May 20, 2011
One of the Amazon's most elusive and least-known mammals, the short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis), captured on camera trap by the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS). Photo courtesy of TBS.
The Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS) rests in the Ecuadorian jungle across the river from Yasuni National Park. Here a camera trap program has led to a wealth of information, resulting in several research papers (see list at the end of the interview), on an area of the Amazon that is largely intact.
Diego Mosquera. Photo courtesy of TBS.
To gather such data, the program has focused in part on mineral licks around the site. Species visit these licks in order to consume minerals they can't get anywhere else.
"As expected, we captured a variety of fauna visiting the licks and wallows, including a surprising abundance of red brocket deer, tapirs, collared peccaries, white-lipped peccaries, howler monkeys and spider monkeys. The presence of these animals definitely tells us something about their apparent need for certain minerals, but also hints at a social function of such sites for many organisms," says Kelly Swing.
The program has also captured a number of photos of species that are almost never recorded, such as the short-eared dog, the bushdog, the nocturnal currasow, and the dark tree rat. Given their rarity and difficultly almost nothing is known about these animals.
Kelly Swing. Photo courtesy of TBS.
The camera trap program has proven such a success that TBS is now considering upgrading to include video camera traps.
"We realized the potential of having video cameras when once, by accident, we set one of the old digital cameras on video instead of still picture mode. We got over 200 8 sec videos, most of them at night, so you could not see anything. However, 3 of them, recorded during the day, turned out to be amazing," Mosquera says. Funding and building video camera traps are the two obstacles to implementation.
The station has sorted through thousands of photos, some blurry and indistinguishable, and others showing remarkable scenes of wildlife that no human eye has ever caught. For Mosquera, though, his favorite image was the one that proved there was black jaguar, more popularly known as a panther, in the area.
In a May 2011 interview Diego Mosquera and Kelly Swing discussed the challenges of camera trapping, the new discoveries the technique has yielded, and hopes for the future of the program.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DIEGO MOSQUERA AND KELLY SWING
Top predator and America's biggest cat, the jaguar (Panthera onca) caught on camera trap at TBS. Photo courtesy of TBS.
Mongabay: What are your backgrounds?
Diego Mosquera: I have a degree in Applied Ecology and I am finishing a Masters in GIS (Geographic Information Systems).
Kelly Swing is the Director of the Station. He has a PhD in Zoology and has worked and lived in Ecuador for the last 20 years.
Mongabay: What makes Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS) unique?
Diego Mosquera: Tiputini is located in the heart of Ecuadorian Amazon, adjacent to the Yasuni National Park, known to be one of the most biodiverse places on earth.
CAMERA TRAP DISCOVERIES
Photos of dark spiny tree rats (Echimys saturnus) at Tiputini was the first evidence of the species in this locale. Photo courtesy of TBS.
Mongabay: What led to the decision to begin camera trapping at Tiputini?
Diego Mosquera: Our main objective of the current project was to initiate a long-term monitoring program with camera traps to provide information on occurrence, distribution, and relative abundance of large terrestrial mammals and birds, and how those patterns vary over time. The goal was to develop baseline information before human activities increased in the region. TBS is, to date, largely unaffected by human activities, but this may change if hunting pressures or oil exploration increase. A second objective was to document the importance of mineral licks (saladeros) as a resource for different species and how the use of such licks varies not only among species but also across seasons. Natural mineral licks may be keystone resources for some species but are both spatially and temporally variable in occurrence. Further, given that hunters may target such areas, documentation of their importance may facilitate efforts to preserve such sites whenever possible.
We started the program in December 2004, and its a pioneer study of this kind in Ecuador. We have over 30,000 pictures to date and we are working on determining densities of cats, mainly jaguars and ocelots, something never done in Ecuador. According to preliminary data, densities of both species are remarkably high at the station.
Mongabay: What did you learn about clay licks by setting up cameras there?
