If it walks like a dog and yaps like a dog, it must be a dog — even if it doesn’t particularly look like a dog.
Bush dogs are short-legged and stubby, standing about a foot tall at the shoulder, and look more like a cross between a weasel and a bear cub than your typical dog. These rare canid species have made their home in many areas of South America for years — but now they seem to like the forests of Panama, too.
Cameras set up by scientists working with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City have caught these elusive animals on film — confirming their presence in the country. The photos were published as part of an ongoing study that ran in Canid Biology & Conservation.
“Our group of biologists from Yaguará Panama and collaborators are working on an article about big mammals using camera trapping data that spans Panama from the Costa Rican border to the Colombian border,” research associate Ricardo Moreno told Smithsonian Science News. “The bush dog is one of the rarest species that we photograph.”
Currently, Moreno said, Panama is the only Central American country where the species is found. But with unconfirmed sightings in Costa Rica near the Panamanian border, “We think that it will soon cross the border into Costa Rica,” he added.
Found primarily in tropical forests, bush dogs reportedly hunt in packs and are fond of large forest rodents. When chasing their prey, researchers have found bush dogs give high-pitched whines to maintain contact and yap like puppies. The fierce mammals also have been seen chasing an animal almost 20 times their weight, and in Brazil, it is not uncommon for them to eat armadillos.
Even though they are known to be active during the daytime, they aren’t often seen and are rarely reported. Of the roughly 32,000 camera-days (the number of cameras multiplied by the number of days they were in operation), the cameras set up by the scientists only captured photos of bush dogs on 11 occasions, according to Smithsonian Science News.
The new study, of which Moreno is a co-author, will assist in conservation planning for these mysterious creatures. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reportedly has estimated that bush dog populations have declined by up to 25 percent over the past 12 years and has classified them as “near-threatened.” Researchers are finding the main threats to their extension are habitat loss and encroachment.