Deceptive predatory cat imitates monkey calls

July 11, 2010 • 6:22 am

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.

13 thoughts on “Deceptive predatory cat imitates monkey calls

  1. I can see why the guy in the video was looking a little hesitant. It’s a good thing everyone was calm and expecting a semi-wild cat and could defuse the play attack without upsetting the margay and getting someone really hurt!

    I was a little disappointed that these guys weren’t willing to sacrifice some flesh to demonstrate the margay’s climbing skills so I found this little video which shows it off nicely:

    Hanging by the feet and climbing straight down the tree, pretty amazing.

  2. Bonus kitteh! I’m glad WEIT caught this, and Tyro’s video of the movements and the ankle was a treat.

    If cats have a theory of mind it seems decidedly focused on feeding. Granted a dog can go “If I make a sound like this, I can get a meal” (wily dog!), but it can also go “If I make a move like this, I can get play/petted/socially ranked”.

    FWIW I like the kitteh mind focus.

  3. 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.”

    That’s a far too generous and nonspecific criterion for a true Theory of Mind — the reasoning would have to be “If I make a sound like this, I will fool a tamarin into believing that another tamarin is here, and I can get a meal.” Theory of Mind involves the presumed state of another organism’s knowledge, beliefs, or desires, and if the behaviour is done without such a presumption, it doesn’t indicate Theory of Mind, even if it is ultimately deceptive, and even if the behaviour is learned.

    In other words, margays could learn to make certain vocalizations when hunting tamarins without understanding that those vocalizations a) sound like tamarin young and b) are thus likely to cause tamarins to believe that young tamarins are around. If that’s the case, they’re not using Theory of Mind.

    1. Of course, in re-reading the post I see I have way over-interpreted what was being actually claimed in the first place. My apologies.

  4. I’ve heard a few times that cheetahs imitate birds in order to attract them, but I’ve never seen it recorded.

  5. My cat most definitely makes noises when hunting! She makes an odd stuttering, chirping noise whenever she spies something she’d like to catch, like a bird, or bug, or even the other cat. The sounds seem almost involuntary. I’m quite certain this behavior is well documented on YouTube.

    I also know that my cats learn very quickly what behaviors can get them a meal, especially as it pertains to getting the humans out of bed in the morning. A roommate’s cat had even learned that an excellent technique for getting humans out of bed fast was to gradually nudge a glass of water toward the edge of the bedside table!

    It seems to me that vocalizations successful for catching prey could definitely be learned. From my experiences, I’m also reasonably certain that house cats have some degree of a Theory of Mind for the humans who take care of them – at least as much as they might have a Theory of Mind for the minds of their prey and other cats. It’s very easy to see how developing such mental skills would be a huge evolutionary advantage for predators and/or social animals.

    1. “She makes an odd stuttering, chirping noise whenever she spies something she’d like to catch” My cats do too. One has to wonder if it actually does anything useful.

  6. “it let me pet it but then sank its teeth into my silver ring, leaving a sizeable dent.”

    So, a pretty normal cat then? 😉

    I’m wondering how common this vocalization mimicry amongst small cats is. Two of my four house cats, for instance, will stare at birds, then make this weird, jaw-quivering (theirs, not mine) “nah, nah, nah, nah” sound (that’s as close as I can write it) as if they were trying to talk to/call the birds. Of course, house cats are going to have a *lot* of non-standard behaviors, but still.

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