A tiger cat gains new species designation, but conservation challenges remain


Many of the world’s small wildcats are enigmatic, elusive and roam beyond the media spotlight enjoyed by their big cat cousins. But you could be forgiven for never having heard of Latin America’s cloud forest-dwelling small cat Leopardus pardinoides, as researchers only recently described it as a new species. A team comprised of dozens of researchers and conservationists presented the finding in a paper published in January this year in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Tiger cats are diminutive felids, about the size of a house cat, that range across the Americas from Costa Rica to Bolivia and Argentina. Until this year, only two tiger cat species were officially recognized: the southern tiger cat (Leopardus gutullus), found in the Atlantic Forest, and the northern tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus), with a presumed massive range stretching from Brazil through Colombia, north to Costa Rica and across the Andes into Bolivia and Peru.

But a change is in the wind with the description of L. pardinoides. Researchers assessed characteristics of all the tiger cats known, including their morphology and ecology, and concluded that populations dwelling in the Andes and cloud forests of countries such as Colombia, Peru and Costa Rica are a separate species from the savanna-dwelling L. tigrinus. That designation follows a paper published in late 2023 that analyzed the genetics of tiger cats and reached a similar conclusion that the clouded tiger cat is a distinct species.

Colombia and Costa Rica are key locations for the conservation of Leopardus pardinoides. But preservation of Colombia’s clouded tiger cats faces difficult hurdles, including the urgent need for more research and protection conducted within key areas that lie inside conflict zones, say researchers. Image courtesy of Camilo Botero.
Colombia and Costa Rica are key locations for the conservation of Leopardus pardinoides. But preservation of Colombia’s clouded tiger cats faces difficult hurdles, including the urgent need for more research and protection conducted within key areas that lie inside conflict zones, say researchers. Image courtesy of Camilo Botero.

Raising a conservation alarm

For Andrew Kitchener, principal curator of vertebrates at the National Museum of Scotland, who leads the cat classification task force at the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, the new finding brings welcome taxonomic clarity to the tiger cat complex. In the past, his group has faced uncertainty over just how many species there were, and their relation to one another.

“If you have a match between the morphology, the genetics and the ecology, that’s a pretty comprehensive job,” said Kitchener, who was not involved in the recent paper. “It looks like for the moment, at least, given the comprehensive nature of the data that the taxonomic issues now seem to be settled for this group.”

L. pardinoides was heralded by the media as the exciting discovery of a new wildcat species. But for experts involved in the research, the taxonomic clarification’s significance runs far deeper, with major conservation consequences for all three tiger cats. Alongside the description of L. pardinoides, the researchers also presented new data in their 2024 paper that identifies “alarming” range reductions for each tiger cat species, underlining the “urgent need for updated threat assessments for each of the individual species,” the authors wrote.

“What I hope this paper will do is give the basis for people to understand that these are three different species and three different beautiful animals, but also show their reality,” said Tadeu de Oliviera, founder and chair of the Tiger Cats Conservation Initiative and lead author of the paper. “Sometimes people just say ‘oh, it’s a new species!’ But that’s not the main issue; the main issue is the conservation, not only of Leopardus pardinoides, but of all the tiger cats.”

A graphic indicating the historical and predicted current distribution of the three tiger cat species. Conservationists agree an accurate revision of the tiger cat complex is essential to conservation progress across Latin America. Image courtesy of de Oliveira et al., 2024.
A graphic indicating the historical and predicted current distribution of the three tiger cat species. Conservationists agree an accurate revision of the tiger cat complex is essential to conservation progress across Latin America. Image courtesy of de Oliveira et al., 2024.

Revising the threat map, for the worse

The new study not only makes the case for the clouded tiger cat as a separate species; it also lays out new distribution maps for all three species, with the understanding that each corresponds to a specific biome, said de Oliviera. L. pardinoides dwells in the high-altitude cloud forests of South and Central America; L. tigrinus lives in savanna and shrublands such as the Brazilian Caatinga and Cerrado; and L. gutullus is a specialist of the Atlantic Forest.

Based on historical distribution, the authors estimated an alarming 55.9% range reduction for L. tigrinus, 50.4% for L. pardinoides, and 68.2% for L. gutullus. “We have population drops for all three species and the scenarios are scary,” de Oliviera said. “This is huge.”

