Ever since I first laid eyes on it, my favorite animal has been the Golden Lion Tamarin. It’s a beautiful new world monkey that’s pretty rare, but can be found in some zoos, including the one in Washington D.C. (And if I recall correctly, I believe I saw it at the Baltimore Aquarium, for some odd reason.)
Given just how stunning I find this primate, I was rather worried when I read this article about a feline, the Spotted Margay, vocally imitating tamarins as a predatory method.
Researchers first recorded the incident in 2005 when a group of eight pied tamarins were feeding in a ficus tree. They 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. 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.
My heart raced. Everyone knows only cute animals are worthy of human sympathy, but I’ve never seen a pied tamarin. Was it as cute as a golden lion tamarin? Could this feline have been attacking something I would be willing to irresponsibly feed purely due to its cuteness?
This encounter was actually unsuccessful, but it shows just how cunning evolution has made some cats. Locals have claimed that they have also observed this behavior in other members of the feline family, including jaguars, cougars, and ocelots. The next step will be to determine if this is true (and I suspect it is), and then do more research to determine if there is a genetic basis for these actions beyond the obvious basis of simply being feline. I lean towards the behavior being learned simply because it hasn’t been observed with captured specimens or with specimens living in vastly different areas, but also because agoutis (rodents) also find themselves a target of margay mimicry, and they make an entirely different sound from tamarins.
But the margay’s remarkable abilities are not limited to traditional feline characteristics and mimicry. Take a look at this video.