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Elusive jaguarundi inspires biologists to share data across Latin America

Unlike most other felids, the jaguarundi is active during the day.

Unlike most other felids, the jaguarundi is active during the day. Image by thibaudaronson via iNaturalist (CC BY-SA 4.0).

  • The jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) is a little-known small felid with a range extending from northern Argentina to Mexico. The last confirmed sighting in the United States was in 1986.
  • H. yagouaroundi is found in a variety of habitats, but is thought to occupy mostly rugged areas with good shrub cover, including near agricultural lands. Unlike most other felids, the jaguarundi is active during the day, which can easily bring it into conflict with farmers who don’t appreciate its habit of raiding chicken coops.
  • Like most small, noncharismatic cat species, there’s little funding to learn more about the jaguarundi. But researchers are developing new tools, for example pooling sparse “bycatch” data gathered by many biologists from camera traps in widely scattered places and modeling it to predict habitat use and population size.
  • An ongoing IUCN jaguarundi assessment is using a Google Forms questionnaire to reach out widely to researchers, governments and NGOs, while also using easily shared social media tools. A detailed understanding of jaguarundi behavior is needed to assure it is conserved both inside and outside protected areas.

The jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) seems to lack distinction, at least to human eyes. It doesn’t have spots or stripes. It’s not an exceptional climber. It’s not endangered, or endemic to any one region. At 4-7 kilograms (9-16 pounds), it’s neither the biggest cat in the Americas, nor the smallest, nor even the biggest of the small cats.

In fact, with its small head, round pupils, tiny round ears, sleek body and audaciously long tail, it doesn’t even look all that much like a cat. “Some people say it looks more like an otter,” says Arturo Caso, president of Predator Conservation, who, for his Ph.D. research, conducted one of the very few radio-collar studies of jaguarundi. “It’s — how can I say — not very attractive!”

Yet researchers all across the jaguarundi’s range, stretching from Mexico to northern Argentina, are captivated by the animal. “They’re a bit of a puzzle, a little bit of an enigma,” says Anthony Giordano, director of S.P.E.C.I.E.S., a carnivore conservation nonprofit. They are distinct in “how they relate to other cats — their behavior, where they sit ecologically in the food chain … how they’ve been shaped by evolutionary forces.”

A jaguarundi in the semiarid thorn shrub-woodland of the Brazilian Caatinga.
A jaguarundi in the semiarid thorn shrub-woodland of the Brazilian Caatinga. The jaguarundi’s coat can be a yellowish-red, gray, brownish-black — or numerous shades in between. Though some coat colors tend to be more common in certain areas, there’s no clear geographic distinction between the various color morphs. “I call it the multicolored cat of tropical America,” says Tadeu de Oliveira. Image courtesy of Wild Cats Americas Conservation Project.

Elusive daytime hunter

Like most small cats, the jaguarundi blends in well with its wild surroundings. Slightly larger than a domestic cat, its coat can be plain chocolate brown, silvery tan, russet red — or somewhere in between — with different color morphs even found in the same litter. It’s relatively slight of build, with an elongated body that’s sinewy and low to the ground, allowing it to move through dense underbrush. Unlike most felids, it’s most active during daylight.

These adaptations have allowed the jaguarundi to carve out a unique niche, living among, but avoiding, other physically stronger predators, Giordano says. It’s a strategy that works well; the jaguarundi is the most widely distributed Latin American small cat, and of all neotropical cats, is second in distribution only to the puma (Puma concolor), its closest relative.

Despite being more regularly sighted than some of the nocturnal cats, and sparking the curiosity of many cat researchers, the jaguarundi remains among the world’s least studied wildcats, for a number of reasons.

First, it’s notoriously difficult to trap, making satellite- or radio-collaring studies impractical. Caso says it took him more than a year to trap the first two jaguarundi for his radio-collar research in Tamaulipes, Mexico.

Second, because the jaguarundi has a plain coat without markings, researchers can’t easily identify individuals, making density estimates using camera trapping more difficult and much less accurate.

Finally, the species’ conservation status is currently classified as being of least concern by the IUCN (though an updated assessment is currently underway). So when it comes to funding, the species ranks far below its more threatened peers.

“To be clear, you will never convince anyone to give you money to study the jaguarundi,” Giordano says.

A silvery-gray jaguarundi in Brazil.
A silvery-gray jaguarundi in Brazil. The jaguarundi is the “odd one out” among small cats in Latin America — both taxonomically and in appearance. Others are spotted and belong to the genus Leopardus. The jaguarundi has a plain coat and is the only species in the genus Herpailurus. Its closest relative is the puma (Puma concolor). Image courtesy of Wild Cats Americas Conservation Project.

