Jaguar Scat Analysis Aids Conservation Efforts

Research posts

Research led by the American Museum of Natural History and wild cat conservation organization Panthera has resulted in the largest gene-based survey of its kind on wild jaguar populations in Mesoamerica.

The analysis, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, is based on nearly 450 jaguar scat samples collected in Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. This work identifies areas of conservation concern for Mesoamerican jaguars and underscores the importance large-scale genetic monitoring plays in conservation efforts around this elusive, near-threatened carnivore species.

 

Jaguar slinks through the woods.

Remote camera trap photo of jaguar detected in the Barbilla-Destierro Subcorridor, Costa Rica.

© Panthera-SBBD-IDB-ICE


“Mesoamerica has one of the highest deforestation rates worldwide, potentially limiting movement and genetic connectivity in forest-dependent jaguars across this fragmented landscape,” said Claudia Wultsch, the lead author of the paper, a scientist in the Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, and a conservation research fellow at Panthera.  “Large-scale conservation genetics studies on wild jaguars spanning across several range countries assessing these threats are rare, and suffer from low sample sizes for this region.”

To get a better idea of the genetic health and connectivity of jaguar populations in this area and the effectiveness of the existing wildlife corridors, the researchers turned to DNA obtained from field-collected jaguar scat.

 

Claudia sits with her arms around the dog.

Claudia Wultsch and scat detector dog Bruiser.

© C. Wultsch


“We want to figure out ways to reconnect these populations or, even if they’re not completely isolated, to engage in activities that allow jaguars to move more freely across the landscape,” said George Amato, director of the Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics and the paper’s senior author.  “One of the only ways to do this is through genetic analysis.”

This non-invasive technique lets researchers gather large DNA sample sizes of difficult-to-study wildlife species, such as big cats, without physically capturing, handling, or disturbing the animals. Since these samples quickly degrade in the warm and humid conditions of the tropical countries, however, a great deal of laboratory work has to be done in a short time to successfully analyze the DNA.

 

Jaguar slinks through the woods.

Remote camera trap photo of a male jaguar at Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras.

© Panthera-ICF


When assessing genetic connectivity in Mesoamerican jaguars, the scientists found low levels of gene flow between jaguars in the Selva Maya—the largest contiguous tropical forest north of the Amazon, spreading over northern Guatemala, central Belize, and southern Mexico—and those in Honduras. This suggests that there is surprisingly little jaguar movement between these two geographically close areas. This region represents a conservation priority and the authors recommend continued management and maintenance of jaguar corridors, as well as mitigation of jaguars’ main threats, including human-wildlife conflict.