We’re all used to stories of dogs chasing cats, but now dogs are sniffing out cats. Big cats, that is.

Scat-sniffing research dogs are helping scientists to get on the trail of endangered carnivores like jaguars, pumas, and bush dogs in the forests of northeastern Argentina.

Forests in the region have become increasingly fragmented due to clear-cutting in order to create pastureland and farmland, and one team of researchers has found a possible way to mitigate the impact of human encroachment on these animals’ habitats. They detailed their findings in the August 25 issue of the online journal PLOS ONE.

“The study details a least-cost plan for the development of a multispecies biological corridor that connects protected areas in the Upper Parana Atlantic Forest Region of Misiones, Argentina,” said research scientists and study co-author Karen DeMatteo.

Recent studies have argued that establishing small, protected reserves for endangered carnivores is not enough to ensure those species’ long-term survival. Species need to move across their full range and mate with other, widely scattered populations of their species in order to maintain genetic diversity.

DeMatteo’s team used dogs trained to detect the scat of five specific species—jaguars, pumas, ocelots, oncillas, and bush dogs—to find evidence of the carnivores’ presence in public and private wildlife reserves, privately owned plantations, farms, and pastures, and along roads and pathways.

They analyzed the DNA of more than 900 scat samples to develop detailed maps of the species that frequent those habitats and how their movements are influenced by habitat quality, topography, and human disturbances.

According to DeMatteo’s study, which analyzed the habitat needs of these endangered carnivores, shows that an optimal footprint for habitat corridors should take into account the overlapping needs of many other species as well.

Some species don’t seem to mind the presence of humans, but each one has its own requirements for suitable habitat.

“Despite variation in body size, the jaguar, puma, ocelot, oncilla, and bush dog overlap in their ecological requirements,” the study reported. “However, this is not without variation in the degree of habitat flexibility. Puma, oncilla, and bush dog have comparatively higher levels of modified habitats in their potential distributions compared to the jaguar and ocelot.”

The researchers combined data on all five of these species to develop a model that provides maximum habitat connectivity while minimizing the cost of establishing the wildlife corridors.

“This plan is exciting not only for the future of the local biodiversity, but also because it involved a lot of collaboration from the local government and universities to make it happen,” said DeMatteo.

DeMatteo added that the findings of their research show the benefit of using multiple species versus a single species to develop wildlife corridors. Some animals, such as the jaguar, have highly restricted habitats, but if the corridors were developed with only jaguars in mind, the potential distributions of the other four carnivores would be decreased by as much as 30 percent.

“The approach in making a corridor a reality is multi-pronged and involves a strong investment from the local community, especially when developing corridors that use existing protected areas as ‘stepping stones,’ as private land will inevitably be involved to varying degrees in and around the corridor,” the study concludes.

We hope that by incorporating all the stakeholders in the creation of these wildlife corridors, the researchers have shown that public-private partnerships can be a huge benefit when saving these endangered carnivores, and other species as well.