Rancho Caracol

Rancho Caracol Ocelot Study Update by Michael Tewes

April 2010

In December of 2009 we made a huge step forward on the project with the onset of trapping and radio collaring of the ocelots. The radio-collars are less than 100 grams and transmit a VHF signal that allows us to track the cats remotely. Information obtained with these collars will help us understand the spatial requirements of the ocelots on Rancho Caracol, and in the Sierra of Tamaulipas.

On December 7th, 2009 we traveled to Rancho Caracol to begin live trapping of these cats. On this trip, our crew consisted of six people: Dr. Michael Tewes (Regents Professor, CKWRI), Mr. Arturo Caso (Research Associate, CKWRI), Miss Sasha Carvajal (PhD Student, CKWRI), Chad Stasey (PhD Student, CKWRI), Karina Valenti (Veterinarian), and Charles Spikerman (Professional Photographer). We trapped for 11 nights and were able to capture and radio-collar 9 individual ocelots (4 Males and 5 females).

A second trapping session was initiated on February 5th, 2010 and we trapped for five consecutive nights. Participants on this trapping session were Dr. Mike Tewes, Mr. Arturo Caso, Miss Sasha Carvajal, Mr. Barry Putegnat (Ranch Owner), Mr. Arturo Rocha (Manager) and three Journalists from Texas; David Sikes (Corpus Christi Caller), Shanon Tompkins (Houston Chronicle), and Ron Strait (San Antonio Express News). During this session we were able to capture three new ocelots (1 Male and 2 Females). Our trapping success during both sessions far exceeded our expectations and indicates that the ocelot population (as well as other cat populations) in Rancho Caracol is healthy. We will continue to keep you updated on our progress as we gather more data from the radio-collared ocelots.

Our camera trapping survey has continued to date with 40 camera stations now in use. We are in the process of analyzing the photos obtained, but one remarkable result has been the large number of jaguar pictures (more than 20) we collected during the February-March sessions.

September 2009

The ocelot project continues to have great initial success. Every month that we check our remote cameras, we find new individuals that were previously unidentified. One recent photograph shows a mother ocelot licking or grooming the head of its young. Based on the spot pattern recorded for the mother and young, we will know their social relationship when we capture and radio-collar them later this winter. The spots stay mostly the same as a young grows into adulthood. In addition, we will take blood samples to compare their DNA and look for kinship patterns.

Another noteworthy discovery has been the photographs of other young cats with the mountain lion and jaguarundi. Two subadult mountain lion are seen with the mother standing guard. Although that particular photo is poor quality, we can still identify a few faded spots on the young mountain lions.

Another interesting photograph shows a small jaguarundi kitten, dragging behind its mother. Arturo Caso has been studying jaguarundi and ocelot in northeast Mexico since 1991, first as a M.S. student, and now as a doctoral student with the Caesar Kleberg Institute. His record of capture and radio-collaring over 20 jaguarundi places him as a world authority on this cat species. Most of the adult jaguarundi that Arturo has captured have weighed about eight to 10 pounds. Consequently, the young jaguarundi in the photograph likely weighs only three to five pounds.

There are few photographs of jaguarundi kittens under natural conditions, which makes this image particularly important. The survival of young for most wild cat species is difficult because many mortality factors can affect them. They are subject to natural factors such as starvation (particularly during drought), diseases, and other predators. And wild cats growing in areas with some human presence are vulnerable to trapping and road-kills. The mother must be successful in training the young to become stealthy predators, and demonstrating skills as an independent hunter increases their chance of survival and becoming an adult.

Still problems persist for this smallest cat of North America. The presence of four other larger cat species, including the ocelot, bobcat, mountain lion, and jaguar, keeps the jaguarundi on guard. Different cat species tend not to tolerate other felines. And the presence of two canids, coyote and fox, adds more danger to the jaguarundi. Yet the jaguarundi appears to have a strong hold at Rancho Caracol. Reasons for this coexistence will be discussed on future blogs - keep checking in.

June 2009

Prospects are still looking great for the ocelot study at Rancho Caracol. Each of the first three camera trap sessions have yielded a bounty of ocelot photos. They help us identify the same ocelot over different months, and to map the preferred places used by each ocelot on the Ranch.

This information will become important later this year after the temperatures cool, and we begin box trapping for the ocelots. Field biologists Arturo Caso, Sasha Carvajal-Villarreal, Chad Stasey and I will capture ocelots and attach radio-collars. Radio tracking will enable us to identify the boundaries of ocelot territories, and thereby estimate the population size. By using cameras to identify the preferred sites used by ocelots, we can target individuals when box trapping begins, thus becoming more efficient in our research.

