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Rare Canid: Bush Dogs Caught on Camera, Revealing More About Population Status

Jan 19, 2016 06:11 PM EST
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The rare Central and South American canid species "bush dogs" are seldom seen throughout their natural range on those two continents, but researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute recently caught a few of these elusive critters on film in remote areas in Panama. That's exciting, and ultimately, it could help conservationists better protect this near-threatened species.

"Our group of biologists from Yaguará Panama and collaborators are working on an article about big mammals using camera trapping data that spans Panama from the Costa Rican border to the Colombian border," Ricardo Moreno, co-author of the study and a Smithsonian Research Associate, said in a news release. "The bush dog is one of the rarest species that we photographed."

Bush dogs, scientifically known as Speothos venaticus, are short-legged and stubby, standing only about a foot tall at the shoulder. Generally speaking, they are tropical forest-dwelling animals that tend to hunt in packs of up to 10 animals. While hunting, bush dogs will sound high-pitched whines to maintain contact with group members and yap like puppies when they chase their prey - which mainly consists of large forest rodents like agoutis and pacas. While bush dogs appear to be relatively active by day, they are remarkably hard to see and are very rarely reported even in highly populated areas. 

That's where digital camera traps - cameras that take pictures automatically when their infrared sensors detect an animal's body heat - come into play. Camera traps are often used in wildlife studies, when scientists are unable to constantly monitor an area or their presence may scare away the critters of interest. 

In the latest study, camera traps snapped photos of bush dogs at four sites ranging from Cerro Pirre, near the Colombian border in eastern Panama, to Santa Fe National Park in the western part of the country. However, photos were obtained on only 11 occasions out of nearly 32,000 camera-days - which is a total of the number of cameras multiplied by the number of days they were in operation. (Scroll to read more...)

(Photo : Ricardo Moreno)
Bush dogs caught on camera traps.

In addition to the Panama sightings, researchers spotted bush dogs at five additional sites, including Fortuna, which lies west of Santa Fe, Panama. This suggests the species has found suitable habitat all across the country

"We think that it [the bush dog] will soon cross the border into Costa Rica," Moreno added

While not much else is known about this species' distribution, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates bush dog populations have declined by up to 25 percent in the past 12 years, earning a "near-threatened" status. Unlike other wild animals of Panama, bush dogs do not appear to be directly impacted by humans. Instead, the animals' main threats are habitat loss and deforestation - roughly 15 percent of Panama's forests were lost between 1990 and 2010, researchers say. This is of particular concern, because it is believed that bush dogs require large tracts of forest to survive. Other threats include availability of prey and exposure to various diseases. 

Their findings were recently published in the journal Canid Biology & Conservation

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