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lunes, 28 de octubre de 2013

The Big Brained Primates of Laguna Blanca

In terms of intelligence, capuchin monkeys (Sapajus and Cebus spp) pretty much trump every other primate species (apart from humans!) on the continent of South America. The resident monkeys found in Laguna Blanca’s 414ha Atlantic Forest fragment are no exception!! There are thought to be between 12 and 14 individuals living within the reserve. There is one family group who are currently being habituated by the primate team volunteers and myself. Until recently when the monkeys were located within the humid, winding trails of the forest observers were treated to elaborate displays of alarm calls, fear grimacing (when the teeth are exposed like a smile and the eyebrows raised) and branch shaking. Encounters with the monkeys are brief but still breath taking and leave your heart racing with excitement. Last week the PLT Primate Team, right now consisting of Anna (a long term volunteer from Ireland who completed the same Primatology MRes as me) and myself, experienced the most exciting two hours of my 9 months chasing monkeys in Paraguay. The day began at 5 45am with the 30-minute walk to the South Atlantic Forest. Normally we take the motoloco (the bright red, incredibly fun, temperamental trike) it had died the day before so we began with a walk. We entered trail 1 and began to walk extremely slowly, taking extra care not to make too much noise on the carpet of dead, crunchy leaves. Usual procedure when we find the monkeys is to immediately make our presence known, if the monkeys don’t see you it is impossible for them to become habituated to researcher presence. On this day (and I couldn’t tell you why) I decided I wanted to sneak up on them and try and watch them for a while before announcing our presence. We reached the junctions of trails 1 and E – and heard a loud crash to our right. Monkeys. Painfully slowly – when every part of me wanted to run after the sound in case we missed them – we crept towards the crash. We didn’t hear another one. As we arrived at trail G and turned down a loud, hollow knocking sound greeted us. My heart sank thinking the monkeys had gone and all we could hear was a woodpecker. As we stole down trail G we looked up. Monos. The family group was in the tree in front of us. I quite literally stopped breathing as I realized what we were seeing. The hollow knocking sound was the monkeys. They were holding hard fruit in their hands and smashing it off the tree trunk in order to open it. Anna and I nearly fell over each other in desperation to get the camera out of the bag and start filming. This remarkable behavior not only perfectly displays the capuchins remarkable dexterity but also their incredible problem solving ability. For two hours we crawled around the ground trying to find the best view of the group, at one point I sat on a nest of biting ants but refused to move as I had a particularly good spot to film from!!! The next day we went out again the next day, this time with Emma as well. As we walked quietly along trail 3 towards the tree we had seen them feeding in before we heard the knocking. This time not only did we manage to film and photograph the fruit cracking behavior but also begging behavior from the younger monkeys!!! After about 45 minutes we were rumbled. The alarm calling began and the group vanished. We went to the bottom of the tree to collect some of the fruit that had been dropped. As we stood under the tree discussing what we had seen we heard a chirp and a crash behind us. Ka’i. Turning around we were faced with the sub-adult male of the group. Sitting about 3 feet above our head he was calling and displaying, generally making a grand show of himself. This is decoy behavior. I’m ashamed to say I fall for it a lot. As one member of the group comes close and displays loudly to draw observer attention, the others make a stealthy get away. Sometimes I think these monkeys are too smart for their own good!! Until next time, Becca

miércoles, 23 de octubre de 2013

We're all going on a summer holiday! By Anna O'Riordan

Clothes, food, water, bedding, money, passports and every piece of scientific equipment in the house….these are just a few things we had to think of in preparation for our first ever Chaco Lodge expedition! Organisation of all things essential was in full swing the day before our departure which was going very smoothly until we came to the point when we actually had to pack the car. It took a couple of goes but we got there in the end, hooray! Fitting all six of us (Karina, Joe, JP, Mike, Becca and I) in to the car was our next hurdle. As this weren’t actually possible, Becca and JP arranged that they would take the more scenic route and journeyed by bus (or should I say buses) while the rest of us would go in the car. So, nearly 11 hours, a number of toilet breaks and food stops later we finally made it to Filadelfia where we picked up our fellow PLT members from the bus stop. From Filadelfia, our final destination (the Chaco Lodge itself) was only an hour and a half to 2 hours away. Unfortunately, due to a number of factors which weren’t in our favour we ended up being a little lost, extending our journey by just 4 hours! Horrible…yes, but once we arrived, we all unpacked the sheets for the beds in the house where the girls slept and the tent for the boys and then we all just collapsed and slept soundly. With a new dawn (and a good night sleep) came a renewed excitement for all the activities that lay ahead of us. After breakfast we all hopped in the car and went on a drive around the reserve to get a good feel of the place. Passing all the different habitats (Salt lakes, shrub land, forest, tajamars – man made watering holes), you could almost hear everyone’s brains whirring with ideas for projects to do throughout our stay…areas for camera traps, Sherman traps (mammal traps), butterfly traps, surveying sites, the possibilities seemed almost endless! Once we reached the salt lake area we all scaled the intimidatingly high Mirador (viewing platform) but when we made it to the top we were all absolutely speechless by the AMAZING 360o view in front of us. This place was stunning. So, the next few days consisted of early morning starts, data collection, trail cutting, digging pitfall lines, bird watching, identification of as many animals as we could find, cooking over an open fire and having so much fun. What more could you ask for?! Just as we were all getting ourselves mentally prepared to leave there was a little bit of a twist…we got to stay for an extra 4 days, woohoo!! What else does a group of scientists do when they have an extended holiday? They collect MORE data – nerdy, but we love it. The only downside to all this extra time was that we ran out of water to shower with so we all smelt a little bit (don’t worry, we still had drinking water!) but more to the point, we ran out of coffee…disaster! Finally it was actually time to leave, so after repacking the car we were off on our delightfully long journey home. Although we were all a little tired by the end of it we had achieved so much. The list of animals we saw was immense: roughly 130 species of birds, 3 species of armadillos, peccary, tamandua, vampire bats, a few different species of medium sized cats, crab eating foxes, caiman, capybara, tapir and so many more. No monkey sightings unfortunately, although, that’s not to say they weren’t there. I guess we will just have to go back again to find them. Bring on round two of the Chaco!! By Anna O'Riordan Para La Tierra Primate Volunteer 2013

