The Tree-Dwelling Margays of Belize

At little larger than the size of a house cat – and often mistaken for its larger, and more common, ocelot cousins – the margay is a rare site in the rainforests of Belize. Nocturnal, and spending most of their time in the trees of dense evergreen and deciduous forests, the “Tiger Cat” of Belize was historically hunted for its beautiful spotted pelt, a practice that only ended in the 1990s. Since that time, the margay populations have slowly increased, but now face a new threat shared by many other Central American felines: habitat loss.

Also known as the “Tree Ocelot” due to its arboreal nature, the margay sports a uniquely long tail – almost 70% of its body length – and the ability to rotate its hind legs 180 degrees, an adaptation which allows it to rush head-first down trees to catch its prey (usually small birds, sloths, squirrels, and even sometimes fruit). True to their tree-climbing nature, Margays are also exceptional jumpers, having been observed to leap up to six meters (20 ft) in the air while hunting. Margays are also known to attempt imitation of certain animal sounds, with one individual in Brazil observed imitating the cry of a baby tamarin monkey to attract other tamarins to attack.

Rare even in healthy environments, with a single margay prowling a territory of 16 square miles of more, margays are particularly suspectable to endangerment due to their reproductive habits: uncommonly amongst felines, female Margays usually only birth a single kit at a time, making population rebounds more difficult. At its peak, the margay fur-poaching trade claimed nearly 14,000 individual margays per year, and while poaching is now banned in almost every Central and South American nation, populations are still in the process of recovering. However, Belize has been noted as hosting one of the healthiest populations of Margays in Central America, and is therefore one of the best countries to catch a glimpse of this rare animal.

Even as large-scale poaching has faded, the gradual erosion of the rainforests from Belize to Mexico to the Amazon Rainforest continues to pose a threat to margays throughout their range. Pickier eaters than their Ocelot cousins, and slower to reproduce, margays experience what is known as the “Ocelot Effect” : a situation in which smaller cats, such as margays and jaguarundi, are out-competed by their larger cousins as rainforests shrink, forcing the cats out of their natural forest habitats. As a result, ocelots have become a more common site in Central America, while margays are starting to be an even more uncommon species.

To protect margay populations, continued restrictions on poaching and the illegal fur trade – which still impact hundreds, if not thousands of margays a year – must be coupled with a emphasis on stopping rainforest deforestation, such as by establishing important wildlife corridors between isolated pockets of forest. Only in this way can margays, and other Belizean cats like them, survive into the next generation and beyond in Belize and across Central and South America.

article by Devin Windelspecht

Image Credits

  • Margay (head): Gab 2212 / CC BY-SA (
  • Margay pair (tree): Ricochet Creative Productions at the Belize Zoo, 2020
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