Margay Range

This page is about the Margay generally

The distribution of the margay (Leopardus wiedii) is highlighted in the embedded range map below. However, this page deals with more than the range of this wild cat species. I had left the original map public in the expectation that people could and would refine it. There is a need, I think, to improve our knowledge of the wild cats. There is a shortage of sightings from which the range can be established. I had hoped (dreaming?) that reliable sightings could have beed recorded on this map and the range extended or adjusted accordingly.

There may be enough evidence to suggest that the range should be decreased in certain areas due to no sightings for a considerable time. However, people have not taken up the challenge, which is to be expected. The range of the margay is becoming fragmented through the gradual destruction of its forest habitat. The Amazon basin continues to be used by people for commercial purposes which usually means cutting down forest. This results in fragmented non-continuous habit for the margay. This threatens its survival in the wild. Roads intersect the forest as well. The prospects are poor long term. See more below.


The margay is a small, tree-dwelling wildcat that looks like the ocelot and which lives in the forests of South Mexico, Central and South America. It is perhaps the world’s best tree climbing cat. It can race down trees headfirst, a sign of complete comfort in trees. The margay hunts tree rats, opossums, tree frogs and birds. It weighs about 7 lbs. It has a long tail for balance while climbing. They were once popular as pets and were hunted for their impressive skin. They are under threat of extinction in the wild in the long term mainly due to habitat loss and are protected (2012).

View Margay Range in a larger map

Margay wild cat pictures

Collage above: Margay wild cat margay range – photos by (from top left clockwise): mottazoo, BigCat Rescue, Smithsonian Institution, mottazoo, carinemily, Princes Milady

Margay Range

margay wildcat 2009: My initial thought is that this cat’s range has remained fairly stable for the last 7 years, at least judging by a comparison with the range at 2002, the date of publication of Wild Cats Of The World (WoW – Sunquist ISBN-13:978-0-226-77999-7) and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ (Red List) map, upon which the above is based at mid-2009.

There is little difference between the two maps. This is not always the case. In words, the range extends from the coastal lowlands in the north of Mexico to the northern most parts of Argentina and to Uruguay, thousands of miles to the south. In between, the range passes through Central America.

Apparently, the margay does not occupy a large north eastern part of Brazil known as the Caatinga, which provides an unsuitable habitat of semi-arid scrub. The reason the margay range is as shown is because it is closely associated with primary forest. Primary forest is old growth forest that shows great biodiversity. It is excessively logged throughout the world to the detriment of forest dwelling wild cats and the world generally. It is also called ancient forest, virgin forest, primeval forest, frontier forest. The margay prefers to live between sea level and 1,500 metres above sea level.

The margay shares its territory with the ocelot. The margay range also includes, jaguarundi and jaguars. The list of countries where it can be found is: Mexico, then in Central America:  Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama. And in South America: Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, Venezuela, Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana, Colombia, Ecuador. The Red List says its presence in the United States is uncertain. WoW says that its inclusion in the fauna of the North America comes from a shot margay as long ago as 1852!

Threats – Conservation

This cat is rated NT or Near Threatened by the Red List. This means, species or lower taxa that may be considered threatened with extinction in the near future. WoW says it is rare throughout its range. The threats come from all sides and are man made: deforestation (habitat loss), habitat fragmentation, habitat conversion to plantations and pastures, road kills, illegal trade in pets and skins, and being shot because they prey on poultry. Please consider what you are doing and the alternatives before killing this wild cat.

Throughout the margay range it has been heavily exploited for the production of fur coats etc. Skins were mainly imported into Western Europe, primarily France, Italy and Germany. The bad years (from the cat’s point of view) were margay skinthe ’70s and ’80s, it seems, with 30,000 skins traded in 1977. A total of 125,547 skins were reported to CITES in their trade network for the period 1976 – 1985. The skins are ranked first amongst neotropical (tropical area of South America) cats in the trading1. {Photo left by JBYoder on Flickr under license).  The margay is “protected” (I am skeptical about the concept of protection of the wild cat as I don’t see much effective protection) by being listed in CITES Appendix I and prohibitions on hunting over a lot of but not all of the margay range. CITES Appendix I means:

“species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants…They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial”


The margay is also known as: monkey cat, tree ocelot, cauce, gato montes, gato pintado and tigrillo1. If people are to notice this rare and endangered cat they have to recognise it. People will be extremely lucky to spot one as it occurs in low numbers throughout the margay range. This is a small wild cat with a long tail. The skull has been described as “smooth”. The margay looks like the oncilla and ocelot and is in between these cats in terms of size.  All three cats occupy a similar range (distribution). Size

The margay is also known as: monkey cat, tree ocelot, cauce, gato montes, gato pintado and tigrillo1. If people are to notice this rare and endangered cat they have to recognise it. People will be extremely lucky to spot one as it occurs in low numbers throughout the margay range. This is a small wild cat with a long tail. The skull has been described as “smooth”. The margay looks like the oncilla and ocelot and is in between these cats in terms of size.  All three cats occupy a similar range (distribution).

