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miércoles, 21 de diciembre de 2011

Dorothy, Rolex, and angiosperms

Becky Graham is now half way through her four month investigation into the effects of weather variables and intrahabitat differences on certain small mammal abundance, distribution, and movement. It is still early but already her capture records do not seem to follow the typical expected trends around new and full moon cycles. This is where the other variables Becky is testing will come in as an interesting avenue of explanation (strata, temperature, humidity, rainfall, and foliage cover). Presently she is in the middle of her third live trapping session. When she is not trapping Becky has also been making good progress with habitat surveys within her four trapping grids. So far Becky’s intern experience has allowed her to develop handling, micro chipping, and trapping skills as well as species and habitat knowledge. When not in the field she has learnt how to enter, store, and upload her data properly in preparation for analyses at the end of her field time. Becky’s project gets a mixture of new and repeat catches. So Becky now has a ‘three capture naming policy’. The newest addition to this club is ‘Dorothy’ the female Oligoryzomys.

Gemma Bach is now just a few days away from launching her project. Her research will focus on Langsdorffia hypogaea Mart, a parasitic angiosperm, and its interactions with the surrounding plant community and the factors effecting its distribution. This unusual plant parasite is only found within the semi-deciduous forest at Laguna Blanca, and the populations here are only the second record for Paraguay. Gemma will assess the impact these parasites have on their host through measuring the differences in height and diameter of trees as well as leaf length and breadth. Gemma will also attempt to explain how and why these parasitic plants are non-randomly distributed. She will be taking systematic soil samples in order to record different levels of Ph, conductivity, and salinity. Finally, Gemma will be using a light sensor to assess whether sunlight exposure is a contributing factor to their distribution.

A couple of weeks ago our botany friends Juana and Gloria visited for a day and a half. They collected a lot of plant samples and processed them into a temporary herbarium. Juana and Gloria are in the process of documenting all plant life within Laguna Blanca with the view to producing the first field guide for this reserve and the surrounding area. Juana and Gloria’s visit was particularly well timed as Gemma had only been with us for a few days, so all three botanists had the opportunity to spend some time together in the field.

Recently, a senior consultant from Rolex visited Laguna Blanca. Norm Scott and PLT scientific director Paul Smith were also in the visiting party so we thought it would be interesting for all camp members to make a presentation. I presented on the three long term projects I have here at the reserve and what impact our research will have for science and conservation efforts. It is always good practice to verbally present your research, but it is especially beneficial for interns. Many interns who visit us have done very little verbal presenting so this is an additional professional development practice which we encourage at PLT.

Finally, our draft paper on the behaviour and grouping patterns in wild Plush-crested jays is now completed and will be reviewed. Once we have made any corrects we want to make it will hopefully be submitted for publication.

Until next time I’ll say goodbye.

Best wishes,

Luke

sábado, 3 de diciembre de 2011

A string of goodbyes, “Pinchy” and our juvenile owls attempts at flight

Hello again,

Well after a wonderful 2 weeks we have had to say goodbye to Norman Scott and his wife Joan. If you read my previous blog you will know that Norman is one of the worlds leading experts in herpetology and has been helping us in the museum ensuring that all of our herpetofauna specimens are correctly identified. It has been a pleasure to work alongside someone with such knowledge and passion and we look forward to our continued collaboration. Joan has also been working hard for us and we now have a wonderful colouring book to use as a community outreach tool. A massive thank you to both of them for all their hard work during their time here. We must also thank Pier who somehow managed to find the time to help us by actively searching for frogs and snakes, showing me how to process birds (see my previous blog for more info on this), going through the herpetofauna collection with a fine tooth comb, assisting me in writing a community outreach project and also doing his own work for his PhD thesis – when did he sleep?

Sadly we have also had to say goodbye to a wonderful volunteer Mikey Kempster. Mikey really threw himself into everything that was happening here from going out frogging, to small mammal trapping and helping to organise the museum, there wasn’t a single job he wasn’t 100% enthusiastic about. When I asked him what he enjoyed most he had to think for a long time, then finally said that being “Pinchy” was a real highlight. Now you are probably wondering what I am talking about so let me explain from the beginning. A few weeks ago we visited 2 local schools to talk to children about the reserve, as part of our community outreach programme. We were very lucky to have a couple of guests come and assist us with this; Pablo and Amelio from Fundacion Moises Bertoni, a conservation organisation based in Eastern Paraguay. We went to the school and hid Mikey in the car so the children wouldn’t see him, then while Amelio was giving the presentations Pablo helped Mikey transform into “Pinchy” a 6ft bright yellow and black bird who had come to Laguna Blanca to help the white winged nightjar, Para La Tierra’s flagship species. “Pinchy” was a real hit and really helped us convey the conservation message to the children. A massive thank you to Mikey for all his help, enthusiasm and lets face it terrible jokes!!

And finally last time I promised you an update on the burrowing owls, well I am delighted to report that all 5 young are thriving and are looking bright and healthy and the mother is doing a fantastic job of keeping up with their insatiable appetites! We have some excellent footage of them attempting to fly, somewhat clumsy it has to be admitted but flying nevertheless! Unfortunately it’s not possible to explain to them the purpose of the camera trap as the mother was regularly seen sitting on top of it!

And that’s all for this time, see you in a couple of weeks

Helen

viernes, 25 de noviembre de 2011

Leaf sniffing, burrow stealers, and angry opossums

Becky Graham is into her second round of small mammal trapping for her investigation into the affect of weather variables and intrahabitat differences have on species abundance, distribution, and movement. Becky is working the trapping sessions around the lunar cycles, therefore she has a week in between sessions. Last week after her first trapping session finished Becky began her habitat surveying. By using a quadrat method she is taking data concerning the amount of foliage cover traps have and how this may influence the abundance of species and/or the type of species found in that area and at which strata level. Becky and her team have trapped a number of different species so far, including the White-eared opossum (Didelphis albiventris). Micro chips are used in order assess recapture and one particular opossum seems to be turning up regularly in the same trap. As delighted as Becky’s team are to see this animal, the opossum does not appear to be as happy to see them. Hissing with a wide open mouth, this species can literally be quite a hand full to manage.


Two days ago we welcomed my newest intern Gemma Bach. Gemma has come all the way from Australia and will be with us at Laguna Blanca for three months. Gemma is a keen and knowledgeable botanist with a particular interest in plant ecology, plant pathogens, and plant health. It is very nice for us to have another botanist here. As a zoologist I always get to learn a lot from our botanists which provides an enhanced ability to look at broader ecological questions. During our initial outing to the cerrado Gemma was able to teach me all sorts of signs plants display when they are not healthy and what the possible reasons for this could be. What became clear was that ‘sick’ plants and trees on the cerrado were localized and not species specific. Therefore Gemma theorizes that there may be acute differences in soil compounds within the cerrado.
The most exciting outcome Gemma and I had while in the cerrado concerned the ongoing confusion over the relationship Clyomys laticeps has with a certain shrub. It has perplexed me for some time now but with the help of a botanist I may have a new avenue to investigate. The leaves of this particular shrub change in texture and smell as they mature. The newest shrubs of this species have very strong smelling waxy leaves that seem to disappear the older the shrub gets. This was not found to be the case for several other common shrubs on the cerrado. Further investigation is needed to reveal whether Clyomys are attracted to this shrub by scent and why. Finally, I have been researching the phenomenon of burrow stealing. Many non burrowing species use the burrows of small mammals for their own benefit. I will shortly be excavating some clyomys burrow systems to try and reveal what snake, lizard, and invertebrate species are benefiting from this little known keystone species.
Over the next few weeks Gemma will begin to formulate her project, hypotheses, and methods. She is fortunate to arrive at this particular time as we currently have two returning botanists here. Juana and Gloria are in the process of producing the first thorough documentation and listing of all the plant and tree species within the reserve. So between the three of them we hope to see some exciting botanical research coming out of Laguna Blanca.


Untill next time ill say goodbye.

Best wishes,

Luke

miércoles, 23 de noviembre de 2011

VIPs, Camera traps and a bird brain

Hi Everyone,

First off I am happy to inform you that we are very privileged to have 3 very important people with us at the moment. Norman Scott is one of the world’s leading experts on herpetofauna and is here to study our museum collection of amphibians and reptiles. In addition he is also collecting specimens and we have been going out frogging and actively searching for snakes and lizards. It is a pleasure to work alongside someone with not only the same passion as me but such knowledge! Joan Scott has been helping us out too. We are in the process of creating a children’s colouring book to use as an educational tool as part of our community outreach programme. Joan is an excellent artist and is designing the pictures for this book while she is here. Joining Norman and Joan is Pier Cacciali, one of our external collaborators and an expert on snakes as well as other herps, it’s great to have him here again. A big thank you to Norman, Joan and Pier for all their hard work and enthusiasm and here’s to another week of them being here.

Another great piece of news is that not only do we have one of our camera traps on site and in action and we have some amazing pics of some of the vulture species we have in the cerrado. Within days of the trap arriving and doing a test run I found the ideal bait – a dead dog that had been killed on the road. I won’t pretend it was particularly pleasant but it did prove to be very effective. I placed the dog in a patch of cerrado near the house and set up the camera trap. All we had to do then was leave it alone and wait. 3 days later I returned to an almost completely stripped skeleton and some great pictures of vultures visiting the carcass.

If you have been following this blog you will know that we have a breeding pair of burrowing owls living in the garden. We have confirmed sightings of 5 young, all extremely fluffy and unbearably cute. They are getting bolder too and I don’t think it is going to be long before they take flight, they are growing so fast. We really hope to get their first flight on camera so have placed the camera trap in front of their burrow – all we need now is patience from us and courage from them. I’ll keep you posted.

And finally the bird brain! Pier very kindly took an afternoon out of his busy schedule to teach me how to process birds. We don’t actively collect birds for the museum however if we come across one that has died we will take it as a specimen. The bird I was working on was a grey-necked wood rail (Aramides cajanea) which was, unbelievably, found dead in a Sherman trap used for catching small mammals. How and why it squeezed itself in there is a mystery but it proved to be a great opportunity for me to learn how to process birds. I have to say the technique is a bit harder than mammals and pretty gross in parts. However it was very interesting to see how the process works and we now have a rather nice exhibit for the museum.

