The Andean mountain cat is regarded as one of the world’s most endangered wild cats and perhaps South America’s rarest felid, yet, as far as cat species go, it is amongst the least known. It is a very rare animal, and its similarities with the more common South American Pampas cat have caused studying this species to be even more difficult. These cats have a similar size to domestic cats. However, their thick fur and their long tail make them look bigger. Their fur is ash-gray or pale silver and has isolated orange-brown or hazel stripes and spots. The cat’s limbs and tail have black rings around them. Females and males look alike. The body of a young Andean mountain cat is lighter in its color and is covered with many small-sized dots.
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Andean mountain cats live in Bolivia and southern Peru to northwestern Argentina and northern Chile in the Andean mountain region. Their habitat is very specialized, as they live only in the arid to semi-arid areas high up in the Andes Mountains. Their preferred habitat is usually above the timberline between 3,000 to 4,000 meters, a habitat which is mostly very rocky with scattered tola bushes, bunchgrass, and other small shrubs. These cats also inhabit high mountain grasslands that have wet, grassy meadows with various shrubs.
Essentially, little is known about the Andean mountain cat’s biology and behavior. Its range is so inhospitable and remote that it has been very difficult to survey the region and there are no known Andean mountain cats in captivity. They are thought to be mainly nocturnal, though some have been sighted during the day. These cats are very agile during hunting, exploring under and around boulders to seek their prey. As they hunt, their tail is often held up high, their long tail being important to help with their balance and agility while they hunt in mountainous, rocky terrain. From the few observations that have been recorded, Andean mountain cats seem to be solitary animals and unafraid of humans.
Andean mountain cats have a specialized diet of mountain viscachas and mountain chinchillas. However, they also eat reptiles, birds, and small mammals, such as tuco tucos and rabbits.
Due to the very few observations in the wild, there are no records of the reproductive behavior of Andean mountain cats. By using the local people’s observations of Andean mountain cats in pairs with their litters, the theory is arrived at that the Andean mountain cat’s mating season is between July and August. Because some kittens are seen during April to October, the mating season may extend as far as November or December. A litter usually numbers one to three, born during spring or summer. Many other species also bear their young when food sources are increasing.
It is not known whether the Andean mountain cat’s rarity is a natural phenomenon or is attributable to human actions. These cats may be endangered as a result of habitat deterioration and hunting by humans for pelts. In fact, the decrease in numbers of their main prey, mountain viscachas and mountain chinchillas, may be the main reason for their low numbers.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total number of the Andean mountain cat is unknown for today, but it is suggested that fewer than 2,500 mature individuals exist in the wild. This species’ numbers are decreasing today and it is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List.
Andean mountain cats are significant predators of mountain chinchillas, mountain viscachas, and possibly other vertebrate species of small to medium size throughout their range, having an effect on their populations.