Ocelot Killed on Rural Highway

Port Isabel-South Padre Press

An ocelot was struck and killed by a vehicle on FM 2925 just outside of Arroyo City overnight on Monday, Dec. 14. The animal was discovered the following morning and reported to the Texas Game Wardens.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) personnel identified the cat as OM290, a male between 2 1/2 to 3 years old, said Hilary Swarts, wildlife biologist at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

The cat was part of the Laguna Atascosa population, which is the smaller of the two known populations of ocelots remaining in Texas. That population consists of 13 known cats, including five males of breeding age, Swarts said. Another 35 of the critically endangered animals are estimated to live in Willacy County.

“When you have such a small population, every individual is really valuable both from a reproductive standpoint and from a genetic standpoint,” Swarts said. Losing one cat “has a devastating effect,” she said.

She explained that small population size leads to inbreeding, which can result in ‘inbreeding depression.”

“Inbreeding depression … is when that inbreeding starts to affect individual fitness,” she said. “It’s really hard to detect inbreeding depression,” she continued. It can lead to readily visible physical deformities, such as in the Florida panther, where animals are being seen with crooked tails. Or the symptoms can be more subtle, such as malformed sperm or animals that reproduce at less frequent rates.

“As of now, we haven’t seen any obvious signs of genetic inbreeding, and admittedly, we have not looked at the gametic level,” she said, saying samples of sperm have not been analyzed. “We have big concerns about the possibility of inbreeding depression, but we don’t have any direct evidence of this time,” she said, stressing it’s a difficult factor to measure.

For Swartz, the death of OM290 holds a bit of personal significance. “He was one of the first ones I trapped,” she said, describing how the cat was fitted with a radio collar almost two years ago. “He was very healthy, he was young,” she said.

Since OM290 was so young when he was trapped, USFWS fitted his radio collar with string to allow for continued growth. Biologists lost track of him when the collar fell off in August.

Two other ocelots have been killed this year, both along Highway 186 in Willacy County. Another three have been killed along Highway 100 – one each in 2010, 2013 and 2014. OM290 marks the sixth ocelot killed along a highway since 2010.

“He was beautiful!” Swarts said, adding the cat was also the first ocelot she had an opportunity to hold.

“It’s very sad,” Swarts said. “On the upside, we know the ocelots are reproducing and making more ocelots, so if they can keep doing that and we can work on reducing road mortality, I still feel optimistic about the population in Texas,” Swarts said.

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