The Mystique of Great Spotted Cats

An ocelot kitten is caught by one of the infrared camera on Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Photo courtesy of Jackie Willis.
An ocelot kitten is caught in the beam of an infrared camera on Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Note that the date is a mere four days ago, it was 10:08 pm, and the temperature was 78 degrees fahrenheit. Photo courtesy of Jackie Willis, BCI researcher.

Somewhere in my files I have a photo I took of a pugmark from an ocelot, freshly printed in the mud of a Barro Colorado Island trail. It’s an impressive size for a not-so-big wild cat, and it suggests something in the 25 pound range. In my house I have an ordinary tabby, Gizmo, who weighs all of ten pounds. It’s solid muscle and I wouldn’t want to tangle with her- she’s one strong damn cat, formerly feral, and has her wild instincts intact if in remission for household purposes.

Gizmo adjusts the satellite dish for better "All My Children" reception.
Gizmo adjusts the satellite dish for better "All My Children" reception.

25 pounds of Panamanian ocelot would be a holy terror if it weren’t basically a shy animal that eats small critters. Jaguars, on the other hand, are ready and willing to take down some very big prey- tapirs, peccaries, researchers, artists… Jaguars, of course are extremely rare. But how I’d love to see one…

My first visit on BCI over 15 years ago, I was charmed by the abundant and very tame agoutis. They were at every turn, scampering like bunnies across the forest floor and the little lawn patches around the lab buildings. The sound of agoutis gnawing palm nuts was the soundtrack of BCI; you could hear it for miles (I suspect agoutis have empty and resonant heads). The last time I was there a year or so ago, agoutis were pretty scarce. Something was eating them.

Agoutis: cute, tame, tasty (although I wouldn't know, personally).
Agoutis: cute, tame, tasty (although I'm sure I wouldn't know).

I’ll be returning to BCI this May. For those who don’t know, Barro Colorado Island is a field station administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. It’s a former mountain now isolated from the mainland by the waters of Lake Gatun, formed by the creation of the Panama Canal. It’s a place filled with history and science and discovery. Wandering the island feels like being an extra in a National Geographic special- scientists foraging through their forest plots for data, sloths snoozing in cecropias, toucans calling from the tops of flowering dipteryx. National Geographic specials do in fact get filmed there. Film crews and photographers regularly hang out on BCI, in the evenings bending elbows with the biologists at the “bar” (a designated lab balcony with old chairs and rickety bench overlooking the lagoon. A requisite sunset ritual involves cerveza if the beer jèfe has done his or her job that week and Flor de Cana rum otherwise.) They are nearly as thick as agoutis are, or were, before the ocelots got down to business.

Important research conducted over beer at the BCI bar.
Leading researchers theorizing at the BCI bar.
View of shipping traffic, seen from the bar.
View of shipping traffic, as seen from the BCI bar.

Ocelots have been having a good run the past few years. The habitat is fine, they are protected on the island, and there is an abundance of food. Life is good for the mid-size spotted cat. They are well-studied, too, and BCI’s trails are laced with infrared beams at mid-calf height on a human (I’ve set them off a few times so I know). When an ocelot goes out hunting, the cameras get the picture.

Science on the hoof: Mike does fieldwork on BCI.
Science on the hoof: Mike does fieldwork on BCI.

I got one of these pictures yesterday from one of BCI’s ocelot researchers, Jackie Willis, and I have to say, it just made my day. I mean, who doesn’t love kittens? Just knowing these lovely cats are out there, wild and hunting and reproducing and adding their beauty to the ecosystem gives me a small surge of hope for the state of the planet. But that’s not all the cameras caught. There’s a new cat on the island, and it’s a big one.

New cat on the island: a jaguar.
New cat on the island: jaguar. Photo courtesy of Jackie Willis.

For further reading on Barro Colorado Island, find a copy of Frank Chapman’s My Tropical Air Castle: Nature Studies in Panama (1929, illustrated by Francis Lee Jaques), and The Tapir’s Morning Bath by Elizabeth Royte. Both are classics.

4 thoughts on “The Mystique of Great Spotted Cats

  1. Vickie Henderson says:

    Love that image of your cat…so very CAT! and one of the many things about their personalities that I love. Aren’t those cameras wonderful for what you can learn that is otherwise unseen? Exciting that you will be visiting this place again. Look forward to your reports.

  2. Chris says:

    wow. I have never seen agoutis and didn’t even know such pretties existed. Love your sketch, and your description of them moving like bunnies.

    That shipping photo rocks.

    great post!

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