chat des Andes (French)
Andenkatze, Bergkatze (German)
chinchay, gato andino, gato lince (Spanish)
gato montés altiplánico, titi (Bolivia)
gato montés andino (Chile)
Description and Behavior
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
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).
Habitat and Distribution
Andean mountain cats apparently occur at low densities.
Hunting and trade prohibited:
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