From jaguars to caterpillar parasitoids to butterflies, Tambopata has offered a lot in the way of stunning photographs. Here are some of my recent shots.
We come across these perfectly mud-colored mammals quite often, and are one of the more guaranteed wildlife sightings you can have if you visit Tambopata. If google doesn’t like (which, let’s be honest, it does), baby capybaras are called cubs. And one thing google certainly didn’t lie about is that capybara cubs are pretty darn cute.
One of the more well-known facts about these animals is that they are the largest rodent in the world, with some males getting up to 150lbs. About the size of a very large rottweiler. Here are some of the lesser known facts about capybaras, including answers to many of the questions visitors to this region ask me:
- They live in male-dominated family groups
- Their ears, eyes, and nose match up in a line so they can hear, see, and breathe while swimming.
- Or not breathe, because they can hold their breath for up to 5 minutes, a top method for escaping predation.
- If you imagine them with a long rat-like tail, they suddenly become ferocious-looking giant rats.
- Capybaras feed on grasses along the edge of rivers. Because grass is hard to digest, they are caecotrophic, and this was written about them “Animals sat on their hind limbs, stretched either limb out, bent over driving their heads in the direction of the anus and licked a pasty material that differed from normal oval-shaped feces.” Basically it allows them to re-digest and take another shot at getting energy from grass.
- They have a symbiotic relationship with the cowbird. The bird hangs out on their head or back (see below) and eats the flies and ticks off the capybaras. A win-win for an unlikely pairing.
Meet the one creature in the whole world that gives me the heebie-jeebies, the creeps, and makes me shudder a bit just thinking (or writing) about it. One of them landed on my neck once, and I still can’t get over it.
I love them, I hate them, and I want to share them with you.
The Wandering Spider, also known as the Banana Spider, is the common name for three spiders in the genus Phoneutria and have a legspan of about 5″. These are considered one of the deadliest spiders in the world, by most accounts coming in at #3 behind the two Sydney Funnel Web spiders. If their particularly neurotoxic venom weren’t enough to frighten you a bit, their bites are also known to occasionally cause priopisms… and a resultant amputation, in men. If you don’t know what a priapism is, just note that the venom is also being investigated as a potential replacement for Viagra. So, yeah.
But that’s not all. They are aggressive. They are mean. They jump far, and at you. When I used to remove them from my Ecuadorian base camp with 12″ forceps they would do their best to climb up the forceps to get at my hand, rather than to run away. It’s just messed up. Hence, my shudders.
Here are a few photos of some feeding individuals I’ve run into on night walks. They seem to love eating roaches.
Notes On How To Collect A Rare Dung Beetle Fly (Sphaeroceridae) That Lives On A Rare Dung Beetle That Lives In A Hole
I recently had the pleasure of going collecting with Dr. Andy Warren (aka Mr. Hesperiidae and president of The Lepidopterists’ Society) and he graciously took me into one of his favorite habitats: the sandhills of central Florida.
While we were targeting skippers and tiger beetles, Andy also told me to keep my eyes peeled for a Florida-endemic beetle in the family Geotrupidae, known as Earth-Boring Dung Beetles, that was in the area. This sandhill habitat, Andy explained, is home to several endemics (species only found here) because it is the one area of Florida that was never covered by ocean, making it quite unique.
In between netting skippers, chasing zebra swallowtails, and diving for tiger beetles, I spotted some nice and shiny dung. “Check for beetles!” he yelled, and check I did. What we found was a nice 1cm wide tube dug below the dung. Under his instructions, I stuck a tall piece of grass in the hole. “The fact that the grass is going straight down, and not to the side, let’s you know it’s a dung beetle.”
I was learning, and we were getting close.
The key was to dig parallel to the hole, and slowly clear the earth away so as not to lose the beetle in the dirt nor damage it with the spade. Eventually we saw it: a shiny black beetle peeking out of the sand, about 6 inches down.
So we were onto something. While we hoped it was a Mycotrupes gaigei, we couldn’t be certain until we dug further. After clearing it off a bit, we realized not only did we have the beetle, but the phoretic fly too! Phoresy is a term for ‘hitchhiking,’ and this sphaerocerid fly sticks with the beetle to eventually feed on its ball of dung it rolls (making it technically a kleptoparasite).
Mycotrupes gaigei is interesting because so little is known about it, it can dig its holes up to 6 feet, it has a limited range, and it is flightless- the elytra (outer ‘shell’ covering the wings) is fused! So it doesn’t have a flying dispersal method like other beetles do- if its habitat gets destroyed, it will be very difficult for it to find another nearby suitable location.
Addendum: Notes from Andy Warren
There are several different sandhill systems in Florida- not all are the
same. Some were never submerged, while others represent ancient
shorelines (= “fossil dunes”). Where we were was most likely an ancient
shoreline, although it is possible it was never submerged- I’m not
absolutely sure… Here is a snippet from the revision of FL Scarabs:
“Many of the relict species occupy the sandhills and sand-pine scrub as
defined by Laesele (1958). It appears that these dry areas often represent
fossil dunes or prehistoric shorelines. They are now arranged in a
pattern of faunal and floral islands throughout the state, characterized
by well drained soils, often surrounded by swampy areas of lower
elevation. The age of the marine terraces is not firmly established, but
several of those previously considered of Pleistocene age are probably
Pliocene or Late Miocene (Alt and Brooks, 1965).”
