Smile! Elusive Jaguar Caught on Camera in Panama

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Dry season on Barro Colorodo Island brings sun and low humidity to the plants, animals and researchers that dwell on this scientific nature reserve in the middle of the Panama Canal.

Just the right conditions for scientists Jackie and Greg Willis to take their their annual 62-mile walk to count the island's mammal populations. For 27 years, the Willises have made this trek, observing dozens of exotic mammals, including pumas, ocelots, and margays. But only once, in 1983, have they seen a jaguar.

A lone jaguar captured by a camera on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. (Courtesy of Jackie Willis.)

The size of a human in comparison to the jaguar. (Courtesy of Jackie Willis.)

That 1983 sighting was the first time a jaguar had been spotted on Barro Colorodo Island since the Smithsonian took over its administration in 1946. Only two to three more have been seen since.

"It's pretty amazing that in such a highly-studied little place that there's only been a limited number of jaguar sightings," says Beth King, science interpreter for the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute.

So when a jaguar was photographed walking by a tree last week around 11 p.m., Smithsonian researchers were thrilled. The pictures were taken by a surveillance camera installed in 1994 that is wired to go off in reaction to a warm body. The photos are the first visual evidence that jaguars come to the island.
According to King, jaguar populations are shrinking and have been hunted to extinction in some places in South America. "The photo of a jaguar on Barro Colorado is a sign of hope that jaguars are still present in the area," she says.

There isn't an established population on the island, however. Jaguars are known to swim, and the one spotted last week is just passing by. Because of the island's size and the presence of other predatory wildcats, an adult jaguar wouldn't have enough to eat even if it stayed. Though it must make a nice vacation spot.

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