These clarifications resulted in a large swath of Amazon habitat once considered as potential territory for L. tigrinus now being lopped off the distribution map, said de Oliviera. Similarly, areas of savanna once considered potential habitat for L. gutullus have been removed. These new range restrictions are constricted even more dramatically when habitat no longer deemed suitable for the small cats is accounted for.

According to the 2024 paper, the oncilla, found in cloud forest regions of Costa Rica and Panama, is a subspecies of the newly recognized L. pardinoides species, not L. tigrinus. It’s possible that with further genetic studies, the oncilla may become its own separate species, say experts. Image courtesy of Yilder Esteban González Montenegro.
According to the 2024 paper, the oncilla, found in cloud forest regions of Costa Rica and Panama, is a subspecies of the newly recognized L. pardinoides species, not L. tigrinus. It’s possible that with further genetic studies, the oncilla may become its own separate species, say experts. Image courtesy of Yilder Esteban González Montenegro.

But habitat loss is just one tiger cat concern noted by experts. Some of these — including habitat loss and degradation, road-killing, and persecution due to conflict — are shared by all three species. There’s also the widespread risk of disease transmission by free-ranging and domestic dogs. L. gutullus also faces the challenge of interbreeding with another small wildcat: Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi).

Jonas Lescroart, a Ph.D. student at the University of Antwerp in Belgium and at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, noted early indications of lower genetic diversity in the tiger cat populations of Central America compared to those in the Andes. Similarly, there are “alarming signs” of limited genetic diversity among L. tigrinus populations in northeastern Brazil, though these are based on limited samples. Decreased genetic diversity can reduce species resilience and increase disease vulnerability.

“From a genetics point of view, it will be important to get more samples from all the different tiger cat populations and look at genetic diversity and population structure,” said Lescroart, who led a study on the genetic diversity of the tiger cat group.

The 2024 study concluded that Colombia and Costa Rica are vital to the conservation of L. pardinoides, the new species; while Brazil is key for the survival of L. gutullus and L. tigrinus as that nation holds more than 90% of their current range.

Composite image details the differences in appearance between the three tiger cats. Each is slightly different in body size and shape, and with differing spot patterns. Curiously, the newly described L. pardinoides has only one pair of teats, while the others have two. A) represents the savanna tiger cat, L. tigrinus; B) represents the newly proposed clouded tiger cat, L. pardinoides; and c) the Atlantic Forest tiger cat, L. guttulus. A likely revision of these species’ threat status could see all three classified as endangered. Image courtesy of de Oliveira et al., 2024.
Composite image details the differences in appearance between the three tiger cats. Each is slightly different in body size and shape, and with differing spot patterns. Curiously, the newly described L. pardinoides has only one pair of teats, while the others have two. A) represents the savanna tiger cat, L. tigrinus; B) represents the newly proposed clouded tiger cat, L. pardinoides; and c) the Atlantic Forest tiger cat, L. guttulus. A likely revision of these species’ threat status could see all three classified as endangered. Image courtesy of de Oliveira et al., 2024.

In greater need of conservation

The two previously recognized tiger cat species, L. gutullus and L. tigrinus, are currently both considered vulnerable to extinction, according to the IUCN Red List. But this year’s taxonomic reshuffling may change that picture.

“Once the [proposed revised] taxonomy has been accepted, there needs to be a proper IUCN Red List assessment of all three species so that we can actually determine what their conservation status is,” said Kitchener, who is leading the next taxonomic review of global felids; the last update occurred in 2017. “A decision will then be made about how endangered they are and what conservation actions would be required. But the chief [recommendation] would seem to me to be preservation of habitat.”

According to de Oliviera, who led past IUCN assessments for L. tigrinus and L. gutullus, all three tiger cat species may warrant endangered status when habitat loss, potential population declines and a wide range of other threats are taken into account. He said that L. tigrinus in particular faces a “scary” future because it dwells in some of the most threatened landscapes in Brazil: habitat rapidly being swept away by the expansion of agricultural cash crops such as soy.

