January 20, 2014

Short-eared Dog (Atelocynus microtis)

Short-eared Dog

The Short-eared Dog (Atelocynus microtis) is a rare, little known canine. Unlike various species of fox, wolves, and other canines on the planet, this one is very difficult to see and even more difficult to study. It only occurs in the dense rainforests of central and western Amazonia and doesn’t appear to be common in any parts of its range. In appearance, the Short-eared Dog looks a bit like a wild feline and has proportions that are somewhat similar to those of a Jaguarundi. Its dark gray coloration is also rather similar to the colors of a Jaguarundi and when seen in the dim recesses of its rainforest habitat, can even be mistaken for that small cat.

However, the Short-eared Dog is a bit larger than the Jaguarundi and like most other canines, has a longer snout and bushier tail. Although very little is known about the natural history of the Short-eared Dog, this solitary hunter is believed to forage for small animals in primary rainforest and bamboo stands. Based on the few sightings of this little known mammal, it may also have a preference for hunting along creeks and other wetland habitats.

This rare animal seems to be restricted to wild, extensive areas of rainforest and more sightings seem to come from southeastern Peru than from other parts of its range. The Short-eared Dog has been seen on several occasions at TRC, Refugio Amazonas and other lodges managed by Rainforest Expeditions.

Some interesting facts about the Short-eared Dog:

  • The only member of the Atelocynus genus: The Short-eared Dog is the sole member of its genus. Although it doesn’t appear to have any close relatives, it is believed to be somewhat related to fox species that occur in South America.
  • Naturally rare: This rainforest canine occurs at naturally low densities in part because it has to compete with such other predators as the Ocelot, Puma, Jaguar, and Bush Dog. 
  • Partially webbed toes: The toes of the Short-eared Dog are partially webbed and an adaptation for aquatic habitats and indeed, this canine seems to prefer wetlands in the forest.

How to see a Short-eared Dog on a tour in the Peruvian jungle:

  • Visit areas where they have been seen most often: The Short-eared Dog is a very difficult species to see but one has a better chance of watching this canine in places that appear to host healthy populations. Tambopata, Peru is one such area.
  • Hike on rainforest trails near streams and other wetlands: Since this species seems to prefer wetland habitats (and fish have been recoded as being a primary prey item), spending more time near rainforest streams and swamps may increase chances of seeing it.
  • Explore the rainforest with an experienced guide: Hiking in the rainforest with a knowledgeable guide is just about essential for encountering rare animals like the Short-eared Dog.
Keep an eye out for the Short-eared Dog and other rare rainforest animals while experiencing the Peruvian Amazon jungle with Rainforest Expeditions.
December 21, 2013

We Solved An Amazon Rainforest Mystery (w/Video)


About six months ago, graduate student Troy Alexander took photos of this odd structure. What was it? The images went viral and neither the internet nor experts could figure it out.

The inside 'tower' and outer 'fence' of this Amazon mystery.
For image/story usage please contact: therevscience@gmail.com
Written by Phil Torres.

So we returned to the Tambopata Research Center six months later with a team lead by myself, Phil Torres, to solve it. Alongside were entomologists Lary Reeves and Geena Hill, both from the University of Florida entomology department and with strong field experience, and photographer Jeff Cremer, to document the structure with macrophotography.

The previous theories on how these structures were formed were vast: slime mold, spiders, fungus, lacewings, and some even thought it was a hoax. With just the pictures to go on and no other similar structure found in the literature, we approached this very open minded, but did suspect a cribellate spider for the reasons well outlined here.

For this expedition, the goal was to find more of these structures, find what's making them, and try and figure out a function for the odd 'fence' with a 'tower' in the center.

We weren't even sure we'd find more on the small fish pond island in which the first two were seen, but over a stretch of trail about 200m long we ended up finding upwards of 45 of them as the week went on. After isolating some of the structures and long hours of observations in the field, day and night, we've come up with the following conclusions:

It was created by a spider. Three of the structures hatched out these spiderlings.

We're still attempting to identify the spider. There are several things that make this unusual. For one, it is not common for spiders to lay eggs and abandon them, they typically place silken egg sacs in their own web to protect. More oddly, it appears that there was only a single egg per structure (see image below). This, as far as we can tell, would be the only known occurrence of a spider laying a single egg per egg sac.