And that’s about all for now, until next time

Hasta pronto

Helen

jueves, 10 de noviembre de 2011

Weather variables, intern papers, and more grants

PLT’s newest intern Becky Graham has now successfully launched her study. After some careful planning and research she finalised her project a few days before her first trapping session was due to begin. Becky’s research is looking at several factors that may affect the abundance and movement of certain small mammal species in the semi deciduous transitional forests (semi caducifolio) at Laguna Blanca. Becky has set up four 50m x 50m trapping grids in different areas of the forest which have intra-habitat differences to each other. These grids are located in the interior forest, transitional ecotone between the forest and cerradon, bordering the lake, and bordering an anthropogenic disturbance (agricultural land). Becky has also set Sherman traps at ground, arboreal, and canopy level in order to examine abundance differences in forest strata. She will conduct her trapping sessions around the lunar cycles (full and new moon phases) and will also be testing the affect certain other variables have on trapping and abundance. These include temperature, humidity, rainfall, and foliage structure and densities within each grid.

Becky’s first few days of trapping are underway and she is quickly learning all the handling and micro chipping techniques she will need for the coming months. She is also receiving some much appreciated help from volunteer Mike Kempster and ex intern/current volunteer Aimme Oxley. Becky’s project will produce results on how certain small mammals adapt to the variables within the semi deciduous transitional forests, which is an understudied ecosystem. Her results will also allow comparisons from the different intra-habitat structures so she will be able to assess the risk of further habitat change and degradation. Becky’s assessment of weather variables will give a better understanding of the ecology of the species living in these semi deciduous transitional forests.

As I have said in a previous blog, the intern experience at PLT does not necessarily end when students leave Laguna Blanca. Ex intern Greg Goodfellow is now at a stage to start writing his first publication based on his findings from his project investigating White-rumped tanager duets. In collaboration with myself and PLT Science Coordinator Paul Smith, Greg will aim to produce a paper for submission by January. Currently we are looking at Greg’s data to decide which particular area of his research is most appropriate and viable for publication.

Finally, we are on to the next set of funding applications. In a couple of weeks we will submit grant applications both to the Phoenix Zoo Conservation and Science grant and the SeaWorld and Bush Gardens Wildlife Fund. These grants encompass a broad and inclusive focus on scientific research, conservation, and local community work.
Unitl next time I’ll say goodbye.

Best wishes,

Luke

miércoles, 2 de noviembre de 2011

Spring is in the air!

Apologies to all you folks in countries heading into winter, because spring has definitely sprung here at Laguna Blanca! We may not have lambs frolicking in fields and daffodils but we do have a rather unique blend of wildlife which, if we are lucky, allows us a brief glimpse of their new arrivals. Around camp the southern lapwings have a couple of tiny babies (exact replicas of their parents but sooo small) – adorable but don’t make the mistake of getting too close, their parents are pretty feisty! We also have a pair of burrowing owls that live in the garden and the other day I spotted, for the first time ever, one of them leaving their burrow. I think they may have young in there…!

The frogs aren’t letting us down either - it’s definitely the breeding season for some species, which means I also have several tadpole projects running. At our new and exciting frog pond in the local village we managed to gather about 25 tadpoles of various sizes and stages of development (catching tadpoles is surprisingly tricky by the way!). So little work has been done on tadpoles that any data we can gather is vital. We have no idea what species they are (or even if they are the same species) until they morp into froglets, so I have to stay patient and keep them alive (and fed well enough to stop them eating each other!). Not the easiest task but a lot easier than caterpillars I can tell you! I also have 2 funnel traps full of eggs from 2 species that laid in captivity. Neither I have much hope for though, as the eggs seem to be really sensitive and may not hatch - but nothing ventured and all that, so fingers-crossed. I’ll let you know how I get on! Finally if you remember last time I told you about the new pitfall trap line we dug into the flooded forest? Well it hasn’t disappointed. Within days we had not 1 but 2 toads that are new species for our collection. This is great as we are on a real drive to see how many new anuran species we can add our inventory at the moment.

Another project that I meant to tell you about last time but didn’t have the space for is our recycled vegetable garden. We are having another bash at growing vegetables and so far melon and squash are the most successful contestants. “But why is it called a recycled garden?” I hear you cry. Well, because everything, from the exterior fence, to the borders, the compost heap, and the scarecrow are made from 100% reused materials. In fact the only thing that that has been bought new is a longer hose pipe and the seeds themselves. I’ve never had the opportunity to have a go at growing fruit and veg before so it’s all trial and error – the best way to learn though I reckon (well as long are we aren’t too hungry!).

That’s all for now folks thanks for reading!

Hx

lunes, 24 de octubre de 2011

HanDbase, trail cutting race, and new small mammal intern ace

Here at Laguna Blanca it is business as usual. Activity and production has steadily increased back to the levels we are accustomed to at Para la Tierra, thanks to two new arrivals, Becky and Mike.
The trail system for the PLT capuchin project has received a boost from some much appreciated help. After a session of help from forest guards Jorge and Concepcion, PLT director Karina Atkinson, and several sessions with new volunteer Mike Kempster, we now have just over 3km of trail going through the heart of the capuchin’s home range (or my prediction of their home range). Mike has been particularly helpful and soon mastered the art of the machete (both long and short staff). Mike, once again, underlines why volunteers are so important to PLT and the activity that goes on here. If you too would like to get involved as a volunteer on the capuchin project, or pursue an internship or assistantship on another project then please contact paralatierra@ymail.com
The monkey project enjoyed further progress last week when we were able to secure two items of equipment. HanDbase, a data design and storage program, will allow me to produced our own project specific data collection, storage, and analysis system. Additionally to HanDbase we secured some electronic palm pilots that will allow us to collect a lot of data in an organised way. While we wait for these items to be shipped I have designed two trial data sheets to test out. Once these items are here, for each day of data collection we will simply plug our palm pilots into HanDbase and upload our data onto the system. A huge time and energy saver compared to the old days of free hand data collection and transcribing all data points manually. Finally, after submitting our first grant application we are now almost ready to submit major funding applications to National Geographic and the Mohamed Bin Zayed fund.


I also have a new intern here, Becky Graham. Becky’s project will aim to examine a number of contributing variables to abundance, diversity, distribution, and movement of small mammals within the dry forest (monte seco). She is currently researching and short listing her areas of focus, but so far she is interested in testing the influence of climatic conditions, flora density, cover, and type, lunar cycles, forest strata, and the possible affect of both transitional areas and natural and non natural disturbances. Alongside this planning and research phase Becky is also hard at work checking and preparing the 300 traps she will set at 4 different locations in the forest and at 3 different heights – ground, arboreal, and canopy. She is also cutting and preparing 200 boards to set the arboreal and canopy traps on. Becky’s project holds a lot of potential as she is purposely identifying several previously unstudied areas. With a strong methodology we are hoping Becky’s work will shed new light and provide new knowledge on these dry forest species and what affects their environment has on them.

Until next time I’ll say goodbye.

Best wishes,

Luke

domingo, 23 de octubre de 2011

Moths and frogs and 40 Paraguayan students!

Hi everyone,

It’s been a long time since I last updated you but there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly as some of you may be aware I have been on holiday in Brazil – a great place that I am really chuffed is one of our neighbouring countries and a definite must if you are planning a trip before or after you come to us! The second reason is that this is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and write to you as we have had so much exciting stuff going on!

Before I even got back to Laguna Blanca the pace sped up! On the road here (after a 36 hour bus journey I hasten to add) we found a dead snake that we have taken as a voucher specimen and although it was definitely dead the muscles in its body were still contracting, which was a bit freaky it has to be said. Once we got it back to camp and identified it we realised it was a Bothrops alternatus which is a new record for the zone – great news!

And since then the pace hasn’t lessened. As soon as I got back I was handed 3 bags containing moth eggs from the extremely important moth Catharisa cerina. This moth is virtually unknown and was last seen in the 1930s. Since then it was declared extinct until last year when Paul, our scientific co-ordinator found the first returnee here at Laguna Blanca. This year they were back and we finally managed to get a female to lay eggs for us and some male specimens (which have never ever been seen before!!!). We now have data on their life cycle up until the 1st instar level (newly hatched caterpillars) and know what the males look like too. What a great present to return home to.

I also have a couple of new volunteers, Mikey arrived a fortnight ago and is really enthusiastic about, well everything actually, but frogging in particular. So with an extra pair of hands and eyes available we have taken the opportunity to open up an area of flooded forest where we believe we are going to find some particularly interesting species. We are really going to town on the frogging there and have a nocturnal pitfall trap, a whole array of artificial refugia and some brilliant trails that we can use for our active searches. It won’t be too long before we get hold of some really cool frogs! We have also found a great pond in the local village that just happens to be over run with Phyllomedusa azurea a really funky tree frog with bright orange tiger striped legs. Not only is this a new species for this area it is also the first of the genus too. I can’t wait to get out there again to discover more exciting species (only 6 hours ‘till dark!).

Our second new volunteer is Suzie who arrived last night and will be looking at the flowers here at the reserve. She has come with a lot of knowledge and some great kit so we are looking forward to seeing her herbarium when it’s complete. That’s one of the great things about this place; we can happily find a variety of tasks for volunteers who just want to help out in general or we can assist people who have a project in mind but don’t have the time to do an internship.

Speaking of people coming to do their own projects last weekend we hosted a field trip of around 40 Paraguayan students from Asunción. Now I won’t pretend that it wasn’t extremely hard work and I did take multi-tasking to a whole new level. But what fun! It was so great to have so many enthusiastic and motivated students here all participating in different activities. In the morning there were bird surveys, mist netting and small mammal trapping, afternoons included butterfly surveys and evenings we were mist netting for bats and we had the moth light out (you never know we might get another C. cerina...). It was so lovely to have the place buzzing with people and as they were camping in front of the house it was a little bit like looking over a mini festival. A great few days with new friendships made!

Next week is going to be packed with more frogging so watch this space there is going to be some really cool stuff coming up, in fact better still get yourself out here and you can get involved too!

Until next time

Helen

lunes, 10 de octubre de 2011

Transitions, ambitions, and new additions

In many respects here at Laguna Blanca we are currently going through a transitional period. Today we welcomed new intern Rebecca Graham and volunteer Michael Kempster. Rebecca is interested in small mammals and will spend the next few weeks exploring both the reserve and possible research topics before commencing on a 4 month project.

One of the benefits of conducting an intern project with Para la Tierra is that after the interns leave the reserve they still maintain a close working relationship with PLT. Ex interns Georgina Snelling and Gregory Goodfellow have recently finished their data input and are now collaborating with the scientific team at PLT on their project reports and papers for potential publication. So look out in the near future for publications on White-rumped Tanagers and fern distribution and diversity.

