Costa Rica is an extraordinary country in Central America, with a coastline on the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Mountainous, incredibly rugged, and boasting bountiful rainforests, Costa Rica is known for its impressive biodiversity and stunning beaches. As you might imagine, Costa Rica is teeming with wildlife, including several stunning species of wild cats. We’ll take a closer look at these fierce, feral felines today in our list of the six most common wild cats in Costa Rica.

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The 6 Most Common Wild Cats in Costa Rica

1. Jaguar

jaguar standing on the ground
Image Credit: carloroberto9, Pixabay
Scientific Name:Panthera Onca
Behavior:Solitary, polygamous
Habitat:Lowland river valleys, thick tropical forests
Lifespan:12 to 15 years
Status:Near Threatened (NT)
Fun Fact:Largest cat species in the Americas

Large, gorgeous, and sporting powerful jaws, the Jaguar is the biggest “big cat” in the Americas. The rainforests of Costa Rica make for an ideal home for the Jaguar as they tend to live near running water, including lagoons and swamps, which are numerous in the country. Unlike most cats, Jaguars are excellent swimmers and, during overly dry and hot weather, will often submerge themselves to escape the heat.

With their massive, powerful jaws, Jaguars can take down large prey, including deer and tapirs. They also use their impressive hunting skills to catch fish and turtles and, if given the opportunity, caiman. They use their tails as “bait” above the water! Female Jaguars raise their cubs alone and chase off any males close to them. Unfortunately, the incredible wild cats are decreasing in numbers rapidly and have reached “near threatened” (NT) status.

2. Jaguarundi

Image Credit: axel-blanchard, Unsplash
Scientific Name:Puma Yagouaroundi
Behavior:Solitary, polygynous
Habitat:Mixed forests, swamp, savanna
Lifespan:15 years
Status:Least Concern (LC)
Fun Fact:Jaguarundi jump as high as 6 feet (1.83 meters)

One factor that sets the Jaguarundi apart from the rest of the wild cats in Costa Rica is that it looks more like a weasel than a cat. The Jaguarundi is found all over Central and South America. It’s hard to spot in Costa Rica since they are incredibly elusive cats and rarely leave the dense brush of the rainforest.

One excellent method of locating Jaguarundis is to listen for them, as they have over 13 distinct calls, including one that sounds very much like a bird. If threatened, however, they will hiss and spit like most cats. Jaguarundis are polygynous, which means one male will mate with several females. Males don’t help raise their cubs and will often kill cubs sired by another Jaguarundi. Although they are considered “least concern” (LC) in Costa Rica, Jaguarundis are threatened in Argentina and Mexico.

3. Margay

Image Credit: slowmotiongli, Shutterstock
Scientific Name:Leopardus wiedii
Behavior:Solitary, serially monogamous
Habitat:Tropical forest, savannah, shrubland
Lifespan:10 to 20 years
Status:Near Threatened (NT)
Fun Fact:The Margay’s ankles can rotate 180 degrees for tree climbing

Of all the wild cats in Costa Rica, the Margay is most suited to life in the rainforest. The reason is their ankles, which can rotate 180°! This unique trait allows the Margay to run down the trunks of trees like a squirrel and hang from one foot like a monkey. When executing these amazing feats of acrobatics, the Margay will use its large, thick tail as a counterweight for balance. They also have overly large eyes for a cat, which helps them to see very well in the dark when hunting.

Margays are classified as serially monogamous, which means they bond and stay with one mate during the breeding season. They are also unique because they stay together to raise their young and hunt. One last unique feature about the Costa Rican wild cats is that, rather than stalking, they ambush their prey. Like other wild cats in the country, Margay numbers are falling fast due mainly to human encroachment in their habitat.

4. Ocelot

Ocelot cat
Image Credit: COULANGES, Shutterstock
Scientific Name:Leopardus pardalis
Behavior:Solitary, polygynous
Lifespan:8 to 11 years
Status:Least Concern (LC)
Fun Fact:No two Ocelots have the same fur markings

Ocelots are one of the few wild cats in Costa Rica that breed throughout the year, often preparing for birth in the crevice of a fallen tree. They are the largest species of small, spotted cats and one of the most prolific. One special trait Ocelots share is that no two have the same pattern on their coat. Unlike most wild cats, they also have several subspecies.

Like the other Costa Rican wild cats on our list, the Ocelot is a solitary animal that only gets together with other Ocelots to breed. When they do, males have several mates and yowl loudly to attract them. Although highly territorial, Ocelot mothers will tolerate intrusion in their territory by their kittens for several years after they become independent. They will carefully pluck off feathers or remove fur from their prey before they eat it. Also, although they breed all year long, female Ocelots only have one litter every two years.

5. Oncilla (Tigrillo)

Oncilla on a tree branch_slowmotiongli_Shutterstock
Image Credit: slowmotiongli, Shutterstock
Scientific Name:Leopardus tigrinus
Behavior:Solitary, monogamous (possibly)
Habitat:Rainforest, subtropical forest
Lifespan:12 to 14 years
Status:Vulnerable (VU)
Fun Fact:One out of five Oncillas is entirely black

The Oncilla has the distinction of being the smallest wild cat in Costa Rica. It’s also an incredible climber and feels right at home in Costa Rica’s dense rainforests. Costa Rica is the only Central American country where the Oncillas live, with the rest living in South America. Although they are primarily nocturnal, it’s not uncommon to spot an Oncilla during the day.

However, they are very solitary, secretive cats, and spotting them is difficult at best. Very little is known about the mating habits of the Oncilla, but captive animals have been seen to mate for life. Working against their numbers, females typically have one kitten at a time. Another factor that has made this wild Costa Rican cat’s numbers drop to “vulnerable” (VU) levels is that, during the last century, trappers hunted them heavily for their fur. Amazingly, Oncillas have 20 muscles controlling their ears. This plethora of muscles allows them to point one ear in one direction and the other ear in another!

6. Puma

Image Credit: Evgeniyqw, Shutterstock
Scientific Name:Puma concolor
Habitat:Rainforest, swamp, plains, desert, rocky mountainsides
Lifespan:8 to 10 years
Status:Vulnerable (VU)
Fun Fact:Guinness World Record holder for the animal with the most number of names. (40+ in English!)

One fascinating fact about the Puma is that it’s an obligate carnivore, which means that, to survive, it must eat meat. The incredible cat can easily take down large prey with its strong jaws and large body. Spotting a Puma in Costa Rica is no easy feat since they are well camouflaged, elusive, and solitary cats.

They are also the 4th largest cat on the planet, behind lions, tigers, and their Costa Rican neighbor, the Jaguar. Although you wouldn’t want to pet one, the spectacular wild cats purr just like domestic cats. Pumas are also called cougars, panthers, and mountain lions.

Even though they are considered a danger to humans, in the last 100 years, only 44 people have been killed by Pumas. The Puma is also one of the least hunted wild cats for their fur because, unlike most, they have no spots and thus are considered less appealing for fur coats.

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Final Thoughts

As we’ve seen today, there are six species of wild cats in Costa Rica. Although two are classified as “near threatened,” we’re glad to point out that none of the wild cats in Costa Rica are on the endangered species list (at least not yet). However, spotting the amazing cats in the wild isn’t going to be easy, as most are solitary, mysterious animals that don’t show themselves out in the open frequently, if at all. If you’re fortunate, you might spot one of the beautiful wild cats in its natural habitat!

Featured Image Credit: Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash