The ocelot is larger than a housecat but smaller than a bobcat. They are nocturnal hunters, most active at dusk and dawn. Excellent night vision and sensitive whiskers help them navigate even in total darkness. Though they hunt mostly on the ground, they will climb trees in pursuit of monkeys and birds and forage at the water’s edge for fish and crustaceans. As ambush hunters, they will wait, silent and motionless, for up to an hour for prey to move within range. They then pounce, using sharp claws to grab and hold the quarry while delivering a fatal bite to the neck. Ocelots may cache extra food by covering it with leaves and soil and return to feed over a number of nights.
Ocelots are excellent swimmers and powerful climbers. They often rest in trees or in brush during the day, the stripes and spots of their fur providing camouflage. Like most cats, ocelots are solitary, and as with other small cats, they cannot roar, but purr, hiss, snarl, and growl. Females can give birth every two years. After a gestation of two and a half months, one to three kittens are born in a den (e.g., hollow tree or thorny thicket). The mother raises them alone. At about two months of age, the kittens start accompanying her on hunts, following the white spots on the back of her ears. Kittens are independent by two years.
The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife considers the ocelot population found in the U.S. to be Critically Endangered, as fewer than 50 individuals remain, all in the extreme south of Texas. Wild populations are decreasing due to habitat loss and fragmentation, retaliatory deaths from poultry farmers, and illegal hunting for fur and the pet trade. The subspecies of ocelot we house at the Zoo, Leopardus pardalis mitis, is native to Brazil and classified as Least Concern.
Ocelots are listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife considers them Endangered. Ocelots at the L.A. Zoo are part of a Species Survival Plan. Wild populations are decreasing due to habitat loss, deaths related to predator control of other species, and the fur and pet trades. Boas, anacondas, harpy eagles, pumas, and jaguars are their natural predators.
Ocelots are found in south Texas, Mexico, Central America, and South America. They inhabit dense thorn scrub, woodlands, and forests.
Ocelots eat small mammals including agoutis, pacas, mice, rats, sloths, monkeys, and tamanduas. Birds, fish, snakes, lizards, and land crabs also form part of their diet.
Adult males weigh between 15 and 35 pounds, with a body length of 26–38 inches, and a 10–17-inch-long tail. Adult females are 5 to 10 percent smaller. Lifespan is up to 10 years in the wild, but they have been known to live 20 years in human care.