Ocelot, Leopardus pardalis


Ocelot (Photo: Nova Mackentley)

Ocelot (Photo: Nova Mackentley)

The ocelot is the best-known small cat of the Americas, largely because of the beauty of its coat. Its pelage is short and close (less plush than the similarly patterned but smaller margay) and marked with both rosettes and spots that tend to run in parallel chains along the sides of the body.


Ocelots occupy a wide spectrum of habitats, including mangrove forests and coastal marshes, savanna grasslands and pastures, thorn scrub and tropical forests of all types (primary, secondary, evergreen, seasonal and montane). Preferred habitats typically are found at elevations below 3,937 feet (1,200 m). The determining factor appears to be the availability of sufficient amounts of dense vegetative cover. It has been suggested that ocelot micro-distribution is more patchy than would be expected by its wide geographical range, strong populations being dependent upon an abundant rodent prey base and good ground cover.


Ocelots are found in every country south of the United States except Chile; its presence was only recently confirmed in western Uruguay. At the northern end of its range, two significant ocelot populations are believed to persist in the southeastern corner of Texas. Ocelots have been extirpated from Arkansas, Louisiana, eastern Texas and Arizona, although individuals may still occasionally cross into Arizona from Mexico.

Range map:



Terrestrial nocturnal rodents are the mainstays of the ocelot’s diet, but other small mammals such as opossums and armadillos also are taken. When taking larger species, they usually target juveniles in the case of brocket deer, lesser anteaters, squirrel monkeys, pacas and agoutis. Other types of prey include young land tortoises, iguanas and, during seasonal flooding, spawning fish and land crabs. Overall, researchers consistently find their diet to be comprised of 65% small rodents, 18% reptiles (mostly iguanas), 7% crustaceans and fish, 6% medium-sized mammals and 4% birds.  In some habitats, bats and arboreal mammals replace some of the reptiles.

Social Structure:

Ocelots are solitary hunters that occupy a territory exclusive of other individuals. They probably breed year-around. In Texas, an autumn peak has been noted; in Paraguay, the reproductive peak is from October to January. After an estrus cycle lasting four to five days and a gestation of 79 to 85 days, a small litter of one to two cubs is born. The young are not independent until a year old. Females are mature when 18 to 22 months old; males mature at 2.5 years. In the wild, ocelots have a lifespan of about 7 to 10 years; in captivity a few exceed 20 years.


Though it can climb trees and even swim well, the ocelot spends most of its time hunting on the ground, as long as the habitat provides thick plant cover and abundant prey. Like most other small cats, the ocelot is a nocturnal hunter. With whiskers, large ears, and eyesight six times better than a human’s, the ocelot has no trouble tracking down prey as it patrols the forest floor at night.

Threats to Survival:

With the cessation of trapping for the fur trade, habitat change is the biggest threat to ocelots today.  Although they may be found in an incredible number of different habitats, including those that are disturbed or near human habitation, their long gestation and low litter size makes recovery from population declines much slower than for other similar-sized felids such as the bobcat. Also, their favored prey, small rodents, are much smaller in body size than that of other similar-sized felids, forcing them to hunt more aggressively and for longer periods of time in order to raise their few young. In this time of legal protection, they still suffer from a basic biological strategy that provides little support in areas where prey is scarce.

Legal Status:

The IUCN lists the ocelot as Least Concern. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists ocelots as Endangered. They are listed on CITES Appendix I. Ocelots are protected by national legislation over most of their range.  However, Peru allows hunting, and Ecuador, El Salvador and Guyana offer no protection.

Zoo Programs:

A regional studbook is present for ocelots maintained in North America, with a target population of its Species Survival Plan (SSP) of 150 individuals. In 2001, when the SSP was begun, most of the ocelots within the SSP were of unknown or hybrid ancestry, referred to as generic and managed as an exhibit and education population.

Ocelot Kittens (Photo: Cincinnati Zoo)

Ocelot Kittens (Photo: Cincinnati Zoo)

The SSP also targeted the Brazilian ocelot, Leopardus pardalis mitis, as a known subspecies for zoos to attempt to import and to be managed separately from the generic ocelot population. Both the generic and Brazilian populations are managed for maximum breeding in order to grow the Brazilian population as well as to sustain sufficient animals for exhibition. Efforts continue to import additional founder pairs of Brazilian ocelots through the SSP’s Brazilian Ocelot Consortium, a bi-national agreement which provides funding and resources to Brazilian non-governmental organizations involved with research conservation and education.

Zoo scientists continue to develop innovative reproductive strategies with ocelots involving artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, sperm and embryo cryopreservation and embryo transfer. Applying these reproductive tools, healthy offspring from founder animals housed in Brazilian zoos have been produced while improving the genetic management of Brazilian ocelots currently maintained in U.S. zoos.


Ocelot SSP Coordinator:

Bill Swanson, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

Ocelot SSP Studbook:

Nanette Bragin, Denver Zoological Gardens

Ocelot SSP Education Advisor:

Shasta Bray, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden


During the early 1960’s to mid-1970’s, the ocelot was the spotted cat most heavily exploited by the fur trade.  Some estimates suggest that as many as 200,000 animals were taken annually for this purpose. A much lower number were imported for pets. With the advent of CITES, this number fell to average of 24,600 skins per year and has effectively ceased since the late 1980’s. As a result of this lack of hunting pressure, there are signs of re-colonization and recovery. At the lowest density estimates (.2 km2), there were probably 800,000 ocelots in the forested portions of South America alone. Today, true numbers are thought to be 1.5 to 3 million animals and increasing.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has had an Ocelot Recovery Team since the mid 1990’s, which is a bi-national program in conjunction with equivalent national and state government agencies of Mexico. A bi-national subcommittee of the Recovery Team is the Ocelot Translocation Working Group which is charged with researching methods and logistics for translocating ocelots from areas of abundance to areas of limited population size and genetics as well as to reintroduce to areas from which they were extirpated. A Draft Ocelot Recovery Plan was published in 2010 for public comment in the Federal Register and is expected to be published in final form in 2014.

As a result of heightened interest, a number of field studies are ongoing. These include camera

Ocelot (Photo: Dan Bodenstein)

Ocelot (Photo: Dan Bodenstein)

trapping surveys and radio tracking projects since the 1980’s in Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge as well as on private ranches in Texas. In Arizona, camera traps have documented a small number of transient ocelots arriving from Mexico. Similar tracking studies are underway in Pocone, Pantanal and Sooretama Biological Reserves, and in Carajas, and Iguacu National Park in Brazil and in Iguacu National Park in Argentina. Also ongoing are studies in Mirador State Park, Sao Luis and CVRD Forest Reserve/Linhares Biological Reserve in Brazil. In Mexico, spatial use patterns, habitat use and movements utilizing camera trap surveys and radio tracking are underway in the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve and on private ranches in the State of Tamaulipas, Mexico.


Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, www.friendsofsouthtexasrefuges.org

“Ocelot Experience”, www.dallaszoo.com/education/kids-games-and-activities/

National Geographic’s ocelot facts,  http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/ocelot/

Last Stand for U.S. Ocelots?, National Geographic article, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/140603-ocelots-cats-wildlife-recovery-habitat-loss-panther-highway/