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At Least 500 Jaguars Lost Their Lives or Habitat in Amazon Fires

Animals
At Least 500 Jaguars Lost Their Lives or Habitat in Amazon Fires
A jaguar in the Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil in 2006. Land Rover Our Planet / Flickr

By Shreya Dasgupta

The fires ravaging the Amazon forest in Brazil and Bolivia this year have burned key habitats of at least 500 adult, resident jaguars as of Sept. 17, rendering them dead or homeless, say experts at Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization.


"The number of homeless or dead jaguars has undoubtedly increased since Panthera's estimate was released, and will continue to increase until the rains come," Esteban Payan, Panthera's South America regional director, told Mongabay in an email.

To estimate the number of affected jaguars (Panthera onca), Panthera researchers used the total area of jaguar habitat burned, taken from burned areas reported by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and the Environmental Secretariat of the Governor's office of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. They combined this with a jaguar density estimate of 2.5 jaguars per 100 square kilometers (39 square miles) derived from a 2018 study authored by jaguar experts.

"Density from jaguar populations in central Amazonia, the work from my Ph.D., was more around 3 animals in 100 square kilometers. So again, this is 'at least' that number [500] of jaguars impacted," Payan said.

In Bolivia in particular, the fires have so far destroyed more than 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of forest in one of South America's key "catscapes," a region that Panthera has identified as having the highest predicted density of cat species on the continent. Some parts of Bolivia's catscape are home to eight cat species, including the jaguar, puma (Puma concolor), ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), margay (Leopardus wiedii), oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus), jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi), Geoffrey's cat (Leopardus geoffroyi) and Pampas cat (Leopardus colocola).

Map showing burned areas in Bolivia and wild cat presence. Image courtesy of Panthera.

Some researchers estimate that millions of animals have likely been lost to the Amazon fires this year. But given the widespread and destructive nature of the fires this year, the exact number of jaguars killed is difficult to calculate. Panthera researchers, however, predict that hundreds of jaguars will starve or turn to killing livestock in neighboring ranches as a consequence of the fires, "where they will be hunted down," Payan said.

Increased interactions between jaguars and livestock will likely only intensify conflict between the animals and ranchers and farmers. This would throw a spanner in the efforts of conservationists who've been working to resolve this conflict for decades.

"Jaguars with GPS collars from our partner Oncafari in the Brazilian Pantanal have already been captured and moved from the fires in an attempt to protect the cats," Payan said.

In addition to jaguars, Panthera has obtained reports and captured images of pumas and ocelots fleeing the fires, as well as of animals that burned to death, both small, slow-moving ones like turtles, tortoises and caimans, and fast-moving ones like marsh deer and peccaries. "Fires don't burn in a straight line so many animals get trapped in circles of fire and many others die of thirst and heat even before fire touches them," Payan said.

Burned habitat in the Brazilian Pantana. Image by Oncafari.

Fires not only destroy critical habitats, they also fragment forests, reducing connectivity between habitats that animals need to live and thrive. Moreover, repeated burning of the Amazon forest every year — almost entirely lit by humans to clear land for ranches, pastures or agriculture land — has compromised the forest's ability to recover when some of the burned areas are eventually abandoned and allowed to regenerate, researchers have found.

"The shock waves of these exceptionally large and, for the most part, human-lit fires are being felt not only by the wildlife and people of Brazil and Bolivia, but also those in Peru and Paraguay," Howard Quigley, Panthera's jaguar program and conservation science executive director, said in a statement. "These fires stand to directly impact the continent, and in the end, the health of the planet as they hurt one of the cradles of biodiversity and greatest counter forces against global warming."

Overall, the fires will affect Panthera's efforts to create one of the world's largest, contiguous jaguar corridors across South America's Pantanal region. But Payan said that the team is hoping to address this by scaling up its cooperation with communities, first responders, local NGOs, and protected-area managers; better equipping rangers to manage fires in protected areas; reducing cattle losses to jaguars and increasing productivity on existing ranches to limit further deforestation; and working with landowners, businesses and governments to plan and manage lands responsibly.

"Fire is now an intensified threat to jaguars and their associated biodiversity because of its intensity, speed and scale," he said. "The intensity of destruction is nearly absolute, the speed of propagation implies that in minutes it can become nearly impossible to control, and as it will cover vast areas the scale of damage to the natural world is immense."

Marsh deer in Bolivia, one of the jaguar's prey. Image by Juan Carlos Urgel.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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