New ways to study

Like many biologists, Bart Harmsen came to Latin America to study jaguars (Panthera onca), but he soon also became smitten by the odd-looking little cat he sometimes glimpsed during the day.

“I can still remember seeing one crossing a highway in Belize,” Harmsen recalls. The jaguarundi jumped down off the bank, bounded over the road in a single giant leap, then disappeared into the forest on the other side.

“And it’s just sort of like these flashes!” says Harmsen, his hands tracing arcs in the air. “They’re just these unknown fascinating cats.” Now director of the Belize program for the wildcat NGO Panthera, Harmsen has been working on large and small cat conservation for more than 20 years, and he’s still fascinated.

While his research focuses on larger felid species, he’s always kept an eye out for the jaguarundi. But while his camera traps were picking up jaguars, pumas, margays (Leopardus wiedii), ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) and other species, the jaguarundi remained rare. The same thing was happening to other scientists. “You talk to any researcher, they always say ‘jaguarundis, of all the carnivores, they’re always my lowest one, just get a few [photo] captures,’” he says.

Bart Harmsen, director of Panthera’s Belize program, setting camera traps.
Bart Harmsen, director of Panthera’s Belize program, setting camera traps. Like many biologists, Harmsen came to Belize to study big cats, but he quickly also became enamored by the jaguarundi. Image courtesy of Rob Ewe.

Harmsen became convinced that was because they were scarce almost everywhere. But with relatively few camera-trapping records from Panthera’s Belize study sites, he didn’t have enough data points to understand fully what was going on. “So, I always had this thought, like, at one point, everybody needs to get their three captures in one bucket, so that we can say something [conclusive],” he remembers.

His interest in the jaguarundi bloomed into a major collaborative effort, with the contribution of sightings coming from a variety of researchers at 17 institutions working in 13 countries. They put together 884 records of jaguarundis from nearly 4,000 cameras at more than 650 sites. Harmsen and colleagues then poured that data into modeling software and looked at the results.

The study, published in Diversity and Distributions in April, showed that the jaguarundi was more likely to be found in rugged terrain with shrubby vegetation or close to rural areas near people, and in places where rainfall and daily temperatures were more constant.

Using these variables, the scientist developed a predictive map, showing the probability of the jaguarundi occurring across Latin America. For example, most of Central America, the northern Andes and parts of Paraguay were predicted to have a higher chance of having jaguarundis. On the other hand, large swaths of the Amazonian lowlands and the central Andes had a low probability of being occupied by the species. From this predictive map, the researchers were able to come up with a crude population estimate, totaling between 35,000 and 230,000 individuals across their range. Spread out over nearly all of Latin America, that isn’t so many.

Harmsen says the modeling work was challenging, partly because the jaguarundi appears to be a generalist and doesn’t reveal a strong preference for any specific habitat variables.

Still, Harmsen suggests that the new research is an important first step toward getting to know the jaguarundi, providing an initial indication of its distribution and approximate population size, all of which can be refined as more data become available.

A predictive map showing the likelihood of jaguarundi occupancy across its range, based on data published in the new Diversity and Distributions study.
A predictive map showing the likelihood of jaguarundi occupancy across its range, based on data published in the new Diversity and Distributions study. Areas in green have a higher probability of being occupied by jaguarundis, and areas in red have a lower probability of being occupied by the species. Areas in blue show locations where the jaguarundi is known not to occur. Researchers from 17 institutions working in 13 countries contributed camera-trap data for the modeling study. Image courtesy of Bart Harmsen, adapted from Harmsen et al (2024).

Utilizing camera trap ‘bycatch’

Camera trapping is now a standard tool for researching threatened species like jaguars — but camera traps also capture images of many other species not targeted by those studies, generating what’s called “bycatch” data.

This bycatch data can be hard for researchers to utilize. First, a single study may not have enough data points to draw conclusion, as already noted. Second, for lower-profile species that aren’t threatened, researchers may not have the time or funding to do the analysis. This means that bycatch data often ends up sitting on a virtual shelf collecting dust.

But, as this new study shows, when numerous researchers pool those meager data points, very useful findings can arise. Harmsen says the jaguarundi, a much loved but not widely known cat that isn’t on any funder’s list, was the perfect species to chart the way.

