- Rare camera trap footage from Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula captured a tense standoff between an ocelot and a coati. Another video shows an opossum making a daring escape.
- These standoffs occurred at the entrance of bat boxes, built to attract bats to an area that was once cattle pasture and is now being restored back into a forest by the NGO Osa Conservation.
- The bat boxes were installed as part of an ongoing reforestation experiment. Plots of land were planted with different ratios of balsa, a fast-growing, pioneer tree species, and other native trees, while some plots were left alone.
- The bat boxes are among “rewilding elements” aimed to recreate some of the habitat complexity seen in a more mature forest such as large cavities in trees and fallen logs. Habitat complexity brings in more diverse wildlife, which can spread seeds and control pests, aiding forest restoration.
Rare camera trap video footage from Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula captured a tense standoff: For several minutes, an ocelot stares, motionless, into the face of a coati. The coati, cornered and injured, stares back into its impending doom.
“The tension of it is incredible,” Andy Whitworth, director of Osa Conservation, told Mongabay. “We had to cut that down a little bit … we had to kind of crop it together, because the standoff was really long … like 10 minutes of tension.”
Another video shows an opossum with a different ocelot. Spoiler alert: the opossum was luckier than the coati.
These standoffs occurred at the entrance of bat boxes, built to attract bats to an area that was once cattle pasture and is now being restored back into a forest by the Costa Rican NGO Osa Conservation (OC).
“In addition to planting trees, we think about rewilding by creating lost microhabitats,” Whitworth said. “One approach is to install these big bat houses that simulate the cavities of ancient, hollowed-out, giant rainforest trees.”
In 2019, the team built and installed 20 bat boxes and noticed that bats were moving in; but other animals were leaving scat in and around the boxes as well. The researchers installed camera traps at each box and began a study to monitor which species use these simulated cavities, and how.
“I’m more and more interested in using camera traps to investigate the specific features of forests, and how animals are interacting with them,” Whitworth said. “If you’re out in the forest, animals are always aware that you’re there. So, to have these cameras, record behavior and interaction between animals, it’s just amazing, because we’re seeing something that we almost never get to see.”
Ocelots have been spotted sniffing around natural cavities and leaving scat nearby. Evidence from the wild, supported by this camera trap footage, indicates that ocelots may be specialists in hunting in cavities.
The bat boxes are part of a 20-hectare (50-acre) reforestation experiment close to Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. The researchers saw an opportunity not only to restore a former pasture into a forest but also to use the experience as a learning tool, testing the efficacy of different reforestation strategies.
The team decided to first plant a fast-growing, pioneer tree species that would shade out the grass and begin to create the dark understory found in more mature forests. The researchers chose balsa (Ochroma pyramidale) a fast-growing, native, long-leaf tree species.
The land was divided into 40 half-hectare plots and each plot was planted with one of four treatments: 75% balsa and 25% a mix of native trees; 33% balsa and the remaining mixed; only the native mix of trees (no balsa); and an unplanted control. The control plots were left alone to test a “natural regeneration” approach.
After nearly four years, the difference between treatments is striking. The plots with the high-density balsa, Whitworth says, look like a forest. There’s already wildlife coming back in, such as monkeys and birds, and the OC team doesn’t have to maintain these plots. In the plots without balsa, the other native trees are alive, but OC still spends ample time and money maintaining and clearing around them. The plots where pastures were left alone “still look nothing at all like a forest.”
“We all know that forests are more than simply a collection of trees but restoring the full richness of a tropical forest takes time, can be costly and is technically difficult,” Mark Wright, director of science at WWF-UK, who is not affiliated with OC, told Mongabay. “The exploratory work that Osa Conservation is doing is to be applauded especially if it results in more proven tools that can help us do that effectively.”
Young forests lack the complexity of older forests and the habitat diversity for a wide range of wildlife to thrive. To address this issue, OC added “rewilding elements” to half of the plots, such as bird and bat boxes and piles of logs to provide habitat for reptiles, amphibians and insects. Increasing wildlife diversity can bring benefits to the ecosystem such as seed dispersal and pest control for species that thrive in disturbed forests.
“You’ve got these giant caves in this primary forest,” Whitworth said. “So we were thinking, how do you recreate those giant cavities in these young forests so that you can put the bats back in there? And then you’ve got bats that can control the insects and pollinate.”
Whitworth credits the idea of bringing in bat cavities to the experiment to the work of Gloriana Chaverri, a bat biologist at the University of Costa Rica. Bats moved into some of the boxes quickly, Whitworth says, and some have as many as 30 bats living inside.
“This project is addressing ways of recreating [habitat] complexity, and in doing so, provides the scaffolding for old-growth dependent species to gain a foothold in freshly restored landscapes,” Chris Bernie, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia’s Wildlife Coexistence Lab and camera trap expert, told Mongabay.
“Ultimately, restoration initiatives taking an ‘active approach’ to restoring old-growth habitat features may accelerate the return of restored areas towards old-growth community structure.”
Though this reforestation experiment is relatively new, the greater forest reserve managed by OC was established 20 years ago. Since then, and because of Costa Rica’s strong environmental protections, the area has seen a remarkable recovery of wildlife.
The challenge now is that a lot of the wildlife is coming out into the human landscape, which can create conflict with farmers or increased exposure to roads and poaching. This is why collaboration with local communities and education programs, Whitworth says, is an essential part of protecting animals and the forest.
“Governments are always challenged to be able to manage these huge protected areas, especially in dense rainforests, and they’re usually underfunded…it’s a real challenge as an enforcer,” Whitworth said. “That’s why, from our point of view, we think the strategy has to come more from community engagement and community involvement.”
Banner image of an ocelot-coati standoff is a screenshot from camera trap footage provided by Osa Conservation.
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @lizkimbrough_
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