An ocelot at night

An ocelot.

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Ocelot bathrooms are a meeting place for several Central American mammals

You probably don’t think of someone else’s bathroom as a big social scene, but for several Costa Rican rainforest animals, an ocelot’s latrine is the place to be. That’s the finding of a new study, which reveals that armadillos, opossums, and other mammals stop by tree roots that the wild cats have urinated or defecated on to leave their own mark, pick up a scent, or even eat. These latrines, the researchers say, create biodiversity “hotspots” that provide opportunities for scientists to observe the behavior of elusive jungle mammals.

Many animals use smells to mark territories or convey information about their mating status. Dogs and weasels also use latrines—common areas where they urinate, defecate, or smear pungent secretions—to communicate with one another. But researchers don’t have as good a sense of how cat species use olfactory “message boards,” because they are solitary, elusive, and cover large ranges. Felines don’t often come across one another, so they use latrines to mark their territory, stopping by periodically to investigate the presence of other cats in the area and to leave their own mark.

Ocelots, which are around the size of a bobcat and have intricately dappled coats, are primarily solitary and tend to use scent marking to defend their home turf. For conservationists, ocelot latrines are rare gems: “It’s like you found a $100 bill,” says Juan Carlos Cruz Díaz, the feline program coordinator for Osa Conservation in Puerto Jiménez, Costa Rica, who was not involved in the study.

To sleuth for these sites in the jungle, Travis King, a graduate student at Washington State University in Pullman, worked with ecologists from Panthera, a research organization dedicated to large cat conservation. A keen-nosed dog named Google helped the team find four ocelot latrines in the low mountains of eastern Costa Rica. The group set up several motion-activated cameras at each location, then tracked animal visitors and documented their behavior from June to December, 2014. During those 6 months, 16 ocelots paid 63 visits to the latrines, the group will report in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Mammalogy.

Males were much more likely to visit the latrines after a female stopped by, the team found. Several females showed visible signs of mating readiness. Ocelots were spotted sniffing, marking, and occasionally rubbing their faces against the ground or the latrine. By examining the sequences of visits, researchers confirmed that the latrines—in addition to marking territory—serve as olfactory “come-hither” messages to facilitate meet-ups for these cryptic felines.

But ocelots weren’t the only visitors. The cameras captured 13 other species, including coati, tayras, armadillos, and opossums, stopping by the latrines a total of 305 times. Tayras, an elusive member of the weasel family, visited even more often than ocelots. These playful animals—almost as curious as cats, says Cruz Díaz—spent a disproportionate amount of time marking and rubbing their bodies at the latrines. Other mammal species, like opossums and rodents, may have picked up eau de ocelot to ward off potential predators, King speculates, though it’s unclear whether other animals are communicating with one another or just investigating what predators are in the neighborhood.

“It’s showing that there’s an importance beyond just ocelots to almost the entire carnivore community,” says Maximilian Allen, a postdoctoral scholar and large cat researcher at University of Wisconsin at Madison who was not involved in the study, “That’s the area of scent marking that’s really not understood.” He has also noticed other species nosing around puma latrines, he says. “I’ve been curious whether there is some kind of top-down process where the pumas are communicating, and all the other carnivores are paying attention to that … and it seems like the same thing is happening with ocelots.” An important next step will be to determine what messages other mammals might be conveying through their visits to ocelot latrines, he says.

The observations also reinforce how valuable latrines are for monitoring other animals in the tropical forests, King says. Knowing where cryptic species congregate gives conservationists a chance to watch these animals over time, learn more about them, and monitor for the impacts of human development. For example, he says, Panthera has been video tracking Costa Rican wildlife to assess how a hydroelectric dam project impacts nearby animal presence and activity, and latrines can provide a strategic monitoring location.