Leopardus tigrinus, or the savanna tiger cat. As its name suggests, this species roams savanna grasslands including the Cerrado and Caatinga, two highly threatened biomes. Study lead author Tadeu de Oliviera said conservation of this tiger cat is at a critical stage, with Brazil a priority country for its preservation. Image courtesy of the Tiger Cat Conservation Initiative.
Leopardus tigrinus, or the savanna tiger cat. As its name suggests, this species roams savanna grasslands including the Cerrado and Caatinga, two highly threatened biomes. Study lead author Tadeu de Oliviera said conservation of this tiger cat is at a critical stage, with Brazil a priority country for its preservation. Image courtesy of the Tiger Cat Conservation Initiative.

Given the tiger cat range reductions identified by the study authors, Roberto Salom, the Latin America director for Panthera, agrees that a change in conservation status would be warranted for the two previously identified tiger cat species, while the newly designated L. pardinoides too could be argued to be endangered. “Now we have a species that has a very concentrated distribution,” he said. “It brings complexity to the conservation of the species.”

A global IUCN review and risk redesignation could also trigger a review of tiger cat status at the national level. In Brazil, L. tigrinus is already considered an endangered species. Likewise in Costa Rica, where the oncilla (previously considered a subspecies of L. tigrinus but now recognized a sub-species of L. pardinoides) is listed as threatened. According to some experts, the oncilla is the most endangered cat in the country, compared to others such as the jaguar (Panthera onca) and margay (Leopardus wiedii). The oncilla “definitely has to become one of the priorities for [Costa Rica] in terms of conservation of wildlife,” Salom stated.

In Colombia, L. tigrinus is currently considered vulnerable, and a recent update to the country’s endangered species list makes no mention of L. pardinoides. There’s also controversy swirling there around another recently proposed species, Leopardus narinensis, a spotted cat species described last year that muddies the country’s tiger cat picture.

Conservationists emphasize that diminutive tiger cats face a wide variety of threats, including habitat loss and degradation, and disease transmission from domestic dogs and cats. Continentwide vaccination and sterilization campaigns have been organized in an attempt to address the latter challenge. Image courtesy of the Tiger Cat Conservation Initiative.
Conservationists emphasize that diminutive tiger cats face a wide variety of threats, including habitat loss and degradation, and disease transmission from domestic dogs and cats. Continentwide vaccination and sterilization campaigns have been organized in an attempt to address the latter challenge. Image courtesy of the Tiger Cat Conservation Initiative.

Juan Camilo Cepeda Duque of the Andean Tiger Cat Conservation Project, who was part of the recent study, notes that it will take time for L. pardinoides to be recognized as a separate species in Colombia, and that may not happen until the next endangered species update.

Delay of heightened risk designation can result in increased conservation challenges. “As a habitat specialist we don’t know if L. pardinoides corresponds to vulnerable or if its status is even worse given the rampant destruction of its remaining habitat and the occurrence of multiple threats in both protected and unprotected contexts,” Cepeda Duque said, noting that very few conservation programs presently target the species, and those that do operate with scant resources. Stepping up the listing to endangered could help change that.

Among the more than 30 species of small wildcats worldwide, a dozen are considered vulnerable or endangered by the IUCN, including Latin America’s Andean cat (Leopardus jacobita), and Asia’s Borneo bay cat (Catopuma badia) and flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps). Small wildcat conservation worldwide is plagued by scant research funding.

Researchers setting up camera traps in Brazil’s Mirador State Park, home to a key Leopardus tigrinus population. Camera trap records proved important in identifying the differences between the three species of tiger cats. Image courtesy of the Tiger Cat Conservation Initiative.
Researchers setting up camera traps in Brazil’s Mirador State Park, home to a key Leopardus tigrinus population. Camera trap records proved important in identifying the differences between the three species of tiger cats. Image courtesy of the Tiger Cat Conservation Initiative.

Acting for tiger cats

Conservationists hope that placing a spotlight on the newly described clouded tiger cat will open the door to more conservation money for the species, and generate greater research interest in small cats.

“We now have a smaller area where this species [L. pardinoides] is found,” said José Daniel Ramírez-Fernández, a biologist and coordinator of Oncilla Conservation. “We have to reinforce our actions to protect it better, because it’s not a huge distribution.”

Conservation work is ongoing across the ranges of all three tiger cat species. In Costa Rica, for example, efforts are underway to protect oncillas from becoming roadkill and to reduce predation on chickens, minimizing human conflict. Members of the Tiger Cat Conservation Initiative, meanwhile, have engaged in cross-continental vaccination and sterilization campaigns of domestic dogs and cats for the past three years to limit the spread of contagious illnesses to small wildcats in multiple countries; though with limited resources available to cover vast expanses of territory, these efforts can only go so far, say conservationists.

