Big Cats Could Make Comeback in American Southwest(01/2013)
A jaguar, one of an endangered native species of Amazonian fauna, lies at a natural reserve certified by the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Natural Resources, located on the shores of the Rio Negro in Manaus, northern Brazil, on Oct. 2, 2008. (Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)
Big cats like the jaguar, ocelot, and jaguarundi once thrived in the American Southwest and are now extremely scarce—with only a few having been spotted throughout the decades—but various protection efforts are underway.
Big cats, even the cougar and bobcat, play important roles in the Southwest ecosystems, and as a result of various conservation efforts, government intervention, and big cat migration northward, these big cats could make a future comeback.
All of these big cats are originally inhabitants of Arizona, but sighting a jaguar or ocelot there today is rare. Since the boom of westward expansion in the 19th century and up to today, these cats have been killed and driven off American lands. To search for a breeding pair today would require travelling south of the Mexican border for about 125 miles into the Mexican Sierra Madre.
The last female jaguar in the United States was killed in 1963 by native Arizonian Terry Penrod, who thought he was firing at a bobcat.
“Back then, everything was a predator—lions, jaguars, bobcat, lynx. It was legal to shoot them,” said Penrod, according to the Arizona Daily Star.
Since that shooting in ’63, concern has been looming over the Southwest within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and other local and government agencies. These agencies are concerned about the ecological impact of the lack of big cats and about how to best protect these cats.
Big cats and other native predators play a vital role in ecosystems, the Southwest included. Essentially, predators help maintain the ecosystem by eating herbivores. Without predators controlling the population growth of herbivores, vegetation could be over-consumed, threatening the base of the food chain.
According to the publication “Border Cats of the Southwest” by the Sonoran Desert Discovery at the University of Arizona, many prey animals such as elk and deer have been starving in large numbers due to a lack of predators.
Although the bobcat and cougar are still part of the Southwestern ecosystem, and although their populations have grown over the past few decades due to protection efforts from local and government agencies, their populations could potentially become threatened due to human encroachment, according to a the Sonoran Desert Discovery.
Additionally, international borders may inhibit the migratory patterns of big cats.
Jaguar Conservation status: Lower risk Scientific classification Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Carnivora Family: Felidae Genus: Panthera Species: P. onca Binomial name Panthera onca (Linnaeus, 1758)
Jaguars (Panthera onca) are large members of the cat family native to South and Central America. They are closely related to the lions, tigers, and leopards of the Old World, and are the largest species of the cat family found in the Americas.
They vary from 1.1 to almost 1.9 metres in length, stand around 70 cm tall at the shoulder, and weigh between 57 and 113 kilograms. The jaguar has the strongest jaw structure of any feline.
Although jaguars look very much like leopards and are closely related to them, their ecological role and behaviour is more akin to that of the tiger.
Their habitat ranges from the rain forests of South and Central America to more open country, but they are rarely seen in mountainous areas. Known for their strong swimming and climbing abilities, they often prefer to live by rivers, in swamps, and in dense forest with thick cover for stalking prey. Jaguars, on rare occasions, are seen as far north as the southwestern United States, particularly in Arizona The historic jaguar range actually extended as far north as Southern California and Western Texas. At this point in time it is unclear whether these encounters reflect transitory or permanent populations.
Jaguars are solitary hunters that do not associate with one another outside the breeding season. They typically take large prey: their very strong jaw equips them to hunt deer and peccaries, but they are great opportunists and will take anything from frogs and mice to birds, fish, and domestic livestock. A jaguar will usually bite and pierce the skull of its prey, thereby killing it and demonstrating the strength of the jaguar's jaw muscles. Jaguars can run quite quickly, but do not have much endurance and rarely engage in long chases.
The background of the coat is usually an orange-yellow in colour, with numerous rings or rosettes on the flanks and spots on the head and neck. It is possible to distinguish this cat from a leopard by the presence of spots inside its rosettes. A condition known as melanism can create jaguars that appear entirely black (although the spots are still visible if one looks closely). These are known as black panthers, but do not form a separate species.
Young jaguar males reach sexual maturity at about 3 or four years of age, females about a year earlier. Females give birth to as many as four cubs after a 90 to 110 day gestation, but raise no more than two of them to adulthood. The young are born blind and can see after two weeks. They remain with their mother for a long time, up to two years, before leaving to establish a territory for themselves, which can be anywhere between 25 and 150 square kilometres in size (depending on the availability of suitable prey). In captivity, jaguars can live for up to 20 years.
The word jaguar comes from the South American Tupi-Guarani language. According to one early European explorer, jaguara meant a beast that kills its prey with one bound. The original and complete amerindian name is "Jaguarete". Curiously, "Jagua" means dog in Guarani.
Their wide range means that the jaguar will not be in danger of becoming extinct for the forseeable future. They have declined in number in some areas, however, mainly due to habitat loss, especially in rain forests and grassland turned into cropland.
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