Still along the lines of this transitional period, we recently submitted our first of many grant applications for the Para la Tierra Tufted Capuchin Project. We are aiming to make this into a high profile research study at Laguna Blanca so we are still open to applications for volunteers, for this project and the ongoing projects on Clyomys laticeps, Plush-crested jays, and White-rumped Tanagers. If you are interested in joining one of these projects please contact us at paralatierra@ymail.com

Finally, to complete the initial transition for the Plush-crested Jay project I am finishing up our first paper for publication. This will pave the way for the next stages of this project.

Until next time I’ll say goodbye.
Best wishes,
Luke

jueves, 29 de septiembre de 2011

Funds, community fun, and forth coming newbies

Currently at Laguna Blanca we are in a calm before the storm, a storm we are very much looking forward to I might add. Shortly our new interns and volunteers will be arriving to start new research projects. We will also shortly be starting the interview process for applicants to our new assistantship positions. But the deadline is not over so those of you interested should submit your application! If you are interested in birds, rodents, or monkeys, then get in touch at paralatierra@ymail.com.

In other news the trail design for the capuchin project is now coming together. All points have been marked with a GPS and a grid system is emerging. It’s long and hard work but will ultimately save a lot of time and energy once data collection begins. Part of our aim for the capuchin project is to secure external funding from scientific and conservation grant bodies. These funds will provide all necessary equipment and cover all other researcher costs for a minimum of 2 years. Once set up this will be a new and exciting option for interns and volunteers to take part in.

Finally we have just finished a day of outreach work at the reserve. Director of Para la Tierra Karina Atkinson organized a day of education and fun for the surrounding communities to take part in. This involved a presentation, assisted by newly purchased projector and wide screen, on the reserve and the value it has both to science and the people who live near it. After the presentation more than 100 of our guests enjoyed a lunch and a question and answer session. These ongoing steps Para la Tierra are taking with building good relations with the surrounding communities will result in both the reserve and people benefiting.

Until next time ill say goodbye.

Best wishes,

Luke

lunes, 12 de septiembre de 2011

Big Score and Opportunities at PLT!

A few days ago we said goodbye to our last (for the season) long term intern Georgina Snelling. Georgina completed an excellent investigation into the factors contributing to the distribution and diversity of fern species within the reserve. Not only did Georgina collect valuable data and discover specific ecological trends, but she also catalogued a large amount of fern species that are new records for Laguna Blanca.

Cesar has once again joined us to continue his Masters research into the biodiversity of the different habitats at Laguna Blanca. He will be making several visits to assess and survey the floral and faunal communities within the reserve.

The implementation of a grid trail system within the capuchin monkey home range has also begun. These trails will run through the heart of the groups territories and aid researchers when traveling through the forest or when following the monkeys.

The big news recently is the success of Para la Tierra in being awarded a grant from LUSH. These awarded funds are for the purchase of major new research equipment to be used within the reserve. Not only will this open new avenues for short and long term projects for staff and interns, but also add a array of new and exciting activities for volunteers to get involved with, for example day and night camera trapping of mammals and new recording and playback techniques for frogs and toads. Together with the new assistantships, this newly awarded grant will dramatically increase the scope and variety of research and activities at Laguna Blanca.

Currently we have several opportunities for 3 specific assistantships and 1 specific volunteership. These are –
1. Volunteer Assistant for tufted capuchin primate project
Para La Tierra has recently launched a new long term study on the Paraguayan tufted capuchin (Cebus apella paraguayanus). Located within the Atlantic forest at the Laguna Blanca wildlife reserve these populations are poorly studied and understood. The project aims to establish long term research into the behaviour, ecology, and genetics of this species.
Para la Tierra seeks volunteers to assist in the preliminary stages of the project. Presently the capuchins are not fully habituated or radio collared. Volunteers will be expected to assist in all parts of the project. Duties will include trail cutting, trail marking, GPS work, map making, daily searches for the monkeys, and collection of basic data. This position will provide an excellent opportunity to gain valuable experience in living and working at a field research site as well as in the study of wild primates. Successful volunteers in these primary stages of the project will be prioritised when fully funded behavioural assistantships become available later in the year.

2. Assistantship on a long term study of the Broad-headed spiny rat
Para la Tierra has recently launched a new long term study on the population dynamics and burrow ecology of the Broad-headed spiny rat (Clyomys laticeps). Located in the Cerrado habitats of the Laguna Blanca wildlife reserve in Paraguay these populations of social rodents are very poorly studied and understood. The project aims to establish long term research into the population structure, behaviour, and ecology of this species.
Para la Tierra invites candidates to apply for several assistantships we are offering. Assistants will be expected and required to make significant contributions in a number of areas including biweekly trapping sessions, daily data collection, excavation of burrow sites, data entry, data analyses, publications of findings, and training volunteers.

3. Assistantship on a long term study of the behaviour of Plush-crested jays
Para la Tierra has recently launched a new long term study on the behaviour and grouping patterns of wild plush crested jays (Cyanocorax chrysops). Located in the dry and Atlantic forests of the Laguna Blanca wildlife reserve these populations of social birds are poorly studied and understood. The project aims to establish long term research into the behaviour and grouping dynamics of this species.
Para la Tierra invites candidates to apply for several assistantships we are offering. Assistants will be expected and required to make significant contributions in a number of areas including daily observations, daily data collection, capturing and led ringing, data entry, data analyses, publications of findings, and training volunteers.

4. Assistantship on a long term study of the white-rump Tanager
Para la Tierra has recently launched a new study on the behaviour of wild white-rumped Tanager (Cypsnagra hirundinacea). Located in the Cerrado habitats of the Laguna Blanca wildlife reserve these populations of birds are poorly studied and understood. The project aims to establish long term research into the behaviour and vocalisations of this species.
Para la Tierra invites candidates to apply for several assistantships we are offering. Assistants will be expected and required to make significant contributions in a number of areas including daily observations, daily data collection, playback experiments, capturing and leg ringing, data entry, data analyses, publications of findings, and training volunteers.

These assistantships provide an outstanding opportunity for someone who seeks further field experience and is looking to develop in either animal behaviour, ecology, population dynamics, or any other related field science. This position is ideal for individuals looking to gain experience in preparation for Graduate school or to enhance their career.

If any of these opportunities looks like something you would like to get involved with then please get in contact with us at paralatierra@ymail.com or through the enquiry form on the website at www.paralatierra.org/contact.html

Until next time i’ll say goodbye.

Best wishes,

Luke

Lush, Winston Churchill and a returned escapee!

Hi everyone,

Great news! Over the past few months Karina and I have been working on a funding application to Lush Cosmetics who fund small projects for the benefit of, among other things, the environment and conservation. Well after a nail biting few weeks since the application was submitted I am delighted to report that we were successful and Lush have been kind enough to award us the full amount we asked for. YIPPEEEEEE!!!!!! This is such a great result as we are now able to buy some seriously cool scientific equipment, on the list of things we now have funding for are: bat detectors, sound recording equipment and computer analysis software, enough material to make at least 10 more pitfall traps, materials for community outreach events and the one I think we are all the most excited about CAMERA TRAPS. WOO HOO! So soon we’ll be able to see and document those elusive large mammals/birds we suspect are in the reserve but never quite manage to see! Now if that doesn’t entice you to come and spend some time with us nothing will!

Speaking of which if you do want to come and volunteer with us but are struggling with financing your trip, here is a possible solution. The Winston Churchill award is a scheme for UK residents over the age of 18 who wish to visit a project overseas to gain a wider understanding of their chosen field. The participant is then expected to return to the UK with this new found knowledge and share this information with their organisation or community. There are several categories that you can apply to so be sure to apply for one that is relevant to the work we are doing here in Paraguay! For more information on this please visit: http://www.wcmt.org.uk/

I have a few other bits and pieces to tell you about. I’ve had some more exciting finds in my pitfall traps. The most interesting being the discovery of blind snakes! These are notoriously difficult to find because they are almost entirely fossoral (live underground) but it would appear that they must come to the surface sometimes because I have found them in 2 different pitfall trap lines. Naturally I was delighted to find the first one and even more so when I got a second the very next day. However “disaster” struck when the second individual escaped in my bedroom! Not only did I kick myself that I’d lost it, I kicked myself even harder when it was discovered that the first was an undescribed species and from the brief glance I had of the second I thought it was the same - AAAGH how frustrating! These blind snakes are completely harmless by the way (their best line of defence is to poo on you!) however our cook didn’t know this when a week later she discovered our escapee on Luke’s door step. I wasn’t in but I’m sure I heard her scream from the Atlantic forest! All of this happened while I was out checking my traps - only to find yet another blind snake! So that morning I went from being one down to two up and the best part of it all is, the one that escaped and then reappeared is actually a different species to the others and is a new record for Laguna Blanca!

It’s not all been funding and new snakes tho, one of the tasks that I’ve spent a good part of the last fortnight on has been updating all of our health and safety documents. I have a fair bit of experience in this through my previous work as a volunteer co-ordinator so was happy to review all of our paperwork. I am pleased to report that despite being in Paraguay we are now up to speed with UK health and safety legislation and standards. But I have to admit it was a pretty dull job!

Phew after all that I need a holiday, which is lucky really as I’m off to Rio de Janeiro at the end of the week. 3 weeks of sun, sea and samba here I come Woo Hoo! I’m so lucky to have Paraguay as a base with such great locations surrounding it – I really don’t understand how so few people have discovered this gem of a country!

See you in a month everybody- now where did I put that sun cream?

Chauuuuuuuu

Helen

viernes, 26 de agosto de 2011

Funding, fossorial rodents, and future assistants

A few days ago Greg Goodfellow left Laguna Blanca after finishing an excellent intern project on white-rumped tanager duet, territorial, and mate defence behaviours. He will now begin to analyse his data and write his report. This will act as good preparation for when Greg attempts to publish some of his findings.

Georgina Snelling continues to do well in her field investigations into the contributing factors in the distribution and diversity of fern species within the reserve. Recently she has started to assess the moisture levels of the different soils in each habitat type with the aid of a soil moisture probe. She has also recently found yet another new species of fern for the reserve.

There have also been some exciting recent developments at Para la Tierra in terms of what the organisation will be offering in the near future. We intend to add a new option to run along side the volunteer and intern routes visitors can take. Shortly we will be launching a ‘scientific assistantship’ option which will appeal to those who wish to contribute and help with ongoing and long term research at Laguna Blanca. By offering this additional placement Para la Tierra will be able to continue expanding on current projects and have the opportunity to publish more complex and advanced studies while at the same offering assistants the opportunity to gain valuable experience in working within a field research team. At present the options we will offer to scientific assistants are within the projects that are focused on the Plush-crested jays (Cyanocorax chrysops), the Broad-headed spiny rat (Clyomys laticeps), the White-rumped tanager (Cypsnagra hirundinacea), and the Tufted capuchins ((Cebus libidinosus paraguayanus).

