Secrets of the Kodkod

Tiny and rare cat might have an important role in rainforest habitat

Smaller than a house cat and shrouded in mystery, it individually roams the temperate rainforest sustaining itself on rodents and birds. This felid faces two threats: an endangered habitat and humans.

kodkod

The Kodkod cat—the smallest wild cat known in the Americas—piqued the interest of Rodrigo Castro Bustamante and Stephania Galuppo Gaete when they set out to get their master’s degrees in conservation biology. The married Chilean couple wanted to study something few had studied before.

Rodrigo Castro Bustamante“We were looking for a species that is really important but one that you don’t know too much about,” Castro Bustamante said. The Kodkod is smaller than a domestic cat, weighing just 2.4 kg or a little over 5 pounds—and that’s one of the larger ones.

The Kodkod has a small head and its base coat color can range from grey to brown with small dark spots. Its tail has darker rings and an M marking on its forehead. Few have seen it. Most Chilean people learn of it only in stories, just as the researchers did before their study.

“It’s a very secretive cat,” Galuppo Gaete says. “In almost all of Chilean territory, they call it a güiña. If someone says ‘there is a güiña,’ that means you stole something. It’s a reference to this cat.”

The güiña earned a bad reputation when it preyed on poultry, so farmers shot and killed them. Today, reports of Kodkods preying on poultry are rare, but the negative perception remains, Castro Bustamante said.

The couple’s research is focused on Kodkods living between two national parks and one national reserve in the Chilean temperate rainforest, a geographic region where the indigenous people—the Mapuche—live.

Castro Bustamante wants to determine the connectivity of guiñas among natural parks and reserves, and the crucial fragments and corridors which would allow güiña dispersal in a landscape matrix of forest fragments, agriculture and human presence in the pre-Andean zone of the Araucanía region of southern Chile.

Stephania Galuppo GaeteStephania Galuppo Gaete
and Rodrigo Castro
Bustamante wanted to
study something few had
researched before when
they were beginning their
master’s degrees in
conservation biology. They
chose the rare kodkod cat
that lives in their native
Chile. Photos courtesy
Rodrigo Castro Bustamante
and Stephania Galuppo
Gaete

Galuppo Gaete is researching the Kodkod’s basic ecology. “I’m examining its activity patterns. I’m also looking at its dietary preferences,” she said. “Is the Kodkod a specialist or an opportunist?”

Recent studies suggest that the Kodkod increases its activity during dawn and dusk and becomes most active at night and decreases activity during the day, she said.

No one possesses an accurate estimate of the Kodkod population.

“The Kodkod is considered vulnerable because it occupies a narrow strip of geography between Argentina and Chile,” Galuppo Gaete said. “It’s endangered because the native forests are endangered and lately because of the human-carnivore conflict.”

Beginning in December 2010, the couple spent about eight months in the field over three years researching the Kodkod. They captured Kodkods, anesthetized them and collected blood and hair samples. They recorded the sex, weight and the cats’ measurements and marked the cats with a subcutaneous microchip before setting them free. Some samples were for a colleague’s work and not for use in their research.

Galuppo Gaete collected and analyzed Kodkod scat, which indicates the cat eats mostly rodents, rabbits and birds.

The researchers still are analyzing data and are beginning to write about it. They want their research to contribute to the conservation of the Kodkod, which in 2002 was listed as vulnerable by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and protected.

Conserving the Kodkod is important, they said. The cat aids in controlling pests (rodents), which helps diminish the spread of lethal diseases such as the Hantavirus.

“All animals are important and have their own intrinsic value and role,” Galuppo Gaete said. “The güiña, as carnivore, is at the top of the trophic chain holding off their prey’s populations and also, thousands of ecological interactions which we as human beings ignore, but are essential for the maintenance of the ecosystems.”

–Patty Mattern