It was recognized as a distinct species in 2013; it was formerly considered to belong to the species L. tigrinus (oncilla). At the margins of its range, the southern tigrina interbreeds with Geoffroy’s cats, L. geoffroyi, but it does not appear to interbreed with the population of oncilla in northeastern Brazil, which in contrast has a history of interbreeding with L. colocolo. The small neotropical cat has a yellowish-ocre coat patterned with open black rossettes. Physically, the southern tigrina can be distinguished from the oncilla by its slightly darker background coloring, larger rosette pattern, and slightly shorter tail. However, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between the two species by appearance alone, since more genetic variation tends to occur within each species than between the two species. Believed to be endemic, or unique to a defined geographical location, the southern tigrina is a threatened species because its habitat, the Atlantic Forest, is quickly disappearing. Currently, a push is on to better understand the biodiversity, ecology, evolution, and genetics of the southern tigrina to orchestrate a more effective conservation strategy for the species. In addition, further research is being conducted throughout South America to better understand the special differences between oncillas and southern tigrinas.
The Atlantic Forest habitat is located on the eastern coast of South America, extending along the Atlantic coast of Brazil from Rio Grande do Norte to Rio Grande do Sul, and continuing inland as far as Paraguay and the Misiones Province of Argentina. The southern tigrina is believed to be endemic to southern and southeastern Brazil.
In ecology, speciation, or the evolution of new species, is an ongoing natural process. A demographic expansion following the last glacial maximum (20,000 years ago) is believed to have led to the allopatric speciation of southern tigrinas. Because of habitat differentiation, interbreeding does not occur between oncillas and southern tigrinas. In contrast, hybridization and introgression occurs between southern tigrinas and Geoffroy’s cats at their contact zone in southern Brazil. Many southern tigrinas and Geoffrey’s cats are believed to be partial hybrids of one another, because of the high level of interbreeding that is occurring.