Oncilla1.5 to 2.8 kg
Margay3 to 4 kg
Ocelot6.6 to 16 kg
Domestic catabout 4 kg

The margay is smaller and slimmer than the ocelot. In fact, it is the smallest indigenous Mesoamerican1 (an area that extends from about central Mexico to Honduras and Nicaragua) feline. While the margay is bigger than the oncilla, its tail and legs are longer and the margay’s spots are “open”. Open spots have holes in the middle as found on the domestic Bengal cat, for example. But the colour and markings are similar. The camera trap photo above, I think, is very representative. The margay’s fur is dense, soft and of medium length. The ground or background colour is yellowish/brown and the undersides more white to buff. The pattern is made up of spots, which are dark brown or black. The tail has about 12 rings with a dark tip. The ear flaps have the usual “pinnae” (ear spots that look like eyes, used as a defensive measure and for communication in an encounter). The eyes are very large and round, a noticeable feature. The large eyes allow the margay to watch birds with precision. WoW reports on a margay that could see a fly at 30 feet, leaping in the air to catch it and place the fly in its mouth before returning to the ground!

People should note that this cat is not attacking this person. The cat is just excited.

Athletic Ability

The margay is athletic and acrobatic; probably the most agile and arboreal (tree dwelling) in the New World1. This is mainly due to its extremely flexible ankle joints and small size. The clouded leopard also has flexible ankle joints. The joints can swivel through 180º. This allows for rapid change in direction and movement up and down trees. Agility aids hunting. The Sunquists (Wild Cats of the World) recite feats of acrobatics observed in captivity that are startling – these cats:

  • can jump 8 feet straight into the air (the domestic F1 Chausie has a similar skill – this is Jungle cat hybrid). However, it is said that captive margays have been seen to leap 18 feet vertically1.
  • can jump 12 feet horizontally (alternative source: 26 feet horizontally1).
  • are monkey like and can hang from a branch with their hind feet while holding an object with their front feet. They “ricochet” (bounce) off objects when climbing.  If they fall they grab hold of a branch with one paw and reclimb.

…see margay cats for information other than margay range, i.e. hunting, behavior, mating, development etc.

Malayan Culture

Because of the margay’s small size and docile nature, it was possibly domesticated (perhaps semi-feral, semi-domesticated) by the ancient Maya and other ethnic groups1 (see Margay and Mayans) The Maya peoples still form sizable populations in the Maya area (the mountainous regions of the Sierra Madre to the semi-arid plains of northern Yucatan2). The Mayan peoples may have hand raised margays. Margays may have lived in and around their houses and temples protecting tree crops (fruits and nuts) by hunting prey such as rodents and bats that fed on these crops. This was a symbiotic relationship (one in which both species, human and feline, benefit). This relationship may have resulted in the margay population being at its peak at the time of this ancient civilisation particularly the classic period (c. 250 AD to 900 AD). It is suggested that margays might have been encouraged to live in the Mayan “orchards”.  Of course the margay would need little encoragement as the orchards would be the habitat of the margay’s prey. The margay makes a good house cat companion when hand reared.

From Margay Range to Wild Cat Species

Heading photo by siwild.

Margay range — References other than stated in text: 1. Feline Conservation Federation Vol 54 Issue 1 page 7 Dr William Smith 2. Wikipedia authors.

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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1 Response

  1. June 7, 2021

    […] Margay Range – this covers all aspects of the margay. It should be said that we don’t know a lot about this small wild cat species. Their most notable characteristic is that they do most of their hunting in trees living off birds, rodents (climbing rat), fruit and insects. Most of their prey is nocturnal and arboreal. It can turn its ankles up to 180 degrees, so it can grasp branches equally well with its fore and hind paws; an adaptation to tree dwelling. It is a super-skilled climber. […]

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