Giant rodent of Brazil

Continuing the discussion of “giant” animals of Brazil, how about the Capybara, the largest rodent (think rats and mice) in the world?

Capybara and its youngster strolling along the Pantaneiro (road through the Pantanal).  Female capybara usually have 1-4 young at a time, but we usually saw only one youngster at a time — probably due to predation.

These giant rodents stand 2 feet tall at the shoulder, are 3.5 to 5 feet long, and can weigh 80-150 pounds.  They are highly social, congregating in herds of 30 to 40 animals, but also travel in small family groups.

A herd of capybara settled onto the bank of the lagoon we were walking around at sunset one evening.

When the vegetation dries up on land Capybara switch to eating aquatic vegetation, like the water hyacinths that border rivers and streams.

Being a large, stocky, heavily furred rodent in a hot, tropical climate would be really disadvantageous, if not for the capybara’s love of swimming.  They dine on aquatic plants, soak in water during the heat of the day, and can cross rivers when they want to move to other areas to forage.

But danger lurks in the waters of the Pantanal…

Jaguar are also excellent swimmers, and are much faster and more powerful than Capybara, one of their primary prey.

Although Capybara are superb swimmers and can hold their breath under water for several minutes at a time, there may not be many places to hide from a Jaguar under water.

And Caiman also inhabit the shores of ponds, lagoons, and small streams in the Pantanal and would relish a meal of Capybara.

Life is fraught with danger if you’re a Capybara living in the Pantanal, which is why their life expectancy is just a few short years.

Another Giant of the Pantanal

On our morning searches  for Jaguars, we have come across small groups of Giant Otters, swimming, fishing, and cavorting on land briefly.  The best way to show off these interesting inhabitants of the Rio Cuiabá near Porto Jofre in the northern Pantanal is in a video of one of our encounters with them (you can mute the sound).

Giant Otters are about twice the size of our river otters in North America, measuring almost 6 feet in total length and weighing 50-70 pounds.  Unlike their weasel-family cousins, these otters are highly social, with the small groups consisting of a dominant breeding pair and associated family members.

Giant Otters are adept at moving around on land as well as in the water, and particularly good at carrying their meals with them wherever they go.  Finding a suitable snag or log in the river, an Otter might pause briefly to eat a few bites, and it doesn’t care if humans in boats nearby watch them do it.

Time to stop and eat some of that fish before another otter grabs it. They use their front feet to hold the fish, much like humans would, in position for biting off chunks with their shearing molar teeth

Well, the otter didn’t finish its meal, but the rest of the group left, and so it must too.

Otter fur is short and dense, and does a superb job of keeping their skin dry while they swim.  Unfortunately, the pelt made such a fine coat for humans, Giant Otters were hunted almost to extinction, with numbers dropping to less than 5000 individuals in the world population in the early 1970s before conservation measures were put in place.  Most of these otters live in the Amazon basin and the Pantanal of Brazil, in environments that undergo seasonal flooding.

Giant Otter family groups maintain a territory that includes flooded forest and river bank, as well as land in between which they clear of vegetation to establish dens, camp sites, and latrines.  Usually a pair of otters will patrol specific marked areas within their territory on a daily basis, checking for intruders.  It’s possible this is what we watched on one of our otter encounters.

Both the male (here) and female (photo below) in a small group of four otters climbed the bank, conducted an olfactory inventory, and made overt attempts to mark this site with urine and a lot of  scratching and digging, before moving off downstream.

This species has lost 80 percent of its South American range and is one of the most endangered mammal species in the neotropics.  It is heartening to learn about the conservation efforts taking place in many of the South American countries today to preserve native populations like the Giant Otter, as well as a long list of many other species.  One just hopes it isn’t too late.

the great Jaguar (photo) hunt

High on our list (perhaps first) of things to see on our trip to Brazil was Jaguars, and today’s Jaguar photo hunt did not disappoint.  We began the morning at 6 a.m. cruising down river in a power boat (the reason for that will become apparent) for anything of interest — birds, otters, caiman, capaybara, whatever we could find.

And at last our driver received the signal on his radio that a Jaguar had been sighted, and the chase was on — full speed down the river we had just come up at 61 km/hr (about 36 mph), chasing other power boats to the sighting.  But it was a false alarm — no Jaguar.

