The ocelot is a member of the genus Leopardus and is classified under the family Felidae. The ocelot was first described by Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae (1758) as Felis pardalis, placing it in the genus Felis along with the domestic cat, Eurasian lynx, jaguar, leopard, lion and tiger. The name ocelot comes from the Nahuatl word ōcēlōtl (pronounced [oːˈseːloːt͡ɬ]), which usually refers to the jaguar (Panthera onca) rather than the ocelot. Another possible origin for the name is the Latin cellatus ("having little eyes" or "marked with eye like spots"), in reference to the cat's spotted coat. Other names for the ocelot include cunaguaro, manigordo, mathuntori, ocelote, onsa, pumillo, tigri-kati and tigrillo.
The following 10 subspecies are recognized (synonyms of the subspecies follow the Mammalian Species account of this species):
The phylogenetic relationships of the ocelot is considered as follows:
The ocelot is a medium-sized spotted cat, similar to the bobcat in physical proportions. The ocelot is between 55 and 100 centimetres (22 and 39 in) in head-and-body length and weighs 8–16 kilograms (18–35 lb). Larger individuals have occasionally been recorded. The thin tail, 26–45 centimetres (10–18 in) long, is ringed or striped and is shorter than the hindlimbs. The round ears are marked with a bright white spot, in contrast with the black background. The eyes are brown, and gleam golden when exposed to light. Ocelots have 28 to 30 teeth, and the dental formula is 3.1.2–188.8.131.52.1. The subspecies differ mainly in cranial measurements.
The fur is short and smooth; the back is basically creamy, tawny, yellowish, reddish grey or grey, while the neck and underside are white. The guard hairs (the hairs above the basal hairs of the back) are 1 centimetre (0.39 in) long, while the fur on the underbelly measures 0.8 centimetres (0.31 in). The coat is extensively marked with a variety of solid black markings – these vary from open or closed bands and stripes on the back, cheeks and flanks to small spots on the head and limbs. A few dark stripes run straight from the back of the neck up to the tip of the tail. A few horizontal streaks can be seen on the insides of the legs. English naturalist Richard Lydekker observed that the ocelot is "one of the most difficult members of the feline family to describe". In 1929, wildlife author Ernest Thompson Seton described the coat of the ocelot as "the most wonderful tangle of stripes, bars, chains, spots, dots and smudges...which look as though they were put on as the animal ran by." The spoor measures nearly 2 by 2 centimetres (0.79 in × 0.79 in). The ocelot can be easily confused with the margay, but differs in being twice as heavy, having a greater head-and-body length, a shorter tail, smaller eyes relative to the size of the head, and different cranial features. The similar jaguar is notably larger and heavier, and has rosettes instead of spots and stripes.
The ocelot is active around twilight (crepuscular) and at night (nocturnal), and hence difficult to observe. However, it can be seen hunting in daytime as well – especially on cloudy or rainy days. The ocelot is active for 12 to 14 hours every day, and hunting is the major activity. It rests mainly during the day and in a variety of places, such as tree branches, depressions at the base of trees or under fallen trees. Nocturnality in ocelots appears to increase in areas where they face significant hunting risk. The ocelot moves 1.8–7.6 kilometres (1.1–4.7 mi) every night, especially on certain favored trails; males appear to roam twice the distance covered by females. Ocelots in Peru were observed resting for a few hours in the midnight after their walk. Ocelots are known to swim efficiently. They can produce a long-range "yowl" in the mating season as well as short-range vocalizations like "meow"s.
Solitary animals, ocelots live singly in territories that are scent-marked by urine spraying and forming dung piles. Male territories are 3.5–46 square kilometres (1.4–17.8 sq mi) large, while those of females cover 0.8–15 square kilometres (0.31–5.79 sq mi). Ranges of females hardly overlap, whereas the territory of a male can include the territories of two to three females in oestrus. Social interaction is minimal, though a few adults have been observed together even in non-mating months, and some juveniles may interact with their parents. Ocelots also appear in high densities in Peru and Venezuela, where densities can reach 0.4–0.8 per square kilometre (1.0–2.1/sq mi). Barro Colorado Island holds the highest ocelot density recorded: 1.59–1.74 per square kilometre (4.1–4.5/sq mi). This is probably due to higher prey availability, increased protection from poaching and reduced occurrence of large predators. A study suggested that ocelot densities in an area may fall if rainfall decreases.
