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