FCF Awards Grants for Geoffroy's Cat ConservationFCF awarded a $1,432 grant in May, 2009, and an additional grant of $1,500 in May, 2011 to Javier A. Pereira for research and conservation of Geoffroy’s Cat in Argentina
Geoffroy´s cat is a small felid distributed from southern Bolivia and Brazil throughout southern Patagonia in Argentina and Chile. Because the distribution of this species covers almost the entire Argentine territory and just a few parts of other countries, research efforts on this species in Argentina may greatly contribute to its global conservation. Due to the lack of knowledge and concerns for the impact of human-related habitat changes upon its populations, Geoffroy´s cat was upgraded to IUCN’s “Near threatened” category in 2002. This species was heavily hunted for the international fur trade until the middle of the 80s (at least 350.000 skins were exported only from Argentina between 1976 and 1978). At present, habitat loss and poaching (mainly for control of predation on domestic poultry) are probably the main threats to its survival.
Little previous effort has been made to study Geoffroy’s cat in the wild, and most of these studies were focused on its diet or spatial ecology in protected areas. As a result, there is almost no information on its demography, health, genetics, or its ecological flexibility. Also, should be noted that the potential of protected areas as habitat for wildlife is usually limited by their size. Because conservation of wild cats must occur also in human-dominated landscapes, information in these landscapes is of a critical nature.
Research began in 1999, with the purpose of gathering vital information about the natural history and conservation status of Geoffroy’s cats. For this reason, I selected the Lihué Calel National Park and neighboring cattle ranches (37°57´S and 65°33´W), located in the endemic semi-arid biome of the “Monte”, as my study area.
Since the beginning of this experience, several biologists, veterinarians from the Field Veterinary Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society (leaded by Marcela Uhart), park rangers, sociologists, and students and volunteers with different research interests have participated in the project.
In the past decade we have captured 40 Geoffroy´s cats using box traps. While under anesthesia, cats’ weight, sex, age and standard body measurements were recorded, and a complete physical exam was practiced. Biological samples, including blood, feces, ectoparasites, and hair were collected from all the animals. As a result of this work, a detailed protocol of capture and anesthesia has been developed for the species. Thirty five of these cats were radio-collared and monitored by radio-telemetry, and information about their home range sizes, habitat preferences, activity, and movements was collected. This work produced thrilling new discoveries. To highlight, several Geoffroy’s cats have moved away from the study area during periods of low prey densities, and they were found by conducting radio-telemetry from the air more than 100 km from our study area. These cats passed through natural fields, cattle ranches, and coops, indicating that they can disperse long distances. On the other hand, this information has been useful to establish Geoffroy’s cat population dynamics, driving some hypotheses (and their related conservation implications) about the regional population structure of this species and the temporal fluctuations that they face in this arid environment. Now, we want to go forward and investigate the effects of this dispersal ability on the gene flow of this species, in order to count with brand new information to detect conservation needs.
In order to study the diet and prey preferences of this species, we have conducted seasonal analysis of feces along a three years period. We found that small rodents were the most frequent prey item, whereas birds and reptiles were used as well but much less frequently. We also concluded that Geoffroy´s cats have an opportunist behavior, consuming almost all prey species according to their availability in the field. Also in cattle ranches, Geoffroy´s cats consume mainly rodents, but their trophic niche become wider.
As part of a monitoring program for Geoffroy´s cat in places with different protection level, several camera trapping surveys have been conducted since 2006. Different individuals of this species can be easily identified by their unique spot patterns. Results showed a high density of this wild cat in the protected area (80 – 140 individuals / 100 km2), but values dropped near 50% in cattle ranches. A high proportion of transients seem to be common in the protected population.
We have located litters by radio-tracking females or by searching known sites where females have bred previously. In this way, we have recorded seasonality of births, mean litter size, and cub survival. An average of 1.8 cubs per litter was recorded during summer or spring, and no reproductive activity was recorded during the rest of the year. The severe environmental conditions of this arid zone probably preclude a greater litter size, common in other areas of the distribution of this wild cat. Radio telemetry has also been helpful in determining survival of adult Geoffroy’s cats and their main mortality causes. Deaths due to starvation, high parasite loads or predation by puma were common findings during drought periods, whereas road accidents and illegal hunting where frequent on cattle ranches.
Threats to the health of wildlife from anthropogenic influences are often associated with increased contact that wildlife has with domestic animals and livestock. In order to identify potentially limiting factors that may negatively affect Geoffroy´s cat population growth, a preliminary health assessment has been carried out in the study area. Some of the animals tested positive for Feline calicivirus, Toxoplasmosis, Canine distemper, and Infectious feline peritonitis. This implies that Geoffroy’s cats from our study populations are exposed to various pathogens common to domestic felids and canids. These findings support the need to continue monitoring the health of wild and domestic populations in order to understand the role of diseases in population dynamics and their significance for the conservation of wild felids.
As a result of necropsies practiced on dead cats and the analysis of fresh feces, new species of helminthes were found for the first time in Geoffroy’s cats and other helminthes have been reported for the first time in South America as well. On the other hand, infections with other helminthes might be the result of interactions with domestic cats. These findings have activated a more profound study of parasitic diseases in this wild cat, which is currently being carried out by a member of our team (Pablo Beldoménico).
On the other hand, another member of our team (Julio Rojo) is studying the variation of Geoffroy´s cat along its distribution range with molecular genetic techniques, based on DNA extracted from museum and live animals. Results of this study and those obtained by the way of skull morphology (also performed by Julio) could be analyzed together to accurately establish different evolution units and to propose conservation priorities for the species based on a full knowledge of the species variation. Current Geoffroy´s cat taxonomy has been described more than 25 years ago, based on few individuals and skull characters. We are including in our analysis new methods (such as molecular genetics and geometric morphometry) and a lot of new samples to assess if a new arrangement of subspecies is supported.
Finally, we are continuously interviewing the local people living in cattle ranches as the easiest and cost effective way to assess the perception and attitudes of local inhabitants toward carnivores. In this manner, management models or conservation strategies based on concrete ecological information can be outlined in order to make the preservation of wild cats’ possible within the framework of regional and social economic development. We believe that the only way to conserve these magnificent cats in the wild is creating awareness in local people about the need to harmonize their production with the conservation of wildlife in their lands.