He says he hopes the success achieved by his team’s novel collaborative approach to studying the jaguarundi will serve as an example for scientists needing to stretch limited research dollars to learn more about other less charismatic species.

Two jaguarundis captured by a camera trap in Belize.
Two jaguarundis captured by a camera trap in Belize. Jaguarundis are frequently sighted in pairs; however, researchers don’t yet know if these pairs are made up of unrelated individuals, or are mature offspring with the mother. Image courtesy of Panthera Belize.

Throwing a wide net for data

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the world’s most complete source of information on the conservation status of animals, plants and fungi. Experts evaluate each species using criteria such as population size and trends, distribution, threats and more, then assign a global status ranging from least concern to endangered to extinct.

The IUCN aims to update each species’ status at least every 10 years. Assessments are done by a core team of invited experts, and can take between one and two years to complete, writes Tabea Lanz, Red List Authority coordinator for the IUCN’s Cat Specialist Group.

The jaguarundi is one species whose status is currently undergoing an IUCN reassessment. But as already noted, the task of researching lesser-known, elusive, wide-ranging species can be daunting. So the assessment team is trying out new cooperative approaches to evaluating this little cat. To get around some of the data collection difficulties, the assessment team developed a participatory approach that casts a wide net in search of information.

That includes sending out a Google Forms questionnaire to a wide network of researchers, government institutions and NGOs, while also designing social media posts in three languages that can be shared easily.

This approach helped the assessment team collect diverse perspectives — some importantly from outside the Global North — says assessment team member Mariam Weston-Flores, coordinator of the Ocelot Working Group.

In the end, 69 individuals and organizations from 18 countries answered the jaguarundi questionnaire and sent in contributions; a stunning 70% of the data collected were from previously unpublished sources.

Weston-Flores says it was heartening to see how enthusiastically the research community responded.

“People really trusted us, they sent their recordings, even their thesis materials,” Weston-Flores says. “You cannot assess something if you don’t have the data, so it was a good way to grab that data.”

Tadeu de Oliveira, founder of the Wild Cats Americas Conservation Project, setting camera traps for a long-running research project on small cats, including the jaguarundi.
Tadeu de Oliveira, founder of the Wild Cats Americas Conservation Project, setting camera traps for a long-running research project on small cats, including the jaguarundi. Jaguarundis are active during the day, so are sighted more often than other wildcats, but this doesn’t mean they’re common, researchers say. Image courtesy of Wild Cats America Conservation Project.

The invisible threat

The results of the latest IUCN assessment won’t be out until later this year, but Tadeu de Oliveira, a professor at Maranhão State University in Brazil and co-founder of the Wild Cats Americas Conservation Project, says that the jaguarundi faces multiple threats. He calls the species the “neglected kid in the family,” and emphasizes that it deserves urgent attention.

De Oliveira, whose research focuses on small cats, is particularly concerned about what he calls the “invisible threat” of disease transmission from domestic dogs.

In his study sites across the Amazon and the semiarid Caatinga, he has observed large numbers of domestic and feral dogs using the same areas as wild felids, including the jaguarundi.

De Oliveira saw a high prevalence of neurological signs of canine distemper virus among dogs near Mirador State Park, Brazil, and concluded that disease is one of the primary threats to the northern tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus). He says it’s likely the jaguarundi is being similarly affected.

A mural of local wildlife, including the jaguarundi, at a primary school in TepetzingoVeterinarians Diana Hernandez and Miguel Torres provide free vaccinations against canine distemper, rabies and parvovirus to dogs in the buffer area of the Sierra de Monte Negro reserve in Morelos, Mexico.A jaguarundi at a zooVeterinarians check a sedated jaguarundi and fit the animal with a radio collar, in Tamulipas, Mexico.A collared jaguarundi being released from a box trap in Tamulipas, Mexico.Silvery-gray jaguarundi, with darker markings on legs.

Chicken killers

Cats are opportunistic predators, and for many the sight of a coop full of chickens is a hard-to-resist temptation. But unlike other predators that sneak in under the cover of darkness, the jaguarundi hunts during the day. So it’s more likely to get caught, says José Daniel Ramírez-Fernández, formerly the oncilla conservation coordinator with the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation. That leads to conflict problems.

In some places, people kill the jaguarundi in retaliation; or, because many Costa Ricans are conservation minded, they may instead give up keeping chickens altogether, forgoing on an important nutrition source, says Ramírez-Fernández. Neither outcome is ideal, so he and his colleagues are working with local communities to install predator-proof chicken coops.

