The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) is a small wild cat native to the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central and South America. This medium-sized cat is characterized by solid black spots and streaks on its coat, round ears, and white neck and undersides. It weighs between 8 and 15.5 kg and reaches 40–50 cm at the shoulders. Twice the size of the average house cat, the ocelot is a sleek animal with a gorgeous dappled coat. These largely nocturnal cats use keen sight and hearing to hunt rabbits, rodents, iguanas, fish, and frogs. They also take to the trees and stalk monkeys or birds. Unlike many cats, they do not avoid water and can swim well. Like other cats, ocelots are adapted for eating meat. They have pointed fangs used to deliver a killing bite, and sharp back teeth that can tear food like scissors. Ocelots do not have teeth appropriate for chewing, so they tear their food to pieces and swallow it whole. Their raspy tongues can clean a bone of every last tasty morsel.
The name “ocelot” comes from the Nahuatl word ōcēlōtl, which generally refers to the jaguar rather than the ocelot. Another possible origin for the name is the Latin ocellatus (“having little eyes” or “marked with eye-like spots”), in reference to the cat’s spotted coat. Other vernacular names for the ocelot include cunagaro (Venezuela), gato onza (Argentina), gato tigre (Panama), heitigrikati (Suriname), jaguatirica (Brazil), manigordo (Costa Rica, Panama and Venezuela), maracaja (Brazil), mathuntori, ocelote, onsa, pumillo, tiger cat (Belize), tigrecillo (Bolivia) and tigrillo (Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru)
The ocelot prefers areas with dense vegetation cover, high prey availability, and proximity to water sources. It is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, and is threatened by habitat destruction, hunting and traffic accidents. Populations are decreasing in many parts of its range. The association of the ocelot with humans dates back to the Aztec and Incan civilizations; it has occasionally been owned as a pet. Ocelots’ fine fur has made them the target of countless hunters, and in many areas they are quite rare, including Texas, where they are endangered. Ocelots are protected in the United States and most other countries where they live.