If monkeys told fairy tales, the antagonist in their version of "Little Red Riding Hood" might be a margay instead of a big bad wolf. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, new research shows how these rare, little understood felines use psychological trickery to lure in their dinner.
The behavior was first witnessed back in 2005 when Wildlife Conservation Society researchers were following a group of pied tamarins — tiny monkeys the size of squirrels — through the Amazon rain forest. While the monkeys were feeding, both the tamarins and the researchers suddenly became alerted to what sounded like baby tamarin distress calls.
That's when surprised researchers saw what was hidden from the adult tamarins: a hungry margay lurking in the branches. The cat was actually mimicking the language of baby tamarins to lure the adults in closer.
"Cats are known for their physical agility, but this vocal manipulation of prey species indicates a psychological cunning that merits further study," said WCS researcher Fabio Rohe.
The trick certainly was effective against the tamarins. The report indicates that during the incident in 2005, as many as five of the tamarins in the group being studied were fooled, choosing to descend the trees to follow the cries. By pure chance, they were all able to escape only because one monkey "lookout" happened to see the margay and warn his comrades in the nick of time.
Although there are local legends and folklore about jungle cats using vocal trickery to lure in prey, this is the first time researchers have confirmed a species in the Americas utilizing such a strategy.
"This observation further proves the reliability of information obtained from Amazonian inhabitants," said Avecita Chicchón, director of WCS Latin America. "Accounts of jaguars and pumas using the same vocal mimicry to attract prey also deserve investigation."
Margays are cats rarely witnessed in the wild, due to their nocturnal lifestyle and remote jungle habitat. They are listed as near threatened by the IUCN Red List, though their exact numbers are not easy to estimate. Sometimes called a tree ocelot because they look similar to the ocelot, they prefer to live almost exclusively in the trees. They can jump as high as 12 feet in a single bound and have ankles that can turn up to 180 degrees.
And, if you're asking a monkey: what big ears, claws and teeth they have!