Campus: Humboldt State University -- October 20, 2004

Emil's Shots Capture Jaguar Spots

When Emil McCain saw the black spots across the middle of his photographs, he was thrilled - because they blanketed the coats of elusive jaguars.

The four photographs were literally shots in the dark, taken in the middle of the night by remote cameras stationed in the Arizona desert near the Mexican border. Their shutters and flashes were triggered by heat-in-motion sensors, similar to an automatic light switch. McCain, meanwhile, was back at Humboldt State University, where he is a wildlife graduate student.

McCain had set the cameras up earlier this year ostensibly to support his master's thesis on mountain lion activity in the area. But his focus was really on jaguars, a much larger, more elusive and, in the Southwest, almost exclusively nocturnal cat. Particularly, he sought evidence they may be returning to the region, an area from which they had long been extirpated.

The four photos each show a jaguar heading away from the lens. From a close comparison of the patterns of spots, two significant pictures emerge, McCain said. One of his photos captured the same jaguar that had been photographed by Arizona houndsman Jack Childs in 2001, indicating that the cat is likely a resident of the area rather than just passing through from Northern Mexico as had been thought. The other photos indicate at least one other jaguar, and possibly two, in the area. This could indicate a population, albeit a small one, resides there.

According to McCain's major advisor, HSU wildlife Professor T. Luke George, "Those two points are really huge."

Prior to McCain's images, only four photos of jaguars in the wild, all shot in the last 10 years, had been taken in the United States since the large predators were extirpated from the country in the mid-1900s, George said. In 1996, two were spotted by eyewitnesses, one by a hunter in New Mexico and one by Childs in Arizona, according to Arizona's Game and Fish Department.

Bill Van Pelt, head of AGF's Nongame Program, said, "The new pictures mark a milestone."

While McCain's cameras, chained to trees and safely housed in waterproof boxes, snapped their shots of spots, he was taking classes a thousand miles away. But when he saw the images he knew immediately they were jaguars. Indeed, while in the field in June, he spotted definitive tracks. He had also seen them first-hand in the jungles of Costa Rica and in the rugged mountains of Mexico.

Growing up as an only child on a Colorado ranch that bordered wilderness, McCain spent his childhood hiking and tracking, and he figures he saw his first mountain lion when he was 10 years old. His academic advisor George calls him "one of those people born 150 years too late."

"Emil has skills at tracking that few people in the world have," said George. "It's an intuition that helped him get those photos; they're not a fluke. He pushed the (proverbial) boundary to get into inaccessible areas and had a good sense of how jaguars travel."

The main reason McCain's master's thesis focuses on mountain lions is because, as George put it, "You're not going to get enough data on jaguars in that area." But, with film and batteries provided by Arizona Game and Fish, McCain placed his 20 cameras with jaguars pretty much in mind, and in his heart.

To McCain, the sight of tracks inspires awe, let alone -- and you'd better -- the sight of an actual jaguar.

"There's a sense of not being the top dog anymore when you know there's a jaguar around,' he said. "They're a very powerful animal and their presence (even if unseen) is overwhelming."

To support additional jaguar studies, George is establishing a fund through the HSU Foundation. For details or to contribute, contact George at (707) 826-3430 or

Photos are available for downloading at

T. Luke George, chair, Department of Wildlife, Humboldt State University, (707) 826-3430,

Emil McCain, Humboldt State University wildlife graduate student
Home: (707) 822-1702; Cell: (719) 250-0723;

Media Contact: Sean Kearns, Public Affairs, (707) 826-5151,

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