Jaguars may be among the most elusive animals in the world, but it turns out that they aren't a bit camera shy.
Marcella Kelly, assistant wildlife professor at Virginia Tech, has spent the last couple of years capturing photos of these majestic cats in Central America and some of them apparently love hamming it up for the camera. The fact that the pictures are taken at night, with a flash mounted on an automated camera that lights up the forest, doesn't even seem to bother the jaguars.
"I get a number of photographs where the animal walks by the camera, and I get a picture of their side, and the next photograph is a picture of their face," she says. "So they've obviously come back to check it out."
Like all cats are supposed to be, they apparently are just curious.
Each jaguar has a very distinct pattern in its coat, so Kelly and her colleagues can tell instantly if the same cat keeps showing up.
"I photographed one of them about 40 times now," she says, and that's a bit surprising since these animals are normally so standoffish that they are rarely seen by humans. Kelly herself has only seen one in the wilds.
"We were driving out from our research station [the Las Cuevas Research Station in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve in Belize] when the driver yelled `jaguar,'" she recalls. "I looked up and there it was, just laying there in the middle of the road in broad daylight. He just got up and kind of looked over his shoulder as he walked off into the bushes. He didn't seem frightened or anything."
Of course, Kelly didn't literally hack her way through the dense forest, lugging what seemed at times like tons of photographic equipment, just to take a few snapshots. Her research, sponsored mainly by the Wildlife Conservation Society and other organizations, is part of an attempt to measure population densities of jaguars in the rain forests of Central America.
She hopes ultimately to fill in some of the enormous gaps in our understanding of these carnivores. There's precious little known about them aside from the name "jaguar," which comes from the Tupi-Guarani Indians of Amazonia, whose word "yaguara" means "a beast that kills with one bound," Kelly says.
"They are actually the largest cat in the Americas, and the least well known," she says.
And they avoid humans so carefully that about the only way to learn about them is by snooping with automated cameras. The cameras are triggered either by infrared radiation, like heat produced by a living creature, or a motion sensor. That allows the researchers to take pictures either in total darkness, or during daylight.
Two cameras are set up about every 3 square kilometers, and so far they have captured "tons" of photos of all sorts of wild animals, and hundreds of photos of jaguars. The early results suggest that jaguars number about one in every 10 square miles, and that indicates that the population of this endangered animal is robust in that protected area of Central America.
The Central American jaguar is smaller than its cousin in South America, with a large male weighing about 120 pounds, Kelly says. South American jaguars can weigh twice that.