Margays mimick monkey calls to lure their prey


A margay (Leopardus wiedii). From Wikipedia.

Even if they spend years in the field, researchers rarely witness predation on primates. Cats, birds, and other hunters regularly feed on primate species, but what we know about the habits of primate-hunters often comes from bones and fingernails picked out of predator droppings. Every now and again, though, someone is in just the right place at just the right time to observe a predator attempt to catch a primate for dinner, and one recent observation in the Amazon has revealed an ingenious hunting technique employed by a small spotted cat.

Despite being known to science for almost 200 years, the margay (Leopardus wiedii) is still one of the most enigmatic of the world's cats. It spends most of its life in the trees of the tropical forests of Central and South America, and, as with many arboreal species, this has made it especially difficult to track and study. As reported by Ellen Wang on the basis of 20 scat samples, we know that much of their diet is made up of small rodents, but how margays actually hunt these animals in the treetops is largely unknown.

To find out, researchers Fabiano de Oliveira Calleia, Fabio Rohe, Marcelo Gordo interviewed people who had lived in the jungle their entire lives about how margays hunt. Curiously, one common observation was that margays mimic the calls of prey species to lure them out. Cougars, leopards, and jaguars have all been observed employing such techniques, and in the fall of 2005 the researchers were able to confirm the anecdotes.


While making field observations at the Reserva Florestal Adolpho Ducke in Brazil, the researchers spotted a group of eight pied tamarin monkeys (Saguinus bicolor) which had settled down to feed at a fig tree. There was a margay close by, but rather than rush the primate group the cat made calls mimicking those of pied tamarin babies. The monkey which was on lookout duty did not know what to make of this. It climbed up and down the tree in an attempt to find out what was going on, making calls of its own to alert the other monkeys that something suspicious was going on. After a few minutes, the strange calls stopped, but about ten minutes later the remaining four tamarins scrambled to get away from their feeding spots. Coming towards them across a liana connected to the feeding tree was the margay, although by this time there was no chance of it catching one of the monkeys.

Even though the predation attempt failed, the researchers behind the report suggest that imitation may be an effective hunting strategy for margays. By mimicking the calls of tamarins they may draw individuals out into a better position for attack, and since a number of known prey species use imitable vocalizations to demarcate territory a monkey or other prey animal that thinks it is coming over to tell a competitor to buzz off may instead come face-to-face with a margay.

de Oliveira Calleia, F., Rohe, F., & Gordo, M. (2009). Hunting Strategy of the Margay (

) to Attract the Wild Pied Tamarin (

Neotropical Primates, 16 (1), 32-34 DOI: 10.1896/044.016.0107


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This is amazing--thanks so much to cuing me on to this article!

I've heard a lot of stories about domestic cats chirping or chattering their teeth when they're in a situation like that: cat here, prey there, glass door or window in-between, so the cat can see the prey but not reach it. Most sources say that it's irrational behavior caused by frustration, and symptomatic of how cat behavior has been warped by being kept as indoor pets.

This, however, makes me wonder how accurate that interpretation is.

By wolfwalker (not verified) on 03 Apr 2010 #permalink

Most sources say that it's irrational behavior caused by frustration, and symptomatic of how cat behavior has been warped by being kept as indoor pets.

While it's always possible that some chittering is frustration, my experience doesn't lead me to believe it always is. My cats (former ferals) are allowed into our backyard and I've seen them chitter at birds when they're outside. One of them will chitter outside, then run inside and sit on the windowsill to get a better angle for chittering. Even the adult feral, who was a successful enough hunter to raise 2 kittens before we started feeding her, will chitter at birds while outside.

When I lived in a rural area I had a tomcat that would crouch in the tall grasses in the yard at dusk and chitter. The result was he was very adept at catching bats.

After providing a foster home for over 50 cats over the past four years (plus having three of my own), I can say I have heard their chittering quite often. :)

I am not sure why they did it. In most cases they made no attempt to hide or lure a bird over and then spring out (as in the case with the field observations of the margay). Nor do I think they were merely voicing their frustration. Perhaps they mean to use the calls to interest the birds but just are not very good at it. I don't know, though this report piqued my interest on the subject and I will be checking out some of the other papers which report on this behavior among big cats.

My cat used to chirp at bluebottle flies that got in the house - with birds he was silent. He was a very good flycatcher, which was great!

hola alguien sabe como me puedo comunicar con Sociedad para la Conservación de la Vida Silvestre con el señor Fabio Rohe, para que mire unas fotografias del mono tamarin mura las cuales tengo. gracias

By leonid contreras (not verified) on 07 Aug 2011 #permalink