The Andean Mountain Cat

The story of the ghost cat:

The year is 1998. Humans have so far, walked on the moon, sent satellites into the farther reaches of our solar system and taken pictures of all of our orbiting planets. We have even captured photos from the surface of Mars. However, before this time one cat had almost completely eluded humans entirely.

Before 1998 only two photographs of the Andean mountain cat existed. So little was known about this cat we didn’t know what they preyed on, didn’t know whether they were nocturnal or diurnal, didn’t know how large their range was, we didn’t even know if they were social cats like lions or a solitary species as is the norm with cats. It was a challenge to big to ignore for wild cat specialist and ecologist Jim Sanderson who, armed with a picture detailing a vague location and his camera, set off to research the world’s most elusive cat.

📷 Jim Sanderson
📷 Jim Sanderson

A highly motivated Sanderson headed off to Chile in the hopes of uncovering the mysteries that this elusive cat held. As the weeks passed, sat in a tent in near freezing conditions no cats could be seen or heard. It wasn’t until after 6 weeks camped out in the Andes that Sanderson finally saw what he was looking for. Less than one hundred feet away from his tent was a rather scruffy looking, ash coloured cat sat watching him. From this moment on we have been lucky enough to witness the mysteries of this cat unravel. After watching and researching these cats, taking a number of photos and documenting their habits and behaviours Jim Sanderson returned home, travelled to the city of Salta, Argentina and met with fellow wild cat lovers from Bolivia, Chile and Argentina and between them they formed the Andean Cat Alliance (AGA). Thanks to this organisation and others such as Seeking the Andean cat we now have numerous photos, videos, and their secrets are finally coming to light.

Beautiful Camera trap footage courtesy of the Seeking the Andean Cat Project

The research Jim Sanderson and the Andean Cat Alliance have done in such a short amount of time is impressive however the Andean Cat remains, like many of the small wild cat species, hugely under researched and conservation efforts are few and far between.

So what do we now know about the mysterious Andean Mountain Cat?

It was first described by an Italian Naturist called Professor Emilio Cornalia who, at the time, was director of the Museum of Natural History in Milan. The specimen was donated by Paolo Mantegazza, a doctor, scientist and anthropologist and famous traveller. He found the specimen in Argentina on the border with Bolivia at an altitude of 1500 ft. It was donated to the museum in 1864 and promptly identified as a new species and given its scientific name Leopardus jacobita, in honour of Jacobita Mantegazza, the discoverer’s Argentinian wife.

Picture of Jacobo, an Andean mountain cat found wandering around a football field in Bolivia. Fitted with a GPS collar, he was released back into the wild – 📷  Juani Reppucci

As we can see from photos, these cats are roughly the same size as your domestic cat at home however have much longer, bushier tails. Whilst they do use their long tail for balance when jumping between unlike their arboreal cousins Andean mountain cats mainly use their long bushy tails for warmth, wrapping them around their face and feet like a scarf. They have a colouration typically described as being ash with darker slightly orange markings. Their tails have 6-9 clear rings whilst their backs have short striped markings and spots. The adult male Andean Mountain cat is around 55 inches long from the head to the base of the tail; the tail adds a further 15 inches. It weighs roughly between 3-5 kg.

We now know these cats can be found in the high Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru and in the Northern portion of the Patagonian Steppe in Argentina.

Andean cat distribution – Wikipedia

Whilst its hunting methods and prey still require further research, its likely that it gets most of its meals hunting mountain viscacha, a large type of rodent that looks like a large long tailed rabbit that live high in the Andes. Other meals will be mice, cavies and hares. It’s thought chinchillas would have played a large part in their diet given their synonymous distribution however due to over hunting for its fur chinchillas are now critically endangered and reduced to just a few numbers. It shares this prey source with one other small wild cat, the Pampas cat (Leopardus Colocolo). There have been reported sightings by cattle headers in Patagonia who report Andean Mountain cats taking down small goat kids.

Andean Cat Prey – Top left: Rock Cavy / Top Right: Chinchilla / Bottom: viscacha

Much is still unknown about the mysterious Andean cat however we now believe they are solitary cats and mostly nocturnal hunters with crepuscular activity with dusk and dawn being important hunting periods given that it coincides with the activity peaks of the viscachas it preys upon. Their home range seems to depend on the availability of viscachas. Only a small number of cats have ever been radio collared, of that has been published one female in the Bolivian Andes was studied for seven months and her home range was estimated at 65.5km² .

Andean Mountain Cat high in the Andes 📷  Cristian Sepúlved – Seeking The Andean Cat

In terms of its Lineage it was originally given its own genus Oreailurus but, maybe unsurprisingly, it was later placed firmly in the Leopardus lineage along with many of the other cats found in Latin America such as Geoffroys cats, Oncillas, Pampas cats and Ocelots and Margays. They separated from the main Felinae linage around 2.9 million years ago.

Video footage courtesy of Seeking the Andean Cat

Thanks to the Andean Cat Alliance and other Andean Mountain cat projects such as Seeking the Andean Cat we are discovering more about this elusive cat every day. We know estimate that there are around 1,900 Andean mountain cats remaining in the wild. There are currently no captive individuals in zoos or sanctuaries being studied. Its main threats come from humans and dogs. For the native communities that coexist with the Andean cat, it has been historically the sacred cat of the Andes, a symbol of fertility and a protective species, linked to the spirits of the mountains. The cat is usually related to the abundance and fertility of livestock and copious agricultural production. It was traditionally revered by having pelts properly adorned with symbols of abundance, such as coca leaves, corn cobs and colourful wool. Today these ancient skins are still used in some in ceremonies for marking camelid livestock or at the beginning of the planting or harvest season.

To follow the progress being made in researching these amazing and elusive cats we strongly recommend following both the Andean Cat Alliance and Seeking the Andean Cat. Both have Facebook accounts who provide updates on their research plus amazing photos and videos so you can keep track of the incredible work they’re doing in unearthing the mysteries about these cats. As with almost all small cat research, its is hugely underfunded so any help that you can provide ether by sharing their project or via personal donations will go along way to helping research these cats. Until we know more about their hunting methods and threats to their existence conservation projects are very difficult to conduct successfully.

Click on the links below to find out more and help fund research for the worlds most elusive cat:

Andean Cat Alliance

Andean Cat Alliance Facebook

Seeking the Andean Cat Facebook

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