Caturday Special: The Pampas Cat (Leopardus colocola)

What a pretty kitty! A Pampas cat in the Parque Zoológico de São Paulo. (Credit: Márcio Motta CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

It’s been a while!

If you were enjoying the Caturday Specials and wondering why they stopped the reasons were two-fold.

The lesser reason is other stuff got in the way. Such is life.

The main reason is I was running out of cats!

We consider diversity in all its glory and imagine there must be thousands and thousands of wild cats out there. Well there aren’t. There are only around 40 extant (not extinct – living, in other words) cat species on the planet.

Many of these are medium or small sized cats, endemic to a certain part of the world, shy and elusive. As a result we know little about them. Any article I write would likely be the words “It’s a cat!” with a bunch of photos. You may love that, but it’s not quite my style. I like to tell a story.

Cue the Pampas Cat (Leopardus colocola) – named after The Pampas, the temperate South American lowland grassy habitat. It is not endemic to this habitat specifically, though. It is also found in scrubland, forests and mountains. I am also going to have to try very hard not to write Leopardus cocacola…Hopefully we never get to the stage of global soft-drink companies paying for species names!

Las Pampas, in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. These lowlands are a huge area from the south of Brazil, through Uruguay, with most of their area in Argentina. They are an important habitat not only for the Pampas cat, but for Geoffrey’s cat, puma and maned wolves. They have many endemic species such as Pampas fox, Pampas deer and Pampas meadowlark. They also make for excellent and fertile agricultural land, however, and much of the habitat is lost to crop growth and pasture for cattle. (Credit: Alex Pereira, Public Domain)

It is a member of the Ocelot lineage, like many of the small South American wildcats. It is suggeted to be most closely related to the Andean Mountain Cat – another one I shall have to write about eventually, but another one about which we know so, so little!

They are fairly disperse across South America, from (possibly) the very southwest of Colombia, through Ecuador, Peru and into Bolivia and running down the Andes through Chile and Argentina. There are also populations radiating eastwards into Brazil and Uruguay.

Population size is unknown, as with many small cats. The IUCN has them listed as ‘Near Threatened’ due to the continued habitat loss and disruptive human activity to natural ecosystems in South America.

In terms of behaviour, that’s something we don’t know a lot about, too! It is a small cat, so it is safe to assume it is carnivorous and eats a lot of small things like rodents and birds. Given their spread through Peru and down the Andes, guinea pigs are likely a big part of their diet. Wheek!

Mood! Notice the stripey legs? We will get to differences in Pampas cat coats and morphology soon! But what a beautiful cat. (credit: Prefeitura de Belo Horizonte, Public Domain)

At this stage I would usually describe the cat itself. But this leads us to the hook, the reason I decided to write about this cat today.

They’re a small floofer, about the size of a domestic cat, maybe a little bigger, maybe a little smaller, with fluffy fur. They range in size from around 45-75cm in body length, with a tail around 25-30cm long. Quite the range in size.

Their coats have one universal; they have dark lines on their face, going around the muzzle. Besides that there are around six variants. For the most part they are a dusty, grey-reddish colour. Some have faint stripes down the sides, some have dark stripes on the legs, some have rosettes, some are paler, some are darker, some have rings on the tail, some have faint spots etc. etc.

So what is going on!?

Well at one point the Pampas cat was considered one species. By the mid-90s scientists were checking this kitto out and thinking maybe there was more than just one species, and proposed it as three. However the IUCN Cat Specialist Group’s Cat Classification Task Force (seriously give me honorary membership already!), after a huge amount of analysis, decided this 3 species split was not correct. The Pampas cat is one species.

With SEVEN subspecies!

L. c. colocola
L. c. pajeros
L. c. braccatus
L. c. garleppi
L. c. budini
L. c. munoai

and
L. c. wolffsohni

Kitten Tax! A clearly ‘done with their shit’ mother cat (left) and her two little kittens. Look at those deep blue kitten eyes! How can you not love them? (Credit: Bioparque M’Bopicuá, via Zooborns. Used without permission under fair use. If you would like this image removed please contact us.)

But! The saga doesn’t end there. An taxonomic revision was proposed in 2020 by Brazilian scientistic Fabio Oliveira do Nascimento and his team. This used what is known as the ‘integrative’ method of taxonomy.

I explained taxonomy a fair bit in my article about the red panda. It is the method we use to classify organisms and decide what species they are so we can slap a label on them. It also helps us figure out how they are all related to one another.

I’ve always been sceptical of taxonomy because so often the research related to it consists of back-and-forth letters between different groups squabbling about what box to put the flatworm in. It’s not for me! But it is incredibly valuable and I am glad there are people squabbling about these things.  

As much as I know life evolves on a continuum, that the designation of a ‘species’ is an entirely arbitrary one, it is also true that some stuff is more like other stuff. They have unique characteristics in genetics, shapes, life and morphology that give them an identity. Cats is cats, dogs is dogs, people is people, there are clear differences and understanding what gives rise to those successful forms – these groups, genera and species – is vital to effective understanding of life on earth.

