Wildlife researcher captures jaguars with camera

November 22, 2002

Blacksburg, Va., Nov. 22, 2002 - Have you ever wondered how wildlife photographers are able to catch that indescribable image of a wild animal swiftly and methodically attacking prey with just its claws? Marcella Kelly, assistant wildlife professor in Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources, does just that for jaguars of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve at Las Cuevas Research Station in Belize, Central America.

The name "jaguar" comes from the Tupi-Guarani Indians of Amazonia, whose word "yaguara" means "a beast that kills its prey with one bound." Kelly uses infrared remotely triggered cameras to photograph jaguars. Because jaguars have distinct coat patterns, individuals can be identified from photographs and a "capture" history established for each animal. This project will produce the first density estimates of jaguars in tropical rainforests.

Kelly's research involves using new technology to collect much needed data on elusive, endangered species. Each day, Kelly's research team sets out through the rainforest of Belize to cut trails and establish camera stations in the dense jungle. It is better if the stations are under complete tree canopy cover because the slightest motion or heat disturbance can activate a camera. "With all of the wires and placement requirements (e.g. clearing the site), it takes over an hour to set each one up," says Kelly. "The jaguars seem to show curiosity towards the camera's flash," notes Kelly. Researchers place a pair of cameras every three square kilometers in order to keep track of the jaguars. The cameras are checked once every 10 days. "We found that most of the same jaguars come back to have more pictures taken of them," explains Kelly. "The real problems come from the opossums. We have pictures of them taking pictures of each other or taking the wires out of the cameras," says Kelly. "It could be worse," laughs Kelly, "Elephants tend to step on the cameras and squash them in the African research."

Threatened by illegal hunting, jaguars are also an endangered species because their range has been cut in half by habitat destruction and loss. Kelly's findings estimate there are at least eight jaguars per 100 square miles. "In conservation terms, the Chiquibul Forest Reserve is a healthy rainforest," Kelly explains. "There are a lot of animals living in the rainforest. Jaguars have a large home range. By protecting their home range and habitat requirements, we are protecting all of the other species that live within the jaguar's home range."

This "Umbrella Species Concept" can lead to protection of bio-diversity as a whole. Species are all interconnected. If one animal is disturbed, then all of the animals are disturbed either directly or indirectly. Kelly notes the work is labor intensive, with field work each day including extensive hiking and hacking through the jungle in search of rewarding photographs. She advises that "the best unarmed self-defense against a jaguar is to pump yourself up and make yourself look really big. Make lots of noise and don't run. Stand your ground."

Although Kelly has only seen a jaguar once, she has seen a few 600-pound Mountain cows (tapirs) and heard several stories of wild pigs (peccaries) chasing humans up into trees for hours on end.

Other research efforts taking place at Belize's Las Cuevas Field Station include the endangered ocelot -- a smaller spotted cat, bats, hawkmoths, the Xate plant, and leaf miners, to name a few. Funding and support for these research projects come from Virginia Tech, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National History Museum in London, the National Science Foundation, and the McBean Family Foundation.

Other research efforts conducted by Kelly involve using a highly specialized computer program to assist in matching thousands of photographs of cheetahs from the past 25 years in order to construct the life histories of Serengeti cheetahs and the reproductive careers of female cheetahs. She has also conducted a survey of the small mammal diversity and abundance in the Chiquibul Forest.

Recently, Kelly spoke to the San Francisco Exploratorium using satellite technology to conduct a series of live webcasts from the remote field site in Las Cuevas, Belize. The studio audience and anyone watching the webcast were able to ask questions about her project with jaguars. The interview is available as an archive at www.exploratorium.edu/origins/belize-london/live/index.html under the heading, "Jungle Jaguars."
Researcher: Marcella Kelly, 540-231-1734 makelly2@vt.edu

PR CONTACT: Lynn Davis 540-231-6157 davisl@vt.edu

Article By Sarah Kayser, Intern in the Office of University Relations

Virginia Tech

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