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Experts are tracking the elusive jaguar by studying its poop

The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Preserve in central Belize covers about 267 miles of forests, savannas, streams, rocky mountains, and caverns that are very difficult to access. In this type of terrain, tracking elusive animals like jaguars is extremely challenging. 

Now, a team of scientists led by the University of Cincinnati has devised a novel and noninvasive technique for identifying the landscape use and conservation needs of elusive wildlife such as jaguars. 

Follow the feces

By applying genetic and isotopic analyses of jaguar scat – detected by two dogs named Billy and Bruiser – the experts investigated the habitat needs of these big cats that share their environment with a variety of other species, including pumas, ocelots, margays, and jaguarundis. 

“Jaguars tend to stay away from people and are typically found at more remote sites. You have to be extremely lucky to see one in the wild,” said study co-author Claudia Wultsch, a wildlife biologist at the City University of New York.

According to Wultsch and her colleagues, a good alternative to study solitary, wide-ranging, nocturnal, and difficult to capture animals such as the majestic jaguar is a combination of genetic and isotopic analyses of their scat. 

The former technique, known as molecular scatology, can help identify not only different species but also the individual cats that produced each sample, while the latter can offer reliable clues about where the animals hunted based on the geology and vegetation of the area.

Focus of the study

Larger than leopards, jaguars are powerful apex predators and opportunistic hunters that consume a wide variety of prey, including small mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. In Belize, where they are protected and live in a network of dedicated reserves, they even eat armadillos, deer, and coatis. 

In 2000, researchers found that jaguars inhabiting this region had a large enough population to maintain genetic diversity, but they also detected some habitat loss and fragmentation in parts of their historical range.

What the researchers learned 

The current study revealed that jaguars hunted their prey in the reserve’s pine forest savanna rather than in forests or agricultural areas, with male jaguars controlling (overlapping) territories of over 60 square miles. Moreover, the scientists found evidence that the jaguars were avoiding regions where prey was scarce due to recent wildfires, corroborating a previous camera trapping study.

“Some forested areas in Belize have become more fragmented and isolated over the last 50 years, so one of the objectives of our research is to assess how jaguars are doing at several protected areas across Belize,” Wultsch said.

Better understanding these animals’ habitat use and hunting techniques could help devise better conservation strategies to protect them, the authors concluded.

The study is published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research.   

More about jaguars 

Jaguars (Panthera onca) are one of the big cat species in the Panthera genus, which also includes lions, tigers, and leopards. Jaguars are native to the Americas, where they primarily live in rainforests, swamps, and grasslands. 

Jaguars are considered near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), largely due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Here are some key points about jaguars:

Physical characteristics

Jaguars are well-known for their powerful build, and they’re the third-largest big cat species, after tigers and lions. They have a distinct coat pattern, featuring a yellow or tan base color with black spots, often forming a rosette pattern. Some jaguars are melanistic, which means they appear almost entirely black.

Hunting and diet

Jaguars are apex predators with a wide diet. They are known for their strength and agility, and they can take down prey ranging from small rodents to large animals like caimans and tapirs. A distinguishing feature of the jaguar’s hunting style is its ability to deliver a powerful bite directly through the skull of its prey, killing it instantly.

Habitat and distribution

Jaguars are found primarily in Central and South America, with a few remaining populations in the southwestern United States. They prefer dense rainforests, but can also be found in grasslands, woodlands, and swampland.


Female jaguars usually give birth to two to four cubs after a gestation period of around 100 days. The cubs are born blind and gain their sight after two weeks.


The jaguar is a near-threatened species and its numbers are declining. Threats include loss and fragmentation of habitat, conflicts with humans, and illegal trade in jaguar parts. Various conservation initiatives are in place to protect and preserve this majestic species.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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