The Andean mountain cat (Leopardus jacobita) is arguably one of the least understood cats in South America and probably for a very good reason. One is not lucky enough to find such species in the wild and we only come to know from a few museum skins and skulls. The Andean mountain cat might have been ascended from ocelot lineage. It is believed to have diverged from ocelots some 5.3 million years ago. The cat is a very close relative of kodkod.
Andean Mountain Cat
- The head-and-body length of Andean cat is 57.7 to 85 cm (22.7 to 33.5 in) along with a 41.3 to 48.5 cm (16.3 to 19.1 in) long bushy tail. The cat is 36 cm (14 in) high at the shoulder and weighs up to 5.5 kg (12 lb).
- The Andean mountain cat often reminds us of a large house cat with a long dense fur.
- There are unique lines at the sides of the Andean cat’s eyes. The tip of ears are rounded. They have a black nose.
- The cat’s coat is pale silvery grey with some blackish or brownish markings on it. It has a fairly soft coat with the length of 40 mm on the back and 35 mm on its tail.
- The underparts are white but they are covered with dark spots.
- From far off sometimes it gives a look of a young snow leopard for the Andean cat has a long bushy tail (like snow leopard) along with seven dark rings. Both these species live in mountains.
“In general coloration and coat, these specimens are reminiscent of the Snow Leopard (Uncia),” wrote the taxonomist R. I. Pocock in 1941.
- The Andean mountain cat is rarely found in the wild for it has a limited distribution. If you’re lucky enough to spot one you may find it in the high Andes of southern Peru, northeastern Chile, northern Argentina, and southwestern Bolivia.
- Taxonomists believe that the cat’s distribution might have coincided with chinchilla (critically endangered rodent) and for the fact chinchilla was hunted for its fur (at the beginning of 20th century), Andean mountain cat could have been killed for the same reason.
- The Andean mountain cat is most likely to be found in the barren rocky places of the Andes. Scientists have obtained many mountain cats’ specimen at a height of 3,000 meters some of which are collected at 5,100 meters (in Peru).
- This shows that cat lives at elevated regions being dominated by barren expanse of rocks having very little bushes or scattered clumps of grass.
- Unique among the specimen was the one found at a height of 4,250 meters in the mountainous plateau, altiplano in Argentina. The habitat climate at that height was below 0o C. There were some permanent and ephemeral lakes too. The area receives very little rain and during summer the moisture falls as snow.
- The mountain cat’s habitat is not always without vegetation. There is some scattered green vegetation that is composed of cushion plants, little flowering plants, cold-hardy grasses, and a few isolated shrubs. Such vegetation sustains the prey of Andean cats.
Feeding Ecology and Diet
- There is not much known about the feeding behavior of Andean mountain cats. It is likely to feed on small birds, mammals, and even lizards.
- The Andean mountain cats of the altiplano mountain will fancy their chances to feed on a wide variety of live animal prey. Here they will consume hairy armadillos, many rodent species, rabbits, and mountain viscacias. The Andean cats rely almost exclusively on viscacia (Lagidium viscacia) which makes up 94% of cat’s diet.
- They supplement their diet with some ground-dwelling birds including earth creepers, geese, ducks, seed snipes, and few wading birds.
No single Andean mountain cat is raised in captivity as a result of which there is no information on its litter size, growth, lifespan, and the development of young.
Conservation Status in the Wild
- There are many fur markets in Buenos Aires where one can find some fresh skins of the Andean mountain cat. This is the only way we know that the cat has not gone extinct.
- One other difficulty in spotting a cat is that it lives in isolated habitats—habitats that are separated by human valleys.
- Although the cat is too rare to hunt yet some natives know precisely where these animals are found and they hunt cats for its beautiful fur.
- The Andean mountain cat is protected from illegal commercial hunting in Peru and Chile.
- The cat is listed as endangered species by IUCN.