In the mossy rainforests and scrub-covered woodlands of Chile and western Argentina lurks a tiny, ghostlike wild cat. The güiña may parallel pet cats, but it measures in at about half the size and has ferret-like ears, big, round eyes, and an oversized, bushy tail. Until recently not much was known about the vocalisations of these mini-cats. But a recent recording reveals that they sound similar to chirping birds – another unique trait that makes the mysterious cats even more enigmatic.

Also known as the kodkod or Chilean cat, the petite felines recently became the 10,000th species to be catalogued by photographer Joel Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark – a multiyear project with the aim of documenting every species living in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries across the globe. The resulting portraits are intended to inspire action through education. Sartore’s session with a captive kodkod from the Fauna Andina wildlife reserve and rehabilitation centre in Chile produced the first known recording of the cat’s call.

Like many other small wildcat species, the güiña is "very much a mystery cat," Sartore told National Geographic. "They live in the shadows". Their characteristic shyness and relatively low population numbers makes it tricky to study the cats. Sartore’s audio recording is a valuable addition to the limited knowledge we have of the rarely seen species. "This cat is serving as the Rosetta stone for the species," says Sartore.

The photogenic feline in Sartore’s latest portraits is a male northern güiña name Pikumche. He was hand-raised by staff at Fauna Andina after a rival predator killed his mother when he was just 10 days old. Reintroduction into the wild is not an option for the two-and-a-half-year-old cat, as he’s too habituated to people and – despite his confidence – would likely be unable to fend for himself.

According to Fernando Vidal Mugica, founder of Fauna Andina, the repetitive chirrups made by Pikumche are likely expressions of pleasure or excitement, while his meowing is a way of communicating with the seven other kodkods at the sanctuary.

The smallest wild cat in the Americas, güiñas are one of eight species of small wild felines found in Latin America. Closely related to the better-known ocelot, güiñas have a more limited range and are not found in the United States.

Much like their more-famous cousins, güiñas are generalist feeders and will scoff down anything they can sink their claws into. Rodents, birds, small mammals and sometimes poultry all feature on the kodkod's menu. In the past, the latter has landed the compact cats in trouble with farmers who are known to kill güiñas in retaliation for livestock losses, but conservation efforts have helped to reduce human-wildlife conflict. Currently, the biggest threat to the species is habitat loss and deforestation says Jim Sanderson, who studied the cats in Chile in 1997.

Extensive removal of natural forests has cut the shy cats off from vital habitat on which they depend to survive. Work is being carried out, however, that focuses on creating wildlife corridors to allow the animals to move freely through a patchwork of natural habitat. The addition of the güiña to the National Geographic Photo Ark will also help put the species on the map and boost conservation efforts, according to Sanderson.

Sartore began snapping images for the Photo Ark project in 2006. His first image was of a naked mole rat, and since then he has single-handedly documented 10,000 species in an attempt to create an anthology of animal portraits to promote awareness of global biodiversity. Through his images he hopes to spearhead action and promote change. "It's the eye contact that moves people," Sartore said in a statement about his portraits. "It engages their feelings of compassion and a desire to help."


Header image: Joel Sartore