Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi, Herpailurus yagouaroundi

Slinky boi! Notice the flatter head, stouter limbs and that absolutely striking pelt (that often changes colouration around the head area, lightening in colour) – a beautiful creature. This would be considered more on the grey-morph side of the colouration. (Credit: Vassil)

What do I know about the jaguarondi? What don’t I know about the jaguarondi!?

The answer to the first question is not a lot, the second is a lot.

It’s a weird little cat, this, showing features more akin to the Viveriddae (feliforms like civets and genets) or the Mustelidae (otters, weasels, badgers, that sort of thing) than other felines. They are, undoubtedly though, a feline.

Its home range is from Central-South America, from Mexico down to Argentina, it is once thought to have existed in Texas too but sightings are rare and the IUCN believe it is extinct there. It is fairly adaptable to any habitat with vegetation so it can happily fit in within forests, mangroves or savannahs, which makes sense given its form and colour. Apparently, though, it is most at home in more open, savannah-like environments. A slinky-slonk like that, it is easy to see why. It can stay hidden, climb well on any rocks, trees or branches and hide in the shadows with ease.

Their colouration is gorgeous and unusual, having both a grey, almost black morph and a redder, muddier morph (morph is a word we use in biology to mean a ‘type’ – mostly visual, but sometimes behavioural). Both are absolutely stunning, striking, really and you can see how the grey morph would go unnoticed, camouflaged, among the shadows of the tendrils of a rainforest.

Kitten tax! Definitely of the red-morph colouration, this jaguarundi was discovered, and rescued as a stray kitten by well-meaning teens in Argentina. Only it wasn’t a regular kitten, it was a jaguarundi! (Credit: FARA Fundacion Argentina de Rescate Animal)

When I started this Top Ten I had a few cats in mind that I HAD to cover. This is obviously not an objective list. There is no objectively best cat because, objective best cat is just cat. Any cat. Better than anything else. Definitely better than no cat. Cat is best.

So I have my subjective favourites, maybe five or six of them meaning there were still spots to fill. Well then I noticed this little slinker and how could I not add it?

Is it cute? Yeah it’s cute. Some people might consider it less cute than other cats, it looks more like an otter, with a long body, stout legs and flatter head and short snout. Compared to your big-eyed cutesy cats, some people might consider it less appealing. I mean, of Central and South American cats I could have gone with ocelots or margay or something if I’d just wanted cute.

I’m not just looking for cute cats, though, I like cool cats. Why is the jaguarundi cool?

Well for one its name is jaguarundi – so there’s that. According to Wikipedia it’s an Old Guarani word, whatever one of those is – I don’t care I just like to say it – Jaguarundi. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Put a bit of a lilt or an accent on it, not in a racist way, keep it respectful. It’s a nice word, right?

The other thing is its phylogeny (that’s fancy biologist word for ‘where it fits, compared to other species, in the tree of life’ – One time where I can agree having a shorter, more technical term is useful).

It’s a part of what’s obnoxiously called the ‘puma lineage’ or the Tribe (a taxonomic-rank between sub-family and genus – not technically a recognised rank but this is what happens when you try to formalise evolution into a fucking filing cabinet!) Acinonychini. I say ‘obnoxiously’ because it should, by rights, be called the cheetah lineage, as far as we can currently tell cheetahs are likely the first off-shoot of this tribe and they’re also cheetahs, therefore better.

What’s remarkable about this tribe of cats is, as far as I can tell it consists of three separate genera (plural of genus, remember?) all of which only have one extant (opposite of extinct) species.

The Acinonychini tribe are Acinonyx, the Cheetah, represented solely by Acinonyx jubatus, the cheetah. Puma, represented by Puma concolor,  the puma (or cougar, or mountain lion and other names), and the Herpailurus, represented by Herpailurus yagouaroundi. Our jaguarundi. Sometimes I have seen the jaguarundi placed in the Puma genus, but the IUCN Cat Specialist Group (how do I join?) revised this classification in 2017.

By the way you may notice the way I use scientific species names (also known as their ‘latin binomial’) has the genus with a capital letter, the species without, and always in italics. That’s just scientific formatting and since I hated it you might find my use of it inconsistent.

That’s three distinct lines, three genera, all represented by only one extant species each and all closely related to one another. What does this mean? Well, not a lot. Such is the way of all life. Perhaps other cats will fall by the wayside and these cats will find a way to diversify, fill their niches, speciate (become different species) and become the future of cats. Perhaps these cats are so unique, so specialised and so rare that once they go extinct their lineages will end forever. We don’t know. It doesn’t really mean anything, it’s just interesting.

As far as hunting behaviours go, while many cats, particularly small-medium sized cats, demonstrate a more crepuscular (twilight) or nocturnal (night time) bias in their hunting behaviours, jaguarundi are more than happy to hunt in the day as well as night, and are rare to be so diurnal (day and night.)

Given their size, about 1-1.5m in length, including the tail, maybe around 30cm height, they hunt mostly small prey. There’s no shortage of it in their population so small birds, rodents, lizards other smaller mammals, even domestic chickens, rabbits etc. it’s all on the menu.

If you can’t recognise the beauty and cuteness of the jaguarundi from this view then you’re just wrong. That form is remarkable, the musculature of the stout limbs make climbing and ambush predation a doddle and that colouration (this is another grey-morph) is stunning. (Credit: UrLunkwill)

Mercifully another cat not listed as threatened by the IUCN, due to stable numbers in the population around Mexico, it was suggested it should probably be near-threatened but could not be listed as such due to insufficient data. Try finding one of these bad-boys in the Amazon? It’s like trying to find the shadow of your black jacket in a dark room. As ever, though, there are increasing concerns about human exploitation encroaching on their habitat that could put it in future danger.

One thing that might be saving it is its relatively bland pelt. Unlike other smaller cats of the region the jaguarundi, though to me looking spectacular, has a uniform coloured coat with no distinct or ‘attractive’ patterns of markings.

So there it is, the jaguarundi, cool name, weird pelt, looks like someone made otters and cats do some ungodly acts with one another and our 9th best cat species in the world.

Missed our previous entry? No worries, just click here to find out all about the Pallas’ Cat (Otocolobus manul).

Or go to our amazing number 8, the beautiful and almost mythical clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa)

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

11 thoughts on “Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi, Herpailurus yagouaroundi

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