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Bush Dog Sighting In Costa Rica

Photo extends this rare canid's range
By Karen B. London PhD, February 2018, Updated June 2021

A camera trap—a motion sensitive camera that photographs wild animals as they pass into view—has taken a photo of two bush dogs in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica. Camera traps have been all over the region for at least 12 years, yet this is the first photo of bush dogs in the country. Jan Schipper, the researcher who first saw the photograph, was hopeful that he would see jaguars among the images, but was even more thrilled with this photo.

Bush dogs have rarely been seen in that country before, and no previous sightings have been detailed enough to be verified. Archaeological evidence suggests that they are not native to Costa Rica, meaning that the ones living there now are recent immigrants. There is no previous record of this species living at the high altitude of the ones in the recent photo, which was taken at 4900 feet about sea level.

Bush dogs are nocturnal canids that live in small groups and hunt cooperatively in forests. Though they are social with members of their own species, they are elusive with regards to humans and avoid contact with us. They are seen so rarely that although the species was known from fossils found in a cave in Brazil in the 1800s, scientists initially thought that it was extinct.

They weigh about 10 pounds, and have long reddish-brown coats. They are most closely related to either the maned wolf or the African wild dog, but they look more like a wolverine crossed with a mongoose. Their previously known range was from Panama to Southern Brazil, but the new photo from Costa Rica shows it extends even further north.

Habitat loss is a major factor in the shrinking distributions and population declines of many species, including bush dogs, which are listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. That’s why the recent sighting of this species is so exciting. Costa Rica is a world leader in conservation, with over 25 percent of its land protected. Perhaps living in this country will allow the population of bush dogs to increase.

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life