Rare bush dogs spotted in Costa Rica

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Bush dogs, also known as savannah dogs, are small carnivores about the size of house cats
  • Native to South America, the elusive creatures were not known to exist north of Panama, until sporadic sightings were reported in the 1990s
  • A recent study further documented the animals in east-central (Barbilla National Park) and south-eastern (La Amistad International Park) Costa Rica for the first time
  • No one is certain why the dogs haven’t expanded their range farther north from South America, but their rarity makes studying them difficult
  • It’s possible that the dogs may have been in the region all along, but no one knew
  • The International Union for Conservation of Nature states that bush dog populations are decreasing and lists them as a near threatened species

Bush dogs, also known as savannah dogs, are small carnivores about the size of house cats. Native to South America, the elusive creatures were not known to exist north of Panama, until sporadic sightings were reported in the 1990s. In 2017, researchers finally captured the first photos of bush dogs in Costa Rica — after having camera traps in the area for 12 years — and at a record high elevation of 1,511 meters (4,957 feet).1

“We had been putting so much effort into finding something that was incredibly rare that when we finally got the image, it was like Christmas,” Jan Schipper, Ph.D., field conservation research director at the Phoenix Zoo, told National Geographic.2

Given extensive deforestation in the area, the researchers suggested the bush dogs were not likely to live in many regions of Costa Rica, but a recent study published in the journal Tropical Conservation Science documented the animals in east-central (Barbilla National Park) and south-eastern (La Amistad International Park) Costa Rica for the first time.3

Were bush dogs always in Costa Rica?

Researchers at UMass Amherst used camera traps in two areas of Costa Rica from 2012 to 2018, surveying medium and large size mammals. The cameras were placed on trails commonly used by humans as well as on trails thought to be only used by wildlife, and were active 24 hours a day.

“The first record of bush dogs was a video obtained at 10:04 on May 30, 2017 by a camera set on a rarely used human trail at 950 m elevation in continuous primary forest … that showed two adult bush dogs, one of which (a male) marked a tree with urine,” the researchers wrote (you can view the video above). “A second set of three still photos of a pack of three bush dogs was taken on 10 April 2018 at 06:53 on an animal trail at 1,238 m elevation.”4

The findings are significant not only because bush dogs are rarely seen but also because they weren’t known to exist in this remote mountain range. Although native people in the area have traditionally said the dogs have lived in the area in the past, they hadn’t been seen until now, particularly in the northern parts of the Talamanca mountains.5

No one is certain why the dogs haven’t expanded their range farther north from South America, but their rarity makes studying them difficult. It’s possible, too, that the dogs may have been in the region all along, but no one knew. According to the study:6

“Here, we document new, repeated observations of bush dog … that suggest either that their recent or historic range has been underestimated, or that their potential range in Central America may have recently expanded and could now include not only borderlands with Panama but perhaps a substantial portion of the Talamanca mountains up to 120 km to the north-northwest and at elevations up to 2,119 m.”

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Bush dogs may be nocturnal pack hunters

While much remains unknown about bush dogs, they’re thought to be nocturnal and to hunt in social units, feeding on rodents and other prey, including armadillos. They’re stocky animals, fierce for their size, with elongated bodies. They are highly social, living in groups up to 107 and often being spotted in pairs.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature states that bush dog populations are decreasing and lists them as a near threatened species. Though more research is needed, they suggest several serious threats could be causing declines in bush dog numbers, including:

Human encroachment

Loss of intact habitat due to large-scale agriculture, such as soybeans

Conversion of land to pasture

Large-scale plantations of monoculture trees like eucalyptus and pine

Reduction in prey abundance due to illegal poaching and domestic dog predation

Increased risk of contracting lethal diseases from domestic dogs

More camera traps needed to find out more about bush dogs

The UMass Amherst researchers concluded that in order to collect more sightings of bush dogs and establish their actual range, many more camera traps will be needed. They estimated at least 25 cameras set up for 100 nights would be needed to have a 50% chance of catching a glimpse of a bush dog in a 2,000-square-mile area.

Toward this end, they plan to talk with park rangers, wildlife ecologists and local people to enlist their help and find out all they can about bush dogs in the area. "At this point the mountain range looks like good bush dog habitat, but we just don't know if they are getting started there or are already at home,” doctoral student and study author Carolina Saenz-Bolaños said in a news release.8

Indeed, a coordinated effort to leave cameras in more locations, and leave them on for extended periods, may uncover more surprising revelations about these mysterious creatures.

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