Picture yourself floating amongst the reeds on a murky river. Around you, birds screech at each other, and in the water, capybaras and caimans paddle along. And on the shore, you get a glimpse of spots — a jaguar.
This environment, the Northern Pantanal, is one of the best places in the world to see jaguars. Jaguar tourism and photo opportunities in this part of the world bring in huge numbers of travelers, including to our Jofre Velho Conservation Ranch. While these tourists come to see jaguars, they actually overlook the most abundant cat in the Northern Pantanal: the ocelot.
It makes sense why these cats are less popular among tourists — they are hard to find and photograph. However, our scientists are not tourists! Thankfully, we have the technology and resources to research and uncover the truth about the Pantanal’s ocelots. We employ camera traps to study the cryptic behaviors of these elusive small cats — including where they sleep!
In 2021, we collared five ocelots, two females and three males. Once a month we followed them, downloading location data for four to five months. Luckily, we had the opportunity to visit their sleep sites. Contrary to our expectations, ocelots were not seen on the tops of trees or tree hollows; more often, they were found inside dense vegetation in seasonally flooded areas. When the water starts to recede, tangles of bushes and roots become exposed, forming perfect labyrinths inside for the ocelots to hide. Even with a signal indicating that ocelots were less than 20 meters apart, we were not able to see them. What an elusive cat!
All these collars naturally dropped off the ocelots by January 2022. However, we continue to work hard to understand ocelot behavior. Excitingly, we are now in the middle of another campaign to collar more of these cats and monitor them over both the wet and dry seasons, in order to learn more about this rarely seen species. We have eight GPS collars ready to deploy. Receiving data from GPS directly by email provides us scientists with much more accurate location data than formerly used VHF (Very High Frequency) tracking. Such data is required for complex movement analysis. However, tracking the animals in person is still the best way to know about fine-scale habitats and behaviors and, best of all, the best opportunity to see scenes like ocelot mothers with cubs. It’s an experience like no other — sometimes, we learn firsthand what it’s like to be an ocelot, crawling through narrow, dark tunnels just by the water to recover dropped- off collars. No matter what, all the time, we’re learning what it’s like to live like an ocelot!
So, if you come to the jaguar stronghold that is the Pantanal, keep an eye out for ocelots! While they may not leap in front of your camera hunting a caiman, they are a critical part of the ecosystem. Anyone can keep an eye out for ocelots especially on nighttime Pantanal roads. Panthera Brazil continues our mission to collar new individuals for the Pantanal Ocelot Project. Hopefully, our updates will get you just as excited about the Pantanal’s small cats as we are!