Neotropical spotted cats coexist near reserves

By Julia John

At just a few pounds, the oncilla, the smallest Neotropical cat, is a recently distinguished, scarcely studied species. ©Mariana B. Nagy-Reis

Only 2 percent of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest lies under government protection, but some species of spotted cats appear to prefer those more protected areas, recent research suggests, and they co-exist in them despite sharing similar diets.

The results suggest that the cats are sensitive to the conservation status of an area, and they highlight the need to maintain reserves to preserve these animals, the study found.

“The South Atlantic Forest is in danger,” said Jim Nichols, Senior Scientist at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and second author on the paper in PLOS ONE. “The [species] there, and what you can do to keep them around, are a relevant problem.”

Nichols, who won TWS’ 2015 Aldo Leopold Memorial Award, joined the project in 2014 after being approached by first author Mariana B. Nagy-Reis, who was then his student in a Smithsonian course on estimating animal abundance and occupancy. She subsequently spent six months at Patuxent, where she worked with Nichols on analyzing camera trap data she had collected for her doctoral work with the Department of Animal Biology at Universidade Estadual de Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil.

Her study in Brazil’s southern Atlantic Forest examined three similar spotted cats from Central and South America. They were the margay (Leopardus wiedii), which prowls through Central America and the Amazon basin to southern Brazil and Paraguay; the oncilla (Leopardus guttulus), which inhabits central to southern Brazil, eastern Paraguay and northeastern Argentina; and the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), which ranges from the southwestern United States to northern Argentina. Although they’re protected to varying degrees wherever they’re found, these animals are diminishing because of poaching.

The researchers aimed to understand how the species’ interactions with one another and the environmental and human features of the landscape affected where they occurred in the habitat. Nagy-Reis gathered her data through camera traps and scat samples in a 7,400-acre reserve across different levels of protection. She identified the species each scat came from by the cuticle pattern of hairs it contained.

The biologists observed that the cats’ presence at a site was influenced more by the proximity of protected areas, where activities like trapping and hunting are forbidden, and the strength of protection, than by the species’ interactions or the environmental characteristics of the landscape.

“If you were interested in the conservation of these three species, you’d discourage trapping and hunting,” Nichols said.

Although studies on bigger cats had found that species that shared the same prey tended not to coexist, Nichols said, Nagy-Reis’ research found that the smaller cats inhabited the same spaces despite their overlapping diets.

Nagy-Reis is now investigating competition for food among these cats and also comparing their use of time for various activities.

Julia John is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at jjohn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article.

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