Argentina’s Restored Grasslands Harbor a Species on the Brink

Jul 31, 2023 | Argentina

In the restored grasslands of Northeast Argentina, researchers have discovered a rare wild cat whose situation is so critical that many experts consider it to be the most endangered small feline species on the planet. The images that they captured are the first evidence in a decade of its presence in the region.

A study published in the August, 2023 edition of Journal for Nature Conservation documents the discovery of Muñoa’s Pampas cat in the 1.8-million-acre Great Iberá Park, composed of Iberá National and Provincial Parks. As the last refuge for this species, the grasslands are crucial to its long-term conservation.

Researchers from Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (known by the Spanish acronym CONICET), Iberá National Park and Rewilding Argentina undertook an extensive camera trap survey which revealed the surprising presence of Muñoa’s Pampas cat (Leopardus munoai), a species restricted to the open savannas and grasslands of Southern Brazil, Uruguay and Northeast Argentina. Researchers employed 2067 camera-trap stations to obtain four unique records of the species. Prior to the study, there have been only three documented sightings of Muñoa’s Pampas cat in Argentina, including two individuals hit by vehicle traffic.

Recently, the Pampas cat was redesignated as five separate species based on their morphological and molecular differences. Muñoa’s Pampas cat, also known as the Uruguayan Pampas cat, was named in honor of the Uruguayan zoologist Juan Ignacio Muñoa. Once distributed in the subtropical grasslands of the Argentine provinces of Entre Ríos and Corrientes, in Uruguay and in the extreme south of Brazil, Muñoa’s Pampas cat largely disappeared with the encroachment of large-scale agriculture, ranching and deforestation.

Dr. Jim Sanderson, the founder and director of the Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation, points out that more recent trail camera records are urgently needed. He also observed, “Recording Muñoa’s Pampas cat with trail cameras in Iberá was encouraging because Iberá is the only well-protected area where the world’s rarest cat occurs. The Pampa grassland biome in Brazil is the only biome that lacks a federal protected area.  Pampas grasslands in Uruguay have largely be replaced by agriculture or cattle pastures.  More than a decade of trail camera effort south of Uruguay in Argentina failed to record Muñoa’s Pampas cat.  Ibera remains the last refuge that might hold a significant, self-sustaining population of Muñoa’s Pampas cat and maned wolf.  Iberá is also the most likely place for a captive breeding and reintroduction program.”

According to Sebastian Di Martino, Director of Conservation for Rewilding Argentina, the offspring of Tompkins Conservation, the presence of this very rare feline reveals the exceptional value of the Iberá grasslands, which have allowed other rare species to rebound, such as the maned wolf, marsh deer and the strange-tailed tyrant. The results of the study highlight the importance of expanding all grasslands restoration efforts. Ongoing conservation efforts in the Iberá wetlands have also propelled the regional recovery of many species, including top predators like the jaguar. Thanks to the study’s findings, Brazilian and North American scientists are joining efforts to protect and further study Muñoa’s Pampas cat.