domingo, 13 de octubre de 2013

Chaco Expedition Part 2: by JP Brouard

20/09/13 This was supposed to be our last full day at the reserve so we gathered in the camera and sherman traps (a device to catch small mammals), and went for our last ride around the salt lakes. There were many birds around. A little Collared Plover ran through the sand, as two Tropical Kingbirds chased flies. When we returned Mike and I decided to put up some butterfly traps close to the lodge, while the others went for a walk to the waterhole. This turned out to be a very good decision. A Jaguarandi walked towards the water. As it got close a Crab-eating Fox chased it away. Joe and Anna got some amazing footage of this elusive cat. In the late afternoon a decision was made to stay for a few more days as an affiliate of PLT had some car issues and needed our 4x4. Karina had to leave and was going to be back to get us in a few days. 21-24/09/13 The next four days were spent in the vicinity of the lodge. We undertook a short project comparing the diversity of birds at two waterholes, put in new pitfall and sherman traps, and repositioned the camera traps. Mike, Joe and Anna made a new trail to search for the possible presence of Owl Monkeys. They spent large portions of the morning using machetes to clear the thorn bushes away from the path. Two of the days were very cold and the amount of animals being found decreased significantly. Joe and I spent a lot of time bird watching. The area around the lodge produced loads of cool species. We saw numerous Golden-billed Saltators, Lark-like Brushrunners, White-banded Mockingbirds, Many-coloured Chaco-Finches, and many more. On one of our walks we came across a Southern Three-banded Armadillo. They are a non-burrowing species that runs around going about their daily activities. We managed to see four individuals on this trip. At night we would go on walks down our new trail, or search the abandoned house for bats. We were able to get very close and personal with Vampire bats which was a cool experience. Spending time at the waterhole was a lot of fun. I counted 22 Caiman staring at me through the green algae on one particular day. Birds were abundant with beautiful species such as Hepatic Tanager, Blue-and-Yellow Tanager and White-tipped Plantcutter, all coming down for a drink. On the last day we collected all the equipment and that evening we all anxiously waited for the results from the camera traps to download onto the computer. The cameras had caught loads of cool species but the highlights would have to be the Tapir drinking at the waterhole, an Ocelot and another black form of the Jaguarandi. 25/09/2013 A bright and early start saw us pack the car and say goodbye to Chaco Lodge. In the short time spent sampling we saw over 130 bird species, 16 reptiles and amphibians and 15 mammal species. We were fortunate to see a Southern Tamandua (a species of ant-eater) crossing the road not long after our exit from the lodge. Unfortunately the Chaco is disappearing at an alarming rate. The month of August alone has seen 60,000 hectares of pristine bush disappear through the use of deliberate forest fires to clear land for cattle ranching. PLT is aiming to discover the hidden treasures of the Chaco before it is too late. If you would be keen to join us on one of our expeditions to this amazing place, visit our website at Until next time JP