Weston-Flores is involved with similar programs in Mexico, and says that finding solutions to chicken predation, no matter what the cause, benefits a range of species and improves people’s attitudes toward wildlife.

“You need to attend the issue, right? It doesn’t matter if it’s … a raccoon or a wildcat,” she says. “The solution is building trust, so you can modify [people’s] behaviors.”

The Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation joins with farmers from the village of Herradura de Rivas in the foothills of Cerro Chirripó, the nation’s highest mountain, to build a predator-proof chicken coop.
The Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation joins with farmers from the village of Herradura de Rivas in the foothills of Cerro Chirripó, the nation’s highest mountain, to build a predator-proof chicken coop. The jaguarundi is an opportunistic predator, and will kill chickens when the opportunity arises. Image courtesy of Jose Noelia Jiménez/Oncilla Conservation/CRWF.

A species beyond the conservation umbrella

Like species the world over, the jaguarundi is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation. But unlike flagship species such as the jaguar, the jaguarundi doesn’t necessarily need large areas of pristine habitat to thrive.

Though it needs natural habitat, H. yagouaroundi also seems to have found a place at the margins, hunting for rodents, birds or reptiles at the forest edge, or in the patchwork of forest, dense undergrowth and small fields where wildlands and human settlements meet.

But as small farms are swallowed up by larger farms or by industrial agriculture, that “messy kind of mosaic” is being lost, Harmsen says.

Experts are concerned that umbrella species like the jaguar (a charismatic big cat that confers protection on other species via its similar habitat requirements) may not be adequately sheltering the jaguarundi across all of its range. That’s because jaguarundi conservation likely requires protection outside of preserves, in areas that aren’t a high conservation priority.

In addition, connecting habitat patches via wildlife corridors could be key to allowing the small cat roaming space, and helping the species maintain its genetic resilience, de Oliveira says.

Researchers measure a jaguarundi killed on a road in Belize.
Researchers measure a jaguarundi killed on a road in Belize. Jaguarundis are active during the day when traffic is heaviest, so are more vulnerable to becoming road kill than nocturnal species. As road networks expand across South America, the mortality on roads, along with increasing habitat fragmentation, will likely become a greater problem. Image courtesy of Bart Harmsen.

No ‘one size fits all’ for jaguarundi research

Giordano cautions that scientists don’t necessarily have enough information to understand the jaguarundi’s total conservation needs, and thinks that methods used to study other species may not work.

He saw jaguarundis numerous times while conducting research in Paraguay. That got him thinking about how the cats use the landscape, and how scientists might better study them. Laying camera traps on trails and roads in a rough grid is an effective way to study jaguars or ocelots, but probably not jaguarundis, he says.

“Camera traps are really only effective tools for studying species if you can put them out in a way that’s meaningful to the ecology of the species,” he explains.

For the jaguarundi, that might mean laying cameras in brushy clearings, or finding ways to collect genetic material. The problem, as with all small wildcats, is that all this takes funding.

“It’s like an underdog,” says Weston-Flores. “Just assuming that they will be preserved because we have … preserved the forest might not be the best conservation tool for this species … One of the things that [we] saw [during the IUCN assessment] was this echo of, ‘yes, jaguarundi are not well known, and they need more attention’.”

Banner image: Unlike most other felids, the jaguarundi is active during the day. Image by thibaudaronson via iNaturalist (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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Citations:

Fox-Rosales, L. A., & de Oliveira, T. G. (2023). Interspecific patterns of small cats in an intraguild-killer free area of the threatened Caatinga drylands, Brazil. PLOS ONE, 18(4), e0284850. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0284850

Fox-Rosales, L. A., & de Oliveira, T. G. (2022). Habitat use patterns and conservation of small carnivores in a human-dominated landscape of the semiarid Caatinga in Brazil. Mammalian Biology, 102(2), 465-475. doi:10.1007/s42991-022-00245-3

Harmsen, B. J., Williams, S., Abarca, M., Álvarez Calderón, F. S., Araya‐Gamboa, D., Avila, H. D., … Robinson, H. (2024). Estimating species distribution from camera trap by‐catch data, using jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) as an example. Diversity and Distributions, e13831. doi:10.1111/ddi.13831

De Oliveira, T. G., Lima, B. C., Fox-Rosales, L., Pereira, R. S., Pontes-Araújo, E., & de Sousa, A. L. (2020). A refined population and conservation assessment of the elusive and endangered northern tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus) in its key worldwide conservation area in Brazil. Global Ecology and Conservation, 22, e00927. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2020.e00927

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