How do you study a predator with the same camouflage and stealth that makes it almost invisible in the wild?
Even the jaguars are eating.
A group of researchers led by the University of Cincinnati used genetic and isotopic analysis of jaguar scat to investigate the habitat needs of the big cats in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Preserve in Belize in Central America. The study presents a novel and non-invasive technique for identifying the landscape use and conservation needs of elusive wildlife.
The researchers used scatter-detecting dogs named Billy and Bruiser to find evidence left behind by jaguars in the reserve, which is also home to pumas, margays, ocelots and jaguarundis. They subjected the scat to genetic analysis, known as molecular scatology, to identify not just the species but the individual cats that made up each sample. The researchers then subjected the scat to isotopic analysis, which offered clues as to where the animal was hunted based on the geology and vegetation of the area.
Published in European Journal of Wildlife Researchthe study concluded that the combination of genetic and isotopic analysis provides a powerful, non-invasive method of surveying wildlife for conservation.
“We’re not interacting directly with the animal,” said Brooke Crowley, lead author and professor of geosciences and anthropology at the University of Cincinnati. “No trapping or darting. You may not see the animal, but know what it ate and where it ate.”
The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve covers about 267 square miles of forest, savanna, rocky mountains, caves and streams in central Belize. The reserve is logged on a rotating basis. The roads are mostly unpaved and overgrown.
It’s very difficult to track animals here, says Claudia Wultsch, a study associate and research associate at the City University of New York.
“Jaguars tend to stay away from people and are usually found in more remote areas. You would have to be extremely lucky to see one in the wild,” said Wultsch.
Isotopic analysis is a good alternative to study animals that are solitary, wide, nocturnal, wary of people and dangerous to catch. And it supports other wildlife surveillance methods such as camera trapping, acoustic monitoring and environmental DNA analysis.
Larger than leopards, jaguars are the third largest cat in the world and the largest found in the Western Hemisphere. They were powerful apex predators revered by pre-Columbian societies. Opportunistic hunters, jaguars eat a variety of prey, including small mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. In Belize, they often eat armadillos, coatis and deer.
“Belize is an important stronghold for jaguars,” said co-author Wultsch. He studied the big cats with study partner Marcella Kelly, a professor at Virginia Tech.
In Belize, jaguars are protected and live in a network of dedicated reserves. Wultsch and Kelly in 2000 found that jaguars have sufficient population numbers to maintain genetic diversity in Belize but found some habitat loss and fragmentation in parts of their historic range.
In the latest project, the jaguars studied by the researchers hunted for prey in the rainforest reserve rather than in denser forests or nearby agricultural areas. Male jaguars have a territory that covers about 60 square kilometers. As in other areas where jaguars have been studied, researchers have found that some of the male jaguars have partially overlapping territories.
They also found some evidence that jaguars are avoiding areas where prey is scarce from recent wildfires. This has been confirmed by a camera trapping study with little sighting of both jaguars and their prey in these areas as well.
“Some forested areas in Belize have become more fragmented and isolated over the past 50 years, so one of the goals of our research is to evaluate what jaguars are doing in the many protected areas throughout Belize. ,” Wultsch said.
Brooke E. Crowley et al, Integrating faecal isotopes and molecular scatology in non-invasively studying the spatial ecology of elusive carnivorans: a case study of wild jaguars (Panthera onca), European Journal of Wildlife Research (2023). DOI: 10.1007/s10344-023-01701-2
Provided by the University of Cincinnati
Citation: Researchers use isotopic analysis to map jaguar territories in Belize (2023, July 18) retrieved on July 18, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-07-isotopic-analysis -territories-jaguars-belize.html
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