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Do cats flirt?

Month of the Jaguar: Hide and Flirt

Jaguar pair

Mes del Jaguar, the Month of the Jaguar, is coming to a close. In this second blog highlighting this important month, Panthera Researcher Diana Stasiukynas guides us through recent research discussing “hide and flirt” tactics that female jaguars employ in order to increase the likelihood of their cubs’ survival.

How do female jaguars help save their cubs? Mes del Jaguar, the Month of the Jaguar, is a time to celebrate jaguars in the culture and art of the Americas. And by sharing the latest research on jaguars, we can ensure this vibrant culture lives on. When we better understand jaguars, we can build conservation efforts to help the species survive and thrive.

So, what does this have to do with female jaguars and their cubs? In Colombia and Brazil, Panthera scientists and partners studied the behaviors of female jaguar courtship rituals when the female jaguars had offspring. Thanks to successful and safe ecotourism in the Northern Brazilian Pantanal and Colombian Llanos, we found something groundbreaking that had previously only been observed in pumas, lions and leopards, but never in jaguars.

Jaguar pair

Female jaguars use “hide and flirt” tactics to protect their cubs. This means that female jaguar “hide” their offspring away when a male jaguar approaches and “flirts” with him in order to distract him and prevent him from killing her young. Additionally, mating with multiple males establishes an uncertain paternity status, further protecting their young.

Our study took place from July 2019 to August 2020. Using camera trap recordings and direct sightings, we constructed common behaviors amongst female jaguars that were showing signs of lactation during mating. We found that females would induce a state of pseudo-estrus after hiding their cubs, enticing male jaguars to mate in order to create the aforementioned uncertain paternity status.

In one case, a female jaguar was observed playing and hunting with her cub for several days. However, in the next several days, the same female was found courting a male jaguar; only adult footprints were found. Two weeks later, the female and her cub were once again recorded alone, suggesting “hide and flirt” tactics in action.

Jaguar pair

With this new knowledge, we have a better understanding of jaguar behavior that can help inform conservation efforts and sustainable ecotourism. This important insight into the secretive lives of jaguars also calls for increased research. Without direct sightings of jaguars in the Pantanal and Llanos, we would not have been able to make our conclusions about “hide and flirt” tactics. It is thanks to ecotourism that jaguars have become bolder and safely habituated to the presence of humans.

The Month of the Jaguar is a time for scientific achievement and advancement in the study of wild cats. And by studying jaguars and other wild cats, we can ensure the Felidae family lives on. To observe jaguar behaviors that will spawn new jaguar culture, we must engage in activities that will protect jaguars. From Mexico to Argentina, Costa Rica to Brazil, Honduras to Colombia and even beyond jaguar range, together we can draw attention to the cause of wild cat conservation year-round.

Read our first blog in this series about jaguar culture.

How animals flirt with each other

How do animals choose their partners? The answer is simple: it’s all about quality. While humans tend to wear clothes that happen to be in fashion, animals do nothing without a reason. Behind beautiful plumage or a deafening roar is only one message: I am in great shape. The evolutionary courtship displays of animals are explained by Leiden behavioural biologist Carel ten Cate.


First, the appearance. Why do birds have such bright colours? ‘Only animals that are in excellent health can produce such intense colours. At the same time, they are saying something else with those bright colours. Obviously, such colourful plumage makes them stand out in nature, and that makes them vulnerable. By sporting such bright colours, the animal is saying, “Look at me! I’m so strong that I can afford an extravagant appearance.”’


Let’s move on to muscles. To what extent does strength play a role in the choice of a partner? ‘A very great extent. Think about the belling of red deer in the September mating season. This sound gives information about how large they are. The deer that produce the lowest cries are the largest. The other males know that, too. From the sound of the belling, they can judge whether they can acquire their competitor’s harem.’

Something to say

Now we come to the vocal aspect. Animals croak, roar and sing themselves into a frenzy. Anything to attract attention. ‘Producing sound takes energy. You can only do that if you are in good shape. This is especially true if you can keep up the sound for a very long time, like some frogs, or are able to make a very loud sound, like howler monkeys. The animals are saying: “I am in top condition and am therefore very fit for breeding.”’

‘And then there are the songbirds. The vocal organ of birds can produce different tones, called syllables. Canaries, for example, make a special syllable, known as the sexy syllable. This sound is difficult to produce and some males do this better than others. Basically, they are saying: “Look what I can do. Choose me!” And it works. The females react very strongly to it.’

Female budgies prefer a smart male to a handsome one, discovered Professor of Animal Behaviour Carel ten Cate.


We all want a meaningful relationship, but don’t forget about smell, biologists say. ‘Some odours tell us something about the genome involved in recognising virus proteins, the MHC complex. Animals – as well as humans – choose a partner with a slightly different MHC complex than ourselves. This guarantees the greatest possible immunity in the offspring. The odours involved are quite subtle. There are also animal species that emit all kinds of olfactory flags. Cats do this, for example. A territorial male urinates in various places. That’s not just a signal to other males; his urine also contains substances that can tell a female about the quality of his genes.’


Finally, a little brainpower: does that still count in the animal kingdom? That is what Carel ten Cate investigated with budgies. ‘Pure intelligence had never really been looked at as a possible factor in mate choice. It that respect, our experiment was unique. We let female budgies choose between two males. We then taught the less popular male to open a puzzle box that contained food. That took a few days. First, he had to learn to lift a lid a little, then to open a door, and finally to pull open a drawer. We left the popular male artificially “stupid”. As it turned out, when the female had the choice between the same males again, she chose the one she had seen was capable of opening the box.’

Smart scores. But does this also apply to other animals? ‘That’s very likely. Especially in animals that are known to have highly developed cognitive abilities. Among birds, these are the parrots and crows. The same applies to great apes, although that will be more difficult to investigate. And there also are indications that among us humans, smarter partners are preferred over those who are not as smart.’

Text: Nicolline van der Spek

This article was previously published in Leidraad, the Leiden University alumni magazine (in Dutch).

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