Research continues to progress on my Clyomys project. I am currently in the middle of excavating their burrow systems, which has never been revealed or explored before. It has already thrown up some surprises so look out for further results on this in the near future.
We are also currently working with an ex-intern, Joseph, to try and secure a grant that will allow him to return to Laguna Blanca to continue working with this species over a 10 month period. Having Joseph back will further increase the scope and complexity of what we can study for these poorly understood animals.

We have also begun the primary stages of the capuchin project at Laguna Blanca. PLT will be collaborating with outsider scientists to gain major funding for a long term study on these primates. Currently we are in the process of applying to National Geographic and a number of other funding institutions. If successful we will be able to establish a fully operational primate project which will hold great potential not only for scientific study and publishing but also for students to develop their scientific skills in a practical manner.

Until next time ill say goodbye.

Best Wishes,

Luke

A mysterious tail, attack of the killer frogs and my new job!

Ouch! I ache all over from my feet to my legs, back and arms, even my face aches! It’s hardly surprising though, I have been pretty much immobile for almost a month and then jumped straight into digging in two pitfall trap lines in one day followed by about three hours of frogging. Hardcore! (or just really daft!).

However, the reason I have been immobile for the last three weeks isn’t due to some impressive field injury or exotic disease but the rather less glamorous necessity of writing a literature review. I am about to embark on a really interesting project on the Microteiidae lizards we have in abundance here at Laguna Blanca. These tiny lizards all have really interesting tails. In some species the tails are brightly coloured and in other species they are disproportionately long (as in three times their snout-vent length!). Why is this? Is it an anti-predator strategy to deflect attention to the tail which they can then shed? And if so why have colourful tails when most of their predators are likely to be colour blind? So many questions need to be answered and theories eliminated before I can even begin to get started on those two biggies! It looks set to be a very long but extremely interesting project, which is probably why I went a little mad digging in pitfall traps to catch more lizards and now I ache all over!

Last night’s frogging was amazing! Arriving here in the autumn meant I just caught the tail end of the amphibian season, so I have spent the winter quietly chomping at the bit waiting for the spring when they all wake up again. And I am happy to report I think it’s finally here. Last night I heard more species in one place than I have so far since I arrived. The Rhinella schniederi (the really big toads you may have seen if you have looked at our previous volunteers photos) were out in force, chorusing their little hearts out. Actually it got quite intimidating at one point as I was there alone, in the dark, knee deep in muddy water and the giant toads started moving closer and closer and every time I turned round to look at them, they stop moving… but were somehow closer when I looked back. OK so my imagination may have got the better of me a little there but it was still a little bit freaky. I do really love those toads though I think they may be my favourite!

So once I’d escaped the attack of the killer toads I headed over to the vernal pool which is just outside the Atlantic Forest. OMG! It was amphibianarama! I don’t know how many species were out in force last night but lets just say - it was a lot. I came back to camp with seven captures that I’m about to key out and I also recorded several minutes of their sounds which I can now use to identify which species were present. Absolutely amazing so if anyone needs me after dark I’ll be knee deep in mud with a microphone in one hand and a frog in the other!

I have other news for you all too. I have a new job title. I am now the Volunteer Co-ordiantor and Museum Curator. This doesn’t mean however that I’ll be trapped inside the museum, quite the opposite in fact. It means that I will now be responsible for the species inventories, which means more field work and a wider variety of jobs (woo hoo!). So while I will still be largely involved in the herp project, it also means that the lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), bird and bat inventories will also be my responsibility. And this is where more volunteers come in! I am going to need volunteers to help me. I’m going to need people to assist with catching butterflies, mist netting for birds and bats, checking my pitfall trap lines and of course helping catch frogs! So what are you waiting for get on-line, book a place and come and join us at Laguna Blanca. There’s not a moment to lose!!!

Hasta pronto!

Helen

jueves, 11 de agosto de 2011

Controls, close encounters and capuchins

Greg Goodfellow is into the last two weeks of data collection for his investigation into white-rumped tanager duets, territorial, and mate defence behaviours. He has been successful in collecting a healthy and valid amount of data over a 3 month period which will eventually allow him to test his project hypotheses through statistical analysis. Greg has achieved this result through dedication, hard work, and a rigid consistency in his fieldwork. These final two week for Greg will involve collecting the last few data points and also conducting control playback, i.e playbacks that are not white-rumped tanager duets. This will assess if it is simply bird vocalisations they respond to or the actual duet of a perceived rival pairs. Greg also videoed some very interesting behaviour today. During one of playback experiments which included the presence of two dummy tanagers, the resident pair flew over and approached the dummies within 0.5m. Then they came together just 1m from the dummies in the same tree and produced a return duet. This evidence shows that on some level the visual presence of rivals adds to the severity of reactions from resident pairs.

Our botany intern Georgina Snelling has now begun data collection from her 100m x 100m plots. Within each of her 12 plots she has randomly selected ten 10m x 10m quadrants. Data will be collected from inside these quads to eventually give a 10% sample of the habitats. Next week she will begin using the new equipment Para la Tierra are providing. These include a moisture and conductivity probe as well as a sunlight sensor. At the same time Georgina is building up a herbarium of ferns and other botanical samples from the reserve. This involves a lot of ‘keying out’ as botanists say.

Aimee Oxley has completed her data collection period for her Masters research into the affect of habitat disturbance on small mammals. She gained a good amount of captures and data during the allocated time period and is now collating it all together in preparation for statistical analysis.

Aimee’s study in the Atlantic forest has had an additional unexpected result and benefit. Over the last two months Aimee and the volunteers who have helped her have regularly observed tufted capuchins (Cebus libidinosus paraguayanus). The reactions from the monkeys to human encounters has been so encouraging that we are now aiming to launch a long term primate project at Para la Tierra. The monkeys were not scared (which is usually the case for unhabituated primates) and did not run away. Instead they were more inquisitive and stared at the people for a while and then carried on with their business. This is an excellent sign and we intend to habituate these groups and get to know them a lot better.

Finally, I am leaving Laguna Blanca for a couple of days next week to visit Asuncion. In the capital I will be collecting some important items for camp, holding some research meetings with Para la Tierra collaborator Dr Robert Owen, and also giving a presentation on the organisation at an English speaking class.

Until next time ill say goodbye.

Best wishes,

Luke

lunes, 25 de julio de 2011

Plots, physiology, and pair bond doubts

Research conducted by Greg Goodfellow, our behavioural intern, is not only beginning to bare fruit but has also thrown up some surprising, yet intriguing, records. He is working his way through the required data collection from each of the 9 measured locations within each of his 4 study groups. At present, although not yet statistically tested, it appears Greg is correct on some of his hypotheses over white-rumped tanager duets, territorial, and mate defence behaviours.
As there has been little, if any, previous work conducted on these birds it was always likely Greg would observe and record surprising incidences we would class as ‘unusual’. Of course these events are almost certainly not unusual. Rather it is a testament to how poorly we understand these Cerrado dwelling animals. For example, recently Greg observed and recorded some ‘unusual’ social behaviour within one of his study groups. On one occasion he recorded the resident male dueting with two different females at two different times. Furthermore, within the same group, Greg later recoded the same male dueting with two females at the same time. These observations underline not only how little we know about this species but also how flexible animal social systems can often be. Currently white-rumped tanagers are classified as a monogamous pair-bonded species. Greg’s recent records place question marks over the current opinion and may suggest higher and more direct levels of same sex competition or multiple group members taking part in synchronised song. Genetic data will cast more light on this issue.

Our botany intern Georgina Snelling is now two weeks into her field investigation on the factors affecting fern abundance, diversity, and distribution within the Para la Tierra reserve. Over the last 14 days Georgina has successfully measured and GPS’ed three 100m x 100m survey plots in each of her study habitats – Monte seco (dry forest), Atlantic forest, Cerrado, and riparian. This gives her a total of 12 plots to collect data from. Additionally, in the last two weeks Georgina has found two new fern species that she was previously unaware of, thereby adding to the known diversity within the reserve.

Aimee Oxley continues to press ahead with her Masters research into the affect of habitat disturbance on small mammals. Recently she has been trapping a higher than normal rate of the rarer species of Atlantic forest small mammals, for example Oligorysomys nigripes and Oligorysomys fornesi. Her research is also showing that weather and climatic conditions do have a distinct affect on her capture rate. During our recent warm and dry spell the number of daily captures fell from an average of over 15 to under 5. However, when we recently experienced a couple of storms the capture rate rocketed again. Currently the opinion is that during wet and/or cold conditions small mammals will be more likely to seek out shelter, and traps are a good form of shelter.


Behaviour among Cyanocorax chrysops (plush-crested jays)
As traditional methods of bird catching, such as mist netting, have failed with the Plush-crested jays we are now going to begin building custom cage traps. These will include bait at one end with a trigger system to close the door either when the bird pecks at the bait or steps into a trip wire. Furthermore we are honing in on what foods will tempt the jays into the traps. Our local forest guards have suggested that these jays have a particular liking for eggs and peanuts. So I will combine these two foods with the cultivated maggots to try and produce an irresistible plata.
I am now into the last two weeks of data collection for this initial phase of the project. Once this has been completed the focus for this project will switch to producing the first behavioural publication of Plush-crested jays and also catching and fitting individual leg rings to all group members. Then this project can progress to more complex issues.


Social and ecological factors among Clyomys laticeps (broad-headed spiny rat).

As I write the final round of root sampling is drying in the oven. In 3 days from now we will be in a position to either confirm or reject our hypothesis on water content as a factor for the apparent relationship Clyomys holds with a particular Cerrado bush. The root systems for all three of the sample bush species are unusual. None of these species, and hence probably many more Cerrado species, exhibit a tap root. What they do show is an extensive and large network of lateral long roots that sometimes stretch up to 5 meters away from the above ground section. This is seen even for very small bushes that appear to be in the primary stages of growth. A possible explanation for these observations is that many, if not all, of the Cerrado flora species can preserve their root systems during the natural fires that occur in this habitat. By doing this the plant essentially stays alive and can re-sprout once the fires have succumbed. Over a number of years of doing this the plants can continue to grow their roots without loosing them.
As I said in my last blog we are preparing to look at nutrient and compound levels in these bushes as an alternative explanation for the perceived preference Clyomys has for a particular species. Along with this we plan to dissect a Clyomys specimen from our museum to see if this species has a derived adaptation in the kidneys for retaining water. Trapping the Clyomys will begin in early August.

Until next time ill say goodbye.

