Many people see dogs as open, loving, and honest, and cats as duplicitous, cunning, and sly (Fig. 1). This gross misconception will be reinforced by a paper in the new (but dated July 2009) issue of Neotropical Primates, which you can download for free. The authors, Fabiano de Olivera Calleia, Fabio Rohe, and Marcelo Gordo, show that a wild cat imitates the sounds of baby monkeys to lure its prey within reach.
Fig. 1. Popular view of cats vs. dogs. From Cat versus Human by Yasmine Surovec
The cat is the margay (Leopardus wiedii), a small (two foot long), solitary inhabitant of Central and South American rain forests. It’s famous for its climbing abilities, spending much of its time up in the trees. Indian Wildlife describes the margay’s climbing skills:
One of the most remarkable characteristics of the margay is the exceptionally flexible ankle joint. It can supinate through 180° enabling the margay, unlike most cats, to run head first down a tree. This is quite evidently an important adaptation for a tree-dwelling animal. They can grasp branches equally well with their fore and hind paws, and are able to jump considerable distances. Margays have been observed to hang from branches with only one foot.
Margay babies are sometimes tamed by the locals. I once got to hold a (relatively) tame margay that belonged to a bar in Costa Rica; it let me pet it but then sank its teeth into my silver ring, leaving a sizeable dent. Here’s a short video of this beautiful cat:
Calleia et al. report that margays appear to subsist on arboreal mammals (including monkeys), but up to now their methods of predation haven’t been described. Interviewing inhabitants of the Amazon rainforests, the authors were told that several species of jungle cats attracted prey by imitating the prey’s vocalizations. And, while studying wild pied tamarins (Saguinus bicolor), they actually saw this behavior: a margay imitating the cry of a baby tamarin. Here’s their description:
On October 12, 2005, at 9:13 am, a group of eight pied tamarins monitored by telemetry was feeding in a Moraceae (Ficus sp.). A large vine at 15 meters height connected the surrounding trees to the fig tree. At 9:18 am, a margay attracted the attention of a tamarin sentinel (Gordo et al., 2005) by producing calls similar to those emitted by pied tamarin pups. The adult male sentinel climbed up and down the tree to investigate the calls coming from behind the liana tangles. It assumed a surveillance position and, using specific calls, warned the group about the foreign calls. At 9:22 am we observed movements in the vine and keep hearing the call imitations. At 9:29 am three pied tamarin individuals were feeding on Ficus sp. while the tamarin sentinel was keeping surveillance. At 9:40 am, four pied tamarins climbed up and down the Moraceae in response to the repeated aggressive calls from the tamarin sentinel. At that moment, was observed a cat with small body but big feet, huge eyes and a long tail walking down the trunk of a tree (like a squirrel); it quickly jumped to a liana that was connected to the fig tree and moved toward where the tamarins were feeding, about 15 meters away. At this moment, the sentinel emitted a high scream as the predator approached the group; and the group fled immediately.
The only thing that’s lacking in this report is a recording of the cat, but of course they couldn’t make one because this was a fortuitious encounter.
This is, I think, the first description of a wild cat luring its prey by mimicking its calls. Although this particular attack was unsuccessful, you can see how imitating the calls of prey could help you get a meal. If this behavior is real—and I suspect it is—we can speculate whether it’s innate or (more probably) learned, and, if it is learned, whether it’s learned from the margay’s mother or on its own. Learned mimicry (unless it’s an accidental vocalization that’s reinforced) presupposes a theory of feline mind that can reason thus: “If I make a sound like this, I can get a meal.” I suspect this isn’t just a case of vocal reinforcement, because cats don’t make nonmimetic noises when they’re hunting.
The authors note that rainforest locals have also described deceptive mimicry in the cougar (Puma concolor), the jaguar (Panthera onca), and the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) preying on tinamous and agoutis, both of which make calls that could be imitated by cats. These reports should not be dismissed. Cats, it seems, are even wilier than we thought.
Calleia, F. d.O., F. Rohe and M. Gordo. 2009. Hunting strategy of the margay (Leopardus wiedii) to attract the wild pied tamarin (Saguinus bicolor). Neotropical Primates 16: 32-34.