Regarding the burrows of Mycotrupes, unlike most other beetles that leave
“push-ups” above their excavated holes, Mycos just bulldoze straight into
the sand, compacting sand laterally as they dig deeper, without leaving
much of a push-up. Thus, Mycotrupes burrows really are distinctive
compared to other beetle burrows in the region. FYI, I dug out about 6 of
them last Saturday, in addition to the one in the beer can- all away from
dung along the sandy road.
First day of no rain in over a week- time to take advantage of the weather and get to work.
Mission today was to get a motion-triggered camera trap set up in the remote part of the reserve where I have a better chance of capturing video of rare mammals like bush dogs and jaguars. Knowing what types of carnivores are in which type of habitat is important for my research here, so I’m leaving the camera here for over a month and will check it when I return to Peru in May.
On the way, spotted some big cat prints- likely a jaguar. A good sign that I was in the right area, as cat prints can be hard to come by. As the weather is finally giving way to some sun, we’re likely to see a big increase in animal activity as many here (including us humans) spent the last week fairly inactive with the rain.
Arrived at what looked to be a good spot to set up the camera- it was a crossroads of sorts where a human trail crosses with an a mammal game trail; both of which are used by animals to get around the forest. So, I figured I had a good shot at getting a picture of a mammal going along either of the trails if I set the camera pointed there. Checked the settings on the camera, made sure the camera was aimed right, turned on (I’ve made that mistake before), and started the 2 mile hike back to the research center.
Mission tonight is to do another survey for the decoy spider- I’m still trying to determine its optimal habitat (though I have a pretty good idea) and am looking to photograph more of the variation that is observed amongst the decoy construction.
Besides things like vials, camera, notebook, field bag, medicine, and the usual, here are a few items I have found particularly important while working in the field in the Amazon. Other field biologists out there who have worked in the tropics, please share your field secrets here and I’ll be sure to add them to the list.
This list is worth looking at if you are a tourist, too, but note it is emphasized for long-term stay, long days in the field, and sample-taking potential.
Ziploc plastic bags.
I used to keep them in the box which quickly rotted, then I had my (very obvious) epiphany to put all of the plastic bags within one plastic bag. Works much better that way. Put your passport, cash, and stuff in a plastic bag, and a copy of your passport and other stuff in another plastic bag, and keep them separate. For you Americans: despite the secret fibers our dollars are made of, they do rot in high humidity environments, so keep them sealed. Also, bring trash bags. Your dirty clothes will smell, and so will you.
30% DEET spray.
Spray, not cream, is important, especially if handling live animals, as it is often hard to find a place to thoroughly wash/wipe your hands if you rub it in. Worth at least bringing DEET to prevent disease, botflies, and discomfort but don’t go crazy with it. Along with that, some anti-itch cream is worth it. If an insect bites you, the most important thing to do is DON’T SCRATCH YOUR BITES. Seriously, stop scratching it, I’m watching you.
Extra batteries, extra battery charger.
A GREAT head torch.
Walking around at night looking for things with a $40 headlamp isn’t going to cut it. I use a PETZL.
Airtight cases for electronics- especially if long term, and dry bags for other items.
The rainforest eats electronics for breakfast. I’ve found silica to not be extremely effective because it gets saturated so quickly and loses its absorption capabilities. However, if you can bring a lot of it and keep it sealed until use then go for it. I also use a pelican case for my laptop, and always seal it up at night. For my smart phone (useful for wifi, back-up LED flashlight, Kindle app), I put it in a plastic bag every night. I stopped doing that in Ecuador and my iPhone quickly went awry. There is always the potential for getting caught in a rainstorm or needing to cross a stream so I always put my head torch (with spare batteries) in a dry bag when I’m out in the afternoon.
A large, durable poncho for canoe rides.
I use a poncho more than a rain jacket, and even so quite sparingly. If it rains while walking around, you typically just get wet and deal with it. On a canoe ride, with the wind + rain combo, getting wet can make you miserable, and a large poncho keeps you mostly dry.
A lot of socks.
I use Wigwam Cool-Lite Hiker Pro, but most light high-ankle hiking socks should do. When I first started working in the tropics, I thought my comrades were weird with how they gloated over a nice, clean, dry pair of socks. Now, nothing makes me happier.
Extra strength anti-fungal, hydrocortisone.
While getting skin ailments isn’t extremely likely over a 4-5 day trip, many extended tropical trips eventually result in something funky and red growing on your skin and an antifungal and cortisone combo often does the trick.
Camp Suds I’ve found to be too harsh for skin but works for clothes, Dr. Bronner’s Organic Liquid Soap is great (and smells nice!).
