Conservation news

Cat fight: Jaguar ambushes ocelot in rare camera trap footage

A jaguar killing an ocelot in northern Guatemala. Image by WCS.

  • Camera trap footage revealed a jaguar killing an ocelot at a waterhole in the Maya Biosphere Reserve of northern Guatemala.
  • While this kind of killing event is considered rare, it can occur when two predator species are competing with each other over resources such as water.
  • Prolonged drought, compounded by climate change, may have influenced this event by making water scarcer than usual, according to the researchers who documented the incident.
  • However, other experts say that climate change wouldn’t have necessarily influenced this behavior since ocelots and jaguars have lived together for a long time.

An ocelot, a spotted and striped carnivore twice the size of a house cat, had just stopped at a water hole for a drink. But something was waiting for him: a jaguar. Forty seconds after the ocelot’s arrival, the jaguar, who was about five to seven times bigger, pounced from behind. Jaws clenched, the jaguar dragged its victim away and finished it off.

This incident, captured by a camera trap at a water hole in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala in March 2019, offers a glimpse into intraguild predation — that is, the killing and even occasional eating of an apparent competitor. In this case, the two species appeared to be jockeying for access to the water. But while scat studies have suggested that jaguars (Panthera onca) have sometimes preyed upon ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), documenting such an event on camera is rare.

“These killing events are sporadic in nature,” Lucy Perera-Romero, a researcher at Washington State University and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and lead author of a recent paper on the subject, told Mongabay. “The fact that we have it in pictures is incredible, as well as the confirmation they occur within this pair of species.”

Local drought, exacerbated by climate change, probably had something to do with it, the paper suggests.

“More prolonged droughts reduce water availability in the forest, resulting in more intense use of the few remaining water sources,” co-author Rony Garcia-Anleu, a biologist at WCS, told Mongabay. “This translates into more interactions occurring [at] waterholes during the dry season.”

“If these occurrences increase with climate change, then waterholes could be an ecological trap for smaller predators,” Perera-Romero said. “But we could predict shortages of water affecting biodiversity in general and turning into increased mortality for predators and wildlife in general.”

An ocelot (Leopardus pardalis). Image courtesy of Guilherme Ferreira/Instituto Biotrópicos.

Howard Quigley, jaguar expert, conservation science executive director for Panthera and member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, who was not involved in this study, said he’s never observed this kind of behavior himself.

“I have never seen or encountered an incident like this in my thirty years of working with jaguars,” he told Mongabay. “This is an amazing record! In reality, this probably happens dozens of times every day across jaguar range, but we and our cameras have never been in the right place at the right time.”

However, Quigley said he does not think that climate change played a major part in the event since jaguars and ocelots have lived together for “at least ten thousand years.”

“One year of drought or several years of drought, or [a] complete change to drier conditions over several years will allow resident species to change their behavior,” he said. “But when you have movement of new species into an area, that’s a potentially big ecological impact of climate change. For instance, coyotes appearing in Panama or moving into northern Colombia with drier climates and more open savannah habitats would be a potentially big deal. Jaguars beginning to kill a few ocelots in a region might reduce the number of ocelots in the area by some slight percentage if ocelots didn’t adjust their behavior.”

Conservationists say that as apex predator, the jaguar has a special role in regulating many populations of species down the food chain. Image by Carlos Durigan / WCS.

 Ocelots are considered to be a species of “least concern” by the IUCN, an international organization that inventories species according to their conservation status. Jaguars, on the other hand, are classified as “near threatened.” Both species face similar threats, including habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching and illegal trade. Persistent drought, and limited availability of water sources, would increase the challenges for both species, said Perera-Romero.

“Some human communities also depend on these scarce water sources, which might prevent the access of thirsty wildlife,” she said. “Tourism activities could also prevent a dehydrated animal, traveling long distances to get a drink of water. In the face of these severe droughts, communities, institutions, and governments should consider actions to protect wildlife access to water sources.”

Citation:

Perera-Romero, L., Garcia-Anleu, R., McNab, R. B., & Thornton, D. H. (2020). When waterholes get busy, rare interactions thrive: Photographic evidence of a jaguar (Panthera onca) killing an ocelot (Leopardus pardalis). Biotropica. doi:10.1111/btp.12916

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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