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Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle


  • Primarily hunt at night (Nowell & Jackson 1996)
    • Activity peaks at dawn and dusk (crepuscular) (Emmons 1988)
      • Often begin moving 1-2 hours before dark (Sunquist & Sunquist 2002)
    • Rest between dawn and late afternoon (Sunquist & Sunquist 2002)
      • More active in daytime on rainy or cloudy days, in the wild (Sunquist 1992)
    • Lactating females in wild increase activity levels to almost 23 hr/day (De Oliveira et al. 2010)
  • Activity cycle
    • Movement patterns often unpredictable in the wild (from Emmons et al. 1989)
      • May walk for 12 hrs. without rest or spend more than a day in the same place
    • Regional pattern of activity
      • In Brazil, an activity peak occurred between 17:00 and 22:00 (Crawshaw & Quiqley 1989)
      • In Argentina, daytime activity associated with a diurnal prey base (Ludlow & Sunquist 1987)
      • In Peru, Cocha Cashu Biological Station (from Emmons et al. 1989)
        • Hunt on moon-lit and moon-less nights along the Manu River
        • Ocelot alter hunting patterns according to the amount of moonlight
          • Shift to hunt in more densely vegetated areas with more moonlight
            • Possibly to mirror shifts in rodent behavior, as these prey avoid light
            • May also avoid open well-lit areas to avoid competition with and predation by larger cats (pumas or cougars)
          • Ocelots in Argentina's Atlatic Forest behaved similarly (Di Bitetti et al. 2006)
          • Larger felids, such as puma and jaguar, did not alter hunting locations according to phases of the moon
    • Animals in managed care typically less active than those in the wild (from Weller & Bennett 2001)
      • Most active in early morning and evening/night
        • Twice daily activity peaks similar to that of wild individuals
          • Morning peak tends to be somewhat delayed; possibly due to timed feedings
        • Many cats in managed care showed pacing behavior in the 30 minutes prior to feeding

Social Groups

Solitary, most often (Sunquist & Sunquist 2002)

  •  Not considered asocial (Sunquist & Sunquist 2002)
    • Independent young known to associate with parents
    • Males and females may associate outside of breeding
      • When resting, adults usually remain at least 600-1200 m (0.4 -0.8 mi) apart (Ludlow & Sunquist 1987)
      • A significant portion of each population is transient and non-breeding (Emmons 1988)

Territoriality and Home Ranges


  • Patrol and mark territory (from Murray & Gradner 1997)
    • Both sexes move through their territory and mark paths

Home range size

  • Varies considerably across distribution (De Oliveira as cited in Caso et al. 2008)
    • Amazonian rain forest, Peru (from Emmons 1988)
      • Ocelots live in high densities with small home ranges, perhaps due to high prey densities
    • Southern U.S. (from Tewes 1986)
      • Large home ranges
      • Possibly due to low prey density
    • Pantanal flood plains, Brazil
      • 5.4 km2 (2.1 mi2)
    • Emas National park, Brazil
      • Male ranges c. 90.5 km2 (34.8 mi2)
    • Grassland plains, Venezuela (from Sunquist et al. 1989 unless otherwise noted)
      • Male ranges are larger than those of females
        • Female ranges are often within those of a male
        • Male territories rarely overlap with one another (Emmons 1988)
      • Territory of one male c. 970 ha (3.8 mi2)
      • Territory of two females c. 218 and 290 ha (0.84 and 1.1 mi2)
        • Female ranges do not overlap with one another
  • Seasonal variation
    • Flooding can reduce territory size in the wet season (from Sunquist et al. 1989)
      • Range may shrink up to 35%

Population density estimates

  • Trends (from Di Bitetti et al. 2008)
    • Poaching and logging associated with lower animal density
    • High annual rainfall associated with higher animal density
    • Association between latitude and animal density unclear
      • Density tends to decrease as you move north within the animal's distribution
      • More northern regions (higher latitudes) also tend to be more heavily impacted by human activities
  • Pantanal region, Brazil
    • 2.8 individuals for every 5 km2(1.9 mi2) (Trolle & Kery 2003)
  • Southern Brazil (from Goulart et al. 2009)
    • 0.04 individuals per km2 (0.02 per mi2)
    • Other studies have noted much higher densities
      • 0.3 to 0.4 individuals per km2 (0.12 to 0.15 to per mi2)
      • Differences may be due to small size of the study reserve and proximity to crop land and potential illegal hunting
  • Tropical pine forests, Belize
    • 3 individuals per 100 km2 (per 38.6 mi2) (Di Bitetti et al. 2008)
  • Barro Colorado Island, Panama
    • 160 individuals per 100 km2 (per 38.6 mi2) (Di Bitetti et al. 2008)

Social Interactions


  • Uncommonly observed
    • Often described as having a docile or calm disposition (Murray & Gardner 1997)
  • Infanticide may occur
    • Male killed newborn kitten, in managed care (Mansard 1991)
      • Male was the infant's father
      • Father displayed no aggression towards his other infants


