Tracking jaguars in Belize and coyotes in Virginia by camera and scat


Marcella Kelly with some of the cameras she uses for photographing wildlife. (Logan Wallace)

Marcella Kelly grew up in Hollywood and spent her summers being dragged to various national parks with her parents in a VW camper van, seeing the kind of big mammals — moose, elk and deer — easily encountered there.

That early exposure to the outdoors, she now says, eventually led to career a studying elusive predators such as the cheetah, jaguar and coyote. Kelly, 47, is now an associate professor of wildlife in Virginia Tech’s department of fish and wildlife conservation and is leading two big projects: One, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, is using radio collars, motion-sensitive cameras and DNA analysis of scat (i.e., animal excrement) to track coyotes. The other is using similar technology to study jaguars in a tropical forest preserve in Belize.

She is finding jaguars and coyotes have more in common than you might expect. She recently spoke by telephone with The Post.

How did you get into science?

Marcella Kelly uses a variety of devices, including motion-sensitive cameras, to study jaguars such as this one, photographed in a tropical forest preserve in Belize. (M.J. Kelly/Virginia Tech)

I was like a lot of younger girls: I thought I was going to be a veterinarian. I went to UC Davis for undergrad and was planning on going to vet school, but I didn’t like [the idea of focusing on sick animals]. So I switched majors and became interested in animals that weren’t sick.

How did you become interested in carnivores in particular?

I was always interested in large animals: ungulates [animals with hooves] or carnivores. Cats were always a big hit. I grew up with cats. Then as an undergrad, I answered an ad to work with an adviser matching photos of cheetahs by spot patterns and trying to figure out who was who. I was pretty decent at math and ended up doing lots of population modeling of cheetahs from Serengeti in Tanzania. I did go to Serengeti, but mostly I inherited a huge amount of data from previous researchers’ projects, so it was really a lot of analysis.

Are coyotes in Virginia and jaguars in Belize similar in any way?

Their elusiveness. These coyotes in Appalachia are much more like cats than coyotes in the [West], which tend to live by themselves. Here they live in small family groups, they don’t vocalize as much as Western coyotes and they are not easy to track. It’s hard to see them in the forest.

Radio collars and motion-sensitive cameras are used to track coyotes like this one, photographed in Bath County, Virginia. (M.J. Kelly/Virginia Tech)

What are some of the similarities between the Appalachian forest and the Yucatan jungle?

The weather in the Appalachian summertime is wet and hot, just like the jungle. They both have lots of vines and lianas [woody climbing plants that hang from trees]. In Appalachia, you have mutiflora rose and Virginia creepers. I found the forest pretty similar to the jungle.

What are you looking for in studying the coyotes?

We are answering some basic ecology questions: the home range size and how big a group they live in; what is their mortality rate? The other issue is the impacts on deer populations, if there is one, and how the three [Virginia] carnivores — the bobcat, coyote and bear — interact in this habitat. We will have a little more information coming out next year once we finish our analysis.

Anything surprising in your results so far?

One of the most interesting things is that there is a lot of turnover in the coyote population. They are really hunted a lot. They don’t make it too long after we put radio collars on them.

A lot of people just shoot coyotes. There are only a couple left [of the 19 animals that her study collared]. When we first collared them in 2011, we only had two that made it through the hunting season. We collared six in the first year; four died in fall and one in winter — all from people. So actually only one survived.

What are you doing with the jaguars in Belize?

We are trying to get at basic information on how long they live and their population size. We also are looking at the impact of sustainable logging on large carnivores such as the jaguar, puma and ocelot. We are looking in areas where there has been selective logging, no logging and more-intensive logging. The idea is to assess the impacts on jaguar density.

So how do you find them?

We use a scat dog. We were interested in collecting DNA from the [jaguar] scat, so we hired a dog that gets trained to find it. They are mostly drug- or bomb-sniffing dogs that get retrained on a different smell. These ones smell puma and jaguar poop. It’s very effective. We also use camera traps [that snap photos when animals approach].

What are you finding that could impact conservation?

The Program for Belize [a conservation group that owns the unlogged areas] contacted me and said, “We are claiming we are doing sustainable logging but don’t know if it really is.” That was the practical question: What were the jaguar numbers [on the program’s land]? After five years, we are finding that there isn’t any difference. That is a good thing. There are a lot of people who have given us a hard time [for that finding]. But I’ve changed my feelings about logging over time. I grew up in a time when a lot of clear-cutting was going on. Now that I’ve been [to Belize, I have learned that] it’s a bit of disturbance for a while, but the forest grows back pretty fast. For the jaguars, it really depends how well the areas are protected from poaching. That is the bigger issue than logging.

Niiler is a freelance science writer in Chevy Chase.

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