Determining habitat and biotic factors driving puma (Puma concolor) space use and underlying dynamic processes (colonization and extinction) over 20 years in protected and private areas throughout Belize, Central America

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Virginia Tech


Despite being a top carnivore, there is relatively scant information on pumas (Puma concolor) in the neotropics especially compared to the more well-studied jaguar (Panthera onca). Understanding long-term puma distribution can affect land management decisions such as appropriate size of buffer zones around protected areas since pumas influence, and are influenced by, sympatric carnivore populations, lower trophic levels, and habitat. We used single-species, single-season and multi-season occupancy modeling to explore factors influencing distribution and persistence of pumas across the country of Belize. We used camera trapping data from 7 protected areas over 20 years with 2,198 camera stations covering ~5,000 km2. For both approaches, detection was mostly affected by distance to roads, enhanced vegetation index (EVI), and elevation, with variable directionality depending on site. In single season modeling, Occupancy increased at lower elevations and intermediate EVI in one site, and closer to water sources at another, while in multi-season modeling, intermediate EVI and canopy cover influenced occupancy. Biotic covariates were highly variable across sites and methods, but detection and occupancy were generally positively associated with prey, jaguar and ocelot trap rates, canopy cover, and elevation, while human trap rates negatively affected occupancy at one site. Colonization was positively affected by deer (Odocoileus virginianus and Mazama americana) trap rates while extinction had no supported covariates. Puma occupancy ranged from 0.41-0.96 in single season models and 0.55-0.90 in multi-season models across all site/years. Compared to other single-season studies, Belize generally had higher occupancy, even in areas of selective logging, however there are no other multi-season studies to compare. While sites with heavy human impacts had lowest occupancy, these areas are still used and likely serve as steppingstones between protected areas of higher occupancy. Such areas could be targets for protection to preserve landscape connectivity. Additionally, due to high occupancy and colonization across varying habitat and biotic factors the jaguar is likely an effective umbrella species for puma space use, however more analysis on other species is needed to ensure efficiency for more than just pumas.



Neotropics, Puma concolor, Panthera onca, camera-trapping, umbrella species, single-season occupancy, multi-season occupancy