One glance tells you this wild cat’s fur mimics his dappled forest habitat. Amazingly, he can mimic on another level, too.
The margay (Leopardus wiedii) is a nocturnal feline of Central and South America that looks like a small ocelot. Longer and lighter weight than a pampered house cat, he weighs 5.7-8.8 pounds and is 32-51 inches long (including his long tail!).
The margay lives in trees in the tropical forest and rarely comes to the ground because he doesn’t need to. He’s so well adapted to climbing that his ankles rotate 180 degrees so he can walk down trees head first. He can also leap 12 feet straight up to capture small mammals, birds, lizards and tree frogs.
In Brazil one mammal on the margay’s menu is the pied tamarin (Saguinus bicolor), a small primate the size of a squirrel.
Native Amazonians have long known that the margay can mimic the sound of this monkey, but it wasn’t recently that the rest of the world found out.
In 2005 researchers watched a group of eight pied tamarins feeding high in a ficus tree when a margay, hidden in dense liana vines, tried to lure them by mimicking the call of a tamarin pup. A tamarin “sentinel” climbed down to investigate the noise, then started to warn the rest of the group, but four other tamarins were so confounded by the baby tamarin sound that they too climbed down to see. At that moment, the margay emerged from the foliage, walking head first down the trunk, and jumped toward the monkeys. Realizing the ruse, the sentinel screamed an alarm and all the tamarins fled. (*)
The Wildlife Conservation Society reported this incident in 2010, the first recorded instance of a wild cat species in the Americas mimicking the calls of its prey.
Pied tamarins are endangered and the margay is “near threatened.” Large primates (humans) have killed the margay for its fur and the pied tamarin for food. We’re lucky to have heard of this mimickry trick before it disappeared.
Read more about it here in Science Daily.
(Margay photo from iStockphoto/Jeff Grabert via Science Daily. Pied tamarin photo from Wikimedia Commons/Whaldener Endo, Creative Commons license. Click on the images to see their originals.)