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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


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,


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,


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