How do Molecular Ecologists use Jaguar Scat for Conservation Science?

Lab Note #3
Nov 14, 2014

Step One:  Since jaguars cover a lot of ground – we need to too.  

We have surveyed two locations in southern Mexico to date for jaguar and puma scat, in partnership with University of Veracruz’s Centro de Investigaciones Tropicales (CITRO) and the Reserva Ecologica El Eden.  There are not many jaguars left at these sites, so we were not sure what we would find.  It turns out that the Conservation Canines are experts at finding jaguar scat.  In the Uxpanapa Valley of Veracurz, we ended up with 28 jaguar locations confirmed, and 8 unique multilocus genotypes from scat samples (genotypes are genetic information that allow us to tell individuals apart, relatedness between individuals, and to assess genetic diversity).  That may not sound like a big number, but that's potentially a THIRD of the entire population of the valley!   

WITH YOUR HELP, we’re headed to the Lacondona region of Chiapas in January, in collaboration with Dr. Rodrigo Medellín (current president of the Society for Conservation Biology and known as Mexico’s “Bat Man”.  We can’t wait to cover some new ground!    

Photo Credit: IGNACIO GIL


Step Two:  Waste not, want not. 

When species are rare, endangered, or just hard to find, getting every scrap of information from each sample is vital.  Scat contains an amazing amount of information, but it takes a lot of hard work to pull that information out.  Many of the genetic or hormone tools available today do not work well on feces, or require a special set of protocols to get accurate results.  We at UW's Center for Conservation Biology have spent many years developing ways of getting genetic, hormone, and toxin data from fecal samples – you could call us expert scatologists!   

          After a lot of trial and error in the early years of my PhD program, I now have a great set of molecular markers to tell species apart, assign multi-locus genotypes, and even measure T3 thyroid and glucocorticoid stress hormones from jaguar scat!


Step Three: Show me the Data!    

From scat locations, we evaluate what constitutes jaguar habitat via resource selection probability functions (RSPF).   RSPF specifically tells us what features in the landscape attract or repel jaguars.  This phase of the analysis will help us answer questions like:  Are jaguars really as sensitive to human activity as we once thought?  Is their attraction to water stronger than their avoidance of roads or villages?  From the results of the RSPF analysis, we can predict the level of connectivity of the landscape with geographic models that apply electrical circuit theory to model wildlife movement.  The best part of this type of connectivity analysis is that it identifies out specific ‘pinch-points’ on the landscape.  These pinch-points are places that can be targeted for conservation efforts, because they provide the biggest benefit to the connectivity of the whole system.  This is a great way to focus limited conservation resources to specific geographic locations that will provide the most benefit to the population as a whole!    

I am particularly interested in how landscape features impact not only movement, but also gene-flow within and between populations.  Gene-flow is the ultimate measurement of functional habitat connectivity (not only where could they migrate, but where they actually migrate AND reproduce).  Using the multilocus genotypes from scat, I am analyzing genetic patterns within (landscape genetics) and among (population genetics) putative populations.  With the addition of this third field site, we will have an amazing ability to compare how different human pressures affect gene-flow.  The goal of this analysis will be, again, to make conservation efforts most effective.  For example, to maximize gene-flow, should we focus efforts on protecting the remaining forest fragments, or improving the connectivity between them with corridors?  WITH YOUR HELP, we will have an entirely new set of genetic data to add to our analysis – from an area that has never been studied before! 

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