July 12, 2019

An Elusive Canid Surprises Researchers

UMass Amherst wildlife ecologists discover the northerly range of the bush dog

While they were surveying for jaguars in the Talamanca Mountains of central Costa Rica, a team of University of Massachusetts Amherst wildlife ecologists came across something they did not expect in their trailcam footage: a low-slung, pack-living wild canid known as a bush dog. Even doctoral student Carolina Sáenz-Bolaños, who has spent thousands of hours tracking wildlife in the forest, was startled to see the canids on camera. “I know most of the things that live here, but when I saw them I said, ‘Wow, what is that—bush dogs here?’”

The research team included Professor Todd K. Fuller, Adjunct Professor Eduardo J. Carillo, and doctoral students Sáenz-Bolaños and Victor H. Montalvo, all from the Department of Environmental Conservation.

The sight came as a surprise because bush dogs had been presumed to live mostly in South America. They range as far south as Paraguay and northeastern Argentina. Although they had been spotted near the Panamanian/Costa Rican border in the past 10 years, there had been no definitive evidence of them ranging far into Central America, especially not into the interior of Costa Rica and at such an elevation. The discovery suggests that the geographic range of the species may have been underestimated.

Bush dogs

Social bush dogs have loud yips, the better to hear each other in dark forests.

Speothos venaticus is elusive wherever it is found because of its lifeways and denning practices. Bush dogs favor well-conserved forest with low human presence. And this wild canid prefers to den in burrows and hollow logs, and have a range that covers vast areas, which is why humans seldom see them.

The indigenous people, the Cabécar, have a name for the bush dog: chichi-lá (chichi means dog, and lá means small). The fact that the Cabécar have a name for the animal and stories about it means that it has had a presence in the region—but when? “People living there now have never seen one,” reports Sáenz-Bolaños.

So, what comes next in bush dog research? For now, the team will continue working the area to encourage coexistence between local people and jaguars, and monitoring their camera traps. That will help them see if the bush dogs remain. Conversations with locals could yield more information about the elusive creatures. “We have to start interviewing more indigenous people,” says Fuller. One takeaway from the discovery for field scientists is a reminder to listen carefully to local stories and lore, for what they can teach about the relationship between native creatures who live—or used to live—in a region.