Jaguars and Pumas in Southern Mexico are increasingly preying on endangered howler and spider monkeys, a recently published study has found.
The researchers believe primates are forming a larger part of big cats’ diets due to the populations of their typical prey – such as deer, rodents, and armadillos - declining as a result of human impacts to the environment and biodiversity.
The findings, published in the journal Biotropica, highlight the urgent need to partner with local communities and improve conservation work to prevent the large cats and primates from becoming extinct in the region.
As part of a larger conservation project, an international research team studied animal populations and behaviours in a 610km2 area of Uxpanapa Valley, southern Mexico.
For this study, the team analysed scat from large cats which they found with the aid of a detection dog. By extracting DNA from the scat they were able to determine which species of feline it came from, and what the predators had recently consumed.
Analysis of hair samples found in the scat samples showed that the primates represented around half of the biomass consumed by the predators. By contrast, brocket deer and the rodent lowland paca, which would be considered amongst the typical prey species, made up less than 13% combined.
“We think in the Uxpanapa Valley, human pressures seem to be pushing jaguar and puma to rely on alternative prey compared to more intact ecosystems ” said Dr Aralisa Shedden, a Post Doctoral Researcher at Bournemouth University and lead author on the study.
“Primates are not considered a part of jaguar, puma or other wild cats’ typical diet. The fact that there was a large incidence of primates in the scat made us wonder what was going on. Previous studies have found that when the main prey for a carnivore changes, it means the populations of species they usually prey on for food are not available,” she added.
Dr Shedden and the team identified a link between the frequency of scat samples containing primate hair and the environments they were found in.
“Howler and spider monkey remains were more likely to be found in scats close to where humans were living, where tall mature forests have been replaced by smaller vegetation” explained Dr Shedden. “Smaller trees make it easier for a jaguar or puma to get to the monkeys. The absence of connected mature forests may also mean the primates need to travel along the ground to get from one forest patch to the other, which makes them easy targets for predators,” she continued.
Dr Shedden and the team conclude that to prevent the continued trend, it is vital for conservation efforts to be more resourced and to partner more with local communities who are key groups for effective conservation. Education and development programmes are needed to reduce poverty so that low-income families do not feel the need to hunt animals in order to eat, or cut down trees for wood.