We continue to find a rich diversity of wild cats on Rancho Caracol during the first three months of monitoring. Several photos of mountain lion and jaguarundi appear each month. In addition to the medium-sized ocelot, we have photos of three different jaguars - a new one was discovered each month. The most recent image appears to be a large male jaguar with a stout head and large meat-hooks for paws. We believe the previous photos were of two different female jaguars. Later photographs will help us confirm the gender of these powerful felines.

Interestingly, the jaguar photos show fat cats, whereas the mountain lions often appear skinny. It is easy to develop different theories, but the project is in the early stages and we really don't know the cause of these observations. Some photo stations show the presence of many javelina, an important prey of jaguar and mountain lion. But the actual abundance and distribution of prey is unknown at this time.

BREAKING NEWS: A single bobcat was photographed during the last trap session. Amazingly, this brings the total cat community at Rancho Caracol to five different species living together! That community includes jaguar, mountain lion, ocelot, jaguarundi, and now, bobcat. It is ironic because bobcat are common in Texas, yet much less common in some parts of Mexico where its southernmost range boundary occurs. With five species of wild cat, Rancho Caracol is truly a valuable ecological reserve.

In addition to the assistance provided by Rancho Caracol, project support has been provided by the George C. and Karen Hixon Foundation, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, San Antonio Sea World of Busch Gardens, and the Ocelot Conservation Program of Wild Cat Conservation, Inc.

March 2009

On February 7, 2009, a group of three biologists and one photographer traveled from the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville, Texas, to make the initial visit to Rancho Caracol, beginning an important partnership into the conservation of ocelots in northeastern Mexico. The initial objective of this trip was to set up 20 remote cameras in the thornshrub habitat to search for ocelot presence.

One of the primary goals was to find a healthy population of ocelots that could serve as the location of future studies. This research program has developed an international reputation with the study of 10 different wild cat species. Ocelot studies began in 1982, when Professor Tewes captured the first individual, and have continued to the present day, representing the primary research for this species.

On this trip, cat biologists Arturo Caso, Chad Stasey, and Professor Tewes used their considerable experience to search for "sign," i.e. tracks, droppings, and scratch marks, to identify places suitable for remote sensing cameras. Caso has studied ocelots, margays, jaguarundis, and jaguars in Mexico for over 15 years, and Tewes has supervised over 20 graduate students studying wild cats around the world. Veteran wildlife photographer Charles Spiekerman joined the group to document the biologists' activities.

Past observations of wild cats by observers at Rancho Caracol promised an auspicious beginning. Sites were scouted and the cameras were set over a three-day period. Rancho Caracol provided critical support for the survey team with transportation, lodging, food and local guidance by Arturo Rocha. A little over three weeks later, on March 5th, field biologist Caso returned to Rancho Caracol to harvest the memory chips from the cameras and install new chips and batteries.

The initial findings? Nothing short of outstanding! At least seven different ocelots were identified in photographs! Each ocelot was identified by using its unique spotting patterns (each pattern serving as an individual “fingerprint,” with one side different from the other side of the same cat). If seven ocelots were identified in only three weeks, then other ocelots are likely probably lurking as-yet undetected in the dense thornshrub of Rancho Caracol.

A pleasant by-product of this camera survey was the discovery of the other wild cats. At least three different jaguarundis were documented. These small cats weigh about 10 pounds. Also photographed were at least three different mountain lions or cougars were captured by the cameras.

Perhaps the most exciting visual treat was the photograph of a jaguar drinking water from a waterer (also known as a "guzzler"). Jaguars are the largest wild cat in the Western Hemisphere and the focus of considerable conservation efforts. One of the important management activities by Rancho Caracol is the construction and placement of several “guzzlers,” which will benefit these big, wild cats during dry periods. Many of these cats were photographed using the guzzlers.

Rancho Caracol is located on the northern end of the Sierra Tamaulipas, a low mountain range located between the higher Sierra Madres Oriental to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the east. The Sierra Tamaulipas can often be a dry environment, and provision of water guzzlers is an excellent management program by Rancho Caracol benefitting many different varieties of wildlife in addition to wild cats.

This blog entry is hopefully the first of many to come, providing yet another example of how wildlife hunting programs, either directly or indirectly, are one of the most important forces in providing funding, information and actions that benefit many kinds of wildlife including the conservation of wild cats in Mexico.

"The ranch lies in the heart of the best wild quail country in Mexico."
Dr. Ron Haaland, in Quail Unlimited Magazine
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