Biologist Finds Incredibly Rare Bush Dogs in an Unexpected Place

Fagjun | Published 2017-12-06 08:11

Jan Schipper wasn’t expecting to see extremely elusive bush dogs in images caught by his camera traps. And even if he did, he wouldn’t have expected to come across them in Costa Rica’s Talamanca Mountains.

Camera traps snap a photo of the elusive bush dog. [Photo by José F. González-Maya, Diego A. Gómez-Hoyos, and Jan Schipper]



The bush dog is a canid carnivore about the size of a house cat. The dogs occupy quite an extensive territory, in forests stretching from Brazil to Panama. However, sightings of the animal are rare, and almost unheard of in the wilds of anywhere north of Panama. There has been talk of bush dog sightings in Costa Rica, but all of these accounts have been unconfirmed.


That’s why when biologist Jan Schipper set up his camera traps in the Talamanca Mountains in Costa Rica, he was expecting and hoping to capture images of a jaguar, not the elusive canid. However, when he reviewed to photos taken by the cameras, he was shocked to see not a jaguar, but a brown, fuzzy, cat-sized carnivore.

Shy Canids

A bush dog living in captivity [Photo by Twycross Zoo]



The bush dogs were at 4,900 feet above sea level, which is the highest point that they’ve ever been found. Their location was certainly a surprise, but the photos may be able to tell us more about this animal.


Bush dogs, though small, are capable of bringing down prey larger than they are. Though they may at times hunt alone, a pack can bring down much bigger animals, like tapirs. “They weigh about 10 pounds, but they have the home range of a puma. These tiny guys have the same ecological niche as these big carnivores,” says bush dog expert Karen DeMatteo. These animals may be small, but they have surprisingly large home territories. One bush dog family, for example, has a home territory as big as 30 square miles, an expanse that doesn’t even overlap with the territories of other families.


The canids are extremely shy when it comes to humans, and they spend much of their day in their burrows. However, among themselves, they are extremely social and gregarious animals. Members of the same pack keep in frequent contact with each other by whining, possibly because hunting in the undergrowth renders them invisible to each other.


Schipper says that according to archaeological evidence, bush dogs aren’t native to Costa Rica. It’s possible that the individuals he caught on his cameras are more recent migrants to the Talamanca Mountains.

The Future of Bush Dogs

Programs for breeding bush dogs in captivity are going well [Photo by Twycross Zoo]



However, their new habitat may not be the best place for them. The Talamanca Mountains are surrounded by agricultural fields. While this may not make much of a negative impact on the bush dogs, it may impact the dogs’ prey, like rodents and armadillos. If their prey are impacted by undesirable changes, bush dogs may recede even deeper into the shadows of the South American forests.


Perhaps, however, the bush dogs are a little more fortunate than other elusive species. Bush dogs seem to be elusive because they stay away from humans, not because their population numbers are low. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as near threatened, which isn’t really good but not too bad either.


Still, Schipper is optimistic, and he may have cause to be. He thinks it may be good that there are bush dogs in Costa Rica. “The fact that they’re there," Schipper says, "means we’re doing something right." There are also efforts to breed bush dogs in captivity, so the species may be safe for now, and we may soon learn more about them.

Hey! Where are you going?? Subscribe!

Get weekly science updates in your inbox!