Caturday Special: The Kodkod, Leopardus guigna

Oh my days! I want to squish it until it makes funny noises and turns me into a bloody mess! What a cute and gorgeous cat! Those incredible spotted markings, the perfect dappling to breakup your form in the shadowy undergrowth, its magnificent! (Credit: Mauro Tammone CC-BY-3.0)

Much like the cat itself this post is likely to be quite small but very sweet. You see the Kodkod is the smallest cat in the Americas. They are only around 40-50cm in length, with a short tail of around 20-25cm and only around 25cm in shoulder-height. They are, then, slightly more diminutive than your average housecat, and with an average weight of around 2-2.5kg.

Of course they differ in coat pattern, being a gorgeous spotted-pattern, moving to a striped tail, on a yellow- or grey-brown coat. They have small, close, rounded ears and an adorable, kitten-like face.

They are believed to live for approximately 10 years.

They are native mainly to Chile, and some areas of Argentina, but otherwise they seem to be a rather remarkably endemic species (a species restricted, for some reason, to a very specific area). I cannot find any research discussing a potential cause for this, or whether or not historically their territory would have been much larger.

The distribution of the kodkod, based upon IUCN data, as you can see it maintains a highly specific region. (Credit:
BhagyaMani CC-BY-SA 4.0)

It does seem to have a preference of habitat, enjoying mixed, temperate rainforest, so perhaps the Andes keep them penned in and prevent their distribution more widely across South America and into the Amazon regions – but again, this is just speculation.

They are another diurnal cat, like the serval of last time, actively hunting during night and day, though they tend to keep themselves hidden during the day, slinking among the undergrowth and keeping out of sight.

They are a small cat, so their prey is also most likely to be small and, as with many other small cats, they are probably quite opportunistic. They mainly seem to be terrestrial predators but they are capable of incredible feats of climbing for their size so perhaps, if opportunity strikes, they will hunt in the trees as well. Their main prey is likely to be birds, rodents, lizards, insects and potentially smaller human livestock like chickens.

That penchant for chicken hunting is likely to cause them problems in terms of conflict with humans. They are known to venture close to human habitations. They are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, although I suspect habitat loss, and replacement of their preferred habitat with plantation forests is likely to be the biggest burden they face in the immediate future.

That’s about it for the kodkod. Very little is known about them, so why don’t we talk about that?

KITTEN TAX! It’s a little baby kodkod! (Credit: IBTimes, used without permission. It’s a cute kitten, I will fight for my right to use it!)

This is a species that was first described in 1782, so it’s not like we haven’t known about it. Wildcats, particularly small wildcats, are exceptionally shy and cautious. People have persecuted them for as long as people have been in contact with them so they will be naturally very cautious but, what is it about us that makes us not want to study the smaller cats?

You may have noticed that of my articles about cats the longer ones (generally longer because they are built upon a solid, foundational knowledge base to build discussions around) are the bigger cats.

Some of that is shyness of the animals we don’t have much research on. However that does not account for all of it. I think there is an aspect of availability, as well as similarity to our own domestic cats, that makes us ignore them. I think of the statistics on my Top Ten Cats series and, comparitive to everything else unknown, impressive or beautiful, the black-footed cat massively underperformed. I think people just look at it as a small tabby. In fact it is an incredibly impressive cat!

Big cats are impressive. They inspire fear and awe in us. Therefore we are naturally attracted to them and attracted to learning about them. But what value do we lose by not studying the odd, the large, the impressive and the beautiful?

This then, leads us to one of the tropes of conservation science, we talked about it a lot in ecology, that we use these ambassadorial species to raise money – your lions, tigers, pandas etc. – so that we can invest not only in those species but all the other smaller, uglier things people don’t care about but that may be significantly more vital to the ecosystem.

Let us take, for example, the Brazilian rainforest and consider the Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa). Now when we think of saving the Amazon we might think of jaguars, sloths, giant river otters, ocelots, tapirs, squirrel monkeys, macaws, toucans etc. etc. But I bet you’re not thinking of the agouti. Agouti are large rodents in the genus Dasyprocta, there are many different species throughout central and south America and, as far as we know, they are the only species able to crack open the seed pods of the Brazil nut, that are otherwise exceptionally tough to crack open.

The brazil nut tree ( Bertholletia excelsa) looking as tall and mighty as it actually is, but this tree actually depends on a multi-layer, interdependent mutualism to reproduce. (Credit: mauroguanandi CC-BY-2.0)

Like squirrels these agouti bury nuts for future consumption and often forget about them, this allows new growth of brazil nut trees. Without the agouti, this growth doesn’t happen, there would be no new brazil nut trees.

Azara’s agouti, a species of agouti native to Brazil and likely one of the species that can crack open the incredibly hard seed-pods of brazil nut trees. (Credit: Bernard DUPONT CC-BY-SA 2.0)

But for the agouti to get to the brazil nuts, and for them to successfully grow, they must be pollinated, as far as we know exclusively, by euglossine bees.

Euglossine bees are a ‘tribe’, a semi-official group within the bee family, the Apidae. Unlike the bees you might think of euglossines, or orchid bees, are generally solitary and do not possess any eusocial behaviours.

But there’s even more sensitive dependence – You see those euglossine bees, being solitary, have a very specific mating practice whereby the males try to entice females by rubbing themselves with the scent of specific orchids.

A euglossine, or orchid, bee. Many of the species in this tribe come with these remarkable, irridescent colourations. They are, in themselves, beautiful creatures. (Credit: Andreas Kay CC-BY-NC SA 2.0)

So we have this incredible interdependent mutalism in nature, this titanic tree, the brazil nut tree, requires a specific genus of rodent to open up its seed case, that requires a specific type of bee to ensure it is fertilised and pollinated, that requires the local orchids in order to reproduce. Any disruption to this causes disruption to all the species involved, and yet many people might not look at the mighty tree and the tiny orchid and realise one needs the other.

So whilst certain species, the cute or impressive animals, make great ambassadors for raising money, conservationists have to make difficult decisions as to how to allocate those resources in order to ensure the survival of entire ecosystems.

We may ignore smaller cats, but we do so at our own peril, we never know what effects they may have on particular rodents, particular birds, which may, left to run rampant, disrupt the delicate balance of things themselves. We must make the effort to observe, to investigate and to learn of as many species as we can so that we might have the best chance of maintaining nature’s, often tentative, balance.

A short clip of the kodkod from BBC’s Planet Earth series, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. We get to see the tiny kodkod hunting moths. (Credit: BBC)

The kodkod deserves just as much love as the jaguar.

Still not had enough!? ‘Cat’ch up with all our cat articles here;
Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.

Caturday Special: The Origin Story – Proailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!

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.

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