By Kolten Parker
SAN ANTONIO — Wildlife biologists in deep South Texas barely could control their excitement earlier this month when they saw the photo.
The scientists were admiring a black-and-white trail camera image of a two-month-old baby ocelot at the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge, which houses one of only two breeding populations of the mid-sized wild cats in the United States.
The new kitten meant that the group of 11 free-ranging ocelots at the refuge in Cameron County had grown nearly 10 percent to 12. One was struck by a car and killed on a highway in November, Swarts said.
To add to their elation, the biologists believe that the newly discovered ocelot, which they think is between three and five months old, is a female.
“Having an additional female in the population doesn't just mean we have another individual,” said Swarts. “Females are especially valuable because they boost the reproductive power of the population and increase the chances of new ocelots.”
The biologists monitor the ocelots using remote-controlled trail cameras and other technology to ensure the best environment for the endangered animals to live and breed.
Ocelots typically have one kitten per birth cycle, rather than a litter like house cats, Swarts said.
The wildlife refuge in Cameron County is at the southern tip of Texas, near Brownsville, and is 90,000-acres. The focus of the more than 50-year-old protected lands is to restore the thorn scrub and coastal prairie habitats, with a focus on migratory birds, ocelots and other endangered animals such as the Aplomado Falcon.
The only other breeding population of ocelots in the country is in neighboring Willacy County and there are less than 50 free-ranging ocelots in the country.
The ocelot is a medium-sized wild cat that eats rodents and birds, climbs trees and is native to South Texas, Mexico and Central and South America. Adults weigh between 15 and 30 pounds and each animal's coat is unique like a human's fingerprint.
Ocelots have diminished quickly as their habitat has been destroyed through economic development.
“They are very elegant looking animals,” Swarts said. “And to have evidence that the population here is still growing and reproducing is very reassuring to our program.”