Best wishes,

Luke

I’ve dug myself a hole…but have a tail with a happy ending.

Well actually I’ve dug myself 50 holes, and I have to be honest I didn’t actually do much digging (thanks boys!). However I am now the proud owner of 5 pit fall trap line arrays and I am finding some really cool herps. One of my newest lines is in a field of long grass and cacti (you know the sort, the wild wild west style cacti!) anyway within hours of digging in the buckets I caught an Amevia amevia – a lovely very colourful lizard - which is yet another new record for Laguna Blanca. And its not only reptiles and amphibians I’m getting in my new traps; yesterday I found a tiny baby opossum politely waiting for me to come along and let it go. The cute factor was quite high it has to be said!

It’s not only in the trap lines where I’m finding things though, in the last few days I have seen 2 massive snakes, neither of which we have in our museum… and neither I actually managed to catch either (sigh!). However I did manage to get the snake that was on Aimee’s transect and am happy to report that on closer inspection it wasn’t a deadly Bothrops but merely a rattlesnake (!), still highly venomous but not nearly as aggressive. Better still we have enough specimens of rattlesnakes so I was able to relocate it into another part of the forest where it can live out its days being no harm to anyone.

On a slightly sadder note we said goodbye to Claire, Jamie and Joe last night; three amazing, hardworking and flexible volunteers that will be sorely missed. It has to be admitted their departure could have gone a bit more smoothly. The car was all packed and we were ready to go when it became apparent a passport had gone AWOL! However, after much rummaging it was eventually found again (phew!). Then, as we were driving out of the reserve (its pitch black by now!) we bumped over something. “POP - FIZZ” is not a sound you want to hear when you are in the middle of nowhere with a flight to catch (or, in my case, get volunteers to). A front tyre had burst and our hearts sank. However all was not lost (it never is) and we had a plan B. A quick call to Karina and within ½ hour Luke arrived on the motoloco and sped off into the night with the volunteers all piled onto the back. Not the warmest or most comfortable of trips but they all got to the bus stop in plenty of time for their onward journeys. Which just goes to show that even when disaster strikes there is always a solution and never any need to panic!

I then returned to the house to find it over run with army ants- hurrah!

See you next time folks

Helen

lunes, 11 de julio de 2011

Mist nets, maggots, and moisture in roots

Here at Laguna Blanca we have finally come out of the prolonged cold spell we were enduring. It’s nice to have the sun back.
Greg Goodfellow’s investigation into aggressive reactions among white-rumped tanagers (Cypsnagra hirundinacea) is now in full swing. Each morning before first light he heads out onto the Cerrado to set up so that he can begin taking data as soon as his birds wake up. The dummy birds are also now making an appearance but there were a few slip ups when practicing launching them into trees.
Unfortunately Greg reported today that he thinks one of the females from one of his groups might have died. He did not see her and only the male was calling back to his vocal experiments. As sad as this is Greg may well be able to make something positive out of this change in demography. Having one of his groups with only one adult will provide an interesting opportunity for comparative analysis. However, perhaps she will return tomorrow.

Georgina Snelling begins her fieldwork tomorrow. Over the last few days she has been ‘keying out’ all of the species that she needs to be familiar with and able to identify. We also took a drive through all of the Cerrado to locate and finalise where she will measure out her plots so that she can begin surveying and recording the botanical dynamics of this little studied ecosystem. After some GPS training tomorrow morning she will be ready to launch the practical side of her study. Seeing as she has had her head in books for days now I think Georgina is looking forward to getting out in the field and executing her research.

Aimme Oxley’s research into the affect of disturbances on small mammal abundance and diversity has also been successfully launched. Her first capture-mark-recapture session was 6 days ago and she appears to be getting a healthy amount of individuals and data. As she began trapping while we still had the cold weather Aimme was concerned the captive animals would get too cold. Therefore she placed a good amount of bedding in each of her 260 traps.
Sex differences is one of the areas Aimme will compare. However these animals can be difficult to sex so Project Coordinator (and experienced small mammal trapper) Karina Atkinson had a session in the field with Aimme to teach her how to properly sex individuals. This was important to avoid mistakes in her data.

Behaviour among Cyanocorax chrysops (plush-crested jays)

My first paper for publication on the Plush-crested jays is under way. After this initial publication the project will move on to address more complex behavioural aspects of these birds. In order to investigate complex social dynamics each individual of each group will need a leg ring to distinguish themselves from others. This means I have to catch them. I was not looking forward to this task. Although hardly studied, these jays are regarded as having a very high level of intelligence. In fact in terms of their brain to body size ratio (a common way of assessing intelligence) Plush-crested jays are on par with great apes. This is why I wasn’t looking forward to trying to catch them. Nevertheless I though I would give it a go. With help from volunteers Jaime and Claire, and intern Aimme, we set up two mist nets in areas I regularly see the jays fly through. Then I played a series of vocalisations to attempt to attract them over. It certainly got their attention as 6 individuals turns up but, unfortunately, they did not take the bait and fly into the nets. Instead they proceeded to tease me for a couple of hours. Flying low and close to the net they would dip up or down at the last second to miss getting caught. Now I will probably have to switch to baiting cages where the door shuts when the bird pecks at the bait. Lets see how much success I have with that.
I have also started to try and cultivate some maggots. Not a nice job but I need them for the feeding stations. One of results that have come from the study thus far is that they are primarily insectivores. This may explain why they were not interested in my potato peelings. The battle of wits between man and jay continue.


Social and ecological factors among Clyomys laticeps (broad-headed spiny rat).

Initial results are in on the bush we suspect may be important to Clyomys. I have excavated 5 root samples from 5 of these bushes. As soon as I had the roots out they were put into sealable plastic bags. This was to prevent all the moisture from escaping. Once back at camp I weighed all the samples to get the weight of them when they are still holding water. Then I placed all the samples on a baking tray and put them in the oven on a low heat. I left them for 3 days so that all of the moisture would be taken out of the roots. After the drying period was finished I weighed all of them again to see what the differences was and to calculate what percentage of the roots are made up from water. Now, although the percentage of water in these roots was high – 49% - they contained only 2% more water than two other species I also tested. This means we need to look at other variables to try and work out what it is that is attracting Clyomys. So if we can reject our hypothesis that it is water content that attracts clyomys we will then start looking at nutrient levels.

Until next time I'll say goodbye.

Best Wishes,

Luke

domingo, 10 de julio de 2011

A new large mammal, a new lizard and a snake without a rattle in its tail!

Well I was going to start this post with after the excitement of my butterflies hatching things have been pretty quite here, however that was until yesterday morning!

You are not going to believe what I saw. I’m still reeling from the shock myself. 7am, walking along the beach, minding my own business and what should swim past me, casual as you like…? Only a capybara!!! It was just paddling along as calm as can be, diving and surfacing without a care in the world. And it was MASSIVE! It’s no wonder they are the worlds largest rodent it was HUGE! Not only was it amazing for me to see, as I have never seen one before, but it is the first sighting here at Laguna Blanca which means another large mammal species for our records. This place is incredible!

That’s not the only amazing thing to have happened in the last 24 hours. I recently caught a couple of lizards in one of my pitfall traps which look similar to a species we catch quite regularly here, Cercosaura schreibersii, but when I compared them there was something that just didn’t look right. And after much conflabbing and emailing of photos with Paul our scientific co-ordinator it turns out that they are different. They are in fact a species of which there is only one record of in Paraguay and that was from 1895 !! Another really important find at Laguna Blanca!

Other than all of that though, it has to be admitted its’ been pretty quiet. This is due to it being so cold all of my reptile and amphibian friends have been tucked up in their beds and refusing to come out. All except for the Bothrops – a highly venomous snake that doesn’t rattle to warn you its there - that Aimee one of our interns keeps running into on her small mammal transects. However it always manages to disappear whenever I am available to go and remove it! I am on call now, whenever she is in the field I am prepped and ready to drop everything and nab it. I fear its going to be a long wait!

That’s all folks

See you next time

Helen

domingo, 26 de junio de 2011

Breaking news

The main story tonight- the caterpillars have hatched. Helen Pheasey reports from Laguna Blanca:

It gives me great pleasure to bring you news of our latest arrival(s). I know you have all been on the edge of your seats waiting to hear how the caterpillars have been getting along (and if I had managed to keep them alive) well I am delighted to report that 2 days ago they began hatching and I am now the proud mother of (so far) 27 beautiful butterflies! Well I say “mother” they have flown the nest already so maternal care has been pretty limited but they still have a place in my heart where ever they are! Aside from the achievement of keeping them alive and getting them to hatch this also means that we are able to identify them. For a long month we have been waiting and wondering what they could be and so without further ado I can tell you they are… Heraclides anchisiades capys! None the wiser? No nor me, but if I tell you they are a type of swallowtail, large and black with pink and white patches on their wings you probably have a better idea! I still have some pupa that haven’t hatched yet so hopefully I’ll have a higher birth count for you next time.

In other news

I have begun a project looking into the abundance of scorpions. I keep catching them in one of my pitfall traps so I thought why not see if it is possible to mark-recapture them. Everyone thinks I’ve lost it because these scorpions have a nasty sting which I’m told is agony for several weeks. However, so far so good. I can confirm that I have successfully marked several with a tiny dot of pink nail varnish on the left hand shoulder and I am even happier to say that I re-caught one the other day. Maybe they aren’t as abundant as we initially believed. I’ll keep you posted as to how this project goes (and just how painful the sting is if they get me!).

And now for the weather

An Indian summer has swept across Laguna Blanca over the past week, bringing sunshine and humidity to the area with top temperatures reaching 32º. Volunteers have been experiencing sunbathing, swimming and sleeping under their mosquito nets. The resident herpetologist has been in heaven due to an influx of reptile and amphibian activity! Sightings include, rattlesnake, false chameleon and numerous frog species and tadpoles. Sadly the phenomenon was short lived as the sky is currently grey and overcast. Welcome back winter!

