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Integrating fecal isotopes and molecular scatology to non-invasively study the spatial ecology of elusive carnivorans: a case study with wild jaguars (Panthera onca)

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Monitoring landscape use for large, solitary carnivorans like jaguars is challenging due to their elusive nature and the substantial survey efforts required. We combined non-invasive molecular and isotopic analysis of fecal (scat) samples to evaluate landscape use for jaguars at the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve (MPR) in Belize during the summer of 2007. Molecular scatology can assign scats to genetically distinct individual predators, and when combined with the geographic location of scats, it is possible to estimate the area of use (AoU) for each identified individual and the spatial overlap between individuals. Fecal isotope values augment molecular scatology by clarifying where consumed prey spent their time and thus where individual predators may have foraged. We collected 80 jaguar scats, most of which were genetically assigned to four males (called jaguars 1, 2, 3, and 5), and analyzed carbon, nitrogen, and strontium isotopes for a subset of 23 scats. The location of scats alone demonstrates that multiple jaguars regularly spent time in central MPR. Both AoU estimates and isotopic data clarify that jaguars 1 and 2 had considerable spatial overlap in central MPR, while jaguar 3 likely stayed closer to the northern edge of MPR, and jaguar 5 foraged more in the south/southeast of the reserve. Combining these complementary tools makes for a powerful, non-invasive wildlife survey approach that could help address various conservation challenges.

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All isotope data are provided in Table 1. Fecal location data are shown in Fig. 1 and are available from the corresponding author upon request.


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We are thankful for the many volunteers, local collaborators, and supporters who made our research at the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Belize possible. These include the Belize Forest Department; George and Melina Headley (Bull Run Farm); Miranda Davis; Tom McNamara; scat-detecting dogs Billy, Bruiser, and the entire Packleader team; the Belize Zoo, University of Belize; Friends for Conservation and Development; Las Cuevas Research Station; Panthera; Peter Durhager; Blancaneaux Lodge; and Hidden Valley Inn. We further thank Zach Farris for connecting our research teams, Terri Roth at the Cincinnati Zoo for providing feces from large felids for methods testing, Jan Meerman and the National Meteorological Service of Belize for help in obtaining regional environmental data, Tawny Tibbits for locating a geologic map of the region, Gideon Bartov and Tom Johnson for strontium isotope analysis, and Jani Sparks, Jen Latessa, and the UC Data and GIS COLLAB for GIS support.


This work was supported by the Virginia Tech Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation (to CW and MJK), an Explorers Club Exploration Grant (to CW and MJK), Panthera Kaplan Awards (to CW), a National Geographic Society Waitt Grant (to CW and MJK), the Oregon Zoo Conservation Fund (to CW and MJK), the Seattle Woodland Park Zoo Jaguar Conservation Fund (to CW and MJK), the Roger Williams Park Zoo Sophie Danforth Conservation Biology Fund (to BEC), and the Wildlife Conservation Society Jaguar Conservation Program Fund (to CW and MJK).

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BEC and CW conceived and designed the project. CW and MJK conducted fieldwork, BEC and CW analyzed the data, BEC and CW performed statistical analyses, and EMBS assisted with graphics. BEC and CW wrote the manuscript; MJK supervised the fieldwork and provided editorial advice.

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Correspondence to Brooke E. Crowley.

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Ethics approval for this study was not required from the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at Virginia Tech since fecal samples were collected non-invasively in the field.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Crowley, B.E., Wultsch, C., Simpson, E.M.B. et al. Integrating fecal isotopes and molecular scatology to non-invasively study the spatial ecology of elusive carnivorans: a case study with wild jaguars (Panthera onca). Eur J Wildl Res 69, 78 (2023).

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