Large “hypercarnivorous” felids are recognized for their role as apex predators and hence as key elements in food webs and ecosystem functioning through competition and depredation. Here we show that cougars (Puma concolor), one of the largest and the most widely ranging apex felid predators with a strictly carnivorous diet, could also be effective secondary long distance seed dispersers, potentially establishing direct and non-herbivore mediated interactions with plant species at the bottom of the food web. Cougars accidently ingest and disseminate large amounts of seeds (31,678 seeds in 123 scats) of plant species initially consumed by their main prey, the Eared Dove Zenaida auriculata. The germination potential of seeds for the three plant species most abundantly found in cougar scats (19,570 seeds) was not significantly different from that observed in seeds obtained from dove gizzards, indicating that seed passage through cougar guts did not affect seed germination. Considering the estimated cougar density in our study area, dispersal of seeds by cougars could allow a mean, annual seed spread of ~5,000 seeds per km(2). Our results demonstrate that strictly carnivorous, felid predators could have broad and overlooked ecological functions related to ecosystem structuring and functioning.
Genomic studies of endangered species provide insights into their evolution and demographic history, reveal patterns of genomic erosion that might limit their viability, and offer tools for their effective conservation. The Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is the most endangered felid and a unique example of a species on the brink of extinction.
The cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, is the fastest living land mammal. Because of its specialized hunting strategy, this species evolved a series of specialized morphological and functional body features to increase its exceptional predatory performance during high-speed hunting. Using high-resolution X-ray computed micro-tomography (μCT), we provide the first analyses of the size and shape of the vestibular system of the inner ear in cats, an organ essential for maintaining body balance and adapting head posture and gaze direction during movement in most vertebrates. We demonstrate that the vestibular system of modern cheetahs is extremely different in shape and proportions relative to other cats analysed (12 modern and two fossil felid species), including a closely-related fossil cheetah species. These distinctive attributes (i.e., one of the greatest volumes of the vestibular system, dorsal extension of the anterior and posterior semicircular canals) correlate with a greater afferent sensitivity of the inner ear to head motions, facilitating postural and visual stability during high-speed prey pursuit and capture. These features are not present in the fossil cheetah A. pardinensis, that went extinct about 126,000 years ago, demonstrating that the unique and highly specialized inner ear of the sole living species of cheetah likely evolved extremely recently, possibly later than the middle Pleistocene.
Patterns of genetic and genomic variance are informative in inferring population history for human, model species and endangered populations.
Deserts are particularly vulnerable to human impacts and have already suffered a substantial loss of biodiversity. In harsh and variable desert environments, large herbivores typically occur at low densities, and their large carnivore predators occur at even lower densities. The continued survival of large carnivores is key to healthy functioning desert ecosystems, and the ability to gather reliable information on these rare low density species, including presence, abundance and density, is critical to their monitoring and management. Here we test camera trap methodologies as a monitoring tool for an extremely rare wide-ranging large felid, the critically endangered Saharan cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki). Two camera trapping surveys were carried out over 2-3 months across a 2,551km2 grid in the Ti-n-hağğen region in the Ahaggar Cultural Park, south central Algeria. A total of 32 records of Saharan cheetah were obtained. We show the behaviour and ecology of the Saharan cheetah is severely constrained by the harsh desert environment, leading them to be more nocturnal, be more wide-ranging, and occur at lower densities relative to cheetah in savannah environments. Density estimates ranged from 0.21-0.55/1,000km2, some of the lowest large carnivore densities ever recorded in Africa, and average home range size over 2-3 months was estimated at 1,583km2. We use our results to predict that, in order to detect presence of cheetah with p>0.95 a survey effort of at least 1,000 camera trap days is required. Our study identifies the Ahaggar Cultural Park as a key area for the conservation of the Saharan cheetah. The Saharan cheetah meets the requirements for a charismatic flagship species that can be used to “market” the Saharan landscape at a sufficiently large scale to help reverse the historical neglect of threatened Saharan ecosystems.
Morphology of extant felids is regarded as highly conservative. Most previous studies have focussed on skull morphology, so a vacuum exists about morphofunctional variation in postcranium and its role in structuring ensembles of felids in different continents. The African felid ensemble is particularly rich in ecologically specialized felids. We studied the ecomorphology of this ensemble using 31 cranial and 93 postcranial morphometric variables measured in 49 specimens of all 10 African species. We took a multivariate approach controlling for phylogeny, with and without body size correction. Postcranial and skull + postcranial analyses (but not skull-only analyses) allowed for a complete segregation of species in morphospace. Morphofunctional factors segregating species included body size, bite force, zeugopodial lengths and osteological features related to parasagittal leg movement. A general gradient of bodily proportions was recovered: lightly built, long-legged felids with small heads and weak bite forces vs. the opposite. Three loose groups were recognized: small terrestrial felids, mid-to-large sized scansorial felids and specialized Acinonyx jubatus and Leptailurus serval. As predicted from a previous study, the assembling of the African felid ensemble during the Plio-Pleistocene occurred by the arrival of distinct felid lineages that occupied then vacant areas of morphospace, later diversifying in the continent.
