A jaguar paces in front of a camera trap in the rain forests of Bolivia—1 of a record 19 individuals spotted in a recent survey of the country's Madidi National Park.
Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) set up the camera traps to try and identify jaguars based on the unique patterns of their spots. Once the images were collected, the team ran them through software originally designed to recognize tigers by their stripes.
"The preliminary results of this new expedition underscore the importance of the Madidi landscape to jaguars and other charismatic rain forest species," Julie Kunen, director of WCS's Latin America and Caribbean Program, said in a statement.
"Understanding the densities and ranging habits of jaguars is an important step in formulating effective management plans for what is arguably the most biodiverse landscape on the planet."
A jaguar in Bolivia stares into a camera trap set up by WCS researchers. The team placed cameras in a region near the headwaters of the Madidi and Heath Rivers, in strategic spots along forest pathways and on the beaches of rivers and streams.
Unlike many other cats, jaguars are good swimmers and will often enter rivers to hunt for prey such as fish, turtles, or alligator-like caimans. (Take a big cats quiz.)
During the recent survey in Bolivia, the elusive big cats were photographed a record 975 times.
WCS attributes the high capture rate in its latest photographic survey to the use of digital cameras in place of traditional film units. Researchers returning to the traps could download the images in seconds rather than waiting days for film to develop, and the digital equipment stored more data than would have been possible with film.
Photograph courtesy WCS Bolivia
A jaguar in Madidi National Park gets its picture taken by a digital camera for a project that aims to identify the animals by their spots. The camera traps are triggered when animals cross infrared beams.
"We're excited about the prospect of using these images to find out more about this elusive cat and its ecological needs," WCS conservationist Robert Wallace said in a statement.
"The data gleaned from these images provide insights into the lives of individual jaguars and will help us generate a density estimate for the area."
In addition to documenting biodiversity, WCS is working in the park to develop local projects for protecting the landscape from a variety of threats, including poorly planned development during road construction, hydroelectric projects, logging, and agricultural expansion.