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The Secret Lives of Wild
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Ocelot & Agouti
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The Secret Lives of Wild Animals — Text-only | Flash Special Report
Ocelot and Agouti

Not long ago, the jaguar reigned king of the Central American jungles. Jaguars are now extinct from more than half of their historic range and scientists are using new devices to track the activities of other animals to learn if loss of the dominant predator has upset the natural order. Or, has a new beast assumed the throne? Researchers are particularly interested in the predator-prey relationship between the leopard-like ocelot and a 6-pound rodent called agouti—a seed-burying animal that may hold the key to the forests’ future.

Using what they term a ’macroscope’—an automated radio telemetry system that continuously monitors vast movements of multiple animal species—researchers are following the diabolical dance between ocelot and agouti step-by-step. They are now convinced the smaller cats have successfully filled the jaguar’s role in keeping the rodent population in check.

But as in all ecosystems, interrelationships among the animals and plants ripple throughout the landscape. Scientists now realize the animals’ new relationship affects the entire forest’s ecology, in particular, the future of its trees. The agouti it turns out, plays a major role in regulating new tree growth by dispersing its own major food source—the spiny palm tree seed.

Scientists have adorned the seeds with motion sensors to monitor their whereabouts as agoutis gather the seeds and store them in caches throughout the forest. As researchers learn more about the animal’s seed-foraging habits, they will be better able to assess the proper balance between ocelots and agoutis, not just to keep the forest from being overrun by the rodents, but to keep the ecosystem from losing the roof over its head.

Ocelot: A young female ocelot on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, returns to retrieve a kill. Night sightings of ocelots are rare. Agouti: The agouti, a tropical rodent, feeds on spiny palm fruit. Researchers are using a new tracking system to track both the agouti and seeds it buries to learn how they affect the forest ecology.
Credit: Christian Ziegler, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute