A survey in the Peruvian Amazon has revealed one of the densest concentrations of ocelots in the world, Mongabay reports.

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A night-time snapshot of an ocelot taken by a camera trap during a study of ocelot abundance in Peru's biodiverse Madre de Dios region. Image: Castagnino, 2017

Romina Castagnino and her colleagues used camera traps set up at the Amazon Research and Conservation Center in Peru's Madre de Dios region – one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet – to gauge the population and distribution of the area's ocelots: roughly lynx-sized felids known for their lavish calligraphy of rosettes, stripes and spots.

By identifying individual cats in camera-trap photos from those unique coat patterns, Castagnino's team suggested an ocelot density in the research center of some 70 cats per 100 square kilometres. That's the third-highest density known anywhere after Panama's Barro Colorado Island (100 ocelots per 100 square kilometres) and Peru's Manu National Park (80 per 100 square kilometres).

The surveys also indicated that local ocelots readily use manmade trails as travel corridors and favour lagoon- and riverside hunting circuits. 

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One of the researchers installs a camera trap. The cameras were set up at monitoring points across an 11,000-hectare stretch within the conservation and ecotourism area of the Amazon Research and Conservation Center (ARCC). Image: Romina Castagnino.

Ocelots call home an impressively broad geographic range, from South Texas in the United States to northern Argentina and Uruguay, and they prowl quite the spread of habitats within this domain: from thornscrub and savanna to tropical rainforest. Across those diverse landscapes, however, the painted cats tend to seek thick cover. Their diet spans a gamut of small to medium-sized prey: everything from snakes and birds to agoutis, armadillos and the occasional monkey.

Across much of their Neotropical territory, ocelots are the most numerous of a rich guild of wildcats, two of which (jaguars and pumas) outsize them, but most of which (such as margays, jaguarundis and little spotted cats) are smaller. The species appears to dominate the featherweight and middleweight felid "mesopredator" contingent: at least in certain areas, ocelot abundance seems to depress numbers of their smaller cousins, a phenomenon that's been called the "ocelot effect" (or "pardalis effect", after the Latin name of the species).

Another ocelot snapshot taken during the study. Image: Castagnino, 2017

Castagnino's research offers valuable insight into the status of these influential middleweight predators in southeastern Peru. Despite their adaptability, the cats haven't always fared well at the hands of humankind, and were once heavily hunted for their attractive pelts. Castagnino also notes the species underwent a major population bottleneck in Peru during the 1960s. Today, the fur market has declined but remains a threat, along with ocelot demand in the pet trade, retaliatory killings by farmers for livestock/poultry depredation, and – of course – habitat loss. 

The study suggests that the primary threat to ocelots in the sparsely populated Las Piedras District, where the Amazon Research and Conservation Center is located, is deforestation. Castagnino's team also surveyed visitors to the centre and identified the value of local ecotourism – and the potential economic boon of having such a significant cadre of ocelots slinking around the neighbourhood.

"[Visitors] who were able to see an ocelot on their trips were astonished," she said in the Mongabay article. "Those who weren't said they wish they had seen one."

This research was published in Espacio y Desarollo



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