Definitely a real, live, wild Pampas cat! Absolutely not a composite of a Pampas cat taxidermy seemingly floating about some scrubland. Pampas cats are not known for their abilities to look stuffed and levitate, however we do know little of their behaviours so you cannot rule out the possibility. (Credit: Hectonichus, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

What’s more this classification helps make sure, as far as research is concerned, that we’re talking about the same stuff. If I write a paper on “Aggression Towards Humans in Captive Pampas Cats: How I got Bitten Trying to Squish That Cat” other scientists would need to know what Pampas cat I’m talking about! What subspecies, for example. What if L. c. colocola is less aggressive than L. c. braccatus but I am handling exclusively L. c. braccatus?

We figure out these taxonomies by studying the animals. We look at morphology (DNA, their shapes, sizes, pelage (fur or skins – colours, lengths, patterns etc.), skeletal structures etc., we look at their geography (where they live, where they hunt or forage, where they breed, habitats, ecology, preferred prey etc.) and we look at their behaviour (what they do, how and when they do it etc.)

The integrative approach attempts to use all of these to provide as comprehensive a description as possible as to what an animal is and how to label it.

So this 2020 paper (Nascimento et al., 2020), erm, proposes that the Pampas cat is actually five species.

Not five subspecies.

Five species.

The five species (illustrated with their predominate pelage types) and their suggested distributions. (Credit: Nascimento, Ji Long and Feijó, Taxonomic revision of the pampas cat Leopardus colocola complex (Carnivora: Felidae): an integrative approach, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 191(2), pp. 575-611 – Used without permission under fair use. If you would like this image removed please contact us.)

It suggests that there are no sub-species and that the genus should have Leopardus braccatus, L. colocola, L. garleppi, L. munoai and L. pajeros as distinct species.

You may notice a distinct lack of photos of non-captive Pampas cats. These are ridiculously elusive cats. Notice this one seems to have an almost universal coat with no patterns. (Credit: ZooPro, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

I’m not going to go into detail about these matters. That’s beyond my pay-grade and sadly behind a pay-wall!

But the reason I chose to write about the Pampas cat, besides showing off this beautiful and little-known cat, is because something struck me.

Evolution is a continuum. Species change, adapt, move, migrate, get cut off from other populations, become new populations, populations find new niches to exploit and defend them, they may hybridise with other closely-related species, they never stay the same.

There are people out there who want to look at life as immutable. Creation happened, species were made and that’s that. They say there is no evidence that evolution happens. The fossil record is patchy and has gaps and there are no weird between-forms in the world.

A wood engraving of a Pampas cat from 1895, this one has a more distinct, striped coat. These diverse morphs of Pampas cats are one of the reasons behind their taxonomic controversy and debate about their status as species/sub-species will continue. But all of it will improve our knowledge and understanding of how organisms come to be species – to speciate. (Credit: Kevin Deacon, by GFDL)

Well…yes there are!

I would argue that the reason for the disagreement and controversy in terms of Pampas cat classification is entirely a matter of evolution. The Pampas cat challenges our notions of what a species or sub-species is entirely because this cat, that hundreds of thousands of years ago may have been one unified population with shared characteristics, is now 5-7 different populations with marked differences related to their elevation, habitat and population interactions. This cat is evidence of evolution.

This little known and adorable small cat is a poster-child for evolution in action. Who needs a missing link when this cat alone is a whole damn chain?

There’s no such thing as ‘too much cat’ so why not read more of our cat content.

Caturday Special: The Origin StoryProailurus 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!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion – A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers.
Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery!
Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat – Possibly the smallest cat in the world (it’s close between it and the black-footed cat) this tiny, elusive feline of India and Sri Lanka is surely one of the cutest little hunters on Earth.
Caturday Special: The Leopard – One of the most well-adapted, disperse and diverse of habitat cats on our planet and one whose various populations are sadly threatened by human activity. Of huge cultural significance to humans going back at least as far as Ancient Greece, the leopard is amazing.
Caturday Special: The Sand Cat – It started as a cute distraction from the world’s ills but became a lesson, from an amazingly well-adapted, resourceful desert cat, on how to better use resources.
Caturday Special: The OcelotThe cat, the myth, the legend, the meme, star of Archer, Metal Gear Solid and a weird little invisible dragon kid in Dark Souls 3? We look at the ocelot, a medium-sized cat from the Americas that is as cute as it is deadly.
Caturday Special: The Giant Cheetah – The larger cousin of our extant cheetah, if you think they’re impressive, wait until you read about these big boys!
Cats in Culture – A look at the importance of cats as an integrated part of human mythology, life and culture. From Freyja’s cat-chariot, the Maneki-Neko and cats in Ancient Egypt up to ‘Chat Noir’ posters and Meowth.

Or read our Top Ten Cats List

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.



Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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