Shirts from REI are awesome.
They dry quick, are light enough to not overheat, and are heavy enough to prevent at least some mosquito bites, cost much less than other brands. I use a light-weight, quick-dry, vented button down.
This duffle from North Face works great for tossing things around and not worrying about rain.
Flip-flops (for wearing around camp, in the shower) and some day hiking shoes that can tolerate getting wet. Waste of time to bring nice high-top lace-up boots, no matter how fancy they are. Wellies aka rain boots aka snake boots (whatever you call them) are the way to go when in the field. Based upon my experience in Latin America, you can buy these boots fairly easily when you get to town as they’re a bit clunky to bring in your luggage, and typically way overpriced when purchased in the US. But large-footed individuals beware: it’s difficult to find anything larger than a US size 11 in most countries. Here’s a good example of some you can buy. But notice $70 price tag compared to about $20 in-country.
A multi-tool (Leatherman), parachord (some white, some bright orange), flagging tape, sewing kit
Also, become an REI member and buy from there.
Their customer service and return policy is unparalleled: I once returned a headlamp that stopped working 7 years after I first purchased it (and took it around the world in rough conditions), and they gave me a full refund towards purchasing another. I wish I was getting paid to write this addendum, I just like them that much.
There have been two moments in particular that were quite upsetting to me while working in the field. In both cases, we had active research projects, environmental education intiatives, and a lot of community involvement. But sometimes there are weakeness in our efforts, or individuals that decide to take things into their own hands.
I happened to have a camera present in both circumstances to capture the moment, and figured I’d share them here. Above, a large section of rainforest was illegally cut down in a protected forest in Ecuador. This area in particular was some astoundingly rich forest. We trekked hard for miles that day to get to that particular transect, only to discover it had been cleared for corn.
There was a lesson to be learned here. The managers of this reserve did not communicate very well with locals, nor did they appear to really care about the conditions of the forest. Funding for a forest guard was limited, with only one to span the entire 1,000 hectare reserve. As researchers, we tried to fill that role in maintaining the forest and relations but in this case it wasn’t enough.
Below, a classic story of illegal killing in another Amazon reserve. Most likely scenario: a local farmer lost a chicken to some wild cat, and went out to kill a large cat to ‘fix’ the situation and prevent more chickens from being eaten. Not to say this isn’t a possibility, but in most cases farmers likely target the wrong cat, or don’t take other measures necessary to protect the chickens. Not to mention this was part of a reserve, so while hunting may be more permissible on private land, that was not the case here.
This is unfortunately probably as close as I’ll ever get to a puma. How could this have been prevented? Perhaps more communication in regards to conservation initiatives, or possibly providing the equipment necessary to help farmers protect their livestock (chicken wire?).
Hummingbirds are crafty little birds, and many of them actually specialize in using spider silk in the construction of their nests. Yes, they actually find spider webs, steal the silk, and place it around the inside of their nest in order to provide some flexible insulation for their young.
Recently, a friend of mine posted an image- he had cut down a hummingbird nest, mistaking it for a giant spider nest. A spider nest can be cut down and moved fairly easily, but a hummingbird nest with eggs? Not so much. Luckily, he quickly discovered his mistake, taped up (yes, taped) the nest to the tree again, and the eggs hatched with success.
But certainly this fellow isn’t the first one to make this error. The confusion presented itself because a hummingbird nest really can appear like a big clump of woven spider silk (i.e. spider nest), because it really is made up of spider silk. So, if you’re lucky enough to spot a hummingbird nest, make sure you (or those around you) don’t mistake it for a spider nest!
Spider ‘nests,’ by the way, tend to not be constructed from materials like twigs, rather they may be folded-over leaves or simply an exposed egg sack surrounded by silk. A good collection of images via Google Image Search gives you an idea.
Alfred Russel Wallace is the co-founder of evolution along with Darwin. I’m in the midst of reading a biography of him, and his words about seeing birds of paradise certainly resonated with me. He had the foresight of a modern-day naturalist that many lacked.
Regarding the remote islands in which he encountered the remarkable birds:
“… should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man.
Many of them have no relation to him. The cycle of their existence has gone on independently of his, and is disturbed or broken by every advance in man’s intellectual development; and their happiness and enjoyments, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone, limited only by the equal well-being and perpetuation of the numberless other organisms with which each is more or less intimately connected.”
While Wallace’s thoughts regarding the local people may have been archaic, his understanding of man’s potential to disturb a natural environment and cause extinction is well ahead of his time.
I recently had the pleasure of tagging along with the macaw researchers here at the Tambopata Research Center.
These guys have had world-renowned research here for years, and have come out with many groundbreaking publications essential to conserving macaw species.
Researchers here have solved a lot of macaw/parrot mysteries, like figuring out why the adults eat clay (for the salt!) and gathering an incredible amount of natural history information.
When field research and ecotourism combine, great things happen. This project has been supported by Rainforest Expeditions (who manage three lodges in this area) and it allows tourists from all over the world to come and watch field science in action.