The margay is a small cat, somewhat bigger than a large domestic cat, its coat varying in color from grayish brown to tawny yellow and marked with rows of open rosettes and dark spots. Its head, neck and throat have black lines, and behind the ears they are black with a white spot in the center. The cat’s fur is relatively soft and thick, and, unusually, grows “in reverse” on the back of its neck, instead, slanting forwards. This animal has much individual variation in its beautiful coat pattern. Males and females are similar in size and appearance.
The margay lives in northern Mexico, Central America, and in South America, east of the Andes mountains, and as far to the south as Uruguay and northern Argentina. Although reported occasionally outside forested areas, like shaded coffee or cocoa plantations, this cat is associated more strongly with forest habitat than other tropical American cats. It inhabits a range of types of forest. The margay seems to be not so tolerant of altered habitat and human settlement than species like the ocelot, though it may live in disturbed areas if there is sufficient tree cover.
The margay is a solitary and primarily nocturnal animal. In southern Brazil, however, it has been recorded as being active during the day as well. It is an agile and excellent climber and is able to descend head first from a tree or hang by one hind foot from a branch. It mainly rests and sleeps in trees, making its nests in hollows and is regarded as being more arboreal and better adapted to living in trees than other species of cat. Nevertheless, margays hunt and travel mostly while on the ground. Margays, like most cats, are territorial. Their home ranges to some extent may overlap, but individual animals keep their distance from one other. They mark their territory with urine, and secretions that come from scent glands between their toes and on their faces. Males have additional glands on their tails for this purpose.
Margays are serially monogamous animals, forming temporary pair bonds during the mating season. After mating, these pairs may stay together throughout the breeding season, sometimes even hunting together. Male leave before the birth of the kittens and do not help to rear them. The natural mating season goes from October to January, though it may be year-round in the deep tropics. After gestation of 76 - 85 days, the young are born, either one or two. The kittens open their eyes when they are about two weeks old, and begin to go outside the den at around five weeks old. Weaning occurs at about eight weeks, but the kittens take nearly a year to attain their full adult size, and usually do not start breeding until the age of two to three. Female are thought to give birth once every two years only.
Habitat destruction is the major threat to the margay, through deforestation, as much of the Amazon rainforest is being cleared for pasture, agriculture, and road building. The margay’s arboreal nature, and its naturally low reproductive output and low densities make it particularly vulnerable in the face of this threat. Over the next ten years, it is expected that populations of margay in the Amazon will become more isolated and fragmented. Illegal hunting in some areas is a continuing problem, and margays are also illegally captured for the pet trade.
The global population size of margay has not been quantified. According to the IUCN Red List, this species is predominantly uncommon to rare throughout its range. Margay’s numbers are decreasing and it is currently classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List.