A Hungry Jaguar Eats a Dolphin!

By Ross Rosenthal
Marketing and Communications Specialist

Jaguar eating dolphin carcass

The title says it all — a jaguar was caught on camera trap eating a marine dolphin! Not a tapir, not a deer, but a dolphin (Castañeda et al., 2013)! How does a jaguar get its paws on a large marine mammal? Like jaguars in the Pantanal jumping into the depths of the river, can they swim into the ocean? What an unusual sight! 

The truth is that the jaguar pictured is a scavenger. On the northern coast of Honduras in the country’s Jeannette Kawas National Park in 2011, a local fisherman noticed that a dolphin carcass he had seen on the beach one day prior had been dragged into the forest the next day. What could be the cause of this? A jaguar, of course.

Jaguar eating dolphin 2

Panthera scientists got to work right away. For 51 days, we monitored the site with camera traps. We found that the dolphin carcass was frequented by two male jaguars, for a total of 14 visits. Interestingly, the jaguars did not feed on the carcass after the third day — suggesting that jaguars do not feed on putrefied meat.

What does this all mean? Well, for starters, it means jaguars eat weird things! An animal like a dolphin, which likely never interacts with a jaguar in its entire life, can be on the menu for these big cats! An animal that lives exclusively on land ate an animal that lives in the ocean. Jaguars really do eat unusual things. 

Jaguars have been recorded to eat up to 111 different prey species, one of the most diverse carnivore diets in the world. And it can get weird. In Costa Rica, for example, jaguars have been known to prey on sea turtles. Additionally, jaguars have been known to patrol Costa Rican beaches even outside the turtle nesting season. Outside of Costa Rica, a jaguar has been filmed preying on an anaconda in Colombia. There are also reports of jaguars killing freshwater dolphins in the Orinoco region in northern South America.

Jaguar eating turtle
Jaguars have been known to eat sea turtles.

This also solidifies the jaguar’s status as an opportunistic scavenger. For example, jaguars have been recorded scavenging on cattle in the northern Pantanal. During all such events, jaguars stayed near the carcass for no more than two and a half days.

Jaguar eating sea turtle 2

Likely the most important implication of this strange event is that it probably means jaguars in Jeannette Kawas National Park have turned to alternative feeding methods, as their prey species have declined in the park. Baird’s tapir, collared peccary and white-lipped peccary have been extirpated from the park, and white-tailed deer have been decimated there. With fewer prey options, jaguars may take any opportunity at a hearty meal they can get, especially if it’s an animal as big as a dolphin. But there’s a sobering reality here. While this feeding event might be exciting and strange, it also means jaguars may become more threatened as food becomes scarcer. To protect jaguars, we have to protect prey species like Baird’s tapir, peccary, green iguanas, turtles and others. That is why Panthera´s jaguar program in Honduras has started a re-wilding project in Jeannette Kawas NP which includes anti-poaching patrols, reintroducing collared peccaries and protecting green iguana and fresh water turtle nesting areas and young. This is being done with support from the local community, the ICF and Prolansate. We need to help jaguars in Honduras. It’s not every day a dolphin carcass will wash up on the beach for an easy meal. 

The scientific paper detailing these findings was originally published in CatNews

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