In which trail cameras reveal hidden secrets
Whereas an embarrassment of dolphins is encountered
While leviathan rules the river
And a chance encounter is recorded
The Amazon is synonymous in many people's minds with creatures great and small, often deadly, behind every bush and tree, and pretty much always to be avoided at all costs. The reality, not surprisingly, is somewhat different. Yes, there are creatures you don't want to encounter close-up, but those same creatures really don't want to encounter you, either! And many of those creatures tend to be fairly secretive and if you do encounter one, you can count yourself lucky (provided you are still alive at the end of the encounter). OK, so perhaps my twisted sense of humor isn't the best for a "serious" blog post!.
Case in point: My first visit to the Amazon occurred in 1996 and I'm still waiting to see my very first jaguar. Naturally, my nose has gotten rubbed into this fact ever since I left a boat-based trip back in 2018 to take care of banking and other business in Iquitos. While in Iquitos, I started getting phone calls from the boat crew (Segundo Rios being the main culprit, not surprisingly for any of you who might know him - Mr. Fearless, the first South American Marvel Universe Hero), asking if they should try and catch the jaguar that had shown up on the beach just across the river. "Parece manso" [it seems tame] were Segundo's exact words. Needless to say, I emphatically discouraged any efforts along those lines. So while the rest of the group was getting photos of a calm and cool cat (thanks Brynn, for the photo!), I was back in Iquitos stewing that I was missing all the fun.
Yep! That was what I missed, while first time visitors to the Amazon got to ogle to their heart's content (no, I'm definitely not bitter... :-). I told the crew to leave the cat a chicken or some fish on the beach from the boat's food supply, and come morning, the offerings had disappeared but tracks remained, so El Gato definitely accepted the tribute.
A question that I'm frequently asked by visitors to the Amazon is "where are all the animals?" Not surprisingly, the answer is complicated. In areas with moderate to high levels of human activity, many animals are quite wary, as they are actively hunted for food, skins, feathers, medical uses, or pets (in the case of baby monkey's whose parent(s) are shot so as to obtain the baby monkey (which hopefully survives the buckshot). Such activities are technically illegal if done for financial gain, but rural people do have the legal right to hunt pretty much anything for the purposes of feeding themselves and their families, and when you are in a remote area, there is no possible enforcement of wildlife laws in any event.
Not only mammals appear on trail cams. Large birds will also readily trigger the motion sensor. At left, a cinereous tinamou (Crypturellus cinereous) walks down the trail, while at right, a Spix's guan (Penelope jacquacu) walks into the field of view at the bottom left of the photo. Both species are notoriously secretive and difficult to see
Some native animals also occur at extremely low densities and have huge home ranges, so the probability of encountering one is extremely low to start with. Others are strictly nocturnal, so if you're not out wandering in the forest at 2 AM, you are unlikely to cross paths. On top of all that, the Amazon rainforest is a pretty dense environment, quite unlike the plains and savannas of Africa where animals can be clearly seen from a great distance. In the Amazon, visibility can be limited to a few meters/yards much of the time. so there is no way you will see an animal 30 meters / 100' distant, unless all of the stars align "just right".
(Above) An ocelot (Felis pardalis) heads down the trail at Santa Cruz. The probability of seeing one of these in person is very low due to their nocturnal habitats, large home ranges and low population densities.
(Below) Not the best photo, but good enough to confirm that southern naked-tailed armadillos (Cabassous unicinctus) are resident at Santa Cruz! The long funnel-shaped ears and enlarged central claw on the forelimbs distinguish this ant-and termite-eating specialist from other armadillos. Little is known about these animals, as they are enthusiastic burrowers, and much of their activity is underground.
But technology can come to the rescue! Motion-triggered trail cameras have turned out to be an incredible tool for monitoring animal populations world-wide. I'm still waiting for the perfect trail-cam, of course. The reasonably-priced models currently available are battery hogs, taking 8 or more AA batteries, and also requiring physical removal of a SIM card to download images. To any inventors out there - how about trail cams that use a RECHARGEABLE cree-type battery that can be EASILY popped in or out without taking the whole camera apart. Also, how about units that can upload images to a cell phone via a blue-tooth connection in the field? Forget about dealing with SIM cards! I'd be one of the first in line to buy a few.
