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6 Types of Wild Cats in Costa Rica (With Pictures)

Nicole Cosgrove Profile Picture

By Nicole Cosgrove

jaguar standing

Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Despite accounting for only 0.03% of the earth’s surface, it contains nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity. It’s home to over 500,000 species, including several species of wild cats that reside in its coastal and mountain regions.

Take a look at the six types of wild cats in Costa Rica.

The 6 Types of Wild Cats in Costa Rica

1. Ocelot

ocelot in the wild
Image Credit: joelfotos, Pixabay
Height: 16 – 20 in
Weight: 17 – 33 lbs
Population trend: Decreasing

Ocelots are a beautiful wild cat species with a white or tawny yellow coat with black chain-like markings and elongated spots. The underside of the ocelot is snowy white with black spots, and the tail is ringed with a black tip.

The ocelot has a wide natural range that spans from the southern US to Mexico and throughout Central and South America, including Costa Rica. It’s one of the few small wild cat species in different habitat types, including mangroves and cloud forests. It can live wherever there’s thick vegetation and an abundance of prey. The ocelot is opportunistic and will eat small rodents, marsupials, birds, and reptiles, and in some cases, large prey like monkeys, sloths, or armadillos.

The ocelot is classed as “least concern” by IUCN, but it’s protected in most of its distribution range. Its numbers have suffered from exploitation in the pet trade, illegal fur trade, hunting, retaliatory killing, traffic accidents, and natural causes like habitat destruction and loss of prey or cover.

2. Jaguar

jaguar on the move
Image Credit: strichpunk, Pixabay
Height:  26 – 29 in
Weight: 70 – 304 lbs
Population trend: Decreasing

The jaguar is one of the largest wild cats in the Americas. Often confused with the leopard, which is found in Africa and Asia, the jaguar only occurs naturally in the Americas. They’re also larger and heavier than the leopard with a pale gold to yellowish-brown coat with black spots and blotches throughout the body. Melanistic jaguars have been reported, which are often called black panthers.

Despite a reputation for residing in the deep rainforest, jaguars may be found in swampy grasslands, flooded lowland rainforest, evergreen forests, and mangrove swamps. Typically, these cats will reside where there’s a naturally occurring water source. Their natural range extends from the extreme southern US to the tropical areas of Central and South America to northern Argentina. They are opportunistic hunters and will prey on deer, peccaries, tapirs, or just about anything else they can catch.

The jaguar is classed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List. Considerable efforts are being made to protect these cats and combat human conflicts threatening them, such as habitat loss, the illegal pet trade, illegal hunting and furring, and retaliatory attacks.

3. Margay

Margay, Leopardis wiedii, beautiful cat sitiing on the branch in the tropical forest, Panama
Image Credit: Ondrej Prosicky, Shutterstock
Height: 12 in
Weight:  5 – 11 lbs
Population trend: Decreasing

The margay looks similar to an ocelot and may be called a “little ocelot.” The coat is brownish yellow or tan with black spots, stripes, and blotches. The underside is snowy white. In 2018, researchers recorded melanistic margays and photographed black individuals in Columbia and Costa Rica.

Margays can be found from central Mexico through Central and South America to northern Argentina. These cats are uncommon or rare in most of their range, but they are denser in some areas (typically areas without the competing ocelot). The margay lives in forest habitats ranging from tropical and subtropical to montane cloud forests. Margays eat small rodents, reptiles, and birds but may prey on small monkeys and other medium-sized mammals.

The margay is classed as near threatened by the IUCN Red List. It’s fully protected throughout its range, and its population has suffered from the illegal pet trade, the illegal fur trade, retaliatory killing, traffic accidents, and habitat destruction. This cat is also susceptible to disease outbreaks and has a low reproductive rate.

4. Puma

puma resting
Image Credit: PublicDomainPictures, Pixabay
Height: 24 – 30 in
Weight: 66 – 176 lbs
Population trend: Decreasing

The puma is known by many common names, including the mountain lion, cougar, Florida panther, painter, Mexican lion, red tiger, and catamount. In Latin America, it’s called a puma, and in the north, it’s a cougar or mountain lion, depending on the region. All variations are a buff or sandy brown to a light silver or slate gray with darker points and a pale color on the chest, belly, and inner sides of the legs. The pumas found in Central and South America are smaller than those in North America.

The puma has the largest range of any New World cat or any terrestrial mammal in the western hemisphere. They can be found from the Yukon to the extreme tip of South America and may live in coniferous forests, tropical forests, grasslands, swamps, and semi-deserts. They typically follow prey migrations and have an unusually high tolerance of environmental conditions compared to other mammals.

Depending on its location, this cat has different classes for the IUCN Red List. The Florida panther is endangered in North America, but the puma is listed as “least concern”. The puma faces threats from habitat loss and persecution from humans, often under government-sanctioned predator control programs.

5. Jaguarundi

Jaguarundi on the tree
Image Credit: Janusz Pienkowski, Shutterstock
Height: 10 – 14 in
Weight: 6.6 – 15 lbs
Population trend: Decreasing

The jaguarundi is a unique-looking small cat with a flattened head that resembles an otter. It has no markings on its coat, but distinct black, gray, and brown color phases. These colors indicate its habitat. The gray is associated with wet forest areas, the red is associated with dry, open habitats, and the black is associated with rainforests. All colors can be found in all habitats, however.

Their natural distribution ranges from northern Mexico through Central America to central Argentina. They may be found in both open and closed habitats, including swamps, savannahs, grasslands, dry shrubs, and primary forests. Like the margay, they avoid areas where the ocelot lives and may be forced to unprotected areas for fear of predation or loss of prey.

The jaguarundi is classed as “least concern” by the IUCN due to its large range, but its actual population numbers are unknown. It faces threats from habitat loss, the illegal fur trade, the illegal pet trade, retaliatory hunting, and killing for medicinal or ornamental purposes. Without solid population data, we’re not sure exactly how threatened this species is.

6. Northern Tiger Cat

Northern Tiger Cat Oncilla on a Tree
Image By: FOTOGRIN, Shutterstock
Height: 8 in
Weight: 4 – 8 lbs
Population trend: Decreasing

The Northern Tiger cat, also known as oncilla or tigrina, is a small cat that’s found in the Americas. Both the Northern tiger cat and the Southern tiger cat were once collectively known as the oncilla, but genetic testing split them into two distinct species. Northern tiger cats are pale yellow to gray and marked by small dots with open rosettes. Melanism is common in this species.

The Northern tiger cat ranges from Costa Rica and Panama to Central America and central Brazil. The southern limits aren’t well known, but populations south of this limit may be the Southern tiger cat. There’s a possible overlap between these two species. They live in diverse forest habitats and savannahs, but like other small cat species, it may be driven out of its habitat by the ocelot.

These cats are protected over their natural range and classed as endangered by IUCN Red List. Northern tiger cats are threatened by vehicle collisions, persecution by humans, habitat loss, the illegal fur trade, illegal hunting, and exposure to carnivore diseases.

Does Costa Rica Have Lions and Tigers?

Costa Rica has diverse wildlife, but it does not have a natural population of lions and tigers. Lions live in the open plains of the African savannah, while the tiger lives from Siberia to southeastern Asia. They’re both found in zoos all over the world, however.

Though Costa Rica doesn’t have these large cats, it is home to jaguars and pumas, which are the biggest cats in the Americas.


Costa Rica is home to rich wildlife, including several unique species of wild cats. If you take a trip to this biodiverse country, you may spot one of these stunning wild cats hanging out in the rainforest.

Featured Image Credit: carloroberto9, Pixabay

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