On the Jaguar’s Trail

Detection dog essential for research success
By Karen B. London PhD, April 2016, Updated July 2016

For three years, scientist Chris Bugbee of Conservation CATalyst has been studying a jaguar named El Jefe, first with support from the University of Arizona and now from the Center for Biological Diversity. El Jefe is about seven years old and the only wild jaguar known to be in the United States. Most members of this species live further south, in Mexico and in other Latin American countries, but El Jefe has spent at least three years in the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona. Jaguars are notoriously elusive, rarely seen and can have territories that cover hundreds of square miles, so the study of El Jefe represents a major success story. He’s not, however, the only animal associated with this study who is a success story.

The other one is a female Belgian Malinois named Mayke, who is a working detection dog. She has been trained to bark when she finds jaguar scat, which she can distinguish from the scat of other large cats. (Mayke is also trained to bark when she finds the scat of ocelot, another species of wild cat.)

Mayke was born to do scent work, coming from a program in Germany that has successfully bred many dogs for this purpose. Like her close relatives from the same lines, she has a great nose, can handle heat and is both trainable and intelligent. Even with that background, her first assignment was not a good match. She was originally placed as an explosives detection dog, but she couldn’t handle working around big trucks or gunfire. Those stresses upset her to the point that she was unable to perform the work she was trained to do, but she excels in the wide open, remote spaces where El Jefe lives, and where both dog and jaguar have been videotaped.

Detection dogs can be trained to find a huge range of things from explosives to drugs to people to invasive snails, so why was Mayke trained to find jaguar scat? The answer to that requires an understanding of how scientists view the excrement of their study animals. As a friend of mine who studied patas monkeys in Africa once said, “Most people think of poop as just poop. I think of poop as information.” (FYI, I paraphrased in order to maintain our PG rating.)

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Scat is a major resource for people studying wild mammals, but it’s hard for people to find, especially when the animal in question is a jaguar and can travel 30 miles a day. Luckily, dogs are not held back, as people are, by pathetic noses and tiny olfactory lobes. A trained dog can sniff out scat, and therefore allow humans to learn so much more about an animal than would be possible on our own.

Thanks to Mayke and her trainer, biologist Chris Bugbee, it has been possible to map out El Jefe’s home range, learn what he’s eating, figure out a number of places where he likes to bed down during the day, and study his DNA. Mayke found the first genetically verified jaguar scat in the US, which is a big deal because the jaguar has not always been in this part of its historical range. It’s because of Mayke’s work that scientists have been able to place camera traps in places that El Jefe is likely to visit. The jaguar has been photographed and videotaped over a hundred times in the last three years. The understanding of El Jefe’s location and behavior, made possible by Mayke’s unique contribution to the project, have shown that El Jefe is a resident male who lives in Arizona.

According to Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate with the Center For Biological Diversity who has studied jaguars for years, this is important because people and organizations who are reluctant to use any resources to protect him tend to refer to him as a “solitary wandering male”. That implies that he is just a vagrant temporarily lost and visiting the US. This is a nonsensical classification because males of this species are always solitary except briefly during mating. Females are also solitary except during mating and during the short period they have young with them.

Jaguars are native to Arizona. Both males and females were living and breeding in the area until people shot and poisoned them out, beginning in the early 1900s. The interest in El Jefe is helping to protect 764,000 acres of critical habitat in southern Arizona, and making it more likely that recovery efforts can re-establish a jaguar population in the area. The area is at risk of great damage to wildlife, water and the attractive landscape because of a proposed copper mine. There are many reasons to reject this environmentally damaging project, and El Jefe’s large territory is one of them.

With such a rare species, it’s important to keep as many potential breeding animals in the population as possible to maintain the genetic diversity. Previously, a male named Macho B who spent time in Arizona and was photographed there, returned to Mexico to breed, and it is likely that El Jefe is also a part of that same population.

Arizonans are quite attached to him already. That is especially true of the kids who named him. Children at Valencia Middle School in the Tucson area, whose mascot is the jaguar, picked his name. El Jefe (Spanish for “The Boss”) was the overwhelming choice in the vote among the five names that were finalists.

Perhaps the most important part of Mayke’s contribution to the study of El Jefe is that she enables scientists to learn about this jaguar in a non-invasive way. They are able to get an amazing amount of valuable data without bothering the cat. This matters for any species, but it’s especially critical when working with rare animals. Sadly, there are cases of jaguars being injured or killed because of attempts to radio collar the animal (to monitor the animal’s position) and a bad reaction to the tranquilizer. Mayke can locate signs of the animal’s presence and allow scientists to collect data without any such invasive techniques, which eliminates the risk associated with other methods of study.

When I asked Bugbee if there was anything else he wanted to share with me about Mayke, he answered, “Just that she’s a success story—even if you ignore that she’s found the first genetically verified jaguar scat in the US—because she found her confidence and came into her own.” They’ve been working together for three years and have a close relationship. Bugbee knows her well and understands her behavior. He knows the different ways that she reacts to various wild animals. If she finds scat from a puma, she pees on it. If she detects fresh deer scent from the glands in their feet, she points—holding one paw up and leaning in the direction of the deer. She also has her own unique responses to bobcats and bears.

Bugbee talks about her with great affection and respect, sounding like both the professional trainer he is and a loving dog guardian like any other, saying,  “I wish I knew all of the things she picks up on. It would be incredible,” and “She’s a good dog. I like her.”

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.