The Amazon’s ‘Ghost Dogs’ Face 30 Percent Habitat Loss

The solitary species is hard to spot on camera, and they’re the only canine that lives in the Amazon rainforest

Trail camera shot of two short-eared dogs in 2015
Short-eared dogs are the only canines that live in the Amazon rainforest. Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

A new study finds that the Amazon rainforest’s “ghost dog” has haunts across five countries.

The hound in question is the short-eared dog, a solitary canine specially adapted to live in the South American jungle. The study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, found that short-eared dogs have been spotted primarily in Brazil and Peru, but they were also found in Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador. But almost a third of short-eared dog habitat could be lost by 2027.

The species is “one of the least studied dogs worldwide,” University of California, Davis ecologist Daniel Rocha tells Cara Giaimo at the New York Times. “If we don’t know what we’re losing, it’s really hard to care.”

The short-eared dog is different from many wild canines because it doesn’t live in packs, explains Mongabay’s Romi Castagnino. The creatures are extremely shy, preferring to live in swamp forests, bamboo stands and cloud forests that haven’t been disturbed by people. They’re recognizable by their small ears, dark gray or rusty coloring, and fluffy, foxlike tails.

The dogs also have webbed toes which make them strong swimmers, like the ever-popular Labrador retrievers. But short-eared dogs are not in the same genus as domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) or gray wolves (Canis lupus). Instead, short-eared dogs (Atelocynus microtis) are the only members of their own genus.

Short-eared dogs are so secretive that local residents and researchers alike rarely see them in the wild. Rocha tells the Times that throughout the years-long research project, he never saw one. Even University of East Anglia ecologist Carlos Peres, who has worked in the Amazon for almost 40 years, tells the New York Times that his longest encounter with a short-eared dog was brief.

He saw one for about 20 seconds when it chased a rat into a hollow log. Researchers know from scat samples that the dogs probably eat a mix of small mammals, fish, and even fruit.

The new study pieces together sightings from camera traps across the Amazon rainforest, usually brief encounters that were “bycatch” during unrelated research projects, Rocha tells the New York Times.

In 2014, for example, conservation biologist Lary Reeves set up a GoPro camera near a carcass in the jungle of Peru, hoping to catch a glimpse of the king vultures he’d heard were feeding on it. But as National Geographic’s Nadia Drake reported at the time, a short-eared dog stopped in front of the camera only about 20 minutes after it was set up.

Usually they avoid cameras, probably because of the blinking lights and human smells. In 2017, researchers got their first glimpse of short-eared dogs’ puppies on camera.

“This is totally amazing. It’s a great opportunity to study this species, a unique opportunity to study the maternal care of the babies, how the babies disperse,” Leite-Pitman told Nadia Drake at National Geographic of the five pups caught on camera. “What are their survival chances? How many of them will survive? None of these questions are answered for this species.”

The short-eared dog is currently listed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List, but the new study suggests that they should be considered vulnerable instead, as Inverse reports. Thirty percent of the dogs’ habitat could be gone or severely damaged by 2027 because of human activities like logging.

The loss of habitat would significantly impact an animal that relies on undisturbed range, but Rocha also points out that there are many other, less familiar critters that are facing the same threat. With so much left to learn about a cousin of man’s best friend, Rocha tells the New York Times, “imagine how much we don’t know about less charismatic species.”