Coastal Jaguars

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Photographs by iLCP Fellow Sebastian Kennerknecht/Panthera
Text by Betsy Painter

coastal jaguars - Coastal Jaguars

Jaguar (Panthera onca) yearling female cub approaching predated Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) at night, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

Along the borders of Tortuguero beach in Costa Rica, sturdy tree trunks guard the entrance to the rainforest like a gate, and palm fronds bend down from the canopy and sweep across the ground, drawing a line in the sand. In the categorized recesses of our minds, as far as biomes are concerned, we tend to keep rainforest and ocean life separate.  Jellyfish and chameleons may share eccentric colors, but have no ecological business between them. Three-toed sloths and shrimp may both be underdogs in speed and size respectively, but would never compete in the race for resources. But on the shore of Tortuguero National Park, the nautical-jungle boundary is constantly crossed by an unusual pair: jaguars (Panthera onca) and sea turtles.

On any ordinary evening on Tortuguero beach, through the lens of a carefully placed camera trap, this interesting interaction begins as the phantom predator of the rainforest, one of the toughest to track, steps out through the forest bush and onto the beach. Like shadows on the shore, jaguars stalk across the sand in search of sea turtles. While cultural legends and myths attribute supernatural characteristics to jaguars, building off of their cryptic nature, the jaguars are not there to haunt, but to hunt.

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Jaguar (Panthera onca) tracks on beach, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

Jaguars are “opportunistic predators” with diets depending on the availability of prey. On Tortuguero beach, sea turtles arrive each nesting season in impressive numbers to lay their eggs. It is the largest rookery in the western hemisphere for the endangered green turtle (Chelonia mydas), and also serves as a nesting ground for three other sea turtle species: leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate) and loggerhead (Caretta caretta). As the sea turtles roll in with the waves, the natural instincts of the jaguars draw them out from their hidden lives in the rainforest and towards the tide.

Paw prints in the sand

In the rainforest, jaguars’ tawny golden coats marked with smudged dark spots camouflage with the earthy scenery of tangled vines, rugged bark and dense vegetation. However, on their nightly prowls on the beach, the only veil is the dim light of the evening sky, and their large paw prints left behind in the sand serve as clues to their activities. Following the path of the prints leads to abandoned sea turtle carcasses that vultures and other scavengers now claim for their clean-up role in nature. Provision for scavenger species is one way predator-prey relationships prove vital to ecosystems.

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Jaguar (Panthera onca) biologists, Jizel Miles and Ian Thomson, looking at camera trap images, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

These tracks also prove helpful for scientists Ian Thomson and Stephanny Arroyo-Arce on their research investigating this predator-prey relationship through their ongoing Coastal Jaguar Conservation project with the collaboration of Global Vision International (GVI). Little was known about the impact jaguars have on sea turtle populations on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica before the work of Thomson and Arroyo-Arce. Through weekly surveys along a 14 1/2-mile stretch of the coast from 2005 to the present, researchers have collected data by counting identifiable jaguar tracks and marine turtle carcasses containing evidence of jaguar predation. Their research found that within 18 miles of coastline, jaguar predation accounts for less than three percent of the nesting green turtle population on the beach. Based on the researchers’ current findings these jaguar predation rates are not considered a significant threat to the green sea turtle populations.  For the other marine turtle species, it is too difficult to measure the effects of jaguar predation based on available evidence because cases only occur sporadically. However, for all marine turtles, the impact of jaguar predation on the populations is minimal compared to the losses caused by human activities such as illegal poaching, commercial exploitation and incidental captures in fishing gear.

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Jaguar (Panthera onca) male in rainforest at night, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

Human pressures push jaguars to the coast

Anthropogenic pressures may also be influencing the jaguars’ shift towards coastal habitats.  One human factor comes into play in the form of habitat degradation in the buffer zones around the park. In the early 1990’s, an expansion of large-scale banana and pineapple plantations outside of the park coincided with an increase in jaguar predation of marine turtles.

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Jaguar (Panthera onca) female approaching predated Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) at night, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

Another factor may be illegal hunting of other prey species inside the park. Jaguars have over 85 prey species throughout their ranges, and within Tortuguero National Park specifically, common prey includes the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), the green iguana (Iguana iguana), and both species of sloth found in the area, the three-toed (Bradypus variegatus) and the two-toed (Choloepus hoffmanni). Illegal hunting of these species can decrease the populations and potentially encourage jaguars towards more readily available prey like the sea turtles.

