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On the prowl: are there jaguarundis in Big Bend National Park?

When you live in a place as vast and wild as Big Bend National Park, you learn to read the land. You synchronize your schedule with the rising and setting sun. You predict weather patterns and learn the daily habits of resident wildlife. You steadily cross species off your life list: mountain lion. Bobcat. Badger. Black bear.

And then, as you relax on your front porch under a starry night sky, you see something move in the darkness. It doesn't walk--it bounds. Its head is small, its tail unusually long. And it doesn't look like anything you've seen before.

For decades, stories just like this have been trickling in from both visitors and long-time residents of the West Texas park. Many witnesses believe they're dealing with the rare and endangered jaguarundi, a close relative of the puma that looks kind of like an otter and weighs slightly more than a house cat. But so far, no one has been able to prove it.

Anthony Giordano, a PhD student studying jaguars in South America at Texas Tech University, is bent on solving the mystery. "I've been with people when they see a wild jaguarundi for the first time, and they get this weird expression on their face because they're just not sure what they're looking at," he says. "So if someone claims they saw a

cat, I'm suspicious. But if they describe an animal that was running low to the ground, looked like a giant weasel, and had a small head, short round ears, and a tail longer than its body, and they use words like 'kind of'--well, then I'm interested."

Whenever a report is filed with the Park Service, Big Bend residents often debate it after hours, over a beer. "The park rangers, border-patrol agents, and interpretation staff who have made such sightings might not be biologists, but they're pretty savvy about the wildlife that resides here," says Big Bend's wildlife biologist Raymond Skiles. "When they see something unfamiliar, they'll sometimes report that they've seen a jaguarundi, and include a description consistent with the cat."

Some biologists believe that a century ago, everything from jaguars to Mexican wolves to ocelots lived in or near the park. In more recent years, biologists with the Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas--Mexico's equivalent of the U.S. National Park Service--have claimed to see jaguarundis just across the border in the Carmen Mountains.

But not everyone's convinced--especially Mike Tewes, a leading researcher in rare cats from Texas A&M University. "There's a greater chance of me being killed by a falling coconut than finding a jaguarundi in Big Bend," he says.

Strong words from a cat expert, but without clear photographs or DNA samples to prove the species' existence, all claims are mere folklore in the eyes of science. Even when a tracking expert reported jaguarundi footprints along the Rio Grande, Tewes wasn't swayed: "There's no way you can tell a feral cat track from a jaguarundi track," he says. "The only legitimate evidence is a photograph or a dead jaguarundi."

Tewes' work in Mexico has shown that where jaguarundis occur, some inevitably end up as road kill; none have turned up near Big Bend. Other scientists have set up camera traps in the park, but none have produced any evidence of jaguarundis. In addition, says Tewes, the park's high-desert landscape doesn't fit the description of known jaguarundi habitat: brushy lowlands in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Big Bend is also 200 miles away far from the closest verified jaguarundi sighting outside Monterrey, Mexico.

"There's obviously some room for mistaken identity," Skiles says. "I'm not suggesting that people didn't see what they saw, but at the same time, solid science requires evidence that can be confirmed over and over, and it's just remarkable that we haven't come up with anything yet."

The fact that scientists know so little about the species only complicates matters. Even Giordano, who has witnessed more than a dozen wild jaguarundis in his career, has only caught fleeting glimpses. In more than two years of camera-trap data from South America, Giordano has reviewed dozens of images of jaguars, ocelots, and the little-known Geoffroy's cat--but only two clear frames of jaguarundis.

Still, the Carmen Mountains sightings are enough to make Giordano want to investigate. His dream? Assembling a team of tracking dogs to scout out jaguarundi scat in Big Bend. "There's a lot of potential for using man's best friend," Giordano says, "especially when camera-trapping and other types of surveys might not cut it."

Like Tewes, Giordano agrees that jaguarundis aren't a highlands species--but he sees too many similarities in the thick, brushy habitat of Big Bend and areas where the cat is known to exist. "I think the most important factors for jaguarundis are dense cover and an abundance of prey, like small mammals and ground-nesting birds," he says. Big Bend satisfies those requirements--but until someone turns up hard evidence, it's unlikely that the jaguarundi's mythical status will change anytime soon.

Amy Leinbach Marquis is associate editor of National Parks magazine.
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Author:Marquis, Amy Leinbach
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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