Southern Arizonians have one more thing to celebrate this Earth Day: An image retrieved from a remote camera last week revealed the state’s first verifiable record of a live ocelot in the wild.
Ocelots’ reputed range extends south from Arizona all the way to Argentina. Until now, however, the only tangible records of living ocelots in the United States were from Texas. Evidence of the cat’s presence in Arizona, on the other hand, was from dead specimens, such as animals caught in traps. The recent photograph, captured in November 2009, suggests that Arizona still provides suitable habitat for the cat, which is endangered throughout its range. “That an ocelot is here in Arizona tells us that the habitat is healthy, and the connection between healthy landscapes is still a possibility for ocelots and other species,” said Jessica Lamberton, a wildlife biologist with the Sky Island Alliance, which operates the remote camera that took the shot, in a press release.
The ocelot was photographed in Cochise County, located in southeastern Arizona and part of a 70,000 square mile area called the Sky Islands, which also includes portions of New Mexico and Mexico. Here, four seemingly disparate biological regions converge, from the temperate climes of the Rocky Mountains, to the tropics of the Sierra Madres, to the desert environments of Mexico's Chihuahua and Sonora states. The result is a rare blending of habitats—forested, mountainous "islands" separated by expanses of desert and grasslands—and species, many of which are native to the area and found nowhere else. Black bears rub shoulders with jaguar, and more than half of North America’s bird species can be found here, Lamberton said in a recent interview. Many of the species that call the Sky Islands home are also endangered, like the ocelot.
Diminutive cats—they each weigh about 35 pounds—ocelots are distinguishable by their long tails and dark markings that extend in parallel lines from the top of their forehead, down their neck, and along their shoulder blades. Like jaguar, ocelots' tan-brown fur is spotted with rosettes—dark splotches with a light center. The new photograph was taken at night and is slightly blurry, so it’s hard to tell if the animal is male or female. It’s also difficult to determine the subspecies of ocelot (there are several). But the image is enough to give southern Arizona bragging rights: The state can now say that it hosts the four wild cat species that are also known to exist in the Sky Islands as a whole (the others are jaguar, mountain lions, and bobcats.) The photo “is sort of a [testament] to how diverse and how incredible southern Arizona is,” said Lamberton.
Helping to protect the ocelot will require conserving the migration corridors it uses. The Cochise County remote camera was set up as part of Witness for Wildlife, a volunteer program initiated by Patagonia and Freedom to Roam, a nonprofit coalition of various organizations (including the Sky Island Alliance) and businesses charged with protecting those natural thruways. “This is what our program is all about," said Dan Shepherd, Witness for Wildlife's director, in a press release, "By engaging conservation professionals and citizen naturalists, together we can provide field data, like these ocelot images, that are critical to helping protect and reconnect wild landscapes, giving wildlife and people the freedom to roam.”