Other Names
chat des Andes (French)
Andenkatze, Bergkatze (German)
chinchay, gato andino, gato lince (Spanish)
gato montés altiplánico, titi (Bolivia)
gato montés andino (Chile)
osjo (Peru)
  • Description and Behavior

  • Biology

  • Habitat and Distribution

  • Population Status

  • Protection Status

  • Principal Threats

  • References

  • Action Planning

  • Description and Behavior
    There are just a few museum skins and skulls by which to describe this species, and there have been just a handful of observations made in the wild (Grimwood 1969, Scrocchi and Halloy 1986, Ziesler 1992). The Andean mountain cat is a small but sturdy cat: one male from Peru weighed 4 kg (Pearson 1957). It has long ash-grey fur indistinctly patterned with rusty rosette-like spots on the sides, and marked with conspicuous thick dark stripes extending down the sides from the back. Prominent dark grey bars run also across its chest and forelegs. Its nose is black, and its belly pale, with dark spots. The tail is thick and long (about 70% of head-body length: Osgood 1943, Pearson 1957, Cabrera 1961, Pine et al. 1979), banded with approximately seven conspicuous dark rings. The mountain cat is characterized by large auditory bullae of a form unique among the felids, the anterior chamber being somewhat larger than the posterior (Kuhn 1973). Enlarged auditory bullae are typical of animals inhabiting arid environments with little cover for protection and concealment (see description of the sand cat under NORTH AFRICA & SOUTH-WEST ASIA).

    Essentially nothing is known about the biology and behavior of the Andean mountain cat. The most detailed observation of it in the scientific literature was made at 4,250 m in the north-east of Argentina’s Tucuman province (Scrocchi and Halloy 1986). A single cat was followed on foot for more than two hours during late morning at a distance of 15 to 50 m, showing no fear of humans. It drank from melting ice, and moved to sit upon a prominent rock. A gray fox ran from the cat. The cat travelled further and rested in the shadows on a rocky hillside before it moved out of sight.

    Burmeister (1879) reported without elaboration that the Andean mountain cat prefers to hunt mountain chinchillas (nocturnal) and mountain viscachas (diurnal). Grimwood (1969) and Ziesler (1992) each observed a cat stalking mountain viscachas at 4-4,300 m. These remain the only clues to its diet, which may or may not include other species (birds, reptiles, small rodents, etc.). The mountain cat’s range appears to coincide with the original distribution of these large rodent species. Both are “ricochettal” rodents: their strategy to escape predators involves making unpredictable changes of direction by bounding off rock faces (MacClintock 1966). Like the Andean mountain cat, the mountain chinchillas and viscachas have enlarged auditory bullae. The long tail of the mountain cat (which is much longer than that of the similar-looking montane form of the pampas cat [Redford and Eisenberg 1992]) is probably an aid to balance when chasing these rodents. Other species with relatively long thick tails include the cheetah (gazelles and hares change directions swiftly during high-speed chase as an escape strategy), the snow leopard (which hunts mountain goats and sheep among cliffs and crags), and the clouded leopard, marbled cat and margay (species with highly developed arboreal capabilities).

    No information.
    No animals known to be kept in captivity.

    Habitat and Distribution
    The Andean mountain cat is apparently very specialized in its habitat requirements, having been found only in the rocky arid and semi-arid zones of the high Andes above the timberline (generally above 3-4,000 m in elevation). Vegetation at observation and collection sites has consisted mainly of small scattered dwarf shrubs and clumps of bunchgrass (Pearson 1957, Scrocchi and Halloy 1986). The presence of rock piles and boulders (typical micro-habitat of mountain viscachas, and the only type of cover available at such altitudes) may be important (Scrocchi and Halloy 1986, Ziesler 1992). Figure 2 shows the area of the Puna (grassland) and Altoandina high-altitude biogeographic provinces (Cabrera and Willink 1980), within the range delimited by O. jacobitus collection and sighting records (Grimwood 1969, Melquist 1984, Scrocchi and Halloy 1986, Redford and Eisenberg 1992). The distribution of these habitat types is more patchily distributed than shown, as the high plateau is broken up by deep valleys.

    Population Status
    Global: Category 2
    Regional: Category 1
    IUCN: Insufficiently Known

    Andean mountain cats apparently occur at low densities.

    Protection Status
    Protection Status: CITES Appendix I.

    National Legislation:
    Fully protected over its range

    Hunting and trade prohibited:
    Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru (Fuller et al. 1987)

    Principal Threats
    It is not clear whether the apparent rarity of the Andean mountain cat is a natural phenomenon, or is attributable to human actions, or is simply a misperception resulting from lack of observations. Only a detailed study of its ecology will provide the answer, but in the meantime, speculation will have to suffice.

    Lack of knowledge is obviously a factor. The few observations of the species were all in the daytime, and details regarding collection or observation, typically made during general mammal surveys, are sparse (e.g., Pearson 1957, Greer 1965b, Grimwood 1969, Pine et al. 1979, Melquist 1984). With regard to human action, it appears that two of the usual human-induced causes of rarity -- habitat loss/modification and direct persecution -- can be ruled out. There have been no significant changes in land-use of the high Andes over the last 2,000 years -- if anything, the human population has decreased (S. Halloy in litt. 1993, C. Weber in litt. 1993). Grazing by domestic camelids, sheep and goats can lead to reduced densities of large rodents, but at present this problem is localized rather than widespread (Holdridge 1978, J. Rottmann in litt. 1993). Although pelts of Andean mountain cats are occasionally seen in fur markets (Melquist 1984, A. Ximenez in litt. 1991), there are no records of international trade (aside from one probably misidentified trans-European shipment in 1977: WCMC unpubl. data). C. Weber (in litt. 1993) notes that the high Andes Indians of northern Chile knew little of the species, and that all the pelts he observed which were kept for ceremonial purposes were of the pampas cat.

    It is possible that the Andean mountain cat is rare because it has evolved to be a specialized predator of chinchillids. Both mountain chinchillas and mountain viscachas have naturally patchy distributions, living in small colonies (the biggest viscacha colonies containing only around 60 animals [Ziesler 1992]). The colonies are centered around cliffs and boulders, and the animals avoid extensive areas of open ground. Moreover, the high mountain habitat types are also unevenly distributed in some parts of the Andes, where the high plateau is dissected by deep valleys which are better watered, more thickly vegetated and relatively heavily settled -- not characteristic mountain cat habitat (Scrocchi and Halloy 1986).

    More specifically, perhaps the Andean mountain cat evolved to hunt nocturnal chinchillas rather than the larger, diurnal viscachas (few cats are diurnal, and neither of the two observed hunts were successful). While mountain viscachas are declining locally outside of reserves due to subsistence hunting (H. Torres in litt. 1991, J. Rottmann in litt. 1993), the short-tailed chinchilla has been hunted to the brink of extinction. It was intensively exploited for the European fur trade from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. Formerly ranging through the high Andes from northern Peru south to the vicinity of Santiago, only a few scattered colonies are believed to survive in rugged and inaccessible terrain where the borders of Argentina, Boliva, Chile and Peru meet (at about 23S) (Thornback and Jenkins 1982, Gudynas 1989).

    If the Andean mountain cat has indeed specialized to prey on chinchillas, widespread extinction of colonies must have had disastrous effects. On the other hand, if it is not a specialist predator, small prey biomass is high in the Andean uplands (A. Canedi, C. Weber in litt. 1993), and its rarity must be attributed to the other factors.

    © 1996 IUCN - The World Conservation Union