A spider monkey captured on cameratrap in a rare momento on the ground seeking minerals from the clay lick. Photo courtesy of TBS.
Mongabay: Your camera traps have documented red howler monkeys and white-bellied spider monkeys feeding at clay licks. What is the significance of this behavior?
Kelly Swing: The fact that primates come to the ground to drink water and/or consume the substrate implies that the necessity to obtain some compound(s) there is greater than the risk of coming down out of the trees where they are much more agile and protected.
Mongabay: You've captured two of the rarest, most mysterious Amazonian mammals on camera: the short-eared dog and the bush dog. How much of a surprise was this?
Diego Mosquera: We knew that both species were extremely rare. We were expecting to capture them in the cameras, but we didn't expect to get so many pictures of the short-eared dog, in some cases both male and female are pictured two minutes apart. We’ve only captured the bush dog twice, but so little is known of these two species and so few studies have been done that any data are very important for the understanding of their behavior and ecology, and therefore, their conservation.
Mongabay: Have the photos revealed any insights into these largely unknown animals' behavior?
Weird encounter: a short-eared dog preying on a giant worm-like amphibian, the caecilian. Photo courtesy of TBS.
Diego Mosquera: I would suggest that these camera traps are more important for documenting population density, presence of species and main hours of activity than specific behavior, other than maybe the role of paternal care when you get images of parent and offspring. I guess they can tell about territoriality and food preference too, but that’s more ecology, not behavior.
Mongabay: Has the camera trapping program revealed any other new information about other species' behavior?
Diego Mosquera: We recorded species feeding on prey that had not been described previously for them and recorded several pictures of animals within specific territories during several occasions, which suggests that they are territorial, a fact that was unclear before. We also have pictures that include parents and offspring, which in some species is an indicator of parental care up to a certain point in their lives. In other cases, for example, we recorded certain bird species on the ground, an unusual behavior for them.
Mongabay: You also caught the nocturnal curassow and the dark spiny tree rat on camera. Why were these photos notable?
Nocturnal currasow (Nothocrax urumutum). Photo courtesy of TBS.
Mongabay: Given the diversity of species and the frequency photographed, how would you characterize the health of the area's forests?
Diego Mosquera: We have recorded a great number of species, some with higher frequency than others, but this certainly is an indicator that the forest is in good health. There are species that are highly susceptible to changes in the forest, and disappear once it is disturbed such as Salvin's curassow of which we have a good number. The amount of pictures of big cats (jaguars, pumas) also suggests that the forest in still in good shape, since these predators require large amounts of prey, only available when the forest is "healthy".
Mongabay: What is your favorite photo?
Diego Mosquera: There a lot pictures that I like. In general, I always like having pictures of cats, like jaguars, pumas and ocelots, but maybe my favorite is the one of a black jaguar (panther)...
THE PRACTICALITIES OF CAMERA TRAPPING
The black jaguar that stalks Tiputini from time to time. Photo courtesy of TBS.
Mongabay: What advice would you give for other research stations or organizations interested in starting camera trapping?
Kelly Swing: This endeavor can be extremely rewarding or extremely frustrating depending on two main aspects of the place. One is obviously the abundance of wildlife. At our site, the project has been most productive as far as total number of images and the total number of species represented. At other sites, I’ve heard too many lamentations of all the walking, kilometers and kilometers, to harvest no images at all or just a few. Also, in some places, people come to be problematic, because of camera vandalism or theft.
Mongabay: How would you characterize the benefits of camera trapping for researchers?
Diego Mosquera: Camera traps are a good way to study wildlife because it is a non-invasive technique, and therefore captures natural, unaltered behavior, unlike, for example, using bait to attract them. Even though they can be expensive to purchase, once the cameras are set they can provide data over long periods of time at relatively low costs. Ultimately, the time and money invested is low compared to the wealth of data you are collecting.
Mongabay: At first you used both film and digital, but then moved to only digital photos. Why?
