As Sihil, an ocelot from the Cincinnati Zoo, was traveling through South Texas last week, rangers at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge made their own discovery: an ocelot kitten, and it could be a female.
The kitten, estimated to be 3 to 5 months of age, was first seen by rangers last week but it was photographed by a remote trail camera on Valentine’s Day, said Hilary Swarts, wildlife biologist at the refuge.
Ocelots live mostly in South and Central America, but small populations have reached as far north as the Rio Grande Valley.
Swarts estimated that with the sighting the local population of small cats was 12. Each cat has a distinctive pattern of spots, and the one on the kitten was never seen before, she said.
“It’s a hugely, hugely important discovery for several reasons,” Swarts said. “When you are adding one individual to a population of 11, you are talking about an almost 10 percent increase in your population.”
Female ocelots, Swarts said, are the limiting link to the population.
“Males can go impregnate multiple females in a relatively short time, but females have to gestate and lactate,” Swarts said. “Basically a female, from the second she gets pregnant, you’re talking about two years before she’s ready to have another offspring.”
The added presence of a possible female ocelot is valuable, Swarts said.
Unlike domestic cats that can give birth to many kittens at a time, ocelots have one or two, Swarts said.
Refuge manager Boyd Blihovde said the sighting was a precious moment. He started work last July, shortly after an ocelot was killed on Highway 100.
“That, to me, it hit home that we lost a cat,” Blihovde said.
The kitten was spotted off a stretch of road that previously had been open to private vehicles, but has been closed since November to keep cars from hitting the felines.
“This feels like the population has gone in the right direction,” Blihovde added.
Texas, with a population of 55 cats, is the only region where the ocelot roams, Swarts said.
The last time a new cat was spotted, Swarts said, was almost a year ago when a 1½-year-old male was seen.
Swarts said it’s been unusual to see a kitten in South Texas during the dry conditions that began almost four years ago.
“There’s been such a severe drought that there’s been such a concern whether the ocelots were going to reproduce,” she said.
Droughts, she said, cut down plant life, which reduces the population of rodents on which ocelots feed.
“It’s heartening to see this little kitten now as we are coming out of the drought,” Swarts said. “It’s certainly a good sign for what we hope to see in the future.”