Spotlight: Panama's Wild Cats

1,863Views 0Comments Posted 04/05/2024

Are you a cat person? 

Panama is home to six main wild cat species, some of which you may be familiar with, and others, shrouded in mystery.  In their genes, they are not so different from our beloved cats at home, but unlike our plump couch kitties, Panama’s wild cats are often in conflict with humans and are at great risk of losing their homes.

From left to right: Jaguar, Cougar, Oncilla


One of the most recognizable, and notably the largest of all big cats in the Americas.  They are found between Central and South America in rainforests, swampy wooded areas, and also arid habitats.  Jaguars love to swim and often fish for their supper.  They are a solitary ambush predator, and while their dark rosettes on tan-colored coat provide the perfect camouflage, some jaguars have been found to be all black.  Human conflict remains their biggest threat.  In Panama, jaguars have been known to roam La Amistad National Park and the Darien, although they are very difficult to find.


Cougar (Puma, Panther, Mountain Lion, Catamount)

A common big wild cat found from the Canadian Yukon to the South American Andes in a wide variety of habitats.  Cougars are the closest relative to our beloved house cats, but please don’t attempt to bring one inside.  Cougars that live closest to the equator are smaller than those who live closer to the poles.  These tan-colored cats are nocturnal, solitary and formidable ambush predators.  Although the cougar is widespread throughout the Americas, their population is on a steep decline due to human conflict and loss of habitat.


Oncilla (Tigrillo)

A small wild cat shrouded in mystery; not much is known about the oncilla and populations are considered vulnerable, being few and far between.  In looks, the oncilla may often be confused for the ocelot or the margay, but they are smaller in size.  The oncilla will climb trees to hunt for prey, or spend time lounging in the treetops in the day.  This small cat is considered nocturnal and an ambush predator.


From left to right: Ocelot, Margay, Jaguarundi

Ocelot (Painted Leopard)

This well-known, medium-sized wild cat can be found in parts of Central and South America, with its preferred habitat being mangroves, tropical forests, savanna or thorn forests.  It has often been confused for a margay, but ocelots are larger in size.  There are 10 subspecies of ocelots and they are known for their solid black spots and streaks on a tan-colored coat.  Ocelots are solitary, very territorial and only hunt in the nocturnal hours.  Their populations are at risk from human conflict and loss of habitat.



Margays are similar to ocelots in appearance, but are smaller and prefer to dwell in trees.  These beautiful small cats are nocturnal, solitary and prefer the evergreen and deciduous forest habitats of Central and South America.  The anatomy of the Margay is perfectly suited for tree life, having the proper ankle flexibility necessary to climb head first down trees.  The margay’s status is near threatened, as they are losing their habitat to development, farming and forest fires.


Jaguarundi (Little Otter Cat)

Last but not least, the Jaguarundi is a fascinating, small wild cat found in the Central and South American regions, thriving in lowland brush areas with a flowing water source.  They can also be found at higher elevations.  Jaguarundis have a spotless, uniform coat that can range from grey to red in color.  There are eight subspecies.  This social cat can often be found in pairs, vocalizing or hunting together.  The jaguarundi has been known to fish for its prey and enjoys the water.  They are considered diurnal (active during the day), extremely shy, and very good climbers.  


Do you have a favorite wild cat?