Remember the Ocelot

Extinctions and endangered species are on my mind this week. Who have we lost? And what are we poised to lose? The monarch butterfly flutters top of mind, but so too the Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha), the wood bison, and a small spotted cat I believe once used to hunt the forested mountains of Appalachia: the ocelot.

Photo by Leonardo Prest Mercon Ro, licensed via iStock.

Extinctions and endangered species are on my mind this week. Who have we lost? And what are we poised to lose? The monarch butterfly flutters top of mind, but so too the Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha), the wood bison, and a small spotted cat I believe once used to hunt the forested mountains of Appalachia: the ocelot. Wikipedia does not list its native range this far north, but Earth.org says this in their January 2022 article, 7 Most Critically Endangered Species in North America:

“Ocelots once ranged throughout North, Central, and South America, but now, they can only be found in parts of Texas, with fewer than 25 individuals left in the wild. The incredibly vulnerable species was listed as endangered in 1982 following habitat destruction and fragmentation due to logging, but its decline was largely due to legal and illegal fur and pet trade between the 1960 and 1980s.” — Earth.org

I should pause to say that this passage has a few problems in that it mentions all of the Americas and then describes ocelots as remaining in the wild only in Texas, which is only true for North America. The title of the article does declare the focus (North America), but you might come away thinking that only 25 cats remain in the wild in all the world, when in fact they can be found from Mexico to Brazil and Argentina. Back to the ocelot.

Isn’t he beautiful? By the way, I purchased license rights to the featured image for this post. I wanted to do justice to this small elegant creature and couldn’t find an open source image that did.

The ocelot is a small spotted cat in roughly the same size class as a bobcat, though longer and leaner with a smooth head and ears. It measures two to three feet long, with a one to one-and-a-half foot long tail, weighs up to 35 pounds for a large male or as small as a large house cat for females (that’s 15 pounds, I’ve had a few of those!). The fur is short and dense, with color ranging from cream through tawny beige to orange beneath a pattern of dark spots and stripes. Their patterns are unique, like a fingerprint, and can be used to identify individuals.

The ocelot hunts the understory from Mexico to Brazil, is more numerous in the tropics, and eats a wide variety of small prey up to around two pounds in size, from crayfish to birds to opossums. This beautiful cat has been coveted for its fur and captured as a pet for centuries. Wikipedia says, “In the 1960s, ocelot skins were among the most highly preferred in the US, reaching an all-time high of 140,000 skins traded in 1970.” That’s just in the year 1970 alone. Can you imagine the horror of that? The depths of human selfishness still shock me. Ocelot fur trade has been widely banned, but illicit trade is still a major threat, as is the pet trade which still goes on. Salvador Dali had a pet ocelot, but he didn’t look very happy about it.[ref] Come to think about it, none of the photos of pet ocelots I’ve found looked like they were very happy about it, which probably has to do with the fact that they are usually solitary.

Danleo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Today only a tiny population survives in the wild in North America at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Ocelots also live in captivity, and their wild presence in Central and South America is wide enough that its worldwide conservation status is categorized of least concern according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Note: This doesn’t mean that there is no cause for concern, just that in the battlefield triage of the Sixth Mass Extinction, its status doesn’t rise to the top.

This is small consolation for me given the vision I had of a small spotted cat in the woods in our mountains. It was a fancy, perhaps a memory dimly recalled of something I heard in school, or an old time legend murmured in passing–that we used to have ocelots in Appalachia. Aside from the Earth.org article that inspired this post, I have not found any information to support my intuition. I no longer find it unusual that this kind of knowledge fades from public records, though it is upsetting. It seems a symptom of a kind of collective amnesia. Maybe I’m wrong. Wikipedia certainly doesn’t support me, nor do any of the other articles I could find, limiting the ocelot’s North American historic native range to the Deep South of the United States (Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas). Still, I’m clinging stubbornly to the idea that the ocelot belongs in Appalachia. Especially given Wikipedia’s refusal to acknowledge that the wood bison used to range the entire Eastern seaboard! Read Wikipedia’s wood bison article as of August 19, 2022. Of course, this just supports academia’s disdain for Wikipedia as a legit source. But still, it’s a bit disappointing.

Update: I realize after listening to this again how irrational my rationale sounds for believing in an ocelot of the Eastern woodlands! Wikipedia’s flimsy incomplete record of the Eastern wood bison does not prove that the ocelot was likely here too. But I suppose what I’m saying is that if such a reputable information source like Wikipedia–incomplete, a thin layer, but still reputable–can be so wrong about something so obvious; given how hard it’s been to find consistent information about any of this (ecological restoration, historical reference ecosystems, historical native ranges for extirpated species) outside of the halls of academia, it very well could be. But the truth is that something deep in my bones tells me it is so. There are ocelot fossils in Florida! That means that through the Ice Ages, the ocelot has remained in North America. It would take a lot to restore a landscape that could support them here, but I can dream, and I can miss them. Bringing back the ocelot is certainly more feasible than bringing back the wood bison. As wonderful as it is to imagine a landscape with wood bison in it, I am practical. In Alaska, the wood bison has been yanked back from the brink of extinction and reintroduced to the wild. With all of that wilderness perfectly suited to the bison it still took an enormous amount of resources and collaboration. It’s also pretty cool – read more about the Wood Bison Restoration at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. And I just learned that they’re reintroducing elk to North Carolina!

The National Park Service Biological Resources Division in Fort Collins, Colorado has a couple of articles from their 2016-2017 Bison Bellows series, including one on the speculated native range of the bison, Bison Bellows: Back Home on the Range, as well as one specifically on their East Coast presence during the early colonial period, Bison Bellows: Bison East of The Mississippi. The NRCS agent who was out in early July also sent me these cool vintage maps showing the dates of the wood bison’s extirpation (eradication) from North America.

Map of the Extirpation of the American Bison from North America
Map Detail of the Extirpation of the American Bison from North America showing the Mid-Atlantic Region of the United States

So, remember the Eastern wood bison. Remember the Franklin tree (even if you’ve never heard of it before now). I am planning to plant two of these this fall. Franklinia alatamaha is now extinct in the wild, and was only native to Georgia. But it leapt out at me when I was over at Wood Thrush Natives a few weeks ago, and I want to try to grow them here. I have a spot where I think they will thrive (I’ll share more in future posts). This tree is really special, a camellia relative in the tea family, with big white blossoms that flower for a long time during the summer and will bloom even in the fall as the foliage is turning red.

Click the image to learn more about Franklinia alatamaha.

Most of all, remember the ocelot. Even if you don’t believe she ever lived in Appalachia, she was definitely part of the landscape in Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida. She is hanging on by a thread in Texas. She belongs to North America. She is beautiful, and we miss her.

Ocelot. Photo by Tom Smylie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

References

Earth.org. (2022, January 4). 7 Most Critically Endangered Species in North America. Retrieved August 18, 2022 https://earth.org/endangered-species-in-north-america/.

Ocelot. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:44, August 19, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ocelot&oldid=1101969778

Wood Bison Restoration at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center https://www.alaskawildlife.org/wood-bison-restoration/

Bison Bellows 52-week series by The National Park Service Biological Resources Division in Fort Collins, Colorado https://www.nps.gov/subjects/bison/bison-bellows.htm

National Park Service. (2017, November 6). Bison Bellows: Back Home on the Range. Retrieved August 19, 2022 from The National Park Service website https://www.nps.gov/articles/bison-bellows-1-7-16.htm

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