Jaguarundi Herpailurus yagouaroundi
ESA status: endangered

jaguarundi pc Thomas MarentThe jaguarundi is an oddball among cat species – at first glance it looks more like a large weasel. Its long body, small rounded ears, small head, honey-brown eyes, and uniform fur distinguish it from other neotropical cats, such as the spotted ocelot with which it shares its U.S. range. The jaguarundi, weighing around 11 pounds, is smaller than the ocelot and is sometimes killed by the larger cats. This may be part of the reason the jaguarundi is most active during the day, avoiding the nocturnal ocelot. But the jaguarundi may also emerge at night, especially when the moon is full. 

Adult jaguarundis have a wide range of vocalizations, many of which are used for friendly contact, courtship, mating, or communication between mothers and kittens. They have at least 13 distinct calls. They spend most of their time on the ground, but can be agile climbers when inspired, such as when they are pursued. They hunt small rodents, reptiles, and birds in dense vegetation, especially thornscrub.

The jaguarundi’s historic range stretched from southeastern Arizona and southern Texas, through Mexico, to portions of South America. In the U.S., they are found mainly in Tamaulipan thornscrub, a habitat that is rapidly disappearing. The most important remaining U.S. stronghold for the jaguarundi is the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. The Refuge itself is increasingly an island amidst roads, agricultural crops, and development, due to a rapidly increasing human population in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. In addition to the threat of habitat loss, the jaguarundi faces greater risk of road mortality. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimated more than a 90 percent decline in Lower Rio Grande Valley brushland in Texas and described the habitat as rapidly disappearing along the Rio Grande in Mexico as well. From 1991 to 2000 alone, approximately 113,126 acres of suitable jaguarundi habitat were destroyed in south Texas. Precious thornscrub in the Rio Grande Valley is disappearing at an alarming rate. That’s a serious blow for both the jaguarundi and the ocelot, which both depend on this increasingly rare habitat type. And, like many other animals on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the jaguarundi is threatened by a myriad of human border activities including immigration, drug trafficking, police and military actions, border installations and fences, and artificial lighting. To create a safe haven for the jaguarundi and a host of other trans-border animals, scientists and land managers on both sides of the border are calling for international cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico. This is in stark contrast to the current national U.S. drive to separate the people and ecosystems of the two countries. Preservation of the biodiversity of both countries will require a consistent, dedicated effort from the U. S. and Mexican governments working in collaboration. But such action has not been forthcoming.

Though the jaguarundi has been listed as endangered in the U.S. since 1976, it has been all but forgotten. Habitat loss is widely recognized as the most serious threat to the jaguarundi, but the FWS has never designated critical habitat, never written a recovery plan specific to the jaguarundi, and has failed to allocate adequate funds towards jaguarundi habitat acquisition. Currently, the jaguarundi is relying on small islands of suitable habitat surrounded by vast expanses of agriculture and urban lands.  Critical habitat designation could safeguard both occupied and unoccupied habitat necessary to jaguarundi survival and recovery. Protection of unoccupied habitat would ensure that jaguarundi populations could expand and connect to each other. Species with critical habitat designations are twice as likely to recover as those without. WildEarth Guardians has ensured FWS will develop a recovery plan for the jaguarundi and is fighting hard to get critical habitat designated for this rare cat and double its chances of survival. We don’t want to see this one-of-a-kind wildcat vanish forever.

photo: © Thomas Marent