A large wildcat resembling a leopard was recently photographed by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trail camera in Texas.
The nighttime image was shared Saturday on Facebook, showing the “majestic feline” as it was creeping into a highway underpass, used by wildlife to avoid traffic.
Though the spotted wildcat looks alarmingly like a leopard — particularly in black and white — experts have identified it as an ocelot, a native species of wild feline that grows to 4 feet in length and 35 pounds. (Leopards grow to more than 6 feet and 130 pounds, LiveScience.com reports.)
To say the species is rare in the U.S. is an understatement.
“There are an estimated 50 ocelots that remain in the United States,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say. “Known as the ‘little leopard,’ ocelots are larger than a house cat but smaller than a bobcat.”
The ocelot in the photo (taken at 3:24 a.m. on June 23) was identified as a male. The location was not revealed.
Thousands have reacted to the wildlife service’s post in the past few days, with many expressing surprise.
“I fancy myself an amateur animal encyclopedia, but did not know these could be found in the U.S.,” one commenter wrote.
“Panthers, yes. Bobcats, yes. First time I have heard of ocelots in the wild in the US,” another posted.
The species is considered native to the southern U.S. and Mexico, including in the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Ocelots are listed as endangered, due largely to loss of habitat in a range that once stretched from South Texas into Arkansas, experts say.
“Ocelots are different from most other cat species in that they can turn their ankle joints around which allows them to literally climb down a tree,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports.
“This important self-defense mechanism lets them escape from predators like mountain lion or bobcat, species of cats that cannot retract their claws (and must figure out how to get out of the tree they just climbed). Unlike most other cats, ocelots are also good swimmers.”
The nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife reports it is working to raise awareness of ocelots in South Texas and is trying to promote “the best practices for coexisting with them.” The organization says ocelots are now found in only “two small populations near the Mexican border.”