We saw a few adult spiders around that were prime suspects, but never saw any making it, so the construction and culprit remain a mystery.

There were a lot of mites around. The mites we found on and in the structures threw us off the trail for a bit as were unsure of the potential for the few groups of silk-producing mites to create such a structure themselves. We were able to rule them out once the spiderlings hatched, however we noted several instances of mites being seemingly trapped inside or along the 'fence' of the structure, and other times crawling directly on the inner tower (below).
One 'tower' toppled, leaving an egg exposed. Mites like this were often seen in or on the structures.

One hypothesis is that the structure might be designed to trap mites, serving as an easy first meal for a hatching spider. There is also the possibility of the spiders putting some sort of chemical attractant on the egg case to bait the mites, as chemical lures have been documented several times with spiders.

Mites (the round, shiny objects) appear to be trapped within this structure.

In addition to potentially capturing mites, the 'fence' part of the structure may function as defense against ants. The silk could potentially ensnare ants, and the distance from the center may prevent ants from easily detecting a food source within.
The Tambopata Research Center

The spider appears to be habitat specific. We only found them in a particular area of successional forest habitat with high abundance of Cecropia and bamboo. This seems to fit the habitat of another single structure which was photographed in Ecuador. This information will allow us to survey other similar habitats to search for more.
The island where the spider was found can be seen in the lower left corner.

We're eager to hear from spider experts out there who can provide some guidance on ID and evolutionary origin of the structure. There is much work to be done observing these in their natural environment to truly get to the bottom of it, but until then we can at least sleep at night knowing we've solved one part: it's a spider.

September 22, 2013

What the heck is going on in this picture?

Peru Tambopata

This toad appears to be a fan of star wars... or is it using blinders...? or does it have giant ears...? or what is that sticking out of its mouth!?

Look closely and you'll realize that this is a rare, and perhaps first, sighting of a cane toad feeding on a bat. Yes, this happened.

This photo was taken at a remote guard station in Peru by park ranger Yufani Olaya at Cerros de Amotape National Park. He gave us permission to write about the photo, but we're waiting to hear back from him on more details about where exactly he found it, and how he thinks a ground-dwelling toad could have captured a bat. 

We're unsure how common this is, but we do know that this is probably the first photographed record of a cane toad feeding on a bat.  Cane toads are notoriously opportunistic feeders, and while they are native to South America this trait has made them infamously invasive in places like Australia.

Without more information about this photo it can be difficult to guess how a ground-dwelling toad and a flying bat could ever cross paths, unless the bat had fallen.

My best guess? I have seen bats and toads use similar locations in the rainforest, just not at the same time. Both are known to use small holes along streamsides, so it's possible this bat decided to roost in a hole that was inhabited by a hungry toad, which after some difficulty swallowing took a walk to get its photo taken by Olaya.

Here in the Tambopata rainforest we often run across cane toads- but from now on we'll keep an extra close eye out for what's in their mouths. 

We'll keep you in the loop as we get more information on this odd and fascinating sighting.

Update: Sept 23, 2013 10:00am

We finally got in touch with Olaya. As was suggested by John Scanlon in a comment on a repost of this story on Why Evolution Is True, it appears the bat was flying a bit too close to the ground. Many bats will feed on insects flying near the ground or will glean insects that are actually on the ground (pallid bats in the US are a great example of the latter).

Olaya described the toad's success as "out of nowhere the bat just flew directly into the mouth of the toad, which almost seemed to be sitting with its mouth wide open." With toad-like reflexes, this cane toad was able to snatch the unsuspecting bat right out of the air as it flew too close to the ground, and apparently directly at the toad's awaiting mouth.

So, did the toad finally get those wings in its mouth? According to Olaya, no. The toad finally gave up and spat it out. While Olaya at first thought the bat was dead, he said it slowly recovered and was able to fly away. I'm sure it won't make that mistake again.

Update: Sept 24 5:00pm

We were sent a paper which describes a related toad feeding on a bat, which you can find (with images) here.

Special thanks to A. Ruesta for bringing this photo to our attention, and for getting in contact with Mr. Olaya.

September 17, 2013

Scientists Stumped: What Is This Strange Web Like Structure?


