Meet Oso: how a ‘pet’ short-eared dog helped scientists shed light on this cryptic carnivore
Fifteen years ago, scientists knew next to nothing about one of the Amazon’s most mysterious residents: the short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis). Although the species was first described in 1883 and is considered the sole representative of the Atelocynus genus, biologists spent over a century largely in the dark about an animal that seemed almost a myth. But all this changed when veterinarian and researcher, Renata Leite Pitman, embarked on a long-term study of these enigmatic carnivores, even having the good fortune of being guided by a semi-wild short-eared dog named Oso.
“My first thought when I heard about this ghost-like animal was that people must have been mistaking it for a similar-looking species, like a tayra or a jaguarundi,” Leite Pitman told mongabay.com. “So I looked into the literature on the short-eared dog and found it was full of contradictions. One book had it occurring in this region, the other didn’t. One said the species was diurnal, and the other nocturnal. This mismatching information made me very curious,”
In fact, here was a good-sized mammal—a carnivore nonetheless—that was totally unheard of outside the Amazon and even little-known by locals there.
Although Leite Pitman first heard of the short-eared dog in 2000, it’s taken the dauntless scientist over a decade to begin to piece together some of the basic behaviors of this enigmatic canine. For one thing, Leite Pitman has discovered that while the short-eared dog prefers meat when it can get it, it’s actually a major fruit-eater. The species even plays a vital role in the Amazon ecosystem by dispersing the seeds of many key plants. Leite Pitman and her team also discovered the short-eared dog depends a lot on another cryptic mammal, the giant armadillo, for its burrows, which the short-eared dog squats in once the armadillo has done the hard work of digging them out.
Before releasing Oso into the wild in 2010, Renata Leite Pitman (left) and Emeterio Nuñonca Sencia (right) do one last check-up. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Finally, although a capable predator—tackling small mammals and large birds—the short-eared dog is just as often prey: Leite Pitman and her team have recorded short-eared dogs being killed by boa constrictors and jaguars, not to mention human hunters as well. In one case, Leite Pitman lost a short-eared dog she was tracking via radio signal to a big snake.
“We got there and found the signal going straight to a four-meter long, 40-kilogram boa constrictor. This was one kilometer from the house were I lived with my husband and two kids. So while we were measuring the boa it started to regurgitate the dog. Unfortunately this is not the Little Red Riding Hood story, and the dog was dead,” Leite Pitman noted.
While Leite Pitman has succeeded in radio-collaring several wild short-eared dogs and tracking their movements, her most important subject has been a dog named Oso.
“In December 2006, a logger found a [short-eared dog] puppy in the woods near Puerto Maldonado and took him to the Puerto Maldonado market. The puppy was bought by a local for 50 soles, and taken to his farm near the border with Brazil, where he was raised with domestic dogs,” explained Leite Pitman.
Eventually, Leite Pitman obtained Oso and the permits required to study this semi-wild short-eared dog. Taking Oso on structured walks, Leite Pitman and her team were able to monitor what foods he preferred, how he behaved around other species, and, most importantly, how he related to other short-eared dogs, including interested females. One of the most important discoveries was that male short-eared dogs don’t hit sexual maturity until three years of age, when their testicles descend (before this Leite Pitman thought about renaming the dog the “small-balled dog”) and they start making weird sounds.
The handsome Oso at age two. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
“[Oso] started to make complex calls, similar to some species of owl calls. We recorded these sounds and played them in an area where we know a female lives, and the female came right away. Sexual maturity at three years is kind of late for a dog, and very important data for a species action plan,” said Leite Pitman.
The team released Oso into the wild in 2010—and was able to track him for the next three years—before his collar ran down.
The short-eared dog is only found in the Amazon Rainforest, distinguishing it from many other Amazon mammals—such as jaguars, tapirs, bushdogs, anteaters, and armadillos—which are also found in a variety of other ecosystems. This means the short-eared dog depends wholly on the health and survival of the world’s largest tropical forest, which is imperiled by deforestation, mining, road-building, fossil fuel exploitation, and climate change.
But Leite Pitman says the other big threat to the short-eared dog in particular is its distant relative: the domestic dog.
“Domestic dogs are everywhere, and hunters take them into the forest 10, 20 kilometers away from towns. Since most dogs carry distemper and parvo viruses, hunting dogs inoculate powerful and deadly viruses deep in the forest. Parvovirus is active in any secretion of a contaminated animal, and can survive in the environment for up to one year,” Leite Pitman explained.