Until next time

Helen

Nicknames, fake birds, and funny ferns

Over the last 2 weeks there have been some exciting, and sometimes amusing, events. Greg Goodfellow continues to progress with his investigation into aggression, territorial, and mate guarding behaviour among white-rumped tanagers (Cypsnagra hirundinacea). He has designed a number of dummy birds whose visual presence will be combined with the vocalisations playbacks he conducts. However, like many things, building dummy birds is a learning process which needs practice. Greg’s first dummy was a giant white sock filled with sand with two pieces of paper (wings) stuck to the sides. Thankfully his current dummies are much better and more lifelike. He has also now located and recorded 4 different groups so intergroup comparisons are now a possibility.
Georgina Snelling has had a good first week. She is a typical botanist – spots many things a zoologist would obliviously walk straight past. I think I’ve learnt as much as she has this week!
After exploring the different habitats in the reserve she became interested in, what she thought, the unusual array and distribution of fern and moss species. She began finding these organisms in areas she would never expect, and vice versa. This confused her. So she has decided to un-confuse herself by addressing some of these issues through her research project. Georgina will examine the abundance and distribution of fern species within the reserve, and, importantly, why there are differences in their distribution. She will incorporate many aspects, from sunlight exposure to nitrogen levels in the soil, and will collect her data in a systematic way through the use of quadrant sampling.
On a separate note – I showed Georgina a strange bulb-like plant in the dry forest (monte seco) that has only become visible in the last few months. She found it as strange as I and then proceeded to make it her mission to find out what it was. She didn’t. However, I mentioned it in passing when I was talking with Para la Tierra Project Coordinator Karina Atkinson, and she had some good news. One individual that was among the conservation guests we had here a couple week ago also noticed the funny plant/flower/bulb. We were very happy to hear that not only is this the first documented occurrence of this species in this region of Paraguay, but only the third record in the whole of Paraguay.
So it is good to have a botanical intern with us here. Not only will it add diversity to our group but it will also broaden the information Para la Tierra produce on these natural habitats.
Aimme Oxley is driving ahead with the construction of gradient trapping lines in the Atlantic forest. With the help of our typically excellent volunteers, Jaime and Claire, she has already completed over 50% of her lines. Hopefully she will be able to start trapping and collecting data next week. However, although very hard work, I think the three of them have had fun with this process (partly due to their positive attitude towards this task). Hand blisters, insect bites, and sore muscles have all been laughed over, and the issuing of trail-cutting nicknames has been introduced. So these days the Atlantic forest trail cutters are known by such names as ‘slasher’, ‘hacker’, and even ‘the Don’.

Behaviour among Cyanocorax chrysops (plush-crested jays)

Data collection and study on the behavioural repertoire of these birds continues to go well. I have recorded new behaviours to add to the growing ethogram – allogrooming, dominant and submissive behaviours and vocalisations, to name a few. Much to my frustration they continue to be wary of my feeding stations. It’s a shame the same cannot be said for their closely related cousins the curl-crested jays, who ive caught enjoying the offerings several times. However, although frustrated, the fact that the plush-crested are not easily fooled add to the current opinion that these birds are very intelligent, and hence probably have a complex social system.
I have taken a further step in the first phase of this study. Along with the standard ethogram, I will now offer a ‘flow ethogram’. Flow ethograms are the natural next step from the first documentation of a species behaviour. Instead of leaving the documented behaviours separate from each other a flow ethogram offers behavioural sequencing, i.e in what order and in what combination are behaviours usually observed? These steps are necessary to pave the way for further, more complex study, not only on this species but also for comparisons to other closely related species.

Social and ecological factors among Clyomys laticeps (broad-headed spiny rat).

As I said in my last posting, I have taken the decision to incorporate burrow traps as well as ground traps in order to record certain morphological and behavioural aspects among these rodents. I carried out some pilot work to see how feasible inserting burrow traps would be. Thankfully the process was fairly simply to carry out. Therefore I will be setting these traps in all the new or recently used burrows that are within my study area.
After consulting with our botany intern Georgina it seems like we may be correct in our theory as to why these animals seem to burrow under a particular scrub. From a botanical perspective it appears the structure and appearance of this scrub (very leafy) suggests it is accumulating and holding more water than other botanical life on the Cerrado. Therefore it would make sense that clyomys are utilizing one of the few water sources in their habitat. However, this is still an assumption and as scientists we need to test our assumptions. So I think it’s time for me to get the shovel out and start digging!

Best wishes,

Luke

miércoles, 15 de junio de 2011

Root eating, burrow trapping, and ethogram making

Hello everyone,
Since my last blog our camp has steadily become a beehive of activity. Greg Goodfellow, one of my interns, arrived at the beginning of the month. Greg will be with us for 3 months and will carry out his own research project. For his first 2 weeks Greg explored all of the habitats we have at Laguna Blanca and also tried his hand at all the activities we offer. He particularly enjoyed mist netting for birds on the Cerrado and small mammal trapping in the dry forest (Monte seco). He has recently finalised what he will be studying. Greg will be testing the variability of aggressive reactions to vocalisation playback experiments among the white-rumped Tanager (Cypsnagra hirundinacea). This bird species inhabits the Cerrado but has not had its behaviour well documented. Greg will focus on two areas for aggressive behaviour – territorial defence and mate defence. He will also integrate other variables into his study, for example the use of a dummy bird, variation in the amplitude of the bird calls he plays, and variation in the location of playbacks.
Greg has worked hard to design a very interesting and worthwhile project, so we are all eager to see the new information his work produces.
Another intern arrived yesterday and another will follow tomorrow. Georgina had her first tour of the reserve this morning. She is a botanist who will be carrying out a 3 month study. She already has good ideas for research into the flora at Laguna Blanca. This is especially encouraging, as very little is known about the botanical aspects of this region. What’s more, as I’m a zoologist, I am learning all sort of interesting botany facts from her! Finally, Aimee Oxley arrives from England tomorrow. Amy will be undertaking her Masters Degree research. Aimee is interested in assessing habitat disturbance effects and how this influences the abundance and diversity of fauna. So we are enjoying a growing number of interns at the reserve who are all going to be conducting interesting projects and adding to our knowledge about the flora and fauna of Laguna Blanca.


Behaviour among Cyanocorax chrysops (plush-crested jays).

Since my last blog I have been constructing feeding stations for the jays. The reasons for this are 2 fold – 1- it should increase the amount of contact time I have with groups, 2 – it should increase the chances of observing certain behaviours that occur rarely. As I am initially only aiming to produce a behavioural ethogram for this species, frequency of behaviours is not an important factor. After their behavioural repertoire has been established the feeding stations will come down in order not to influence the frequency of certain behaviours.
My work on producing the first ethogram for these birds is going well. I am covering locomotion, vocal, and social behaviours. Once an ethogram is available for this species larger scale, more complex aspects of their behaviour can be investigated and tested. Co-authoring with our scientific coordinator, Paul Smith, I aim to publish these results within the next few months. So keep your eyes peeled for notification on this!

Social and ecological factors among Clyomys laticeps (broad-headed spiny rat).

As Helen has said below, Paul Smith and Robert Owen visited the reserve for a few days. During this period we had a discussion and brainstorming session over the short term direction of my Clyomys study. I have worked especially closely with Robert on this project and he has been a very helpful collaborator.
Due to the fact that these rodents burrow and spend a significant amount of time underground, I have decided to construct and employ burrow traps. These will be inserted directly into a burrow that has evidence of recent use. The ground Sherman traps that I currently have within their habitat will also stay. By combining two different trapping methods we can not only see the effectiveness of each approach, but also assess the number of potential differences found between the data collected from the two different traps.
The initial part of this study focused on the burrow ecology and the relationship burrows hold with the habitat flora. It produced some very interesting and, more importantly (to me at least), statistical significant results. Along with the subsequent data I will collect, and the future questions I will test, we will be aiming to produce and publish substantial information and results on this little known, but very important rodent. Its importance lays in our suspicions that it is a keystone species. Therefore, if multiple other species are reliant on this rodent for their own survival then Clyomy laticeps could become a major focus for conservation efforts.
Finally, I will be digging up some bushes in the Cerrado. This is because my data suggests that the burrows Clyomys dig are multifunctional. It seems likely that these rats not only live, sleep, and socialise in these burrow systems, but also use them as a foraging strategy. There is a particular scrub within their habitat that I have regular found a single burrow under. Furthermore, there is no exit to the burrow. So we think these burrows are purely dug so that the rats can eat the nutrient and moisture rich roots of this particular scrub. A good strategy when your home is a dry, semi-arid landscape!

Until next time ill say goodbye.

Best wishes,

Luke

Gate-crashing frog orgies, strange bellies and a case of mistaken identity

The most amazing event occurred here a couple of nights ago. It has all been very quiet on the frog front recently due to a major drop in the temperature. However on Wednesday and Thursday we had two massive storms – the biggest I’ve seen since being here! Then as the rain subsided on Thursday night a strange humming sound started from the other side of the lake. At first I couldn’t tell if it was actually a sound and was beginning to think my tititus finally caught up with me, when other people started to notice it and I realised it must be real. When Karina rang to say it was frogs and definitely worth a look, I didn’t need to be told twice. Pulling on my wellies I ran out of the door.

The sound was coming from a vernal pool near the Atlantic forest about 1km away from the house and the noise was deafening! The frogs were Odontophrynus americanus and they were EVERYWHERE – I had to tread really carefully to avoid stepping on them. The interesting thing about these frogs is that they spend almost all their lives buried underground, then once a year, when conditions are perfect, they emerge in their hundreds and sing their little hearts out for one or two nights, mate, and then disappear back to where they came from. What a privilege to be here when the time was right!

Although it was the most spectacular, the frog orgie wasn’t the only interesting thing that’s been happening in the herp world here. Thanks to our wonderful volunteers I now have 3, very long, permanent pitfall traps and despite it being the middle of winter I am still catching some new and interesting frogs and lizards. One frog which has had us scratching our heads is a tiny species of the Leptodactylus genus. We think we know what it is, however it has some strange markings on its belly which may be nothing but may on the other hand be very significant. Check back here in a couple of weeks for an update on our mystery belly!

We have also been working very hard to try and catch some of the lizards that live in the trees by our house and office. Until a couple of weeks ago we thought we knew what they were but new information has come in and we are now having another look at our specimens as we are 99% confident they are a new species to science!!! This is incredibly exciting but it does mean we need to catch more to be sure and that means that some how we have to get them out of the tree!

Aside from all of the exciting finds, we have all be working really hard in preparation for hosting a grant meeting. This is an opportunity for a variety of stakeholders and interested parties to get together and discuss ideas for the next 12 months and to devise a plan for us all to work to here. This meeting has also been an opportunity for Robert Owen and Paul Smith to come and spend a few days at Laguna Blanca. Robert is our consultant and an expert on small mammals, and Paul is our scientific co-ordinator. Although we work quite closely by email, this is the first time I have met Robert and I’ve not seen Paul since he brought us to Laguna Blanca almost 3 months ago. It’s been great to have them here to pick their brains and use as a sound board for new ideas.

And finally, I know you are all on the edge of your seats waiting to hear how my caterpillars are coming along. Well I won’t keep you in suspense any longer; I am delighted to report… there’s no change! They are all still snuggled up in their little cocoons waiting for the right time to come out and reveal their true identity. Maybe next time I’ll have some news!

