (Leopardus weidii)

Other Common Names: Tree ocelot

Size: Margays average 6 to 8 pound with a typical body length of 20 to 30 inches. With tail the length averages 36 to 50 inches.

Description: Margays have light to medium brown fur marked with numerous rows of black or dark brown rosettes and streaks. The belly is a pale brown and tail features a black tip and numerous black or dark brown bands. 

Status: No verified sightings in Texas in more than 100 years.

Range: According to officials with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, it is known from Texas only on the basis of one specimen taken at Eagle Pass by Col. S. Cooper over 100 years ago. Remains of this species were found in Pleistocene deposits along the Sabine River in Orange County, indicating the Margay ranged over a considerable portion of South Texas a few thousand years ago. 

Notes: Unlike the similar ocelot the margay is very adept at climbing and hunting in trees. A primary nocturnal predator they have been observed hunting during daylight hours. They have also been observed using some very unusual hunting methods. Margays were recently found mimicking the sounds of small monkey species to lure them in.

Most likely the margay no longer exists in South Texas but occasionally people mistake ocelots of bobcats. That can get hunters in trouble and about a decade ago we ran a news story of a bowhunter who shot an ocelot thinking it was a bobcat.

Hunters should note that ocelots have longer tails and a different spot pattern than bobcats. Bobcats can however have longer tails than some might expect. The best rule is you absolutely can’t tell if it is a bobcat or an ocelot pass on shooting it, especially if you hunt in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and anywhere near the aforementioned refuges.

They are federally endangered species and shooting one comes with a high price. Plus, we need to make sure and conserve this magnificent species that makes the wild lands of Texas much more exciting and certainly more beautiful.

—story by Chester Moore


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