Diego Mosquera: At the beginning of the project, our budget was limited, so we decided to acquire only a few digital cameras (due to high cost) and most of our cameras were film-based. Having a digital camera is a more practical option since you get the pictures right away and avoid having to develop the film. With digital cameras, you can collect a lot more images (depending on the size of the memory card) between visits to trap sites than with film cameras (which at best would max out at 36-38 photos). Also, depending on the camera, the quality of the pictures can be better. For the second stage of the project, we replaced all the cameras in the field and at the moment we only use digital cameras. Their cost has decreased and their technology has improved, so it is the best option for us. And we have eliminated entirely the costs of film, processing and digitizing.
A giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), about the size of a medium-large sized dog, on camera trap at TBS. Photo courtesy of TBS.
Mongabay: You've considered setting up video cameras. What would be the advantage of this?
Diego Mosquera: We realized the potential of having video cameras when once, by accident, we set one of the old digital cameras on video instead of still picture mode. We got over 200 8 sec videos, most of them at night, so you could not see anything. However, 3 of them, recorded during the day, turned out to be amazing. Having video cameras provides a lot more information about the animal’s behavior than a simple picture and gives you a better understanding of its habits in the forest.
Mongabay: What are the obstacles to implementing a video camera trapping program?
Researcher resetting camera trap at TBS. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
Mongabay: Is there any species you haven't caught on camera that you would love to see?
Kelly Swing: We have recorded over 60 species so far, but there are certainly many others that are roaming our forests that we’d like to see in the images. We have likely already captured images of most of the large terrestrial species but we’re quite interested in confirming the presence of other small species of mammals as well. There are many denizens of the forest that do not come to the ground often due to their association with the forest canopy but undoubtedly some of the eagles do come to the ground to capture or feed on prey. It would be wonderful to get images of any of those raptors struggling with a snake or a monkey a little too heavy to carry.
Recent research papers produced from data gathered from Tipitini's camera-trap program:
John G. Blake, Diego Mosquera, Jaime Guerra, Bette A. Loiselle, David Romo and Kelly Swing. Mineral Licks as Diversity Hotspots in Lowland Forest of Eastern Ecuador. Diversity. Volume 3, 217-234. 2011. doi:10.3390/d3020217.
John G. Blake, Diego Mosquera, Jaime Guerra, and David Romo. New locality records and the first photographs of living Echimys saturnus (dark tree rat, Echimyidae) from eastern Ecuador. Ecotropica. 16: 141–144, 2010.
John G. Blake, Jaime Guerra, Diego Mosquera, Rene Torres, Bette A. Loiselle, and David Romo. Use of Mineral Licks by White-Bellied Spider Monkeys (Ateles belzebuth) and Red Howler Monkeys (Alouatta seniculus) in Eastern Ecuador. International Journal of Primatology. Volume 31, Number 3, 471-483, DOI: 10.1007/s10764-010-9407-5.
Diego F. Cisneros-Heredia, Diego Mosquera, First record of a canid (Atelocynus microtis) predating on a caecilian amphibian. Avances en Ciencias e ingenierias. Volume 2, Number 3. December 2010.
A puma. Photo courtesy of TBS.
The cryptic and rare bush dog. Photo courtesy of TBS.
A jaguarundi. Photo courtesy of TBS.
Salvin's currasow. Photo courtesy of TBS.
Another jaguar. Photo courtesy of TBS.
Amazon still neglected by researchers
(03/28/2011) Although the Amazon is the world's largest tropical forest, it is not the most well known. Given the difficulty of access along with the fear of disease, dangerous species, indigenous groups, among other perceived perils, this great treasure chest of biology and ecology was practically ignored by scientists for centuries. Over the past few decades that trend has changed, however even today the Amazon remains lesser known than the much smaller, and more secure, tropical forests of Central America. A new study in mongabay.com's open access journal Tropical Conservation Science, which surveyed two prominent international tropical ecology journals (Biotropica and Journal of Tropical Ecology) between 1995 and 2008, finds that Central America was the subject of twice as many studies as the Amazon. In fact, according to the authors, much of the Amazon remains terra incognito to researchers, even as every year more of the rainforest is lost to human impacts.
