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Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common name

  • Ocelot
  • Numerous other common names
    • Tigrillo, ocelote, gato onza
    • Nicknamed the "ghost cat" for its secretive ways (Klepper 2010)
  • Etymology
    • Ocelot derived from a French adaptation of the Nahuan native name of ocelotl for "jaguar" (Murray & Gardner 1997)

Scientific name

  • Subspecies
    • Two subspecies recognized by Kitchener et al. (2017)
      • Historically, up to 10 subspecies recognized (Wozencraft 2005)
    • Significant genetic diversity across the species's range
      • Genetic studies suggest four distinct population clusters (Eizirik et al. 1998)
        • Central America and Mexico
        • North-northwest South America
        • North-northeast South America
        • Southern South America
      • Populations in southern Texas and northern Mexico share a close genetic relationship (Janecka et al. 2007)
  • Etymology
    • Specific epithet pardalis from two Latin words; pardus meaning "panther or leopard" and alis meaning "relating to"
  • Synonyms
    • Felis pardalis

Evolutionary History

Modern felid evolution (from Johnson et al. 2006)

  • Origin and diversification
    • Major, modern felid lineages established between 10.8 and 6.2 million years ago (Mya)

Ocelot evolution

  • Origin and ancestry
    • Some disagreement among experts
    • Ancestor of ocelots likely of Asian origin, according to DNA evidence
      • Descendants evolved to produce four cat lineages
        • Lynx, puma, leopard cat, domestic cat
      • Direct ancestor arrived in North America c. 8.8 to 8.0 Mya
        • Expansion into South America followed
    • One rare fossil find places a possible ancestor of the ocelot lineage more recently (Werdelin 1985)
      • 4-5 million year-old Felis lacustris or Felis rexroadensis
  • Divergence estimates
    • Split from their common ancestor between 8 and 2.9 Mya
      • Either before or as the land bridge between North and South America formed, according to DNA evidence (O'Brien et al. 1996)
      • A 1.5- to 2.5 million year-old fossil of a species of Leopardus is known from South America (Berta 1983)
        • Until the Panama land bridge formed between Central and South America, no carnivores (except marsupials) lived in South America (O'Brien et al. 1996)
    • Ocelots have remained roughly in the same neotropical region where they originated millions of years ago
      • Other cat groups that still remain where they originated include bay cats and leopards (Oriental region) and caracals (Ethiopia)
      • All other felid lineages have migrated to continents other than the ones where they originated
        • Cheetahs originated in North America but migrated later to Asia and Africa
        • Jaguars originated in Asia and later migrated to the Americas

Cultural History

Native American art and iconography

  • Carved bone ocelot figures (from Morehead 1968 unless otherwise noted)
    • Produced by the Hopewell Mound group from Ross County, Ohio 
    • Works date to between 1400 and 1500
    • Suggests that ocelots ranged across the southeastern U.S., though trade may explain their presence (Cahalane 1958)
  • Aztec and Inca civilizations portrayed the ocelot art (Cisin 1967)
    • Jaguars (ocelotl) were inscribed on the Aztec sun stone discovered in 1790 in Mexico City (León y Gama 1792)
    • Jaguars represented the mythical first epoch of the world

Popular cultural references

  • Documentary appearances


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Suborder: Feliformia

Family: Felidae

Subfamily:Pantherine (3 genera of large cats)
Subfamily: Felinae (11 genera of small, medium and large cats)

Genus: Leopardus

Species: Leopardus pardalis (Linnaeus, 1758)

*Subspecies: L. p. pardalis (Schreber, 1775)
Subspecies: L. p. mitis (Cuvier, 1820)

*Note: Subspecies recognized by Kitchener et al. (2017)

Early Rendering

painting of an Ocelot

Ocelot hunting a catfish. Plate 86 in The Quadrupeds of North America, vol. II; drawn by John J. Audubon.

Image credit: © John J. Audubon. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Berta (1983)
Cahalane (1958)
Cisin (1967)
Eizirik et al. (1998)
Johnson et al. (2006)
Klepper (2010)
ITIS (2011)
Janecka et al. (2007)
Johnson et al. (2006)
León y Gama (1792)
Linneaus (1758)
Morehead (1968)
Murray & Gardner (1997)
O'Brien et al. (1996)
Werdelin (1985)
Wozencraft (2005)

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