Grad Student Discovers Unexplained Web Structure
Resembling “The Unicorn in Captivity”
At Tambopata Research Center in Peruvian Rainforest

LIMA, Peru, Sept. 19, 2013 – Peru’s visionary leader in sustainable tourism, Rainforest Expeditions http://www.perunature.com/, reports that deep in the Peruvian rainforest near its Tambopata Research Center an as-yet-unnamed insect or fungus has been discovered that weaves an intricate funnel-shaped cocoon surrounded by approximately 30 “posts” that are positioned vertically, connected by woven “mesh,” and evenly spaced to form a “fence” measuring some 2 centimeters around the cocoon.

Thus far entomologists are stumped as to what it is.

Troy Alexander, a graduate student visiting the center in early June was the first to discover the structure this past summer, first on the underside of a tarp and then on tree trunks.

“I do not know what organism made it. Never seen such a structure before,” said Jonathan Coddington, who studies spiders and is associate director for science at the National Museum of Natural History.

Suggestions range from the structure being a spider egg sac to an incomplete cocoon. Other suggestions are funnier.  “I have seen people say that it’s been built by a spider from Mars, that it's a navigational aid built by mosquitos for navigating the dense jungles, to alien communication arrays built by local arachnids under the influence of alien mind control.” Jeff Cremer, spokesperson for Rainforest Expeditions.  “Some people even say that it looks like the insect (or fungal) variation on the theme of the Late Middle Ages tapestry, The Unicorn in Captivity,”

Tory Alexander’s favorite theory, described on Facebook, is that “there are spider eggs in the base of the pole, and the spiderlings climb the pole and sail away on silken parachutes, protected by the fence the whole time.”

 This region is no stranger to new species. In early 2012 the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) reported on 365 previously undocumented species found in Bahuaja Sonene National Park in the Tambopata River region of southeastern Peru. More recently in September, 2012 a new spider species that created “false” decoy spiders as protection was found at the center.

August 06, 2013

The Greatest Hawk? The Great Black Hawk.


The Great Black Hawk, Buteogallus urubitinga, is one of the many birds of prey in Tambopata you will very likely see while boating up the river to the lodges.

These hawks are known to specialize in feeding on reptiles like lizards and snakes, but have also been observed feeding on small mammals and large insects. One study observed adults even feed their chicks venomous vipers and poisonous toads!
Where to see it while in Tambopata? The Great Black Hawk is one of the larger hawks in our region, and always a pleasure to watch as it hops along the shore of the Tambopata looking for prey.

July 29, 2013

Tropical Herping Visits Our Lodges

We recently had the pleasure of hosting Tropical Herping, a team of biologists and photographers from Ecuador, at our lodges. They performed an extensive survey of our forests and took some INCREDIBLE images.

Considering it is dry season, the 37 species of stunning reptiles and amphibians is quite impressive. Click on the image below for the full report and image gallery!

June 19, 2013

A 'Faena' - Community Teamwork To Rebuild A Roof

How is it possible to maintain such large lodges in the middle of the Amazon? A recent roof renovation at Posada Amazonas Lodge highlighted the incredible process.

The "faena," community-organized work project, to replace the roof.

It all revolved around a "faena" in which community members donate their time to work on a project that is for the good of the community. Posada Amazonas is managed by and co-owned by the native community of Infierno, and employs many individuals from the community, so this roof renovation was directed by the board of the community.

The turn out was remarkable - 73 people, 15kg of nails, and 1,500 crishneja leaves, the palm from which the roofing is woven. 

There are as many men as there are women. Women are mainly in charge of carrying the leaves from the port to the house that is to be remodeled. Men dedicate themselves to the installation of the roof and finally, the women clean the rooms and the work areas, and they prepare the communal meal and the refreshments. first day involved removing the old roof and replacing half of it, the second day finished the replacement and sealed the edges, and the third day was the clean-up.

On the first day, the 100% of the dry leaves were removed and half of the newroof was installed. On the second day, the other half was installed. Edges and unions were sealed and finally, the third day was cleaning and preparation day, to leave everything ready.

In order to cover the new roof, they must begin from the bottom up and from left to right. A row of about 20 people is formed, each one holding a bundle of crishneja leaf. Upon a shout or a whistle signal from one of them, they must begin to place and nail the leaves in order, making sure one bundle is beneath the other. They continue to the following row and so on and so forth until the top is reached.

From us at Rainforest Expeditions, a huge thank you to the Community of Infierno for their hard work in keeping the Posada Amazonas Lodge well maintained and beautiful!

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