During the Dec/Jan 2021 and 2002, and again from the summer of 2022 until the present (Dec 2022), student researchers from Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) and the Universidad de la Amazonia Peruana (UNAP) set up a number of trail cams at the Santa Cruz and Madre Selva field sites. The cameras will remain in the field for a while longer, but there have been some great findings already, as well as some surprise video footage. The latter included video (that will not be shown here) of a frustrated tourist swinging a certain appendage around in front of a camera.
Top row: a tayra (Eira barbera) pauses on a trail. This is the largest terrestrial mustelid (member of the weasel family) that occurs in the Amazon. While most mustelids are primarily carnivorous, tayras readily eat fruit, and often climb trees to reach it.
Bottom left: One of the smaller and primarily diurnal felids, a jaguaroundi (Felis yagouaroundi), crosses a trail close to one of our buildings. Bottom right: a red brocket deer (Mazama americana) looks back at the camera. This is a forest-based species with short unbranched antlers which don't impede it from moving through thick vegetation.
So, we know the animals are there. But what is the best way to see them? The keys are silence and patience. Animals moving through the forest, whether on the ground or in the canopy, make a surprising amount of noise. But so do you. Seeing an animal often depends on who hears who first (cue the three Stooges...). If you are silent and standing still, an animal often will not notice you and will move into your field of view. If two or more of you are walking and chatting, however, an animal is certainly going to hear you first, and either move away from the area, or freeze until the potential danger (you) has gone past.
Finding a quiet spot with a good view (on a ridgetop, or near a trail crossing) and sitting and listening for animals can be quite productive. Any fruiting trees can also be staked out, not only for mammals but for many species of birds as well. Fallen logs across creeks may serve as natural bridges for some animals as well and are worth investigating. With our culture of instant gratification, it can be tough to wait patiently and quietly, but give it a try.
A log on a ridgetop proves to be a good spot for a trail cam. At left, two saddle-back marmosets (Saguinus fuscicollis) forage close to the ground (one on the left hand side just above the log, the other close to dead-center of the photo). At right, a black agouti (Dasyprocta fuliginosa) walks across the log a few days later.
The truly surprising revelation, however, is below. It might be a very short clip without a clear view of the full head of the animal, but after spending a lot of time looking at it frame by frame, I believe it is a remarkable finding.
This is almost certainly a small-eared dog (AKA short-eared dog), Atelocynus microtis, a very poorly-known and very rare canid that only a few researchers have ever encountered. These dogs are apparently solitary and semi-aquatic, having partially webbed toes. If this identification is confirmed, it would be an incredible addition to the fauna list of the Santa Cruz Forest Reserve, and also provide powerful reasons for continued conservation and funding of the reserve. Needless to say, we are hoping to catch additional footage on one or more of the trail cams!
A "must see" for many visitors to the Amazon is the famously famous pink dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), some individuals of which are truly bubble-gum pink (the color changes with age, being pinker in older individuals). Pink dolphins are the subject of a great deal of interesting and often racy folklore, and at least in the Peruvian Amazon, are not persecuted by humans, though occasionally one may become entangled in a fishing net and drown. Many visitors are surprised to find out that there are actually two species of dolphins in the Amazon, however. The larger pink dolphins (AKA Amazon river dolphin) are 2-3 meters (6-9'+) in length, whereas the smaller and more acrobatic gray river dolphin (Sotalia fluviatilis) averages 1.9 meters in length (~6'). Both species can be readily viewed, even in the boat-filled Iquitos harbor where locals will take tourists out to view dolphins for a modest fee.
These large and charismatic animals are doing much better than the highly endangered Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis) which has been extirpated by hunting for meat from most areas close to human habitation. Nevertheless, in order to monitor the health of dolphin populations over the long term, and to assess the impacts of hydrocarbon and plastics pollution, overfishing, and climate change, it is necessary to have some quantifiable population estimates.