A not so antisocial big cat

This abundance of marine prey has also led researchers to believe that they are documenting a reduction in competition between the jaguars. Thomson and Arroyo-Arce have recorded over 36 jaguars on a meager 18-mile strip of coastline since 2010. Anywhere else jaguars are described as being typically solitary with vast territories and sparse overlap. With jaguars in closer proximity to each other on Tortuguero beach, the scientists are observing rare and unusual social behaviors in the big cats, such as facultative scavenging and smaller territories with increased interactions between individuals. Some of these activities have never before been documented in the wild.

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Jaguar (Panthera onca) yearling male cubs on beach at night, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

For example, as part of the long-term monitoring program by Thomson and Arroyo-Arce, one camera trap video lasting seven minutes captured two male jaguar cubs nursing from their mother at an atypically advanced age, giving new insight to maternal and cub behavior.

The role of conservation science

This opportunity to study jaguar behavior up close is remarkable, yet the link to sea turtle predation may be challenging for some. The poetic drama of natural predation, where one species experiences loss at the benefit of another, is heightened by the fact that conservationists champion both the declining jaguar populations and the endangered sea turtles. But nature is not sentimental, nor does it favor one species over another based on emotion. Rather it is detached from humanity in this way—wild, free, and sometimes hauntingly so. The role of scientists is not to judge the fairness of what takes place, but to study and observe. It’s a position of humility, as they stoop to the ground to observe a print, take notes on a fallen prey, or ask questions that reveal there is still much to learn. The objective freedom of science allows the facts to speak louder so that we can make truly informed decisions when it comes to managing wildlife populations and ecosystems.

The unusual jaguar and sea turtle relationship on Tortuguero Beach unites our marine and forest worlds, reminding us that nature is a vibrant, breathing, interwoven network. As the beach continues to boast a stable population of sea turtles, jaguar connectivity will grow and gene flow will increase between populations, strengthening them in Tortuguero and beyond. Humanity’s actions and choices are a force in between the strands of nature’s web, and the goal is to address where these actions may impair that balance.  Thomson and Arroyo-Arce are working with the local communities, the local government and other conservation organizations to protect this unique place, which will be essential for the long-term survival of both jaguars and marine turtles.

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Jaguar (Panthera onca) biologists, Stephanny Arroyo-Arce and Ian Thomson, digging out female Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) that is stuck in the sand, Coastal Jaguar Conservation Project, Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

Stephanny Arroyo-Arce and Roberto Salom-Pérez. 2015. Impact of jaguar Panthera onca (Carnivora: Ferlidae) predation on marine turtle populations in Tortuguero, Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Rev. Biol. Trop. 63: 815-825.
Arroyo-Arce et al. 2014. Habitat features influencing jaguar Panthera onca (Carnivora: Felidae) occupancy in Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica. Rev. Biol. Trop. 62: 1449-1458.
Arroyo-Arce et al. 2017. First record of jaguar (Panthera onca) predation on a loggerheard sea turtle (Caretta caretta) in Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica. Herptology Notes 10:17-18.
Thomson et al. 2014. Record of two jaguar cubs suckling from their mother in the wild. Cat News 61:8.

Originally posted 2018-03-16 01:35:24.

Top 25 Marine Birdlife

The oceans were once perceived as an endless abyss, so large that humans could not possibly have any measurable impact on the life within them. However as the human population has boomed, we have begun to impact our oceans more and more. In fact plastics have even been found in some of the deepest ocean trenches. Over-fishing, global warming and various forms of pollution now threaten birds in our oceans. Here we share some of the many birds that depend on our oceans. You can help keep their home safe by ensuring that you dispose of your waste responsibly, recycle what you can and reduce the amount of plastics that you use. Every small change adds up to one large global change!

