Scat-sniffing research dogs are helping scientists map out a plan to save reclusive jaguars, pumas, bush dogs and other endangered carnivores in the fragmented forests of northeastern Argentina, according to a new study. Developed with the local community, it may make a huge difference to the survival of predators.

Given that we are losing species at an alarming rate, creative solutions are critical now. Human impact on predators has put the carnivores in a position where they are clinging for survival. The study explores options for mitigating the impact of human encroachment on 5 predators in isolated pockets of protected forest surrounded by roadways, unprotected forest, plantations and pastures.

Dogs to the rescue

The study details a plan for developing a corridor that connects protected areas in the Upper Parana Atlantic Forest Region of Misiones, Argentina. The study is co-authored by Karen DeMatteo, a biology research scientist and lecturer in environmental studies in Arts & Sciences.

Using dogs trained to detect the scat of specific species, DeMatteo’s team searched for evidence of the carnivores’ presence across a broad swath of northeastern Argentina. This included public and private wildlife reserves, private plantations, farms, pastures, and along roads and paths leading to scattered communities.

DNA analysis of over 900 scat samples collected over several summers allowed researchers to develop detailed maps of the species frequenting these habitats. This included a sense of how their movements were influenced by habitat quality, topography, roadways and other human disturbances.

Research dogs can help endangered carnivores

Photo: Karen DeMatteo

Jaguar corridors may help other predators

For species such as the jaguar, which rarely crosses into territory disturbed by humans, survival may hinge on the creation of habitat corridors linking isolated population pockets. Because the jaguar is so averse to human interaction, some studies have suggested that habitat corridors designed for it also would cover the needs of other predators.

DeMatteo’s study, which examined the habitat needs of jaguars, pumas, ocelots, oncillas and bush dogs, offers a more nuanced approach. The study suggests that the footprint for habitat corridors should be drawn with the overlapping needs of many species in mind.

While some species were less intimidated by the presence of humans, each had its own unique requirements in terms of what constitutes a suitable habitat and the length and width of possible corridor connections.

“Despite variation in body size, the jaguar, puma, ocelot, oncilla and bush dog overlap in their ecological requirements,” the study said. “However, this is not without variation in the degree of habitat flexibility. Puma, oncilla, and bush dog have comparatively higher levels of modified habitats in their potential distributions compared to the jaguar and ocelot.”

The optimum model

By combining data on all five species, researchers developed a model that provides maximum habitat connectivity for all species. It also minimizes the cost of establishing these corridors through privately owned lands and communities.

“The findings illustrate the benefit of using multiple species versus a single species to develop corridors. Using only the jaguar to develop the corridor would mean that the potential distributions of the other four carnivores would be restricted and decreased by as much as 30 percent,” DeMatteo said.

She concludes, “So, it appears that, at least in the Misiones province, the jaguar should not be modeled as an umbrella species because the results fail to capture the varied requirements of coexisting species across the breadth of potential habitats.”

DeMatteo and colleagues hope the study provides a methodology for identifying the optimal footprint for proposed habitat connection corridors, while incorporating enough flexibility to ensure that the needs and desires of private landholders can be incorporated into the process.

“The approach is multi-pronged and involves a strong investment from the local community, especially when developing corridors that use existing protected areas as ‘stepping stones’. Private land will inevitably be involved to varying degrees in and around the corridor,” the study concludes.

“This plan is exciting not only for the future of the local biodiversity, but also because it involved a lot of collaboration from the local government and universities to make it happen,” she said. Here’s hoping to save our endangered carnivores with creative approaches.

Recent studies have argued that establishing small, protected reserves for endangered species, even in the best of habitats, is not enough to ensure long-term survival because species must move across their range to breed with other scattered populations and maintain genetic diversity.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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