jaguarondi animal decline
A baby jaguarundi rescued by a zoo in El Salvador after hunters killed its mother.Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty

The jaguarundi species of cat may be more threatened than previously thought, scientists have warned. While little is known about this carnivorous feline, also known as the eyra cat – which lives in the tropical lowlands from South Texas to Central Argentina in the Americas – it was assumed that it was much more common than its endangered puma and lynx relatives.

The International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN) currently classifies the jaguarundi globally as a species of 'least concern'.

However, in a recent study published in the journal Mammal Review, researchers have contradicted this view, suggesting that because little is known about this small wildcat, it is impossible to accurately define its population status. The scientists believe it may be declining in numbers.

Jaguarundi protection

Jaguarundis are wildcats that have a passing resemblance to domesticated house cats. However, they are much bigger in size – twice as large as their domestic cousins – with flat faces, long tails and rounded ears. Their agility has earned them the nickname of 'weasel cat'.

The authors of the latest study have conducted a large meta-analysis of research about the jaguarundi cat to assess if it was as common and well-protected as generally believed. Their analysis suggests that different factors have affected the jaguarundi's perceived low-priority conservation status.

jaguarondi animal decline
Jaguarundis are larger than domestic cats with long tails and flat faces.Keven Law/Wiki Creative Commons

Unlike wildcats with spotted fur, the jaguarundi has a brown or silvery colouring. Although some jaguarundis have been killed for the fur trade, they may be less of a target for poachers thanks to a lesser demand for their fur.

Furthermore, the species appears to live and hunt during the day. The vast majority of jaguarundi camera-trap records occured during daylight hours. This has made it a lot easier for scientists to spot them, and has led them to believe that the cat was more common than their nocturnal wildcat relatives.

Threats to the jaguarundi

The problem is that in many respects the jaguarundi remains an enigma. How it breeds in the wild and how it competes with other wildcats for food and territory is not well understood. Without this information, the scientists say it is impossible to know if the population fares as well previous studies suggest.

jaguarondi animal decline
Jaguarundi prefer tropical lowlands for their homes.Manuel Menal/Flickr Creative Commons

The authors explain that jaguarundis face a number of threats in the wild that may not have been taken into account. The most important one is the progressive destruction of their preferred habitat – tropical lowlands and mixed-grassland forestlandscapes.

Furthermore, conflict between jaguarundis and humans over small livestock (which jaguarundis prey on) may also be widespread among rural human communities and is likely to be under-reported. In this context, jaguarundis may be at risk of getting killed.

Finally, in a near future, fur trade-related killings may increase as other endangered felines progressively disappear from the landscape.

"Additional research on local jaguarundi populations from more areas should be a priority to determine the true status of the species," the scientists conclude.