Natives of the Amazonian jungle tell tales about cats that imitate the sounds of its prey to lure birds, monkeys or rodents into their clutches - and now researchers have recounted how the sneaky strategy works.
This tale, published in the June 2009 issue of Neotropical Primates, involves a margay cat that made baby monkey sounds in hopes of snagging a pied tamarin or two. But don't worry: No animals were hurt in the making of this research. The tamarins got away unharmed, thanks to a savvy sentry.
The journal paper's authors say their account was the first scientific publication to support the folk stories about Amazonian copycats. "Cats are known for their physical agility, but this vocal manipulation of prey species indicates a psychological cunning that merits further study," Fabio Rohe, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a news release issued Wednesday.
Pied tamarins serve as prey for the Amazonian margay cat.
The cat-and-monkey encounter unfolded in Brazil's Reserva Florestal Adolpho Ducke in October 2005, while Rohe and his colleagues were remotely monitoring eight squirrel-sized pied tamarins feeding in a ficus tree. The sounds of tamarin babies in distress rang out from behind a clump of tangled vines. An adult male monkey climbed up and down the tree, trying to identify the source of the sound. In the meantime, the researchers saw where it was coming from: a margay cat, making its way toward the monkeys.
The sentinel monkey dropped to the ground, keeping watch. Within minutes, four more monkeys followed. But as the cat closed in, the sentinel suddenly realized what was going on and emitted a high-pitched warning scream. The whole group of monkeys scattered, and the cat went away empty-pawed.
Researchers came away impressed - not only with the cat's strategy and the monkeys' vigilance, but also with the way the encounter verified what they were hearing from local residents. Other cats are said to imitate types of rodents known as agoutis and tinamou birds.
"This observation further proves the reliability of information obtained from Amazonian inhabitants," said Avecita Chicchon, director of WCS-Latin America. "Accounts of jaguars and pumas using the same vocal mimicry to attract prey also deserve investigation."
For more about this research, check out Brian Switek's April report on the Laelaps blog. Unfortunately, Rohe and his colleagues couldn't capture audio of the margay's monkey call - it all happened too fast. But you can hear a margay's growl, courtesy of The Cat House, and watch a National Geographic video of a margay facing off with a black-handed spider monkey.
Other authors of the paper, "Hunting Strategy of the Margay (Leopardus wiedii) to Attract the Wild Pied Tamarin (Saguinus bicolor)," include Fabiano de Oliveira Calleia and Marcelo Gordo of Projeto Sauim-de-Coleira / Federal University of Amazonas.