Isolation threatens jaguar population

The largest survey of jaguars in Central America has revealed a worrying lack of genetic variation in the cats. 

Although they used to range as far north as California and Texas in the USA, jaguars now only survive in Central and South America, from Mexico to north Argentina. © Claudia Wultsch
Although they used to range as far north as California and Texas in the USA, jaguars now only survive in Central and South America, from Mexico to north Argentina. © Claudia Wultsch

The new study, by the American Museum of Natural History, Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, and other partners, found that fragmented habitats and the increased isolation of jaguars in Mesoamerica are resulting in low genetic diversity in the cats.

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Examining the DNA of 115 jaguars across five countries, researchers were concerned to find only moderate levels of genetic diversity among the Americas’ biggest cat.

The lowest genetic variation was found among jaguars in Mexico, followed by Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Costa Rica.

“Mesoamerica has one of the highest deforestation rates worldwide, potentially limiting movement and genetic connectivity in forest-dependent jaguars across this fragmented landscape,” says Claudia Wultsch, lead author of the paper.

“Over the last 100 years, jaguars in Mesoamerica have been pushed out from more than 77 percent of their historic range.”

As the cats’ territories are divided, the more they are pressured to inbreed, diminishing their gene pool and limiting their potential to adapt and survive in the future.

But further conservation efforts, genetic mapping, and connection of wildlife corridors in Central America could be the key to strengthening jaguar populations, allowing them to roam further and increase their genetic diversity.

“Unlike some other big cats and wildlife teetering on the brink of extinction, here we have a remarkably resilient species whose numbers are strong enough to bounce back if given the chance to thrive,” said Panthera CEO, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz.

Read the full paper on PLOS ONE.

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