Video: camera trap proves world's rarest rhino is breeding
(02/28/2011) There may only be 40 left in the world, but intimate footage of Javan rhino mothers and calves have been captured by video-camera trap in Ujung Kulon National Park, the last stand of one of the world's most threatened mammals. Captured by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Indonesia's Park Authority, the videos prove the Javan rhinos are, in fact, breeding. "The videos are great news for Javan rhinos," said Dr. Eric Dinerstein chief scientist at WWF, adding that "there are no Javan rhinos in captivity—if we lose the population in the wild, we’ve lost them all."
Treasure chest of wildlife camera trap photos made public
(02/27/2011) Photos taken by camera traps have not only allowed scientists to study little-seen, sometimes gravely endangered, species, they are also strangely mesmerizing, providing a momentary window—a snapshot in time—into the private lives of animals. These are candid shots of the wild with no human in sight. While many of the photos come back hazy or poor, some are truly beautiful: competing with the best of the world's wildlife photographers. Now the Smithsonian is releasing 202,000 camera trap photos to the public, covering seven projects in four continents. Taken in some of the world's most remote and untouched regions the automated cameras have captured such favorites as jaguars, pandas, and snow leopards, while also documenting little-known and rare species like South America's short-eared dog, China's golden snub-nosed monkey, and Southeast Asia's marbled cat.
Camera trap photos: big mammals survive in fragmented forest in Borneo
(01/30/2011) Camera trap photos taken in the fragmented forest along the Kinabatangan River in Borneo have revealed a number of key mammal species surviving despite forest loss mostly due to expanding palm oil plantations. The photos are apart of a recent program to monitor carnivores along the Kinabatangan River in the Malaysian state of Sabah by the Danau Girang Field Center (DGFC), the NGO HUTAN, Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), and the Sabah Wildlife Department.
Oil, indigenous people, and Ecuador's big idea
(11/23/2010) Ecuador's big idea—potentially Earth-rattling—goes something like this: the international community pays the small South American nation not to drill for nearly a billion barrels of oil in a massive block of Yasuni National Park. While Ecuador receives hundred of millions in an UN-backed fund, what does the international community receive? Arguably the world's most biodiverse rainforest is saved from oil extraction, two indigenous tribes' requests to be left uncontacted are respected, and some 400 million metric tons of CO2 is not emitted from burning the oil. In other words, the international community is being asked to put money where its mouth is on climate change, indigenous rights, and biodiversity loss. David Romo Vallejo, professor at the University of San Francisco Quito and co-director of Tiputini research station in Yasuni, recently told mongabay.com in an interview that this is "the best proposal so far made to ensure the protection of this incredible site."
Undergrads in the Amazon: American students witness beauty and crisis in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador
(10/28/2010) Although most Americans have likely seen photos and videos of the world's largest rainforest, the Amazon, they will probably never see it face-to-face. For many, the Amazon seems incredibly remote: it is a dim, mysterious place, a jungle surfeit in adventure and beauty—but not a place to take a family vacation or spend a honeymoon. This means that the destruction of the Amazon, like the rainforest itself, also appears distant when seen from Oregon or North Carolina or Pennsylvania. Oil spills in Ecuador, cattle ranching in Brazil, hydroelectric dams in Peru: these issues are low, if not non-existent, for most Americans. But a visit to the Amazon changes all that. This was recently confirmed to me when I traveled with American college students during a trip to far-flung Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. As a part of a study abroad program with the University of San Francisco in Quito and the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences (GAIAS), these students spend a semester studying ecology and environmental issues in Ecuador, including a first-time visit to the Amazon rainforest at Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Yasuni—and our trips just happened to overlap.