Study found that size and shape of footprints of small-sized wild cat species and domestic cats were similar.
Similarity of footprints could pose a problem for researchers conducting surveys in areas that have both wild, and domestic or feral cats, study warns.
Instead of relying on footprints alone, researchers suggest that animal surveys should incorporate multiple methods.
Wild cats — from the small jaguarundi to the large jaguar — are elusive animals. They usually prowl about at night, are difficult to detect, and merge with the background landscape.
Researchers often depend on indirect signs that these animals leave behind, such as footprints, to detect them in forests. But footprints may not be so reliable after all, warns a study recently published in Mongabay’s open-access journal Tropical Conservation Science.
Researchers from Brazil and Portugal took measurements of front and hind footprints of several captive individuals of four wild cat species found in Brazilian rainforests — jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi), ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), oncilla (Leopardus guttulus), and margay (Leopardus wiedii) — and compared them to those of domestic cats.
With the exception of the ocelot, the team found that size and shape of footprints of all the wild cat species as well as the domestic cats were similar.
“From our data it was impossible to distinguish small felids based on footprint total size and pad size, and configuration as well,” the researchers write in the paper. “This limitation is enhanced in field studies because it is impossible to distinguish between front and hind footprints in such conditions.”
Moreover, similarity of footprints between the different cat species could pose a problem for researchers conducting surveys in areas that have both wild, and domestic or feral cats, they add. “Wildlife biologists using only footprints to confirm species presence in such environments should be aware of this bias and adapt their sampling strategy to minimize it.”
The ocelot is a larger and heavier cat, and it leaves behind larger front and hind footprints. The researchers speculate that this could be why the ocelot was the only wild cat species in their study that they could accurately distinguish from the other species based on footprint measurements alone.
“However, this identification is only accurate if the study area is not inhabited by jaguars or pumas, whose juveniles may have footprints with measurements that overlap those of the ocelot in our study,” they warn.
So using only footprints to identify species could be prone to errors. Instead, the researchers suggest that animal surveys should incorporate multiple methods.
“For example, in surveys or monitoring studies including felids, footprint detection should be used in association with camera-trapping (together with sand plots or in the same track as footprint surveys), scat collection and identification using molecular ecology techniques and face- to-face interviews with local people reporting visual observation of species or hunting activities.”
- de Carvalho, W. D., Rosalino, L. M., Dalponte, J. C., Santos, B., Harumi Adania, C. and Lustosa Esbérard, C. E. 2015. Can footprints of small and medium sized felids be distinguished in the field? Evidences from Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. Tropical Conservation Science Vol. 8 (3): 760-777.