The marbled cat Pardofelis marmorata is a poorly known wild cat that has a broad distribution across much of the Indomalayan ecorealm. This felid is thought to exist at low population densities throughout its range, yet no estimates of its abundance exist, hampering assessment of its conservation status. To investigate the distribution and abundance of marbled cats we conducted intensive, felid-focused camera trap surveys of eight forest areas and two oil palm plantations in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Study sites were broadly representative of the range of habitat types and the gradient of anthropogenic disturbance and fragmentation present in contemporary Sabah. We recorded marbled cats from all forest study areas apart from a small, relatively isolated forest patch, although photographic detection frequency varied greatly between areas. No marbled cats were recorded within the plantations, but a single individual was recorded walking along the forest/plantation boundary. We collected sufficient numbers of marbled cat photographic captures at three study areas to permit density estimation based on spatially explicit capture-recapture analyses. Estimates of population density from the primary, lowland Danum Valley Conservation Area and primary upland, Tawau Hills Park, were 19.57 (SD: 8.36) and 7.10 (SD: 1.90) individuals per 100 km2, respectively, and the selectively logged, lowland Tabin Wildlife Reserve yielded an estimated density of 10.45 (SD: 3.38) individuals per 100 km2. The low detection frequencies recorded in our other survey sites and from published studies elsewhere in its range, and the absence of previous density estimates for this felid suggest that our density estimates may be from the higher end of their abundance spectrum. We provide recommendations for future marbled cat survey approaches.
Camera trapping studies have become increasingly popular to produce population estimates of individually recognisable mammals. Yet, monitoring techniques for rare species which occur at extremely low densities are lacking. Additionally, species which have unpredictable movements may make obtaining reliable population estimates challenging due to low detectability. Our study explores the effectiveness of intensive camera trapping for estimating cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) numbers. Using both a more traditional, systematic grid approach and pre-determined, targeted sites for camera placement, the cheetah population of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, Botswana was sampled between December 2012 and October 2013. Placement of cameras in a regular grid pattern yielded very few (n = 9) cheetah images and these were insufficient to estimate cheetah density. However, pre-selected cheetah scent-marking posts provided 53 images of seven adult cheetahs (0.61 ± 0.18 cheetahs/100km²). While increasing the length of the camera trapping survey from 90 to 130 days increased the total number of cheetah images obtained (from 53 to 200), no new individuals were recorded and the estimated population density remained stable. Thus, our study demonstrates that targeted camera placement (irrespective of survey duration) is necessary for reliably assessing cheetah densities where populations are naturally very low or dominated by transient individuals. Significantly our approach can easily be applied to other rare predator species.
The only natural hosts of Pseudorabies virus (PRV) are members of the family Suidae (Sus scrofa scrofa). In species other than suids infection is normally fatal. In these mammals, including carnivores, PRV typically causes serious neurologic disease. The endangered Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is a wild feline endemic to south-western Europe (Iberian Peninsula). The Iberian lynx was found to be the world’s most endangered felid species in 2002. In wild felines, PRV infection has only been previously reported once in a Florida panther in 1994. No seropositive lynxes have ever been found, nor has PRV been detected in dead Iberian lynxes to date.
Gastrointestinal diseases pose significant risks to captive cheetah survival and welfare. Multiple factors are thought to be associated with these diseases, but to date a comprehensive epidemiological survey of disease risk factors has not been conducted. A survey of diet and health parameters was completed for 184 captive cheetahs in 86 international facilities. Comparisons were made among dietary factors with respect to disease status and observed faecal consistency, incidence of vomiting and diarrhoea in the past 4 weeks. Extremely dry faeces were most common in cheetahs fed carcasses, but was still of low incidence (15%). Contrastingly, cheetahs fed commercially prepared diets had the highest prevalence of liquid faeces “always” or “often” (9%). Cheetahs fed raw meat diets had the highest prevalence of soft faeces with no shape (22%), as well as of firm and dry faeces (40%). No broad category of diet exerted any influence on the health parameters investigated. However, feeding of ribs at least once per week reduced the odds of diarrhoea (P = 0.020) and feeding of long bones (limbs) at least once per week was associated with a lower odds of vomiting (P = 0.008). Cheetahs fed muscle meat at least once per week had reduced odds of suffering from chronic gastritis (P = 0.005) or non-specific gastrointestinal disease (P < 0.001). The only factor identified as increasing the odds of chronic gastritis was feeding of horse "often" or "always" (P = 0.023). The findings of the current study build on existing empirical research to support a recommendation towards a greater inclusion of skeletal components. Current husbandry guidelines advocating the use of supplemented raw meat diets are likewise supported, but the use of horse meat, as well as commercially prepared diets for captive cheetahs, warrants caution until further research is conducted.