In a 2014 interview with mongabay.com, Renata Leite Pitman talks about how the short-eared dog first came to her attention, how she’s managed to track and catch so many individuals, and the rocky future for this still little-known mammal.
INTERVIEW WITH RENATA LEITE PITMAN
Flying over the seemingly endless forest of the West Amazon, while searching for short-eared dogs. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
Mongabay: What’s your background?
Renata Leite Pitman: I am a Brazilian Wildlife Veterinary Doctor with a Masters in forest sciences. During vet school I worked at a local zoo as a lab technician for six years, and after getting my degree 22 years ago I started to work with wild animals in nature. I worked first with capybaras on an island off the Atlantic coast of Brazil, and since then have worked with jaguars and pumas in Brazil, carnivores in northern India, swallow-tailed kites in the U.S., and endangered mammals in Peru.
I took a course in wildlife conservation and management at the Wildlife Institute of India, where my grandfather is from, and a course in Amazonian forest ecology at the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) in Brazil. In 2003, after working in one of the most remote areas in the Peruvian Amazon, the Alto Purus region, my husband and I edited a book as part of a campaign to create a national park there. The wind blew in our favor, and one year after our book was published the 2.5 million-hectare Alto Purus National Park was created in the area, the largest park in Peru. Assuring the protection of places is my ultimate goal, and I am also glad to have worked towards creating a State Park next to my house in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (Serra da Baitaca State Park) and an Ecological Station on the island where I studied capybaras (Ilha do Mel Ecological Station).
Mongabay: Considering that the short-eared dog is one of the least known large mammals in the Amazon, how did you first find out about it?
Renata Leite Pitman: It was March 2000. I had just arrived in North Carolina at the Center for Tropical Conservation at Duke University to help Dr. John Terborgh analyze 5,000 canopy photographs from Peru. One day Dr. Terborgh mentioned that during the first 20 years he worked in Cocha Cashu Biological Station the short-eared dog was never seen despite intensive mammal surveys, but that since 1990 it had been sighted at least once a year.
Short-eared dog, Lacy, at one of her dens in 2005. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
My first thought when I heard about this ghost-like animal was that people must have been mistaking it for a similar-looking species, like a tayra or a jaguarundi. So I looked into the literature on the short-eared dog and found it was full of contradictions. One book had it occurring in this region, the other didn’t. One said the species was diurnal, and the other nocturnal. This mismatching information made me very curious. So I decided to interview the people who claimed to have seen the short-eared dog at Cocha Cashu. And I got very surprised to see that their description matched perfectly with the short-eared dog. At that point I had started on a trip with no return.
Mongabay: What draws you to this species?
Renata Leite Pitman: Basically curiosity and fate. I marveled at John Terborgh’s stories about Cocha Cashu The way he spoke about the place, and about this ghost animal, was so emphatic that it still echoes in my mind. Working every day with thousands of hemispherical photos of Cashu’s trees and thinking about the 10 sightings of the short-eared dog left me no doubt that I should be there. That is when he offered me an opportunity to go to Cocha Cashu to help manage the station and conduct a basic search for the species. I headed to Cocha Cashu for three months, not imagining that I would spend the next 14 years in Peru working with the species. The bait was set, and I was trapped.
Mongabay: This animal has its own genus. What do researchers think that it’s most related to?
Renata Leite Pitman: I think most researchers agree that the species is most related to another forest dog, the bush-dog (Speothos venaticus). The two coexist in the Amazon, and at the same sites. However, the bush dog can be found in other ecosystems, like savannas, wetlands, and dry forest, while, as far as I can tell, the short-eared dog is an Amazonian endemic. Its distribution overlaps a little with that of the crab-eating fox (Cerdocyon thous) and some individuals of Cerdocyon have been confused as Atelocynus. In some camera trap pictures, the two species look really similar.
DISCOVERING THE SHORT-EARED DOG
Pitman with the first-ever tagged short-eared dog in 2002. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
Mongabay: You’ve managed to capture five short-eared dogs and collar them to track their movements. How did you manage to find and capture such a rare and elusive animal?
Renata Leite Pitman: By being persistent. By learning from scratch, dedicating lots of time to observations and tests, and hiring field assistants as persistent as I am. No one had any experience trapping this species. Trapping them was very time-consuming, and it required 14 years working in the Amazon, five of them living full-time in a biological station. I tested several kinds of traps and baits for the species.
