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.
Oddly enough, they occupy the same territory as another fierce predator, the mountain lion. When Kelly retrieves her film she sometimes finds that the same camera has snapped pictures of both mountain lions and jaguars. Whether that means that the two animals are on friendly terms, or just very good at avoiding each other, isn't known, she says.
It's hard to tell from the photographs because only one of the thousands and thousands of pictures shows an animal capturing its prey. And that's a photo of an ocelot, a smaller spotted cat, with a mouse in its mouth.
"That's the biggest kill I've gotten so far," she says, laughing.
She hopes to set up video cameras in the future to document the big cats at lunch, and that raises a serious question.
"Cats are the ultimate carnivores," Kelly says. Dogs can get by on all sorts of things, but cats, she adds, are "strictly meat eaters."
That's got to be a little disconcerting as she treks through the forest, but Kelly says the big cats aren't nearly as threatening as the wild pigs, or peccaries, that apparently think they are the real king of the jungle.
"They sometimes run in groups of 40 to 50 animals, and they are very aggressive," she says. Local people who work as guides are very fearful of the peccaries, she says, apparently because the thought of being nibbled to death by wild pigs is more troublesome than the unlikely chance of being ripped apart by a jaguar or mountain lion.
"We've come across wild pigs a few times, but never in a big enough group to pose a threat," she says.
It's worth the risk, she says, because that's the only way to learn about animals like jaguars. It may help save them from the fate suffered by the jaguars that once roamed parts of the southwestern United States. The jaguars disappeared years ago, apparently because of competition over their habitat, especially by humans.
But they may be heading back.
A photograph of a jaguar was captured a few months ago near the southern border of Arizona by wildlife researcher Jack Childs. It took him 4½ years to get the shot.
The photo convinced many wildlife experts that the big cats are flourishing so well to the south that some of them are being pushed north. But nobody is sure at this point.
So Childs and Kelly and about eight other researchers at various locations in Central America will continue to pursue the jaguar, toting their cameras into harms way to try to learn just a little bit more about these powerful cats.
Maybe they can talk more of them into coming back.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.