Looking like a cross between a house cat and a weasel is the jaguarundi (Herpailurus yaguarondi), one of the smallest – and least studied – of Belize’s wild cats. While big cats, such as the jaguars and pumas, often steal the spotlight from their smaller feline cousins, these often-overlooked cats are nevertheless one of the most unusually fascinating predators one can spot in Belize’s forests. Known as the halari in Belize and as the “otter cat” in Mexico, these small animals are usually barely larger than a house cat – a little over 2 feet from tail to head, and rarely weighing more than 20 lbs. On a brief glimpse, they might even appear no different than the cat you have at home, but on closer look show distinguishing exaggerated features: an angular, flattened head with rounded ears paired with a lean body sporting short, powerful legs and an extremely long tail. Jaguarundi come in two colors – a grey-brown and a light red – that were once thought to represent two different species. Today, scientists know that both colored coats can be found within the same litter (usually around 2- 4 kittens), albeit with darker colorations more likely in forests and reddish hues more common in grasslands and savannahs.
While sharing their habitat – from Southern Texas to Argentina – with the jaguar and other similar cats, jaguarundis are instead more closely related to the cheetah and puma, and are thought to have originated from a species that migrated across the Bering Land Bridge from Asia about 16,000 years ago. In Belize, they represent the second smallest of the five native cat species (jaguar, puma, ocelot and margay), and fill an ecological niche shared by the similar-sized ocelot and margay. This has led to what some scientists refer to as the “ocelot effect”, a phenomenon that occurs with the loss of larger felines, such as Jaguars and Puma, from a given habitat. With no larger predators to compete with, the ocelot tends to push out its smaller jaguarundi cousin from the areas it now dominates, forcing the jaguarundi to move to unprotected parts of the rainforest where they are more at risk from habitat loss.
Besides their otter-like appearance, jaguarundi possess another trait unique amongst wild cats: a “vocabulary” of at least thirteen different calls, including purrs, whistling, chattering and bird-like chirping. This likely develops from the animal’s unusually large range, of nearly 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) per solitary individual – larger than most any other tropical cat in Central America. This is especially true in Belize, which has a much smaller population that neighboring Mexico, allowing individual Jaguarundis to stake larger territories. These habitats can range from rainforests to swamps and savannahs, and as such Jaguarundis can be spotted across the different biomes of Belize.
While listed as least concern globally by the IUCN, situations such as the ocelot effect, as well as habitat loss and human interaction – especially from farmers who see the cats as a threat to their poultry stocks – still serve as large threats to regional populations. In fact, they actually often serve a positive role to humans by keeping down agricultural pests such as rabbits, mice and rats, which together with other small mammals, birds and reptiles serve as its main diet. Likewise, because jaguarundis, unlike most Central American cats, are diurnal, they are sometimes (incorrectly) considered common simply because they are more often spotted than their nocturnal cousins. Despite their global conservation status, they are nearly locally extinct in parts of their range, including Southern Texas where they have become an almost nonexistent sight.
Because so little is known about the jaguarundi as opposed to the more often-studied jaguar, puma and ocelot, greater scientific study is still needed to determine the effects of habitat loss, human confrontation, and the “Ocelot effect” on these small felines. No matter what, while traveling through Belize keep your eyes peeled for a strange-looking cat stalking through the underbrush that resembles an otter or weasel – you just might have spotted one of the most unusual and unique cats to call the country of Belize home.