Mongabay: What have you learned from radio-collaring these dogs?
A wild short-eared dog caring a fruit in the Pouteria species. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
Renata Leite Pitman: Tracking animals in the Amazon isn’t easy, because the dense forest makes it difficult to spot them and hard to transmit signals (VHF and GPS). This means animals have to be tracked from a very short distance. Short-eared dogs are very suspicious animals, and not at all easy to observe.
With camera traps we have recorded more than 100 photos of the species under different situations, and the time those pictures were taken show us that they are partly diurnal, partly nocturnal, with peaks of activity around dawn and dusk. Through captures and radio-collaring, we learned that a female gave birth right at the peak of fruiting season, and concentrated her movements around some species of fruits she preferred. We learned that the dogs have a sort of daily routine, spending about two hours resting in shelters (mostly burrows made by giant armadillos) and two hours walking. We learned that males are very territorial and do not accept other males in their areas. We learned that they eat several species of fruit, that they hunt and kill large birds and small mammals, and that they can eat carcasses of large animals, around which they spend several days. We observed a mother leave its territory to its six month-old baby and establish a new home range several miles away. We have learned about their predators, their diet, their shelters, and the areas they use to live.
Mongabay: You’ve discovered that these dogs eat a lot of fruit—was this surprising? Does this mean the dog may play an important role as seed disperser?
Renata Leite Pitman: I suspected they ate fruit, but I was surprised to see how many different kinds of fruit they eat and how often they eat it. And yes, the dog does play an important role as a seed disperser.
Mongabay: One of your study dogs was eaten by a boa constrictor. Will you tell us about this and what other species prey on them?
Measuring the four-meter long boa that ate one of the tagged females, Lacy. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Renata Leite Pitman: This was a young male dog that was establishing his home-range. He basically repeated the same movement every day, from his den to a place a mile away and back. But one day he stopped in the middle and stayed there. His collar had an activity signal, so we could see he was moving, but within a very small area. We got there and found the signal going straight to a four-meter long, 40-kilogram boa constrictor. This was 1 kilometer from the house were I lived with my husband and two kids. So while we were measuring the boa it started to regurgitate the dog. Unfortunately this is not the Little Red Riding Hood story, and the dog was dead.
Another dog that we were monitoring spent part of the night inside a giant armadillo burrow, which he left at 2 AM (recorded by camera trap). At 6 AM we found him killed by a jaguar, and we found his hair in the jaguar’s scat a few days later.
A man killed one short-eared dog in Alto Purus, saying he had confused it with an agouti. Also in Alto Purus, a baby was found and raised on a manioc mush diet, and died a short while later.
Mongabay: You’ve also discovered that short-eared dogs depend on giant armadillos. What’s the relationship here?
Renata Leite Pitman: Short-eared dogs are very subtle and delicate animals. They need to hide from jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays, and the large herds of peccaries in the region. Giant armadillo burrows offer them a great refuge, and we have documented one dog using up to 13 different burrows in one day, and several other species using those same burrows on the same day.
OSO: THE SHORT-EARED DOG AMBASSADOR
Oso on his leash at age three. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
Renata Leite Pitman: Tracking animals in the Amazon isn’t easy, because the dense forest makes it difficult to spot them and hard to transmit signals (VHF and GPS). This means animals have to be tracked from a very short distance. Short-eared dogs are very suspicious animals, and not at all easy to observe.
Mongabay: Will you tell us about Oso?
Renata Leite Pitman: In December 2006, a logger found a puppy in the woods near Puerto Maldonado and took him to the Puerto Maldonado market. The puppy was bought by a local for 50 soles, and taken to his farm near the border with Brazil, where he was raised with domestic dogs. At this time, Oso (the name given to the puppy by his first owner) was around three months old. It didn’t take long for this story to reach me, and in January 2007 a friend gave me the picture below. Knowing what a rare event this was, and thinking it might be a great opportunity to learn more about the ecology of the species, I immediately got in touch with INRENA (Peru’s National Environmental Agency) to understand the legal requirements to conduct field research with the animal.
Oso as a puppy in December 2006. This photo alerted Pitman to the captive short-eared dog pup. Photo by: JJ Escudero.
