Elusive bush dogs caught on film in Panama

The rarely seen canids were found to be surprisingly widespread across the country.

If you’ve never heard of a bush dog, you’re not alone. While not quite as elusive as, say, Bigfoot, Speothos venaticus is nonetheless one of the planet's most enigmatic members of the dog family. Ninja-like and stealthy, they are rarely seen throughout their range in Central and South America.

Which is why a collection of photos taken in Panama by automated camera traps set by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute are so remarkable.

The team of researchers were using camera traps while surveying other mammals across the country. But the cameras, which take pictures automatically when their infrared sensors are tripped, fortuitously captured images of bush dogs at four sites ranging from the Colombian border in eastern Panama to Santa Fe National Park in the west. Out of 32,000 camera days (equal to the number of cameras multiplied by the number of days they were used), the bush dogs were snapped on only 11 occasions.

"Our group of biologists from Yaguará Panama and collaborators are working on an article about big mammals using camera trapping data that spans Panama from the Costa Rican border to the Colombian border," said Smithsonian Research Associate Ricardo Moreno who is co-authoring a study on the animals. "The bush dog is one of the rarest species that we photograph."

Bush dogs© MWH, MPSA

Bush dogs are an undeniably intriguing species. We’re accustomed to our domestic dogs and their more visible wild cousins, the wolves and coyotes and jackals – but bush dogs have not had much time in the spotlight. At only a foot tall at the shoulder, they live primarily in tropical forests where they hunt in packs of up to 10. They communicate with high-pitched cries and “yap like puppies” when they chase prey. They are tenacious and do not lack in moxie – small packs have been known to chase animals 20 times their weight. And while they generally feed on large forest rodents like agoutis and pacas, in some places they subsist mainly on … armadillos. Although they are diurnal, they are very furtive and hard to see; sightings are rarely reported even in areas where they are known to live.

But with the camera traps, a lot more has been revealed. The little pups have now been recorded in suitable habitat almost throughout Panama, which is the only country in Central America where the species is known to occur.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has estimated that bush dog populations have declined by up to 25 percent in the past 12 years – the main threat being habitat loss and encroachment. Fortunately, the new study will be helpful in creating some sound conservation plans for the nearly threatened species, so that they can live on in relative obscurity as they beautifully slink through the forests.

Tags: Animals | Dogs | Panama

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