The ocelot is the best-known small cat of the Americas, largely because of the beauty of its coat. Its fur is short, 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 live 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. See range map
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). They prefer habitats at elevations below 3,937 feet (1,200 meter). The determining factor appears to be the availability of enough dense vegetative cover. It has been suggested that ocelot micro-distribution is more patchy than would by expected by its wide geographical range, strong populations being dependent upon an abundant rodent prey base and good ground cover.
Terrestrial nocturnal rodents are the mainstays of the ocelot's diet but can include other small mammals such as opossums and armadillos. When hunting 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 find their diet consistently comprises 65 percent small rodents, 18 percent reptiles (mostly iguanas), seven percent crustaceans and fish, six percent medium-sized mammals and four percent birds. In some habitats, bats and arboreal mammals replace some of the reptiles.
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 they are a year old. Females are mature at 18 to 22 months old; males mature at 2.5 years. In the wild, ocelots have a life span of about seven to ten years; in captivity a few exceed 20 years.
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 favorite 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.
The 2008 IUCN Red List lists the ocelot as least concern. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists ocelots as endangered. They are listed on CITES Appendix I. Ocelots are protected by national legislation over most of their range.
There is a regional studbook for ocelots maintained in North America, with a target population of its Species Survival Plan (SSP) of 150 individuals. In 2001, most of the ocelots within the SSP were of unknown or hybrid ancestry and managed as a research and education population. This has not appreciably changed in 2003. Due to its abundance in range country zoos, the SSP has also targeted the Brazilian ocelot, Leopardus pardalis mitis, as the subspecies for zoos to attempt to import as they become available. More than three pairs have been imported recently and several have begun breeding. Efforts are currently underway to import an additional ten pairs of Brazilian ocelots over the next five years.
During the early 1960s to mid-1970s, 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 for this purpose every year. 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 1980s. Because of this lack of hunting pressure, there are signs of recolonization and recovery. At the lowest density estimates (.2 per square kilometer), 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.
Thanks to heightened interest, a number of field studies in Brazil are ongoing, including radio tracking projects in Iguacu National Park (by Fernando Azevedo and Valeria Conforti) in Brazil and in Iguacu National Park (Karina Schiaffino) in Argentina. Similar tracking studies are underway in Pocone, Pantanal, and Sooretama Biological Reserves, and in Carajas, southern Amazonia (by Peter Crawshaw) in Brazil. Also ongoing are studies in Mirador State Park, Sao Luis and CVRD Fores Reserve/Linhares Biological Reserve (by de Oliveira) in Brazil. In Mexico, spatial use patterns, habitat use and movements are underway in the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, Mexico by Enrique Martinez Meyer and Carlos Lopez.