  • Kittens play frequently
    • Adults may play with kittens


Visual Signals

  •  Threat postures (from Mansard 1991)
    • Arched back
    • Stiff legs
    • Tail raised at root and held straight down

Vocalization (from Mansard 1991 unless otherwise noted)

  • Courtship call
    • Yowl
  • "Chuckle" when excited
  • Vocalization in managed care
    • "Mutter" to each other or to themselves
  • Audio Clips
    • Click here for ocelot recordings provided by the Macaulay Library, Cornell University

Olfaction/Scent Marking

  • Mark territories and trails (from Murray & Gardner 1997 unless otherwise noted)
    • Performed by both males and females
    • Forms of marking
      • Claw logs, spray vegetation along trails with urine
        • Clear a spot to urinate, but do not cover urine afterwards
      • Leave feces prominently on trails
        • Scent signal enhanced after defecating by rubbing anal region along ground (Mansard 1991)



  • Walk and run
    • Slow, steady walk when hunting
      • Move c. 0.3 km/hr (0.2 mi/hr) (Emmons 1988)
    • Males patrol boundaries at slight faster speeds
      • Cover c. 0.8-1.4 km/hr (0.5-0.9 mi/hr) (Emmons 1988)
  • Climb trees
    • Powerful; often ascent trees to rest (Emmons 1988)
  • Swim
    • Adept swimmers but avoid water if possible (Guggisberg 1975)

Hunting Behaviors

Hunting styles (from Sunquist & Sunquist 2009 unless otherwise noted)

  • Hunt in trees, on the ground, and in water (Abreu et al. 2008; Sunquist & Sunquist 2009)
    • Arboreal species made up most of biomass of prey in a study of ocelot fecal samples, one study in southern Brazil
  • Walk and scan for prey
    • Walk slowly along trails in search of food
    • Some observations indicate ocelots may follow a prey's scent (Murray & Gardner 1997)
  • Sit and wait
    • Occasionally hide as long as an hour before moving to a new spot
  • Catch fish and crustaceans

Interspecies Interactions

Potential competitors (from De Oliveira et al. 2011 unless otherwise noted)

  • Compete with smaller cats for prey
    • Margay (Leopardus wiedii)
    • Little spotted cat (Leopardus tigrinus)
    • Jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi)
    • Pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo)
    • Geoffroy's cat (Leopardus geoffroy)
    • Bobcat (Lynx rufus), in Texas (Horne et al. 2009)
  • Minimal competition with larger cats
    • Puma (Felis concolor)
    • Jaguar (Panthera onca)

Ocelot role in ecosystem dynamics (Moreno et al. 2006; Roemer et al. 2009)

  • Indirectly enhance forest regeneration
    • Consumption of seed eaters (such as agoutis, Dasyproctus sp.)
  • Impact other cat populations
    • Harbor and pass on pathogens to larger cats
      • High population density of ocelots and other small cats creates a reservoir for potential pathogens
    • Greater numbers of ocelots may decrease population size of smaller cats (more ocelots, fewer smaller cats)
      • Ocelots do not appear to be affected by the presence of larger cats, puma and jaguar
        • Larger cats target prey of a different size
    • Shape the dynamics of the medium-sized, neotropical animal community
      • Ocelots are the top medium-sized predator in the region

Evidence of resource partitioning with bobcats (from Horne et al. 2009)

  • Ocelot and bobcat coexist in southern Texas
    • Though the species consume similar prey they hunt in different habitats
      • Ocelots prefer closed vegetative cover; avoiding other types of cover
      • Bobcats favor mixed and open cover areas
      • Microhabitat preferences allow these cats to share a common range

Monkeys and birds (Emmons 1988; Izawa 1978)

  • Often harass ocelots
    • These animals are potential prey for the cats

Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis)

Ocelot group

Ocelots are primarily solitary, nocturnal predators, with activity peaks at dawn and dusk. The photograph above, taken in the Peruvian Amazon, depicts an uncommon event, a pair active in daylight.

Image credit: © eMammal via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Climb Trees to Rest

Ocelot on a log

Often in trees, the Ocelot are powerful climbers.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Crawshaw & Quiqley (1989)
De Oliveira as cited in Caso et al. (2008)
De Oliveira et al. (2010)
Di Bitetti et al. (2006)
Di Bitetti et al. (2008)
Emmons (1988)
Emmons et al. (1989)
Goulart et al. (2009)
Horne et al. (2009)
Izawa (1978)
Ludlow & Sunquist (1987)
Mansard (1991)
Moreno et al. (2006)
Murray & Gardner (1997)
Nowell & Jackson (1996)
Sunquist (1992)
Sunquist et al. (1989)
Sunquist & Sunquist (2002)
Tewes (1986)
Trolle & Kery (2003)
Weller & Bennett (2001)

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