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Dogs help conservationists track, protect endangered jaguars, pumas in Argentina

By Brooks Hays
Dogs help conservationists track, protect endangered jaguars, pumas in Argentina
Researcher Karen DeMatteo poses with Train, one of the scat-sniffing dogs who helped conservationists map the distribution of endangered carnivores, including jaguars, pumas and bush dogs, in the forests of northeastern Argentina. Photo by Karen DeMatteo/Washington University in St. Louis

Sept. 6 (UPI) -- Biologists and conservationists have published a new plan for the protection of endangered carnivores in northeastern Argentina, where logging and agriculture have left forests increasingly fragmented.

The plan was made possible by a pack of scat-tracking research dogs, who've helped scientists map the distribution of jaguars, pumas and bush dogs in the region.

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To understand what types of habitat each species requires to thrive, researchers needed to track their movements through the fields and forests. Researchers trained dogs to sniff out scat left behind by elusive carnivores. DNA analysis helped scientists connect scat with species.

Over several summers, scientists and dogs tracked scat, creating a map that revealed how each species' movements and distribution were influenced by topography, habitat type and quality, roadways and human activity.

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The findings resulted in a conservation plan detailing the specific habitat requirements of each species. Researchers published this plan this week in the journal PLOS One.

"Despite variation in body size, the jaguar, puma, ocelot, oncilla and bush dog overlap in their ecological requirements," researchers wrote. "However, this is not without variation in the degree of habitat flexibility. Puma, oncilla, and bush dog have comparatively higher levels of modified habitats in their potential distributions compared to the jaguar and ocelot."

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Conservationists hope the research will results in the creation of a protected corridor, linking together various pockets of vital habitat.

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"The findings illustrate the benefit of using multiple species versus a single species to develop corridors, because using only the highly restricted jaguar to develop the corridor would mean that the potential distributions of the other four carnivores would be restricted and decreased by as much as 30 percent," Karen DeMatteo, a biology research scientist and lecturer in environmental studies at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a news release. "So, it appears that, at least in the Misiones province, the jaguar should not be modeled as an umbrella species because the results fail to capture the varied requirements of coexisting species across the breadth of potential habitats."

To complete the corridor, conservation officials are working to bridge partnerships with community leaders and landowners.

"This plan is exciting not only for the future of the local biodiversity, but also because it involved a lot of collaboration from the local government and universities to make it happen," DeMatteo said.

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