Carnivores, ocelots prey on small mammals, such as armadillos, opossums and rabbits, rodents, small birds, fish, insects and reptiles. According to studies, primates prevail in the diet of ocelots in southeastern Brazil, and iguanas are the main prey of Mexican ocelots. An ocelot typically preys on animals that weigh less than 1 kilogram (2.2 lb). It rarely targets large animals such as deer and peccaries. An ocelot requires 600–800 grams (21–28 oz) of food every day to satisfy its energy requirements. The composition of the diet may vary by season; in Venezuela, ocelots were found to prefer iguanas and rodents in the dry season and then switch to land crabs in the wet season. A study showed that ocelots are similar to margays and oncillas in dietary preferences, but the oncilla focuses on tree-living marsupials and birds while the margay is not as selective. Ocelots have been observed following scent trails to acquire prey. Two hunting strategies have been observed: moving at a speed as slow as 0.3 km/h (0.19 mph) on the lookout for prey, or waiting for 30 to 60 minutes at a certain place and then moving to another place, walking at a speed of 0.8–1.4 km/h (0.50–0.87 mph). They tend to eat the kill immediately; they remove the feathers before eating birds.
Ocelots may mate at any time of the year, and the time when peaks occur varies geographically – peaks have been observed during autumn and winter in Mexico and Texas, and during autumn in Argentina and Paraguay. Estrus lasts four to five days, and recurs every 25 days in a non-pregnant female. A study in southern Brazil showed that sperm production in ocelots, margays as well as oncillas peaks in summer. Observations of captive ocelots suggest that a mating pair will spend more time together; both will scent-mark extensively and may even eat less.
A litter of one to three is born after a gestational period of 79 to 82 days. Births take place in dens, usually located in dense vegetation. A newborn kitten weighs 200–340 grams (7.1–12.0 oz). A study in southern Texas showed that a mother will use two to three dens, and keep a litter in a den for 13 to 64 days. The eyes open after 15 to 18 days of birth. Kittens begin to leave the den at three months, but remain with their mother for up to two years, before dispersing to establish their own territory. In comparison to other felids, ocelots have a relatively longer duration between births and a narrow litter size. Ocelots live for up to 20 years in captivity.
The ocelot is distributed extensively over South America, including the Margarita and Trinidad islands, Central America, Mexico and a small population in southern Texas. Countries in this range are: Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, United States and Venezuela. The cat is likely extinct in Uruguay.
It inhabits tropical forest, thorn forest, mangrove swamps and savanna at elevations up to 1,200 m (3,900 ft). It prefers areas with relatively dense vegetation cover, but occasionally also hunts in more open areas at night.
The ocelot once inhabited the chaparral thickets of the Gulf Coast of south and eastern Texas, and could be found in Arizona, Louisiana, and Arkansas. In the United States, it now ranges only in several small areas of dense thicket in South Texas and is rarely sighted in Arizona. On November 7, 2009, an ocelot was photographed in the mountains of Cochise County, Arizona. This was the first such verifiable evidence of the feline's presence in the state. In February 2011, the Arizona Game and Fish Department confirmed the sighting of another ocelot in the Huachuca Mountains of southern Arizona. Most surviving Texas ocelots are in the shrublands remaining at or near the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge near Brownsville, where only 30-35 animals remain.
The remnant U.S. ocelot population in south Texas has declined from 80–120 individuals in 1995 to fewer than 50 in recent years, with about half of ocelot deaths resulting from automobile accidents. The destruction of habitat is the main threat to their survival. In addition, this animal is sought by poachers in order to market their skin, because of the aesthetic values it has. At the level of America, its main threats are loss and fragmentation of habitat, illegal trade in specimens and skins, hunting and predation retaliation for poultry species. Naturally, Ocelot is predated by jaguar, puma, and harpy eagle boa.
In Trinidad, habitat fragmentation, as well as direct exploitation via illegal poaching are major threats to the survival of the remnant populations of ocelots on the island. No empirical studies have been conducted to reliably estimate population status on the island. Historical records indicate that the species once existed on the island of Tobago, but it has long been extirpated there.
Like many wild cats, ocelots are occasionally kept as pets. Salvador Dalí frequently traveled with his pet ocelot Babou, even bringing it aboard the luxury ocean liner SS France.
Opera singer Lily Pons was also known to have kept an ocelot ("Ita") at her NYC apartment, later donating it to a local zoo.
Musician Gram Parsons kept an ocelot as a pet in the backyard swimming pool area of his family's Winter Haven, Florida, home, during his teens, in the mid-1960s.
The Moche people of ancient Peru worshiped animals and often depicted the ocelot in their art.