Female Jaguars Use Hide and Flirt Tactics to Protect Their Cubs

They distract predatory males by drawing their sexual attention.

Jaguar, panthera onca, Mother with Cub
slowmotiongli / Getty Images

With many big cats, adult males will attack and kill cubs. In order to protect their babies from those predators, female jaguars use various techniques—including flirtation and hiding—a new study finds. Those are similar methods that lionesses use to keep their cubs safe from adult males.

The inspiration for the study started with a phone call, Diana C. Stasiukynas, lead author and conservation scientist at Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, tells Treehugger.

“In February 2020 one of the co-authors called me with sad news: one of the females he photographed a few days ago with her cub was spotted that day mating with an adult male and the cub was nowhere to be seen. At that moment we feared for the worst: the cub was dead,” Stasiukynas says.

“A few days later I received a picture of that same female playing with the little cub in the savannah. Confused and excited, I started looking for an explanation.”

She reviewed published literature but found very little information about the social and reproductive behavior of jaguars with a few publications about infanticide and notes on behavior from animals in captivity.

“Yet there was an interesting amount of studies about other big cat species developing a series of counterstrategies towards infanticide. Finding similarities with other species' behavior, I decided to discuss these observations with other colleagues, who, to my surprise, told me they have documented similar behaviors on female jaguars in Brazil,” she says. 

“From there, we decided to gather as much information on similar encounters as we could to better understand what female jaguars were trying to tell us.”  

Tracking a Secret Big Cat

The largest cat in the Americas, the jaguar (Panthera onca) is secretive and elusive, and little is known about its reproductive and parenting behavior in the wild. Researchers use camera traps to try to capture images and videos of their secretive behaviors.

“Until a few years ago, jaguar sightings were rare and occasional. Today, thanks to conservation efforts from both scientists and local communities in Brazil and Colombia, jaguars are less shy, enabling more regular encounters that provide new and exciting information,” Stasiukynas says.

Jaguar sightings are common in two private reserves focused on cattle ranching and wildlife tourism: Porto Jofre in Brazil and La Aurora in Colombia. These sightings helped researchers gather data for their study.

“As sightings by locals, tourists, and researchers became more regular, we started taking notes and documenting these cats’ behaviors in the wild,” Stasiukynas says.

“Gathering information from both camera traps and direct sightings, we were able to reconstruct common behaviors amongst female jaguars that were showing signs of lactation during courtship and mating with males, or that were seen with their cubs before and after courtship took place.” 

Researchers found that female jaguars showed two specific behaviors to protect their young from adult males: hide and flirt. First, they hid their cubs in a safe place away from predators. Then, when the cubs were safe, females purposefully attracted male attention by using sexual strategies.

“To do this, females will induce a state of pseudo-estrus where they will engage males into coursing and/or copulating with them, creating important temporal pair-bonds that may guarantee the safety of their cubs, thereby reducing infanticide through the construction of an uncertain paternity status," Stasiukynas says.

Using Promiscuity as a Strategy

Other animals have tactics they use to protect their young. Lions use similar techniques to keep their offspring safe from adult males.

“Mating with several males to create an uncertain paternity status and protect their young is a common behavior across several species,” Stasiukynas says. “In big cats, promiscuity used as a counterstrategy towards infanticide has been reported in lions, leopards, and pumas.”

Researchers say the findings are important because they offer an understanding of these little-known protective behaviors by these elusive animals.

“These new direct records provide new insights into jaguars' secretive lives that call for further investigation to improve our understanding of the socio-spatial ecology of a solitary species like the jaguar,” Stasiukynas says.

“This evolutionary strategy deployed by females seems effective across forested savannas with high visibility for cubs and limited denning sites, like the Llanos or the Pantanal in South America. Also, this publication is a reflection of the valuable information that cooperative conservation efforts and tourism may provide to better understand our biodiversity.”

Read More:

View Article Sources
  1. Stasiukynas, D.C., Boron, V., Hoogesteijn, R. et al. "Hide and flirt: observed behavior of female jaguars (Panthera onca) to protect their young cubs from adult males." acta ethol, 2021. doi:10.1007/s10211-021-00384-9

  2. Diana C. Stasiukynas, lead author and conservation scientist at Panthera

  3. Animal Diversity Web, "Panthera onca."

  4. Wolff, J.O., Macdonald, D.W. "Promiscuous females protect their offspring." Trends in Ecology and Evolution, vol. 19, no. 3, 2004, pp. 127-34. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2003.12.009

  5. Stotra Chakrabarti, Yadvendradev V Jhala, "Battle of the sexes: a multi-male mating strategy helps lionesses win the gender war of fitness." Behavioral Ecology, vol. 30, no. 4, 2019, pp. 1050–1061. doi:10.1093/beheco/arz048

  6. Logan K. A. Sweanor L. L. "Desert Puma: Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation of an Enduring Carnivore," Journal of Mammalogy, vol. 83, no. 3, 2002, pp. 913–915, doi:10.1644/1545-1542(2002)083<0913:>2.0.CO;2