The Birmingham Zoo is a world leader in conservation study and an ambassador for the preservation of wild animals and their natural environments. Guests can make the connection of wildlife conservation through visiting the Zoo’s animals and participating in the many educational offerings. The Birmingham Zoo continues to further its mission of “Inspiring Passion for the Natural World…through emphasizing Conservation, Education, Scientific Study and Recreation in all aspects of the Birmingham Zoo’s exhibits, programs, facilities and activities.”
In June of 2016, Terra Manasco, the Birmingham Zoo’s Conservation and Special Projects Manager, traveled to southern Belize to participate in an ongoing 3 year research project aiming to document the effects of human disturbance on jaguars.
Ms. Manasco received funding for her research project through the Birmingham Zoo’s Passion into Conservation Action grants program, which allows Zoo employees to participate in conservation field research projects throughout the world.
A significant part of this jaguar research involved setting trail cameras out in remote pristine areas in the Maya Mountains as well as near villages where human disturbance, such as conversion of forest into agricultural fields, is common.
In addition to the trail cameras set for research purposes, she also brought a personal trail camera and set it to video to see if anything interesting was coming through the camp at night. The result was astounding! Watch the movie and find out what she recorded on her trail cam, a mere 3 minutes walk from where she was sleeping at night!
I am a native of Birmingham and have spent most of my life involved with the Birmingham Zoo. As a child, I started out as a zoo camper during the summers, then progressed into teen volunteer and eventually was a keeper during my college years. My time at the Birmingham Zoo inspired a life-long passion for wildlife and conservation, and I am now pursuing that as a career as a research scientist. I’m currently a PhD student at The University of Florida, and my wide array of research interests includes conservation biology, biogeography, spatial ecology, animal behavior, GIS, and remote sensing. I’ve spent several years in southern Belize working at the human-ecological interface of large mammal conservation. My dissertation research takes place in southern Belize investigating the effects that human disturbance has on terrestrial mammal biodiversity and abundance.
For my master’s thesis, I worked on a multi-faceted jaguar conservation project in the Mayan village of Blue Creek, Belize. Through the use of camera traps and track plotting, I investigated jaguar habitat selection and activity patterns over a 25 sq. mile study area centered around the village. Additionally, I interviewed residents of Blue Creek to obtain a better understanding of the human-jaguar interactions that take place, as well as to find out the overall attitude of the residents towards jaguars.
The results of the project were astounding! We were able to successfully document seven individual jaguars from 35 camera trap photographs within the boundaries of a single Maya village, suggesting that jaguars in this region may be more tolerant to human activity than previously thought. Additionally, we observed interesting temporal behavioral patterns from the jaguars in this area. Although jaguars are typically a nocturnal species, the jaguars in Blue Creek were mostly active during the day. To make things even more interesting, we often observed jaguars traversing along trails that villagers use daily, sometimes within minutes of each other! This was the first study to ever document the presence of jaguars in this heavily disturbed human landscape of southern Belize.
For my dissertation, I am investigating potential human disturbance impacts on terrestrial mammal populations in southern Belize. This region is home to part of a described jaguar conservation corridor, connecting populations from Mexico and Guatemala to the southern reaches of Central America. As one of the region’s keystone species, we will particularly focus on anthropegnic factors influencing jaguar range and distribution, which can subsequently affect the greater mammal community.
This project will cover a massive 1,000 square kilometers, including four protected areas: Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Bladen Nature Reserve, Golden Stream Corridor Preserve, and Deep River Forest Reserve. We will use remotely sensed satellite data, soundscape meters, and social surveys of residents and key stakeholders to identify and quantify the gradient of human disturbance that exists across the landscape.
Additionally, camera traps will be deployed throughout the study area to document the presence and abundance of 19 terrestrial mammal species, five of which appear on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list: jaguar Panthera onca, margay Leopardus wiedii, Baird’s tapir Tapirus bairdii, white-lipped peccary Tayassu pecari, and neotropical otter Lontra longicaudis. This will allow us to model potential effects that human activity and disturbance has on these populations, providing us with the information needed to implement better conservation strategies at the local and national level. This landscape is home to several Maya villages, and we will work with these local communities to kick-start community conservation efforts to help protect both Maya and protected forests.
For more information about how the Birmingham Zoo is participating in my research projects, click here for Terra Manasco’s Passion Into Conservation Action page here.