The margay, a wild feline living in the Brazilian Amazon, is a true copycat. As it lurks through the rainforest, this cat imitates the sounds of a pied tamarin—a small monkey, and one of its favorite meals. Hearing the calls, the tamarin draws near, expecting to meet another of its kind.

Instead, the tamarin might meet its doom.

“Cats are known for their physical agility, but this vocal manipulation of prey species indicates a psychological cunning that merits further study,” said WCS researcher Fabio Rohe.

Researchers from WCS and Federal University of Amazonas first saw this amazing case of vocal mimicry in 2005. Eight pied tamarins, which are about the size of squirrels, were feeding in a ficus tree. Suddenly, the sounds of tamarin babies rang out from a group of tangled vines, or lianas. The researchers pinpointed the cries to a margay, trying to lure in lunch. First, the group's “sentinel” dropped down from the tree to investigate. Then four more of the curious monkeys followed.

The spotted cat sprang to action.

Kudos to the sentinel that realized the mistake in the nick of time. Quickly sounding the predator alarm call, the tamarin thwarted the margay’s attack, saving its troop-mates.

Though the cunning cat missed out on its monkey meal on this particular occasion, the researchers watching nearby were heartily impressed with its hunting strategy. The sightings, which took place in the Reserva Florestal Adolpho Ducke, confirmed anecdotal reports from people living within the Amazon of wild cat species—including jaguars and pumas—mimicking primates, agoutis (a type of rodent), and other animals to draw them into striking range.

“This observation further proves the reliability of information obtained from Amazonian inhabitants,” said Avecita Chicchón, director of WCS-Latin America. “Accounts of jaguars and pumas using the same vocal mimicry to attract prey also deserve investigation.”