DNA results from Hidalgo County ocelot stir debate over where it came from

4 weeks 1 day 5 hours ago Saturday, April 20 2024 Apr 20, 2024 April 20, 2024 4:04 PM April 20, 2024 in News - Local

New DNA testing on a deceased ocelot is sparking theories, excitement and debate about why it was found well outside its known home range.

The male ocelot was killed in 2021 on Highway 281, north of Edinburg. Genetic testing results announced Thursday shows genetic markers that are not present in the known populations in Willacy and Cameron Counties, said Dr. Thomas deMaar, with the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

The genetic markers showed DNA that is present in northern Mexican ocelots, but not in the known Texas population.

"It is evident that this animal has all the genetic markers of a Texas animal, similar to Laguna Atascosa and Willacy County population but also has two genetic markers relating it to the ocelots of northeast Mexico," said deMaar.

What's strange about this case is the ocelot was found 50 miles from its known home range, along a stretch of 281 north of the Edinburg airport and south of Linn-San Manuel.

"Most of them are short dispersers," said Dr. Mike Tewes who's spent 42 years researching the endangered ocelot. When males reach maturity, they set out to find a new area to live. Tewes says few ocelots travel more than a few miles away from where they were born.

The discovery of new genetic markers is sparking excitement about the potential origin of the male ocelot. 

Dr. deMaar gave three possibilities: One, the ocelot came from Mexico. Two, it came from the known populations in Willacy and Cameron Counties.

He prefers the third possibility.

"It does give some evidence that there are populations of ocelots in Texas that we don't actually know about and have not been reported," deMaar said.

The findings give hope that the struggling population, facing threats from inbreeding, may have more members in northern Hidalgo County. But there is disagreement over the findings.

"It's really very inconclusive," said Tewes. "It's very difficult to suggest that there's a new population anywhere based on those data."

The deceased ocelot's genetics were compared to a genetic database of samples taken from the Willacy and Cameron County populations. But that database does not account for all ocelots in that area, and it hasn't been updated since 2005, said Tewes.

"Every ocelot that we get genetic samples from is just like one small piece of a bigger puzzle," said Tewes. "And there's so many holes in this puzzle."

Debate may continue over the meaning of the genetic testing. But the fact that an ocelot was found in northern Hidalgo County is causing excitement and hope for the species' future recovery.

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