In February 2008, when Oso was a year and a half old, INRENA endorsed our study and ACCA approved our research at the Los Amigos Biological Station, where we have been studying the short-eared dog population since 2003. After quarantining at the Amazon Shelter in Puerto Maldonado and vaccinating to prevent any transmission of disease to wildlife, I took Oso to Los Amigos. My goal was to take Oso on structured walks through an area of forest that approximated the range size of adult short-eared dogs (about seven square kilometers), and record his behavior towards other species and maybe other individuals of the same species. These walks included documenting foraging behavior in the field and testing whether Oso was an effective disperser of the fruits he consumed.
Key to the success of the study was Emeterio Nuñonca Sencia, an excellent local field assistant. Emeterio, like many others in the local community, came to Madre de Dios from the Cusco region 20 years ago dreaming about gold. Like other miners, he made some money and hunted in the region until 2004, when I hired him to open up some trails. As soon as I met him I knew he was made for much bigger things and time proved me right: Emeterio turns out to be one of the brightest people I have ever met.
With his natural talent, he quickly made Oso comfortable on the trail system at CICRA, took video footage of Oso’s behavior towards several species of predators and prey, and even more exciting, documented (with video, pictures, and very good written descriptions) encounters with wild short-eared dogs. On February11th 2009, while Emeterio was walking Oso on the leash in the woods, a wild male followed them for 15 minutes. On May 18th 2009, while Emeterio was walking with Oso, a female approached them and followed them for one hour. Emeterio documented their mating behavior, the first ever recorded in the wild, although copulation wasn’t possible because Oso was on the leash.
During one of the walks with Oso on a leash to accustom him to the forest, he was followed by a wild female in heat for an hour. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
As soon as I saw the opportunity to film the species’ mating behavior, I started to search for the technology that would do the trick. That is when I found the crittercam, a Nat Geo device to capture images from an animal’s point of view. So I wrote a proposal and got the crittercam team interested. I wrote a proposal for the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, and got their support to deploy a crittercam on Oso to film his mating behavior with the female, and then release him with a GPS/VHF devices.
So everything was set. We had a permit from INRENA, equipment from NGS/Waitt, the field team on site (including a biologist and engineer from NGS), Oso ready to go, and a female short-eared dog in heat spotted at 6 AM. At 9 AM we released Oso just where the female was spotted a few hours before. We expect him to romance her, get images for us, and return to sleep in the cage where he had slept for the past 2.5 years. But we were wrong. It took him 10 days to return, and when he came back he didn’t have the crittercam. He had lost it somewhere, and although it was equipped with a tiny radio transmitter and we made an incredible effort to find it from the ground and from 60-meter towers, we didn’t find it. So we decided to postpone Oso’s release, in order to have another crittercam sent to us. Then something happened that we really didn’t expect: a wild male came after Oso, walking into the middle of the station, and stopping to pee at the places where Oso liked to pee.
Wild male in the station. On releasing Oso, the team expected to take videos of him meeting with the female in the forest, but instead got several photos and video of a wild male coming after him, showing very territorial behavior. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Mongabay: Tell us how Oso has contributed to your research?
Renata Leite Pitman: He contributed enormously to what we know about the ecology of the species. We have done several food preference studies, indicating that whenever he had meat and fruit available, he chose meat. With so many competitors in the forest, this might be the most critical item in their diet. To learn what attracts the species to a certain place in the forest (which is important to know for trapping), I hid all kinds of baits in the forest while my assistant walked with him and filmed his reaction towards specific baits. We also set audio recordings of predators and prey to see how he reacted. When we exposed him to old jaguar scat he didn’t react, but when we exposed him to fresh jaguar scat or played a recorded jaguar sound, he got crazy and ran away. Since he was removed from nature at a very young age, he probably didn’t learn this from his mother, meaning it is an innate behavior.
During these walks we also recorded any natural item that Oso chose to eat in the forest, and any encounter with wildlife. We recorded his encounter with a saki monkey group, with a curassow that he tried to hunt, with a tapir, and with several other species. But our biggest delight was to record his behavior towards other short-eared dogs, and their behavior towards him. On one walk a wild female showed sexual interest in him and followed him for an hour, and when we released him after her he went in her direction. This says a lot, because if we reintroduced him we didn’t know whether he would reproduce and if a female would be interested in him, considering he was raised in captivity. And we learned that wild males did not accept him in his area.
Mongabay: What secrets has Oso shown?