top 25 marine birdlife - Top 25 Marine Birdlife

White-tailed Tropicbirds are found in tropical and sub-tropical oceans. They are a pelagic species, typically spending most of their time at sea except during the breeding season. This bird was photographed near the Seychelles by Suranjan Mukherjeetop 25 marine birdlife 1 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeA Northern Gannet on the cliffs of Bempton, England (Charlie Goes)top 25 marine birdlife 2 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeThese Great Pied Cormorants of New Zealand and Australia like the sheltered marine habitats of mangroves, estuaries and bays (Tony Stoddard)top 25 marine birdlife 3 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeA Black-headed Gull in breeding plumage in Surrey, England (Edwin Godinho)top 25 marine birdlife 4 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifePigeon Guillemots are distributed on the coastlines and oceans of the North Pacific ocean. They are well known for their ability to ‘swim’ under water to catch fish, usually diving to depths of between 10 and 20 metres (Anirban Roychowdhury)top 25 marine birdlife 5 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeThe Blue-footed Booby favours areas of coastal upwelling where the waters are cold and rich in nutrients (Christopher Ciccone)top 25 marine birdlife 6 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeA spirited communication between two Forster’s Terns in California, USA (Leslie Reagan)top 25 marine birdlife 7 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeThe Great Black-backed Gull is a vicious predator, catching and killing birds as large as Atlantic Puffins (Sonia Longoria)top 25 marine birdlife 8 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeThis interesting looking moustached bird is an Inca Tern, they can be found on the western coastlines of South America (Antonis Tsaknakis)top 25 marine birdlife 9 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifePacific Golden Plovers have rather different habitat preferences in their breeding range and their wintering range. In their tundra breeding habitat they prefer inland shrubby areas. Whereas they prefer coastlines in their wintering range (Goutam Mitra)top 25 marine birdlife 10 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeMale and female Northern Giant Petrels have distinctly different dietary preferences. Females forage at sea, catching live prey, whereas males scavenge on carcasses on land (Judi Fenson)top 25 marine birdlife 11 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeAtlantic Puffins are vulnerable to extinction, due to overfishing, oil spills, nest disturbance and getting tangled in fishing gear (Antonis Tsaknakis)top 25 marine birdlife 12 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeA Black-headed Gull skims the water in India (Gur Simrat Singh)top 25 marine birdlife 13 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeThe Red-billed Tropicbird is a pelagic species, they spend most of their time at sea, other than during the breeding season. During this time they breed on small, remote islands (Melissa Penta)top 25 marine birdlife 14 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeSooty Shearwaters occur across all the world’s oceans, except at the polar regions (Anirban Roychowdhury)top 25 marine birdlife 15 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeThis Caspian Tern is the largest tern species in the world (Radhakrishnan Sadasivam)top 25 marine birdlife 16 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeCormorants often have bright colouration on the face and brightly coloured eyes. This Great Pied Cormorant is no exception! (Jamie Rattus Dolphin)top 25 marine birdlife 17 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeEurasian Curlews use both inland and coastal habitats. Interestingly males are more likely to use inland habitats than females (Jay Patel)top 25 marine birdlife 18 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeThe Australasian Gannet is strictly marine, they feed off the coast of Australia, eating mainly pilchards, anchovies and mackerel (Deepak Panchal)top 25 marine birdlife 19 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeOriental Darters are mainly an inland species but they are also found in estuaries and mangroves (Pallavi Sarkar)top 25 marine birdlife 20 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeBelcher’s Gulls occur along the west coast of South America. This one was photographed on the coast of Peru by Owen Deutschtop 25 marine birdlife 21 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeA Great Cormorant with a fresh catch in India (Pallavi Sarkar)top 25 marine birdlife 22 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeThe semipalmata sub species of the Willet prefers coastal habitats. In contrast the inornata is more commonly associated with inland prairie marshes (Jola Charlton)top 25 marine birdlife 23 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeA Royal Albatross in flight on the Otago Peninsula, New Zealand (Deepak Panchal)top 25 marine birdlife 24 - Top 25 Marine BirdlifeAtlantic Puffins hunt by diving and pursuing schools of fish such as herring and mackerel (Suranjan Mukherjee)

Our mission is to build a global community around the freedom and beauty of birds in the wild as ambassadors for the natural ecosystems that they depend upon. They are the music, decoration, and character of every terrestrial habitat on the planet and have been around since the dinosaurs. They are the witnesses and ambassadors of the awesome power of nature. The wide availability of good, cheap optics has opened their world to us for the last few decades. Amazing, affordable DSLR cameras with long lenses are delivering brilliant digital bird imagery to online communities.

We are in a day-and-age during which more bird species are threatened with extinction than ever before. The Wild Birds! Revolution aims to publish the “Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week” to 1 million people every week by the end of the year. That is a revolution that will change the world! Join thousands of other weekend naturalists, photographers, birders, experts, hikers, nature-lovers, guides, scientists, conservationists and artists that share the thousands of wild bird photographs submitted to the Wild Bird Trust website and Facebook page. Thousands of wild bird enthusiasts are going out every day to photograph our planet’s beautiful birdlife. Pick up your camera, fill your bird feeder, open your heart, and join the Wild Birds! Revolution!!

Edited by Christie Craig, Campaign Manager

The Best of the Top 25: Part 2

Originally posted 2018-05-25 18:51:55.


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