Endangered Ocelots May Be Expanding Their Range in Texas

DNA testing of an ocelot killed in 2021 raises the possibility that the creatures may be roaming outside their established South Texas territory, which is currently their only stronghold in the country

Ocelot on a branch
Ocelots have been listed as federally endangered in the U.S. since 1972. Dora Martinez / USFWS

Ocelots once prowled throughout Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona. But because of trapping, poisoning and habitat loss, these wild, spotted cats nearly disappeared over the last couple of centuries. Now, ocelots are federally endangered, with an estimated 100 wild individuals remaining in the United States. Their range has dwindled, too: The tawny-colored creatures—which can be twice the size of a house cat—now inhabit only a small, coastal region at the southern tip of Texas.

But new DNA evidence suggests the dappled felines might be expanding their territory in the Lone Star State.

In 2021, an ocelot was found dead on a highway in Hidalgo County, about 50 miles west of the known ocelot range in South Texas. Earlier this year, wildlife officials ran DNA tests on the deceased cat, which showed the creature was related to the wild ocelots native to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands region.

The DNA results are the first “confirmed evidence of an ocelot outside its range” in Texas, says Tom deMaar, a wildlife veterinarian and board member for the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, in a statement announcing the news this month.

“It makes you wonder; how many more ocelots are hidden out there?” he adds.

Ocelot looking up
Ocelots weigh between roughly 15 and 30 pounds. Martinus Scriblerus under CC BY 2.0

Texas has the only known breeding population of ocelots in the country. Until now, researchers thought the cats only lived in two specific areas along the Gulf Coast: Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron County and private land in nearby Willacy County.

Though saddened by the death of the ocelot three years ago, wildlife experts were heartened by the new genetic tests, which suggest the species might be faring better than previously thought.

“Hidalgo County may have more ocelots present in its more remote sections where appropriate habitat and access to prey exists,” says Sharon Wilcox, senior Texas representative for Defenders of Wildlife, in the statement.

The cat’s DNA had all seven of the unique markers found in the South Texas population, as well as two markers found in the Mexican population, reports the Texas Tribune’s Berenice Garcia.

This raises the possibility that the Hidalgo County ocelot belonged to a previously unknown population of the cats. It’s also possible the cat crossed the border into Texas from Mexico, or that the existing South Texas population has some previously undetected markers from the Mexican population in its DNA.

Whatever the explanation, some researchers have cautioned that the results are not definitive proof of ocelots expanding their range. Mike Tewes, a biologist at Texas A&M University-Kingsville who has studied ocelots for decades, tells the Texas Tribune that this cat might be an example of a “frustrated dispersal”—that is, a lone ocelot that has simply wandered away from its territory.

“I’d be very cautious of saying, even suggesting, this population is expanding based on this one roadkill over the past 40 years,” Tewes adds.

Still, the possibility that ocelots might have expanded into Hidalgo County is especially encouraging amid ongoing ocelot reintroduction efforts. Within the next few years, state and federal wildlife officials want to release some of the cats in Texas’ Jim Hogg and Starr counties, which are just west of Hidalgo County.

“Hidalgo County becomes like a puzzle piece right there in the middle between Starr and [their existing habitat in] Cameron and Willacy Counties,” Wilcox tells Texas Public Radio’s Gaige Davila. “This allows us to think more expansively about an ocelot-occupied area in the region.”

More specifically, authorities plan to reintroduce the cats on a 150,000-acre ranch owned by a land stewardship nonprofit, the East Foundation’s San Antonio Viejo Ranch. They hope to partner with private landowners in the region, who could support the recovery efforts by allowing ocelots onto their property and cooperating with researchers doing ocelot monitoring work.

State, federal and nonprofit partners formalized the initiative last month by approving a “safe harbor” agreement. With the agreement in place, they can now move ahead with plans to breed and raise ocelots for reintroduction. They want to build an ocelot conservation facility for this purpose in Kingsville, Texas, but they expect producing the first ocelot offspring will take “a few years.”

In the meantime, conservationists are encouraging drivers in South Texas to slow down and keep their eyes peeled for any ocelots that may be crossing the road—like the one killed in Hidalgo County three years ago—especially from dusk to dawn. Vehicle collisions are a leading cause of death for ocelots in the state.

The cats also continue to face threats from habitat loss and fragmentation, as their required thorn-scrub habitat gets cleared for farmland, ranchland, infrastructure projects and urban development at “unprecedented rates,” Wilcox tells Newsweek’s Jess Thomson.

“These cats need wild spaces to roam, and this recent evidence gives us hope that ocelots are holding on in the more remote corners of this region,” she adds. “The challenge before us is to protect remaining habitat while restoring it in places that can facilitate potential expansion and connectivity between ocelot groups in Texas.”

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