The mystery of the spotted cat is no more - it was, indeed, a jaguar that was seen in Southern Arizona last month, state game officials said Friday.
After consulting with 10 outside experts and conducting its own analysis, the Game and Fish Department reached a consensus: The photo the department released last week is of a jaguar's tail and a small portion of its hindquarter.
Because of the limited portion of the animal shown in the photo, taken by a hunter, Game and Fish had been trying to determine if it was of a jaguar or an ocelot.
"Analysis of the spot pattern on its tail as well as the animal's size when compared to the surrounding vegetation and to other animals led us to believe the photo showed a jaguar," Game and Fish officials said in a news release.
Nine of the outside experts said it was a jaguar while the 10th was undecided, said Jim Paxon, a Game and Fish spokesman.
The photo was taken in September southeast of Tucson and turned in recently to Game and Fish, which has declined to release more specific details on the animal's location.
This confirmed jaguar sighting comes almost a year after a hunting guide photographed an adult male jaguar in a mountain range in Cochise County southeast of Tucson. It's not known if the jaguar tail photographed is of the same animal, since authorities don't have good enough photos of the 2011 jaguar's tail to make a comparison, said Mark Hart, another Game and Fish spokesman.
Only five jaguars have been photographed in the United States since 1996. All but one of those were seen in Arizona, with one seen in New Mexico.
The jaguar has been listed as an endangered species in the U.S. since 1997. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed critical habitat for the big cat and is working on a recovery plan for it.
Tucson large cat biologist Sergio Avila, one of the 10 experts consulted on the mystery tail, said the jaguars are letting people know by their very presence what good jaguar habitat is and where they want to live. He works for the Tucson conservation group Sky Island Alliance. Southern Arizona's high mountain ranges that rise from the desert floor are known as Sky Islands.
"What this shows is that these animals continue to use the Sky Islands and continue to be present in our region," Avila said. "This really highlights the need for a regional, comprehensive effort on monitoring for jaguars - a project that has the support of wildlife-managing agencies. ... Clearly, people prioritize this. It's worth the investment."
On StarNet: The Critters of Southern Arizona database at azstarnet.com/critters can help you identify that visitor in your back yard.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-7746.