Renata Leite Pitman: One is that the males don’t all have small balls. For years I was surprised to see how small the dogs’ balls appeared in camera trap pictures—so surprised that I was thinking to propose changing the common name to “small-balled dog,” since its ears aren’t that small (bush dogs have proportionally smaller ears). But when Oso turned three years old, his balls descended and he became a big-ball guy. At the same time, he started to vocalize. Until this moment, he was mostly silent, only making whining noises or roaring at the presence of people he didn’t like.
Yes, roaring, you can see Oso roaring at the video below!
Oso, the short-eared dog that revealed the secrets of his species, at age four. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
But at the same time his balls descended he started to make complex calls, similar to some species of owl calls. We recorded these sounds and played them in an area where we know a female lives, and the female came right away. Sexual maturity at three years is kind of late for a dog, and very important data for a species action plan.
Mongabay: Is Oso still ‘working’ for you? Where is he now?
Renata Leite Pitman: Oso was released in October 2010. We did a very fine tracking of him using a GPS system with an accelerometer for three months. He also had a VHF device that allowed us to follow him for three years. During these three years, he moved 50 kilometers towards the northeast, into an area that is often visited by indigenous groups in voluntary isolation. Out of respect for their wish for no contact with outsiders, for security reasons (they usually shoot arrows at people they see), and out of respect for local policies, I didn’t recapture him to change the collar. But considering that he survived for three years after being released, it is easy to conclude that he made it, and that is our biggest prize in this story.
Mongabay: What is threatening this species?
Renata Leite Pitman: I think the biggest threats are domestic dogs and the loss of pristine habitats. Domestic dogs are everywhere, and hunters take them into the forest 10, 20 kilometers away from towns. Since most dogs carry distemper and parvo viruses, hunting dogs inoculate powerful and deadly viruses deep in the forest. Parvovirus is active in any secretion of a contaminated animal, and can survive in the environment for up to one year.
Mongabay: Do people ever hunt short-eared dog?
Pitman with her first tagged female short-eared dog, Dominga in 2004. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Renata Leite Pitman: Unfortunately, yes. Many hunters kill anything that moves. But luckily hunters have no particular interest in short-eared dogs.
Mongabay: The animal is currently listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. Do you think this is accurate?
Renata Leite Pitman: A team of experts reviewed the species’ status in Brazil recently. The short-eared dog is now considered Vulnerable in that country, which is the biggest part of its distribution. The IUCN should be updating their evaluation soon.
Mongabay: Any guess on population estimates for the animal?
Renata Leite Pitman: Based on its patchy distributional range I would say roughly fewer than 10,000 individuals, but there is no science behind that estimate. We don’t know yet how females overlap territories, and the Amazon is so large that is hard to estimate where the species is and where it is not. With the popularization of camera trap studies, especially in the Amazon, we can do a better job of figuring out where the species is never recorded and where it is.
Mongabay: Why should people care about the short-eared dog?
Renata Leite Pitman: Because it is a fragile species facing so many threats that it could easily go extinct soon. In the forest, it faces so many predators and competitors. The impact of domestic dogs is almost invisible, but short-eared dogs are probably getting sick in the forest and dying in remote places where people can’t see them. This is happening before we even know the species well. And because they are known to inhabit mostly pristine places, or little-impacted areas, their presence can indicate whether a habitat is healthy or not.
Renata Leite Pitman is member of the Species Survival Commission-SSC / IUCN Canid Specialist Group since 2000. She is Research Associate at the Center for Tropical Conservation at Duke University and at the Frankfurt Zoological Society – Avisa/Peru. She is the Director of the Center for Atlantic Forest Conservation in Brazil, and Volunteer at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, USA. She spends her time in between U.S,, Peru and Brazil, where she owns a four-acre reserve in one of the most threatened forests: the Araucaria Forest, entangled in the middle of the also threatened Atlantic Forest, where she and her husband are recovering its natural vegetation since 1998.
Her research wouldn’t be possible without the help of DGFFS (Direccion General de Fauna e Flora Silvestre)—SERFOR/Peru, Wildlife Materials, Ideawild, Disney Conservation Fund, CI-Conservation International, Word Wildlife Fund, Amazon Conservation Association, The Conservation, Food and Health Foundation and National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants, and the effort of over 40 volunteers who gave the best fuel to this project.
This is what it looks like when a four meter long boa constrictor regurgitates a short-eared dog. This was Lacy’s unfortunate fate. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Lacy eating a fruit from the species, Onychopetalum krukovii. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
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