Adios amigos hasta luego

Helen

jueves, 26 de mayo de 2011

Bird talk, spider catching, and tattoos

This month saw the return of Fatima, one of our Paraguayan Interns, and the arrival of two volunteers, Pete and Dafna.
Fatima is assessing the abundance and diversity of arachnids within the different habitats of the reserve. She has made good progress and is producing some interesting specimens. Her project will provide the first evidence and information on spiders at Laguna Blanca.


Behaviour among Cyanocorax chrysops (plush-crested jays).

This month good progress has been made with the plush-crested jays. In collaboration with our scientific director Paul Smith, I have finalised the methodology and objectives for this study over the short and long term. Currently we are in the process of producing the very first description of the behavioural and vocal repertoire of this intriguing social bird. Over the next few weeks I will attempt to catch and attach leg rings to individuals. By achieving this we will then be able to get to know the individuals within the groups and assess how their behaviours differ, and importantly why they differ. Pete and Dafna provided some useful assistance in the field when searching for and observing the group.


The Laguna Blanca brown capuchin project

A trail system within the monkey’s home range has now been started. I have also conducted a thorough assessment of the forest in which they inhabit. Hopefully we will have more than one group to study within the reserve. A previous researcher, Jon Smit, generously provided me with a detailed map of where he has sighted the capuchins. This information will be helpful when deciding on where to lay trails.


Social and ecological factors among Clyomys laticeps (broad-headed spiny rat).

This month I and Project Coordinator Karina Atkinson made the decision to switch to a new method of marking the small mammals we trap and release. We have switched to a tattoo method. Not only is this vastly better value for money compared to our current microchip method, but it is also significantly less invasive. It will also allow us to successfully and easily mark species that have previously proven very problematic. One of these species is Clyomys laticeps.
After a short break my Clyomys project will resume on arrival of our new marking equipment. We are also considering combining previous trapping data, both from Karina’s project and our outside collaborator Robert Owen. This will hopefully broaden the study and add a comparative aspect.

This month I also went on a long kayak ride to the other side of the lake. Exhausting but enjoyable!

Until next month, all the best

Luke A. Ward
Research Scientist and Intern Coordinator

miércoles, 25 de mayo de 2011

Birds, Bitches and Rattlesnake penises!

I can’t believe that it has only been a few weeks since my last blog update – so much has happened I’m not sure where to start!

Let’s start with people. We have had two new volunteers and a new member of staff join us over the last week or so. Dafna from Israel and Pete from the UK stayed with us for about a week (far too short I must say ;O) and so because they were here for such a short amount of time we thought it would be a great excuse to cram in as much as possible. In that week we managed to: go mist netting for birds - twice, lay out a new grid and start a smammal survey in the Atlantic forest, dig in a pit fall trap line, carry out a habitat survey, go bird walking and check the reptile cover boards at the top of the cerrado. And somehow they still had the time and energy to go kayaking, for walks in the forest and have a few drinks at the end of the day! I have to say I think the mist netting was the highlight for everyone. It certainly was for me as it is not something I had done for birds before and we caught a gilded humming bird which absolutely made my day!

Pier is our new member of staff and will be with us for 10 days a month to look after our museum and make sure all of our specimens are stored, labelled and logged correctly. And luckily for me he is also an expert on snakes so I plan to learn lots from him. He has already shown me how to extract the hemipenis of a rattlesnake – which was not something I expected to see when I woke up this morning!

One of the jobs that has been preoccupying my evenings lately, has been looking after my caterpillars. Since my last post we found a group of 59 caterpillars on a tree and decided to bring them in and look after them to document this stage in their life cycle and see if we can get them to hatch. They are incredibly delicate and there is a whole list of things that they don’t like; they need to be kept in a sheltered place away from the cold, the wind, direct sunlight, artificial light and obviously any kind of pesticides. They also need to be disturbed as little as possible but at the same time they can also be really easily poisoned by their own poo so cleaning them out has been somewhat challenging! However I am delighted to be able to report that they have started pupating! This does however mean that they are now at the really really delicate stage and so as you can imagine I am a nervous wreck. I’m pacing the room, wringing my hands and sweating like an expectant father not knowing where to put myself. I hope to bring you good news of the happy arrivals in my next blog.

Well I thinks that’s all for now. Oh yea you are probably wondering where the bitches came into it… the dog has been in season!

Chau for nowwwww

Helen

jueves, 5 de mayo de 2011

Burrows, birds, and bitterly cold

Hello everyone,
Although this initial period has flown by, some encouraging progress has been made here at Laguna Blanca.
This month saw Rodrigo and Johanna, interns from Asuncion University, launch their thesis projects. They will be assessing the abundance and diversity of reptiles and herps between and within the four distinct habitat types we enjoy here at the reserve. They have made good progress in installing some pitfall traps in each of their study habitats, as well as marking out some of their survey areas. Already they have had some capturing success. At the end of this month we will welcome two new interns who will also begin some interesting research (more on that next month).

New projects at Laguna Blanca

1. Social and ecological factors among Clyomys laticeps (broad-headed spiny rat).
This month I completed the first phase of this investigatory project into this little known cerrado rat. Data has been collected on the ecology, structure, and locations of their ground burrows that they dwell in. Some preliminary analyses have already produced some interested results. For the coming month I will begin to execute the second phase – trapping. Through this method valuable data will be gained on a number of social and sexual areas – all of which have no current information.
The progress I have achieved with this new project would not be anywhere near where it is without the enthusiastic assistance provided by our recently departed volunteers – Sarah Kada and Aurelien Boutigny. They learnt quickly, worked hard, and were meticulous in their approach. They were both outstanding and truly represent why volunteers are so valuable for the progression of Para la Tierra.

2. Grouping behaviour among Cyanocorax chrysops (plush-crested jays).
Group locations have been recorded for these birds and data collection on this intelligent, yet poorly understood species, will commence this month.

3. The Laguna Blanca brown capuchin project
Forest mapping and group spotting will begin this month. It’s high time these monkeys met me!


For the last few days we have been experiencing an unusual cool spell for this time year. Temperatures dropped as low as 9oC during the day. Needless to say - as we are used to warm sunshine - hats, gloves, scarves, multiple sweaters, and even alpaca socks, have all been worn.

On that chilly note ill say goodbye until next month.

Best wishes,

Luke A. Ward
Research Scientist and Intern Coordinator

miércoles, 4 de mayo de 2011

Helen's First Month

Well I’ve survived my first month at Laguna Blanca and I have to say I have LOVED EVERY MINUTE OF IT! We have had two wonderful volunteers; Aurelien and Sara from France. They stayed for a month and have not only been great in the field they have also been a tremendous help with my not so brilliant Spanish (I’m trying!).

The work we have been doing has been so varied and interesting. I have found some new areas that I’ve been exploring for frogs, with reasonable success (apart from the leaky wellies that is) and have added a new species to our inventory list. Aside from frogging (my favourite of course!) we have been out smammal (small mammal) trapping for 2 weeks of the month – at new and full moon - and today we went to check the traps on horseback (yippee!). We also helped a couple of interns from Paraguay; Rodrigo and Johanna to dig in some pit fall trap lines. This was especially rewarding for me as when I was a volunteer I was taught how to build trap lines and now I’m the one teaching the volunteers. And a very good job they did of it too!

I had a very exciting find the other day too. When I was out checking the smammal traps in the cerrado I found a very interesting snake which is only the second specimen to be found in Paraguay – the first was found by our intern Anna in February. This is great from both a biological and conservation aspect as it means that the range of this species is a lot wider than was first thought. Plus it adds to the list of species present at Laguna Blanca Reserve and demonstrates how valuable the cerrado habitat is.

Its not all been work work work though, we have still managed to find the time and energy to have a few drinks in the evening and even a couple of parties, including a Royalty themed fancy dress dinner party in celebration of the royal wedding back in the UK – all very silly and highly amusing.

It is surprisingly cold here at the moment and so we are all walking about wearing all our clothes and drinking copious amounts of tea, coffee and mate – a Paraguayan hot drink. But the mornings are crisp and beautiful and it is far preferable to a winter back home!

viernes, 8 de abril de 2011

Introducing Luke

Hello to everyone,
My name is Luke and I am one of the recently appointed research scientists here at Laguna Blanca. I am also the intern coordinator and advisor. This first blog is a bit of an introduction about me and also what plans we have for the coming months concerning new projects at the site.

I am interested in all aspects of wildlife and natural habitats. However my research background is rooted in studying behavioural and biological aspects of social, group-living animals. Specifically im interested in individual strategies within multi-male/multi-female groups and how these strategies affect individual fitness and reproductive success. I am particularly focused on adult female reproductive, socio-sexual, and dyadic associative behaviour. More recently I have been combining these behavioural interests with the broader theoretical areas of Social Network Theory/analysis and Biological Market Theory.

I arrived at Laguna Blanca on March 23. The people who originally set up the site have done an excellent job. For a long term researcher such as myself this site provides an excellent platform to comfortably conduct projects, as well as offering the opportunity to have some fun and relax when not working. I have particularly enjoyed my daily dip in the crystal clear lake, which is on our doorstep.
Since arriving I have begun setting up the preliminary stages of three new projects we are planning to launch:

1. Social and ecological factors among Clyomys laticeps (broad-headed spiny rat).
These nocturnal and group-living rodents thrives in underground burrow systems on the Cerrado. Virtually nothing is known about these animals but there are already suspicions that they may be a keystone species of that habitat.

2. Grouping behaviour among Cyanocorax chrysops (plush-crested jays).
Plush-crested jays are a social bird species that inhabit Laguna Blanca. Recently question marks have been raised over what social system these animals are actually practicing. A previous volunteer observed groups for a short period and reported that group individuals appeared to be changing throughout the day. If indeed this species is practicing a fission-fusion social system then there is great opportunity for a multitude of long and short term studies into the socio-biology and behaviour of these animals that could provide useful information for the wider zoological and scientific community.

3. The Laguna Blanca brown capuchin project
This long term project will provide opportunity for volunteers and interns to gain firsthand experience studying and observing wild primates. The project will offer opportunity for study in a wide variety of behavioural and ecological areas as well as learning useful field techniques for collecting scientific data.

Ok, that’s all for now. I look forward to hopefully meeting some of you potential volunteers and interns in the near future.


Best wishes,
Luke Ward
Research Scientist and Intern Coordinator

jueves, 31 de marzo de 2011

Introducing Helen

Hi everyone,

I’m Helen the new volunteer co-ordinator at Para La Tierra. I wanted to add a few lines to this blog to introduce myself and tell you a bit about my first few days at Laguna Blanca.

