Wild Cat Imitates Its Prey

A new study documents the first recorded instance of a wild cat species in the Americas mimicking sounds made by its prey.

Some wild cats can imitate the calls of their prey, according to a recent study in the journal .primate-sg.org/np.htm">Neotropical Primates. The study documents the first recorded instance of a wild cat species in the Americas mimicking sounds made by its prey.

The cat is called a margay. It does a near perfect audio impression of one of its favorite dinners: the pied tamarin monkey.

(Margay, the imitator; Credit: Tófoli/Rohe)

(Pied tamarin, the imitated; Credit: A. Antunes)

If anecdotal evidence is factored in, margays join jaguars, pumas and even domesticated house-cats as being felines that can copy sounds made by other animals. (If you've ever lived with a cat, you have probably heard it chatter away at birds, mice and other animals. The imitations likely weren't very good, but your kitty doesn't always have to sing for its supper.)

"Cats are known for their physical agility, but this vocal manipulation of prey species indicates a psychological cunning which merits further study," said Wildlife Conservation Society researcher Fabio Rohe.

He and his colleagues first recorded the phenomenon in 2005 when a group of eight pied tamarins were feeding in a ficus tree. The scientists then observed a margay emitting calls similar to those made by tamarin babies. This attracted the attention of a tamarin "sentinel," which climbed down from the tree to investigate the sounds coming from a tangle of vines called lianas.

According to the WCS, while the sentinel monkey started vocalizing to warn the rest of the group of the strange calls, the monkeys were clearly confounded by these familiar vocalizations, choosing to investigate rather than flee. Four other tamarins climbed down to assess the nature of the calls. At that moment, a margay emerged from the foliage walking down the trunk of a tree in a squirrel-like fashion, jumping down and then moving towards the monkeys. Realizing the ruse, the sentinel screamed an alarm and sent the other tamarins fleeing.

While this specific instance of mimicry was unsuccessful, the researchers were amazed at the ingenuity of the hunting strategy.

"This observation further proves the reliability of information obtained from Amazonian inhabitants," said Dr. Avecita Chicchón, director of the WCS's Latin America Program. "This means that accounts of jaguars and pumas using the same vocal mimicry to attract prey-but not yet recorded by scientists-also deserve investigation."

The pied tamarin is currently listed as "Endangered" on the IUCN Red List.

And the margay is such a beautiful cat. It looks deceptively like a sweet house-cat, leading to encounters such as that seen in the second video here.