Friday, July 13, 2007

Dead ocelot bad news for falling U.S. population

US: July 13, 2007

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas - The unexplained death of a breeding-age ocelot in southeast Texas has brought the endangered cat a step closer to extinction in the United States, a wildlife biologist said on Thursday.

The US population of the northern subspecies of the cat, known as the Texas ocelot, is down to around 100 or fewer. And the remains of the male one found on Sunday in the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge means there is one less.

"You really hate to lose any of them when there are so few of them," said Jody Mays, a US Fish & Wildlife Service biologist.

She said the animal had been subjected to a necropsy on Wednesday -- an autopsy for animals -- but it was too badly decomposed to determine a cause of death. It could have been a snake bite.

The concern is compounded by the fact that the US population lives in isolated fragments so the dead male was one of just 30 to 40 breeding adults in the Laguna refuge in subtropical southeast Texas near the border with Mexico.

So 3 percent of the refuge's breeding animals have been lost in one go.

"Habitat loss and fragmentation are the biggest threats to the ocelots," Mays told Reuters in a telephone interview. Cut off from other populations in fragments or "islands" of habitat, the animals have a limited genetic pool.

Such populations also are vulnerable to sudden die-offs from disease or a sharp drop in food supplies. And these risks rise as the population contracts.

Much of the land in this lush corner of Texas has been cut up into farmland or, in the case of nearby islands like South Padre, into beachfront condominium developments.

But the area is exceptionally rich in wildlife from birds to butterflies to ocelots.

Ocelots are small, spotted or striped wild cats that weigh between 15 and 25 pounds (7 and 11 kg). Subspecies are found from Texas down through Latin America all the way to Argentina.

In the United States the cat once ranged into Louisiana and Arkansas but is now restricted to this corner of Texas.

Story by Ed Stoddard

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