The southern tiger cat, Leopardus guttulus, also known as the Atlantic Forest tiger cat, was only declared a separate species in 2013. This species faces a host of threats, including loss and degradation of its Atlantic Forest habitat, road-killing, and also hybridization with Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi). “This species is highly dependent on fragments of native forest with good levels of conservation,” says Paula Cruz, an assistant researcher at Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research. “These fragments are often outside protected areas, which poses a risk to the long-term conservation [of the species].” Image courtesy of the Tiger Cat Conservation Initiative.
The southern tiger cat, Leopardus guttulus, also known as the Atlantic Forest tiger cat, was only declared a separate species in 2013. This species faces a host of threats, including loss and degradation of its Atlantic Forest habitat, road-killing, and also hybridization with Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi). “This species is highly dependent on fragments of native forest with good levels of conservation,” says Paula Cruz, an assistant researcher at Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research. “These fragments are often outside protected areas, which poses a risk to the long-term conservation [of the species].” Image courtesy of the Tiger Cat Conservation Initiative.

As with small wildcats globally, tiger cats require much more support if they are to be conserved — in terms of research, conservation dollars, and efforts to preserve habitat and maintain population connectivity. De Oliviera said more conservation action is needed for the whole family of tiger cats and Latin America’s other neglected small cats “writ large.” Those preservation measures extend to land policy in key range countries such as Brazil to conserve natural habitat and build connectivity.

Deciphering the tiger cat taxonomy and declaring a new species is an important step in this direction, de Oliveira said, but it’s only one step. “What really matters is their conservation … There’s still time, but if we don’t do anything I think that in 20 years the tiger cats will be in a very critical condition.

An oncilla mural in Costa Rica. Community-based awareness of these small wildcats is vital for their protection. Getting local people onside to reduce conflict — triggered by wildcat predation on poultry, for example — and addressing potential disease transmission from domestic animals is key. But efforts are needed at a far larger scale, experts say, if these species are to be conserved throughout their ranges. Image courtesy of Oncilla Conservation.
An oncilla mural in Costa Rica. Community-based awareness of these small wildcats is vital for their protection. Getting local people onside to reduce conflict — triggered by wildcat predation on poultry, for example — and addressing potential disease transmission from domestic animals is key. But efforts are needed at a far larger scale, experts say, if these species are to be conserved throughout their ranges. Image courtesy of Oncilla Conservation.

Citations:

De Oliveira, T. G., Fox-Rosales, L. A., Ramírez-Fernández, J. D., Cepeda-Duque, J. C., Zug, R., Sanchez-Lalinde, C., … Rodrigues, F. H. (2024). Ecological modeling, biogeography, and phenotypic analyses setting the tiger cats’ hyperdimensional niches reveal a new species. Scientific Reports, 14(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-024-52379-8

Lescroart, J., Bonilla-Sánchez, A., Napolitano, C., Buitrago-Torres, D. L., Ramírez-Chaves, H. E., Pulido-Santacruz, P., … Eizirik, E. (2023). Extensive phylogenomic discordance and the complex evolutionary history of the Neotropical cat genus Leopardus. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 40(12). doi:10.1093/molbev/msad255

De Oliveira, T. G., Lima, B. C., Fox-Rosales, L., Pereira, R. S., Pontes-Araújo, E., & De Sousa, A. L. (2020). A refined population and conservation assessment of the elusive and endangered northern tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus) in its key worldwide conservation area in Brazil. Global Ecology and Conservation, 22, e00927. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2020.e00927

González-Maya, J. F., Zárrate-Charry, D. A., Arias-Alzate, A., Lemus-Mejía, L., Hurtado-Moreno, A. P., Vargas-Gómez, M. G., … Schipper, J. (2022). Spotting what’s important: Priority areas, connectivity, and conservation of the northern tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus) in Colombia. PLOS ONE, 17(9), e0273750. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0273750

This article by Sean Mowbray was first published by Mongabay.com on 5 April 2024. Lead Image: The 2024 paper proposes Leopardus pardinoides, or the clouded tiger cat, as a new species. This small wildcat is found in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, south to Panama, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Image courtesy of Johanes Pfleiderer.

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