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Despite the similarities of their names, the wild cat called the jaguarondi (Puma yagouaroundi) is not closely related to the jaguar. The two share much of the same range, and their names both derive from a word in the Guarani language that means “carnivorous animal.” As a member of the genus Puma, the jaguarondi is closer to the mountain lion, also called the cougar or puma. A common distant ancestor of the jaguarondi and the mountain lion probably made its way over from Eurasia by way of the Bering Land Bridge. Jaguarondis live in South and Central America, and up through Mexico and southern Texas.
Though the jaguarondi is about the size of a hefty house cat, it would not be mistaken for one. It’s around three to four and a half feet (91-157 cm) long including its flattened tail, and its frame is lower and wider than a house cat’s. Its ears are not pointed, but round, like a lion’s. In some areas of its habitat, the jaguarondi is called “leoncillo,” Spanish for little lion.
Another regional nickname for the jaguarondi, the otter cat, suggests a trait atypical of felines: it swims, and does so without hesitation. Its long, low-slung carriage and short fur, both useful for moving underwater, cause the jaguarondi to look much like an otter. The outline of the jaguarondi altogether resembles members of the weasel and otter family, the mustelids, more closely than it does other cats. Though the legs of the jaguarondi are short, it is a fast runner and can go for up to a mile without stopping. Unlike most cats, it chases rather than stalks its prey. The jaguarondi spends most of its time on the ground, but it can climb trees, and, unusually for a cat, it will eat fruit. Its primary source of food, however, is small mammals like rabbits and mice.
The jaguarondi’s habitat consists of dense forests, and it rarely comes out into the open. Because it is so elusive, information about the jaguarondi is difficult to obtain. Much of what is known about it comes from historical reports. For a long time, biologists considered one of the color variations of the jaguarondi, the red, a separate species called the eyra. However, both the red and the gray variations are the same, and a litter of cubs may contain members of both colors. The coat of the adult jaguarondi is uniform, with no stripes, spots, or other mottling.
Jaguarondis live alone, except while courting a mate. Their speed and agility, their preference for dense vegetation, as well as their tendency to hunt early in the morning and at night, insures that people seldom see them. Nevertheless, destruction of their habitat is reducing the numbers of jaguarondis in the wild. The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) places the jaguarondi populations of Central and North America within Appendix I, their list of the most endangered animals. The South American jaguarondis, listed within Appendix II, are considered threatened but not in imminent danger of extinction.