Enter Fundación Omacha, a multi-national South American conservation organization that is conducting dolphin surveys on various rivers in the Amazon basin. They first used our boats and crew for a survey of dolphins from Iquitos to Leticia, Colombia in November/December 2021. This August (2022) they charted our Esperanza riverboat for a survey along the Amazon River from the town of Nauta (upriver from Iquitos) all the way to the tri-border area of Peru, Colombia and Brazil, and then some 80 km (50 miles) up the Yavari River which forms the border between Brazil and Peru. In November 2022, another survey on the Ucayali River extended from the city of Pucallpa (10 days of river travel upstream from Iquitos) down to Nauta. The data from the November trip is still being processed, but the August trip recorded a happily impressive number of both species of dolphins. A youtube video with some great footage of dolphins, interviews with participants, and (towards the end) a great view of our Esperanza riverboat can be seen here. The video is in Spanish, but it isn't hard to pick up the main points. Happy viewing! A write-up with various photos from the August expedition can also been seen here (again in Spanish).
A Large and Toothy Leviathan
A lucky photo of a large black caiman with a pink dolphin surfacing off to the left.
Who has the biggest teeth in the river? It is certainly not the piranha. In August 2022, we had the luck of encountering a 3 meter (12') black caiman (Melanosuchus niger) at the source of the Amazon River, just below the junction of the Ucayali and Marañon Rivers (widely considered to be where the official Amazon "starts"). It is rare to find a large caiman by day in the middle of the river, so there was considerable excitement as we were able to bring the boat alongside for good looks and to get a "measurement" of the creature.
Naturally it was Segundo Rios, at the wheel, who first spotted the caiman. Here he is on the prow of the boat. With the caiman right alongside the boat, we were able to get a "safe" measurement.
While the black caiman is the largest crocodilian in the Amazon, two other species are more frequently encountered. The white or spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus) is the species most frequently encountered along rivers, and is considerably smaller, reaching about 2.6 m (8') compared to the black caiman which can reach 5 m (16'). Unfortunately both species are heavily hunted for meat and hides, so apart from in large protected reserves, they are rare, secretive and mostly nocturnal.
A third species, the smooth-fronted caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus) only reaches about 1.6 m (5.2') in length, and frequents smaller rivers and creeks, and can occasionally be found far inland in isolated pools. Despite the smaller size, the Paleosuchus caimans are very feisty, and even babies will attempt to bite. Other caimans are pretty calm in comparison. All three species of caimans are in the family Alligatoridae, and are more closely related to alligators than they are to true crocodiles. Only the black caiman is considered to be potentially dangerous to humans, due to to its large size. The spectacled caiman is primarily a fish eater, and while the smooth-fronted caiman will happily snack on any small animal that wanders by, its small size means that humans are not on the menu.
Meeting the Master
Lastly, a chance encounter was recorded by a trail cam when a group of researchers came across a bushmaster (Lachesis muta), the largest species of pit viper (think rattlesnakes) in the world. These impressive animals can reach 4 m (12') in length for a truly large individual, and we have found 3 m (9') specimens in the Peruvian Amazon, though most animals are smaller than that. Santa Cruz has become the "go to" place for reptile enthusiasts hoping to see this spectacular animal. Who triggered the trail camera? I'm guessing it was probably the researchers as they came down the trail, and as luck would have it, the bushmaster just happened to be in the foreground.
Happily these snakes (at least in our corner of the Amazon) are not aggressive, as a bite by one would be very serious due to the large size of their venom glands and impressive length of their fangs. To date, I have not heard of anyone in the communities that we visit having been bitten by one, and most venomous snake bites can be attributed to a smaller pit viper, the fer-de-lance or "jergon" (Bothrops atrox) which reaches a maximum size of about 2 m (6'), and which can be commonly found around villages and gardens. Antivenin for pit viper bites is available at virtually all health posts in the Peruvian Amazon, so in the event of a bite, getting to the closest health post as fast as possible is the best way to put off meeting The Master.