Just a few weeks ago we spotlighted a study out of Peru that revealed the third-densest population of ocelots anywhere. And now we've got a little piece of similarly bright news to report from the far northern frontier of that richly patterned wildcat's range: South Texas. 

For ocelots in and around the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge – one of the most significant tracts of prime habitat left in the biodiverse but heavily altered Rio Grande Valley – 2016 was something of a banner year. Among a number of ocelot families documented was a female with twin kittens (notable because most litters are just one) found on the Yturria Conservation Easement, a protected swathe of private ranchland north of the refuge.

And we've just had an update on that Yturria trio: late last month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which manages Laguna Atascosa, shared a remote-camera image of the collared mother ocelot beside her lounging male offspring. The female kitten (perhaps more camera-shy) was also doing well, USFWS added.

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Lounging male kitten and mom. Image: Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge/Facebook
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The same family trio photographed back in late December last year. Image: USFWS

The survival of the two kittens is encouraging, given there may be only 80 ocelots left in Texas, the cats' primary remaining stronghold in the US.

In a USFWS article from 2016, Hilary Swarts, an agency biologist at Laguna Atascosa, suggested plentiful rains over the past few years could help explain the ocelots' recent reproductive success – basically because greater precipitation translates to higher numbers of ocelot prey such as rabbits and rodents.

"With plenty of food and water, and minimal disturbance from humans, female ocelots have all the resources they need to reproduce successfully," Swarts said.

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Feline furball: The three-week-old male kitten was checked over by biologists after being found at a den site at Laguna Atascosa. Image: USFWS

Also among last year's litters was a male kitten – photographed by researchers at roughly the three-week-old furball stage – in the "first confirmed ocelot den at the refuge in nearly 20 years," the USFWS noted.

The mother of the twin kittens, meanwhile, was one of at least three female ocelots ranging the Yturria Conservation Easement known to have borne litters last year. The easement is a standout example of regional partnerships between government agencies, private landowners and non-profits aimed at recovering and connecting swathes of native habitat in the Rio Grande Valley.

And when it comes to native habitat, ocelots especially love the tangled hidey-holes and tunnelled runways within Tamaulipan thornscrub, among the hardscrabble ecosystems making up the once-vast South Texas brushlands. Much of that subtropical thornscrub – dominated by dense-growing shrubs and trees such as spiny hackberry, snake-eyes and Texas ebony – has been cleared for agriculture and urban development. 

Restoring wild brushland and linking prime patches with travel corridors on both public and private lands is key to safeguarding the isolated South Texas ocelot population. (Laguna Atascosa is currently working to expand Tamaulipan thornscrub through an ambitious replanting programme.)

Reducing ocelot deaths on roads, the leading cause of mortality, is also key: last fall, we reported on the promising effort to install a series of wildlife-friendly underpasses along two highways around Laguna Atascosa to help usher ocelots safely across.

And speaking of barriers, we'd be remiss not mentioning the persistent spectre of President Donald Trump's proposed wall along the US-Mexico line, which along with a host of other sticky issues (**cough** funding) threatens connectivity for ocelots and other borderland wildlife.



Top header image: Shutterstock