I’m passionate about wildlife, conservation and in particular herps (reptiles and amphibians). I have recently finished my Masters in International Wildlife Trade and Conservation in the UK. My thesis was on the chameleon trade in Madagascar where I interviewed chameleon exporters in an effort to make the chameleon pet trade more sustainable. That was my second trip to Madagascar; the first time was a research expedition where I learned a number of survey techniques which will be very helpful in this new role with Para La Tierra. I have also undertaken field work in Indonesia and have volunteered in Mexico a Burundi. In addition I worked for 5 years with a charity called Concordia International Volunteers where I organised volunteer projects and co-ordinated volunteers.

I only arrived at Laguna Blanca a few days ago and the first thing that struck me was just how beautiful it is. The photos I have seen really do not do it justice! I am writing this sitting in a hammock, the lake is to my left and the water is crystal clear and perfect for swimming (which I do everyday). I’ve been out to the cerrado a couple of times on armadillo hunts and best of all (for me anyway) I have been out frogging and we think we may have found a new species of frog – watch this space for more info on this. Over the next few months I plan to get together a concise inventory of the amphibians here so I can begin looking at different species community structures and habitat preferences so there will be plenty of work for anyone interested in frogs and toads.

I really hope that some of you reading this blog will have the opportunity to come and visit us at Laguna Blanca so you can experience for yourselves this amazing place and its wildlife.

Hope to see you soon

Helen Pheasey
Research Scientist and Volunteer Co-ordinator.

viernes, 28 de enero de 2011

Plenty of Adventures!

A lot has happened since my last blog so make your self a cup of cup, sit back, relax and enjoy your read.

Our intern Johnny has recently left Paraguay for the English snow but not without adding some valuable information about the reptiles which inhabit Laguna Blanca. The aim of Johnny’s project was to summarize the different species of reptiles found in 3 varying habitats, atlantic forest, marshland and cerrado. This involved daily searches at dawn, dusk and night. These surveys were always enjoyable as every day there was something new to see whether it be a lizard rummaging around in the undergrowth looking for breakfast or another bothrops (lancehead viper snake) soaking in the rays as it digests its dinner of frog. Apart from seeing all of these beautiful creatures going about their daily business it was particularly nice to “get to know” the reptiles too. There was one particular bothrops who was continuously spotted lounging about her burrow alongside a path in the atlantic forest. Almost daily she could be found hanging about in the foliage or slowly slithering along the path. Only at one occasion did she show any aggression and I believe it was purely because she was caught off guard as she went for her nightly amble. Unfortunately, the cerrado did not present many snakes although we did find evidence such as snake skins. However, it was alive with lizards, from whiptails (Cnemidophorus) and skinks (Mabuya) to Teius and the ground lizards (Tropidorus). We could not venture into the cerrado without seeing a flash of green as a Cnemidophorus dashed past us and into a burrow or spying Mabuya as it squeezed tightly between the bark of a fallen tree. On numerous occasions tree trunks seemed to riggle until on closer inspection you could see a Tropidorus running up the tree and stopping every few paces to bop its head warning everything that “hey I’m a big fella and this is my tree!.”

The Paraguayans who live on site and work for the tourist part of the reserve are interested in all aspects of our work and I think sometimes believe us to be a little loca when it comes to our excitement on spotting a snake, lizard or amphibian. But they are very helpful and more than once they have told us of a reptile sighting, this being mainly snakes as they have a fear over them and want them to be removed, which Johnny and I where more than happy to do. One beautiful snake which was found near their house was a Xenodon (false lance head viper snake), this snake has the most stunning patterns and colours and has some smarts too as it mimics the deadly bothrops (lance head viper snake) it does this so well that the locals even believed it to be venomous (which it is not). Just last night we got a call to say that they had a young neotropical rattlesnake (Crotalus). Now this snake is as deadly as they come and is one not to be messed with (as with all snakes) so they were quick to kill it as not to risk it harming anybody. This is the second time we have come across this remarkable snake. Just a few weeks ago we were clearing a path in the atlantic forest and this little beautie was coiled up in amongst the low dense vegetation. Phew, my heart stepped it up a few beats!

The end of October brought us intern Alex. His aim was to understand the daylight time expenditure of two group living species of birds found at Laguna Blanca. After spending a week or so stalking a range of birds he decided to study the smooth-billed anni (Crotophaga ani) and the guira cuckoo (Guira guira). Alex spends his days finding, observing and following (they definitely make him work for his study!) his birds and noting their behaviour, such as grooming, feeding, courtship displays and resting (which seems to be the anni’s favourite past time much to Alex’s frustration!!). This project is fascinating as it details the activity levels of these birds, where they spend their time during the day and their general behaviours. This project is still on-going and continues to show some very encouraging results.

Two interns from Germany and the Netherlands have recently joined us too and their small mammal project has brought us to both the atlantic and dry forest. Apart from a very interesting study it is also very exciting for us because up until now we have carried out little work in the atlantic forest. Intern Jip and Jakob are focusing their study on these two very different habitats in order to clarify the species diversity found within these forests. They are doing this by separating the forest into layers, ground, arboreal and canopy, this will aid in determining what small mammal species are found in which layers and because the study is based around the lunar cycle it will also indicate whether this affects the activity of small mammals. To date they have gathered some very exciting data on small mammals such the mouse opossum arboreal rat and woolly mouse opossum (Micoureus). Every day into these forests brings new adventures, whether it be stumbling across a caterpillar which looks like it belongs in the Alien vs Predators movie to spotting a black tegu (large lizard) ambling through the undergrowth on the hunt for its lunch. But the most exciting and thrilling natural event we witnessed was the hour long wrestle between a 4 foot long parrot snake (Leptophis ahaetulla) and a large mug sized tree frog (Trachycephalus). At first I thought I could hear a small baby crying but then I spotted this stunning snake latching onto the hind leg of this crying tree frog that was desperately trying to claw its way away from the slender coils of the snake. Everybody gathered around this amazing battle that you would only ever imagine seeing on a David Attenborough program. The snake won!

As PLT also welcome volunteers, we were joined by three volunteers who decided to stop by for a week or two as they travelled across South America. Alesha from New Zealand took part in helping establish the small mammal project and since she has a background in GIS she had a look through our data and brought us up to date which was an enormous help. Jon from France and Sophie from Wales dipped in and out of most projects. Our grasshopper inventory definitely increased during their stay! This project is still in its early days but we hope to have a clearer picture on the grasshoppers found at Laguna Blanca as they are literally everywhere. Splashes of colour can be seen flashing from one bush to the next particularly in the cerrado. Large gatherings tend to hangout on a single plant and fall to the ground like rain when disturbed.

We all took a well deserved break for Christmas and New Years and spent the time lounging by the lake, catching up with people back home, bird watching and playing some volleyball and football on the beach. Christmas weekend brought some very delicious foods, fresh lime infused chicken and pork, sopa paraguya, roasted vegetables, mashed spuds with squash, Christmas fruit cake and home made cookies. We brought New Years in sitting under a perfect star filled sky by the lake with the local people. It was a far cry from the New Years parties most of us are used to back home, so it made the night that bit more special.

2011 has brought us interns Joe from England, Raph from the US and volunteers Shane and Erika also both from the US and John from the Netherlands. Intern Joe is here to do an epidemiological study for his research Masters. He is investigating the endoparasite communities of small mammals in recently burnt and unburnt forests. This study has been very exciting thus far as no previous work has been done in this area before. Joe’s work in collecting helminths from small mammals is critical for conservation purposes and for establishing the health of the forested ecosystems. Although at times I think he takes a double look at his food especially after spending hours staring into a microscope at tiny nematodes and what not.

Raph has come to us during his college break, and is interested at the diversity of bats at Laguna Blanca. To date we have gathered a small inventory of the bats living here but Raph hopes to extend this. As Laguna Blanca is a mosaic of different habitats, atlantic forest, dry forest, cerrado and lake, intern Raph is aiming to sample them all. The fun part of this study are the very late nights. In order to gather as much information as possible two bats nets are set up at each site and remain open from 8pm until 5am. As you could guess our stores of coffee have decreased some what!

It is volunteer Shane’s second visit to Laguna Blanca in less than a year. He volunteered with us the winter of last year and has returned again to gain valuable field experience, particularly in the small mammal projects. He has also taken an interest in the cerrado flora. The warm weather has produced an array of stunning flowers which Shane did not witness during the winter months. Shortly after arriving he constructed a flower press and now spends his days trekking the cerrado in search of some beautiful plants and flowers.

As volunteers here at PLT have the opportunity to dip in and out of on going projects they have the chance to gain a vast knowledge on a wide range of animals, from mammals and birds to reptiles and insects. Volunteer Erika joined us initially with an interest in birds but since being here she has learnt an array of new skills from sampling small mammals and endoparasites to pinning and identifying butterflies and moths. Erika’s previous experience in birding has resulted in her gathering baseline data on the behaviour of burrowing owls found throughout the cerrado. As intern Emma’s bird project has moved onto its next stage (this involves mist netting the species of birds found feeding on the study fruit and taking relevant measurements such as weight and gape) this allowed Erika to make good use of Emma’s bird hide which had been her home for the past two months. Similar to Emma, Erika has spent hours braving the cerrado heat in the little hide watching not only the burrowing owls daily routines but also witnessing some other very interesting birds one of which is still a mystery and is yet to be identified. This work is still on going so I will keep you posted.

John is an expert in flies and has shown many of us a new side to these sometimes frustrating little creatures. I think sometimes people don’t think to stop and take a second look at these tiny animals before they swat them. After taking a closer look at some of the vibrant eye colourations and fascinating wing patterns I know I will definitely have a second thought before flicking a fly from me.

Mist netting last night and this morning has proven to be very success. Four species of bat were found not far from the house, one of which is the first time found in our mist nets, much to Raph’s delight. He has a busy day ahead of him taking measurements and photographing each individual. Alex, John, Emma, Erika and I were up before the birds this morning, 430am to be exact, setting up metres upon metres of mist nets. It is lunch time and so far we have managed to remove, two adults and one juvenile Chopi blackbird (Gnorimopsar chopi), two adult Rufus, one Southern Sparrow house wren and one tanager. To see these birds cruising the skies and hopping from bush to bush everyday is a joy but to see them up close and personal really adds to the experience. One can truly appreciate the colours and textures of each individual, even the single black tone of the Choppi blackbird.

Hasta la Proxima!

Loraine Grant: MSc, BSc