PANAMA CITY, Panama, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- Photographs have confirmed the presence of the bush dog, Speothos venaticus, one of the world's rarest canid species, throughout Panama.
The photos were snapped by digital camera traps set up by a team of scientists working with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. The camera traps take a photograph when an animal's body heat is picked up by the traps' infrared sensors.
Several bush dogs were sighted at five locations throughout Panama.
"Our group of biologists from Yaguara Panama and collaborators are working on an article about big mammals using camera trapping data that spans Panama from the Costa Rican border to the Colombian border," lead researcher Ricardo Moreno said in a press release. "The bush dog is one of the rarest species that we photograph."
Bush dogs look sort of like a cross between a pig and a fox, with short, stubby legs and soft, brown fur. They live in the dense tropical forests of Central and South America, hunting almost exclusively at night and preying mostly on rodents like agoutis and pacas.
Their small stature and nocturnal habits make bush dog sightings exceptionally rare. But one of the reasons they're rarely seen may also be that there are fewer and fewer.
Biologists and conservationists have long suspected the bush dog population is in steep decline. Though the species isn't preyed upon by humans, the mini canine requires a significant amount of unadulterated forest to survive. As tropical forests are clear cut and converted to farmland, the bush dog becomes increasingly threatened.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates bush dog numbers have shrunk by roughly 25 percent over the last 12 years, warranting a classification of "near-threatened."
The new photographic evidence -- published in the journal Canid Biology and Conservation -- doesn't refute this designation, but does confirm the species' presence is widespread in Panama.
In fact, researchers say the photos are evidence of the importance of protecting Panama's forests.
"Our data reveal the importance of the region for bush dogs," researchers wrote, "but given the rapid depletion of forest habitat and the decline of prey species, emphasis should now be placed on developing quantitative indicators for evaluating population trends across Panama."