A new video of a curious jaguar just south of the U.S.-Mexico border is causing a bit of a stir. Recent decades have brought a handful of sightings of adult males just north of the border in southeastern Arizona, but this sighting is different. The juvenile male, named El Bonito by researchers, was recorded by a wildlife camera survey deployed by Ganesh Marin, a Ph.D. student in SNRE studying habitat fragmentation at the border. Jaguars, an endangered species in the U.S., once roamed from the arid Southwest down to the tropical rainforests of South America, however, extirpation by European settlers has since restricted their northern distribution to the U.S. Mexican border. This particular sighting is significant because the young juvenile could mean that a breeding female is nearby, and that jaguars may be shifting northward into old territory once more.
This news comes on the heels of the construction of approximately 225 miles of a new border wall in Arizona impermeable to medium-to-large mammals like jaguars, eliminating many movement corridors that maintain connectivity between animal populations. In addition to the new wall, wildlife must cope with major highways on both U.S. and Mexico sides. Previous research in similar environments has shown that these types of development force animals into smaller patches of unfragmented land and funnel wildlife into increasingly narrow and degraded corridors. These corridors often serve as a lifeline for maintaining population health and increase resilience against climate change. The Sonoran desert?s riparian areas are especially endangered by human development, and only a few river systems remain intact. Aquatic and terrestrial species alike now depend on these protected riparian areas as available habitat shrinks and dispersing out of protected areas becomes increasingly dangerous due to vehicle collisions and human-wildlife conflict. Identifying which animals, like jaguars, may rely on these patches and how these species cope with habitat fragmentation will enable researchers and managers to more effectively mitigate negative consequences.
Marin?s goal is to study precisely this. The jaguar is just one more species out of many that are or will soon depend on the last remaining unfragmented areas for survival. Marin and his team have established an expansive wildlife camera array near the U.S-Mexico border to study how space use changes with modified landscapes along the border and model habitat connectivity for the black bears, beavers, jaguars, ocelots, and bats living in the Sonoran Desert. Research like his informs future land use decisions, providing managers with the data they need to restore effective corridors where absent and limit further fragmentation.
Check out this NatGeo article for more details on how jaguars at the border are affected by fragmentation and a look at how maintaining connectivity into Arizona?s own available jaguar habitat could help guard the species against habitat loss, poaching, and climate change.