Jaguars once roamed free across the Americas, from the Southwestern United States to the mountains of Argentina and Peru. The third largest big cat in the world – behind only the lion and the tiger – and one of the largest predators in the Western Hemisphere, the jaguar has recently seen its numbers drop substantially, losing around 25% of its population from hunting and deforestation over the past few decades, according to the IUCN.
To better protect jaguar populations in Belize, Mexico, and South America, scientists have focused on tracking individual members of these legendary “kings of the jungle” in order to develop a fuller picture of Jaguar populations, range, and habitats. But how, exactly, do they do this? The answer lies in one of the jaguar’s most recognizable characteristics: its spots.
Like a human fingerprint, a jaguar’s unique pattern of spots – how they’re shaped, arranged, and sized – its unique to each individual cat. Using digital camera traps that can catch a jaguar as it roams in territory, which can range from 25 to 80 square kilometers, scientists look for a series of unique spots that often take the form of recognizable shapes. One spot, or rosette, on a jaguar’s shoulder, for example, may take a shape that looks like a heart, while another could look somewhat like the face of Abraham Lincoln. These spots can lead to scientists giving jaguars some pretty interesting names, like “Mariposa” (or “butterfly), “Cannibal” or “Smiley,” each name due to a particularly memorable rosette.
As Belize lies in the heart of jaguar territory in Central America, identifying these big cats is essential to correctly placing Jaguar population numbers in the country, and where conservation and protection efforts should be best applied. At Inspire EdVentures, one of our research projects uses trail cameras to capture images of wildlife on the VivaBelize properties. We then share these images with conservation experts at the Belize Zoo. Students on our EdVentures not only help maintain the cameras, but also participate in the generation of a database of the wildlife that is recorded on the cameras. To learn more about this project, visit our research page.
- Rare Jaguars Caught in Camera Traps – For Science (National Geographic)
- Identifying Jaguars (Center for Biological Diversity)
- Pantera onca (IUCN Red List)
- Thumbnail and Color Image: Ricochet Creative Productions, used by permission.
- Trail camera images: Inspire EdVentures