martes, 8 de octubre de 2013

Chaco Expedition Part 1: by JP Brouard

The Chaco spans from eastern Bolivia, through the northern half of Paraguay, to the northern parts of Argentina. It is a harsh environment, but in this land there are many unique species that call it home. Paraguay has some of the best tracts of this habitat left in the world, but it is disappearing at an alarming rate. PLT’s mission is to save threatened environments, we have been very successful at Laguna Blanca, but this expedition was the start of our journey towards this goal in the Chaco. 15/09/13 The preparations for our expedition to Chaco Lodge began in the afternoon. The lodge is based next to a great salt lake in the Dry Chaco of northern Paraguay. Joe gave the team an introductory presentation about the area and the activities that we as a team needed to achieve. Then the packing began. Buckets, check. Moth light, check. Bedding, check. Food, check. The list went on and on. Eventually our silver 4x4 ‘Wingle’ was packed to perfection, and we were set to go. 16/09/13 We were up at dawn, and left for the nearby town of Santa Rosa. We had arranged that Becca and I would catch the bus to make it more comfortable for the journey ahead. The car team (Karina, Joe, Mike and Anna) had to collect a few items in Conception, so it all worked out well, and we all met up in the Chaco town of Filadelphia. A quick meal at the excellent local Chinese restaurant and we were on our way to the lodge. Well that’s what we thought. A few small navigational errors saw us driving around in circles and we only arrived at the Lodge in the early hours of the morning. We did manage to see a Crab-eating Fox and South American Racoon, but we were exhausted and needed to sleep. We unpacked the car quickly into the small bungalow where the girls had their room. Joe, Mike and I were camping so we put up our tent near the house. An abandoned second house was not far away, which in some respects seemed scary, but I was sure it would be full of animal life and worth searching. Before we went to bed we found our first Chaco special, a small frog, Rhinella major. What a great start to the trip! 17/09/13 Joe and I were up early to check out the surroundings. We lifted a large metal sheet next to the house to find a pregnant Chaco Straight-toed Gecko, Homonota fasciata. Another Chaco special. Birds were plentiful with the resident Chaco Chacalacas and Monk Parakeets making a constant racket. We walked to a nearby waterhole where there were plenty of vultures hanging around. The carcass of a cow laid dead in the grass which brought much delight and enthusiasm as we knew this could potentially be a good place to put a few camera traps later in the day. We headed back to the lodge to find everyone wide awake. Mike and Anna were collecting firewood, while Becca and Karina made lunch. We decided it was time to install Chaco Lodge’s first pitfall bucket traps. This is a great way to catch small reptiles, amphibians and rodents. After some hard labour and a great lunch we decided to go for a drive to the salt lakes to see if there was any water in them. Unfortunately the first lake was empty. A tall wooden lookout point stood towering above the treeline. We headed towards it and decided to all venture to the top. An incredible view laid in front of us. The dry salt flats stretched into the distance and pristine Chaco bush surrounded it. An Aplomado Falcon flew by swiftly, while a Six-banded Armadillo was digging a burrow in the ground. What a special place! 18/10/13 The highlight of the second day was our late afternoon trip to the nearby reserve of Campo Maria. We had heard that Chilean Flamingos covered their lakes and this was something everyone was keen to see. The reserve didn’t disappoint. Silver teals, Giant Wood-Rails, South American Stilts and groups of Flamingos were just some of the birds found on the lake. Dusk arrived, so we decided to get the big spotlight out and tried to find some mammals. It was chilly sitting at the back of the 4x4 but it paid off with the sighting of a Grey Brocket Deer and a group of White-lipped Peccary (a species of bush-pig). The drive back to Chaco Lodge also proved to be fruitful. Mike and I stood on the tray of the Wingle and battled the cold. Our perseverance was rewarded we sighted Crab-eating Foxes, an Azara’s Fox and two White-collared Peccary. 19/09/13 We were all in a routine by the third morning. The pitfall traps that we had set out around the lodge were producing some special Chaco endemic lizards. Our usual morning searches had revealed some awesome birds such as Cream-backed Woodpecker and Crested Gallito. The Caiman that lived in the waterholes seemed to be getting use to our presence. At lunch Joe told me that he had heard frogs calling from the large underground water tanks that collected rain water from the gutters. We lifted the lid of the first one to find many tree frogs clinging onto the pipes and walls. There were two species present, Scinax nasicus and Scinax acuminatus, both commonly found in houses and known to the locals as ‘bathroom frogs’. With this success we rushed to check the second container. I peered down to the bottom. BINGO! A rare Cat-eyed Snake (Leptodeira annulata) was resting near a very large scorpion and two species of large frogs, Leptodactylus laticeps and Leptodactylus chaquensis. Now we had to figure out how we could get them out. I connected my butterfly net with its extension poles to a large broom. It worked a charm. In half an hour all the animals were safely out of their watery death trap, photographed and released. In the late afternoon we went for a drive around the salt lakes. We passed the first dry lake, turned the corner and were very surprised to see water. Two Coscoroba Swans sat in the middle, while Maguari Storks patrolled the margins. We went for a walk on the muddy banks and found recent tracks of Puma crossing the flats. Jaguar and Puma are elusive in the area, so this was a great sign. Dusk fell upon us and soon after we set off again. Once again it only seemed fitting to take out the spotlight. A group of 14 Greater Rhea ran off into the distance, while a Great Horned owl sat in a tree on the edge of the lake. The best sighting of the night was the small Geoffroys cat, a species restricted to the Chaco. To be continued..... JP