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Scientists surprised after discovering rare DNA following endangered animal's death: 'Gives us hope'

One thing that all the experts agreed on was the challenges that these wild cats face and the need to protect them.

One thing that all the experts agreed on was the challenges that these wild cats face and the need to protect them.

Photo Credit: iStock

Ocelots, the medium-sized wild cats that look a bit like miniature jaguars, once roamed widely across South Texas. But after population declines caused by habitat loss, hunting, and road deaths, they have been on the federal endangered species list for more than 50 years. Officials have estimated that only around 100 exist in South Texas.

Now, DNA analysis of an ocelot killed by a driver in 2021 has given some indication that there may be more of these rare animals in the wild than previously thought, The Texas Tribune reported.

The DNA of the ocelot, discovered about 50 miles from where ocelots are known to reside in the state, had all seven unique markers associated with Texas populations. It also had two markers found in the Mexican ocelot populations.

Scientists are divided over what this data means, however. Biologist Dr. Mike Tewes said, per the Tribune, that while the DNA markers conclusively showed that the ocelot had not been a captive animal, he "would be extremely cautious of trying to make any other generalizations or summary beyond that," adding that he had seen cases of single ocelots wandering far from their populations in search of food (although in those cases, they usually travel up to around 30 miles).

Others were more optimistic about the possibilities of unknown ocelot populations in the wild. But one thing that these experts agreed on was the challenges that wild ocelots face and the need to protect them.

As we have seen in other recent cases of rare or endangered animals, such as blue whales and giant anteaters, it is not impossible for an animal whose populations have been threatened by human activity to rebound and begin to return to the wild. This can be accomplished by protecting and restoring the habitats that these animals reside in or via more direct rewilding efforts. 

As human-caused pollution, habitat loss, and hunting have caused the deaths of so many animals, it is also the responsibility of humans to make sure that threatened and endangered animals can continue to exist and thrive in the world. 

This contributes to a healthier future for us all. The ocelot, for example, hunts rodents, helping to control the population of a creature that can carry disease. 

"Ocelots are holding their last stand against human development occurring at unprecedented rates in South Texas," Sharon Wilcox, senior Texas representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said in the Tribune article. "These cats need wild spaces and places to roam and this documented sighting of this cat gives us hope that they are holding on in the wildest corners of our region."

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