For a plucky little forest cat, the key to survival might just be "monkey see, monkey do."
Scientists in the Amazon rain forest's Reserva Florestal Adolpho Ducke, near Manaus, Brazil, heard a margay imitating the call of a baby pied tamarin monkey in 2005.
It was the first—and so far, only—scientifically documented case of a cat imitating a prey species in the Americas, team member Fabio Rohe, a researcher for the New York-based nonprofit WCS, said in an email. Rohe added that he's unaware of any other predators in the world using vocal mimicry as a hunting tool.
Though the high-pitched squeal was a "poor imitation" of a baby, it was similar enough to attract curious adult tamarins feeding nearby, Rohe said.
But when the monkeys crept closer, they spotted the margay and escaped before the cat could attack.
Listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—meaning it's likely to face a high risk of extinction in the near future—the margay is a spotted cat that grows to about 7 pounds (3.3 kilograms) and typically feeds on small mammals, birds, and reptiles.
The cat's chief threats are habitat destruction, the market for exotic pets and pelts, and angry farmers, known to shoot margays who raid poultry stocks, according to IUCN.
Monkey Mimicry Passed From Cat to Cat?
Despite the margay's lack of success that day, the observation suggests the cats use surprising "psychological cunning" to nab their dinner, Rohe said.
And the margay probably isn't the only sneaky cat in the jungle. Rohe and colleagues interviewed people living in the central Amazon who reported hearing other cat species—such as cougars and jaguars—tricking their prey through mimicry. (See big-cat pictures.)
Many of the South America's prey species, such as macuco birds and agouti rodents make very sharp sounds that may be in the "potential repertoires" of cats, the researchers say.
What's more, those repertoires may run in the family. Margay moms, Rohe said, likely pass the imitation strategy on to their young. In "wild cats, this learning with [the] mother seems to be essential for its survival."
Findings published in the July 2009 issue of the journal Neotropical Primates.