Zoo Tales: Ocelots Latest Zoo Arrival
BY TOM GILLESPIE
Special to The Pilot
They're called New World cats - about twice the size of the average domestic version and the most endangered of them all.
Most people would have trouble even knowing their names. They're ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), two of which have recently replaced aging members of the species in the North Carolina Zoo's animal collection.
Although the ocelot resembles a domestic cat in body shape, its fur resembles that of a jaguar and was once regarded as particularly valuable for human clothing. As a result, hundreds of thousands of ocelots were killed for their furs - even though it has been illegal for more than 30 years to bring ocelot furs into the United States and many other countries. Until 1996, ocelots had been classified as a "vulnerable" species.
Ocelot populations are now making a comeback due to extraordinary conservation measures, but their continued presence in the United States is questionable. Here, they are often killed by domestic dogs or shot by ranchers. They're also frequently killed by cars along highways, and, like so many other species, they're dying out as human encroachment destroys their natural habitats.
In the wild, they range from Argentina in South America, through Central America north to Mexico and the Desert Southwest into the Rio Grande Valley. They've even been reported in the Caribbean. In the United States, where they're also know as the painted leopard and McKenney's wildcat, they're only found regularly in the extreme southern part of Texas, although there are rare sightings in southern Arizona.
Their name is as varied as their range: They're known by jaguatirica in Brazil, jaguarete in Paraguay and Argentina, tigrillo in Ecuador and Colombia, cunaguaro in Venezuela, or manigordo in Costa Rica and Panama.
Because ocelots prefer to live in areas with thick vegetation, such as dense chaparral or tropical rain forests and are active primarily at night, it has been hard for zoologists to study them.
The zoo's two new arrivals are a male named Diego, age 6, and a female named Inca, 5, who came from the San Francisco Zoo. The two will replace the zoo's older pair, a 13-year-old female and an 18-year-old male, who have both been retired to an off-exhibit area at the zoo. In the wild, ocelots typically live 10-12 years.
Ocelots are primarily nocturnal and are extremely territorial. They will fight fiercely, sometimes to the death, in territorial disputes. Like domestic cats, they mark their territory with especially pungent urine. And like most other cats in the wild, they are solitary, usually meeting only to mate. During the day, they rest in trees or other dense foliage and will sometimes share their spots with other ocelots of the same sex.
While hunting for food, an ocelot can cover a range of nearly seven square miles, taking mostly prey smaller than itself, such as various rodents, fish, birds, amphibians and small mammals. Rodents, rabbits and opossums form the bulk of the ocelot's diet. Studies have shown that an ocelot follows and finds prey via odor trails; however, the ocelot also has excellent vision - particularly night vision, helped, in part, by a special layer on the inside of the eye that collects light.
Zoo visitors can daily see the new ocelots at the park's Sonora Desert exhibit.
Tom Gillespie works for the public affairs office of the N.C. Zoo.
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