Elusive jaguar photographed for first time on Barro Colorado Island

Barro Colorado Island in Panama, home of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s premier tropical biology field station, has been described as the best-studied piece of tropical real estate in the western hemisphere. Although the island has been a mecca for biologists for nearly 90 years, no one has ever photographed an elusive island visitor—the jaguar—until now.

Zoologist Jackie Willis of Montclair University in New Jersey and husband Greg Willis have been conducting an annual census of mammals on Barro Colorado since 1982. They have been using tree-mounted infrared camera traps since 1994 to record nocturnal species. What the cameras captured April 20 was not only a surprise, but a first—an adult jaguar tripped the camera’s sensor at 3:07 a.m. Greg Willis spotted a jaguar on the island in 1983, but there have been very few sightings since. “These cats are incredibly elusive and sightings on the mainland, let alone on Barro Colorado Island, are extremely rare,” Jackie Willis says. “This is what makes this photo so exciting—it offers proof positive that despite all the obstacles it faces, this species is still making its way in Panama.”

(Photo by Marcos Guerro)

(Photo by Marcos Guerro)

The jaguar, a solitary carnivore, is the largest cat in the Americas. Adult males can weigh more than 300 pounds. Strong swimmers, jaguars tend to live near water and often prefer rainforests and seasonally flooded swamp areas. Historically, they ranged from the southern United States to northern Argentina but habitat loss due to agriculture and urban sprawl has been a major threat to the species. Regardless of legal protection, people often shoot jaguars on sight, especially in areas with cattle ranches.Researchers believe that this jaguar is a visitor from the mainland, 200 yards from the island at the closest point. Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake—part of the Panama Canal—is only 25 miles from Panama City on the Pacific end of the canal and the city of Colon on the Atlantic end. Most of Panama’s more than three million people live in these two cities. The area serves as a vital biological corridor between North and South America, despite pressure as urban areas expand.  

“Jaguars need remarkably large expanses of habitat to survive and Barro Colorado is too small to support even one animal,” William Laurance, staff scientist at STRI, explains. “But the presence of even the odd individual that swims out to the island means that jaguars are still moving through the Canal area between patches of fragmented forest.”

“Our photo of a jaguar on Barro Colorado is a sign of hope,” Jackie Willis says. “It proves jaguars are still in this area.”

Posted: 5 May 2009
About the Author:

Elisabeth King is a science interpreter for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. In Panama since 1992, Beth bridges the gap between research scientists and diverse audiences. She has created bilingual exhibitions, written press releases and fielded questions from reporters, hosted journalists and presented STRI research to audiences ranging from school kids to ambassadors.

One Response to Elusive jaguar photographed for first time on Barro Colorado Island
    • Jennifer Brundage
    • Coincidentally, I heard an excellent talk on this very topic last night at Front Royal! Dr. Roland Kays, another researcher at STRI who works with animal tracking via cameras and video (and is also a curator of mammals at the New York State Museum) is around SI this week describing the results of his research at Barro Colorado Island. You can catch him at NMNH tomorrow, May 6 at noon, in the Waldo Schmitt Room, W218. Such great images!