The Tiger Cats comprise three of the thirteen wild cats in the Leopardus family of cats. The small spotted cats of the Leopardus family are distributed throughout Central and South America.
Prior to 2013 there was one species Leopardus tigrinus with four subspecies which was known as the Oncilla, Tigrina or Tigrillo. Due to further taxonomic studies in 2013 and 2017 some of the subspecies were reclassified as species and there is now the Northern Tiger Cat (L tigrinus) with two subspecies, the Southern Tiger Cat (L. guttulus) and the Eastern Tiger Cat (L. emiliae). The common names vary per source - the IUCN Cat Specialist Group uses 'Northern / Southern / Eastern Tiger Cat', the Mammal Diversity Database uses 'Northern / Southern / Eastern Oncilla' and iNaturalist uses 'Northern / Southern / Eastern Tigrina'.
These small, nocturnal cats appear to be naturally rare, are difficult to study and easily confused with the other small spotted cat species of South America.
Although historically hunted for the fur trade, habitat loss and fragmentation are now the primary threats to their survival.
Tiger Cats / Tigrina Research
Here are some images from the last paper about the taxonomic revision of the Tigrina species: group I = northern, group II = eastern and group III = southern (captions shortened).
Reference: Nascimento, Fabio & Feijó, Anderson. (2017). Taxonomic revision of the tigrina Leopardus tigrinus (Schreber, 1775) species group (Carnivora, Felidae). Papeis Avulsos de Zoologia. 57. 10.11606/0031-1049.2017.57.19.
Abstract (numbered bullets added):
The tigrina Leopardus tigrinus (Schreber, 1775) is a small-sized Neotropical spotted cat found from northern Argentina and southern Brazil to Costa Rica. Four subspecies are traditionally recognized: L. t. tigrinus (Schreber, 1775) from northern Brazil, the Guianas and eastern Venezuela; L. t. pardinoides (Gray, 1867) from western Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru; L. t. guttulus (Hensel, 1872) from southern Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina; and L. t. oncillus (Thomas, 1903) from Costa Rica.
We studied external and craniodental morphology in quantitative and qualitative terms from 250 specimens in order to clarify the taxonomic status of tigrina. Based on the characters analyzed in this study, we recognize three diagnosable morphogroups, each with a distinct geographic distribution: northern/northwest-ern/west (samples from northern Brazil, the Guianas, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, northwestern Argentina and Costa Rica), eastern (samples from northeastern and central Brazil), and southern (samples from southern Brazil, Paraguay and northeastern Argentina).
Taking into account the morphologic evidence presented here, supported by biogeographic data and molecular studies available, we recognize three full species for tigrinas:
- L. tigrinus (including the putative subspecies L. t. pardinoides and L. t. oncillus as junior synonyms) for northern/ northwestern/west group;
- L. emiliae (Thomas, 1914) for eastern group and
- L. guttulus for southern group.
Other Cats in the News
113 + 104 Observations of Tiger Cats on iNaturalist
There are currently 113 sightings of Northern Tiger Cats / Tigrinas (Leopardus tigrinus) and 104 observations of Southern Tiger Cats / Tigrinas (Leopardus guttulus) on iNaturalist. It seems they have not yet included the taxonomic change for the Eastern Tiger Cat.
iNaturalist is a global platform for the public to upload images of wild creatures they have seen in nature. If you have any photos of natural biodiversity from your travels, be sure to open an account and upload your images. Identification is verified by other members and the data can be used in future research. A great way to contribute to conservation and research!
Note there are images of dead animals in case you are a sensitive viewer.
Where to see Oncillas
A great place to read trip reports from people that have travelled to look for wild cats in their natural habitat is MammalWatching.com.
If you know of anyone that may be interested in studying wild cats, please share this post with them.
There is a dire need for research on the lesser known smaller cats.
I would love to encourage as many budding zoologists as possible to specialize in these wonderful animals!