However, continuing down river a short way, we found one boat stopped along the river, right in front of two robust Jaguar males (apparently brothers) who were trying to make their way down to the water.

Each of them tried a few different routes, but didn’t seem to like the footing.

But soon we were surrounded by at least 20 power boats, all jockeying for position to see these great cats.

The  brothers put on a show for at least 45 minutes walking down the shoreline, in and out of tall vegetation, only to reappear further down river.  They might have been hunting their favorite prey — capybara, the rodent the size of a baby hippo, or caiman, who also frequent the river banks.

Adult Jaguar are big, muscular animals, the largest cat in the Americas, and third largest cat in the world. They are stocky, with short legs and heavy trunks, standing only 30 inches on average at the shoulder, but weighing as much as 125-200 pounds in adult males.

Even their paws seem petite compared to Tigers.

Onlookers crowd in to see a resting Jaguar, but the Jaguar seems unperturbed by them.

Females, like this one, are about 20 percent smaller than males, some weighing less than 100 pounds.  The spot patterns on a Jaguar’s face are unique making it possible to identify individuals.

Jaguars have rather large heads and powerful jaw musculature that enable them to crush dense bones and the armor-plated shells of turtles. Those large canine teeth can puncture the skulls of capybara.  Adjusted for body size, Jaguar have the greatest bite force among cats, along with Clouded Leopards, and ahead of Lions and Tigers.

Jaguar prey have no safe avenues of escape, with the big cat’s ability to climb trees in pursuit, ambush and attack prey on land, or drown them under water.  It’s no wonder they are the dominant apex predator of the South American rainforest.

A giant of the Pantanal

We found our first representative of the Big 5 of South America (I.e., the five iconic mammals of this continent, similar to the Big 5 of Africa), during an evening game drive.  Our sharp-eyed guide spotted a Giant Anteater (or ant bear) crossing an open grassy area and carefully shepherded the animal toward us, as we waited with camera ready in our open safari vehicle.

Setting off for a wildlife game drive at Posada Aguape in the Pantanal of Brazil.

Many photos were taken, but the light was too dim to reveal much.  The following night we spotted two more Giant Anteaters, one sound asleep in some tall brush that sleepily aroused and lumbered off — alas, no photos of that either.

The following morning, our guide pulled us away from breakfast to see a Giant Anteater in one of the pastures at the Posada.  At last, good light to photograph this unique animal.

Giant Anteater on the run. Mature adults can reach 6-7 feet in length and weigh 60-100 pounds. The tail seems to account for half of its body length, and is used for both insulation on cool evening when the animal is at rest and as camouflage in dense shade.

It’s hard to imagine needing insulation on “cool” nights in this very warm environment where daytime temperatures in the dry season now exceed 100 F (40 C), but Anteaters, like the sloths to which they are related, have low body temperatures and low metabolism, so good insulation helps them retain their body heat without having to waste energy by shivering to stay warm.

Their four-legged running gait moves them quite quickly across open spaces, but this animal was actually galloping, both forelegs hitting the ground simultaneously, in an effort to escape our guide, as he pushed the animal toward us.

Powerful arms and elongated claws on the front feet enable the Anteater to excavate insect nests.

Giant Anteaters are entirely terrestrial and insectivorous, dining on ants excavated from nests in grassy areas, or termites in drier area where these insects create huge mounds on the ground surface.

Completely toothless, they harvest these insects by probing into holes with their elongate snout and extending their tongue as much as 18 inches into ant or termite burrows.  Moving their tongue rapidly in and out of their snout several times per second, crushing the insects by moving the tongue against the roof of their mouth, and swallowing continuously, Giant Anteaters will consume tens of thousands of insects daily by excavating hundreds of insect nests.

Because of the elongated nails on the front feet, Anteaters knuckle walk on the forelimbs, like comps and gorillas, but the shorter nails on the hind feet allow them to walk flat-footed on those limbs.

Giant Anteaters are fairly rare throughout their South American range, and only produce one youngster per breeding cycle.  The infant rides on its mother’s back, with its stripes exactly lining up with those of its mother for camouflage.

Wildlife in the Pantanal at Posada Aguape

Our home away from home for a couple of days, while we survey the landscape for wildlife in the southern Pantanal of Brazil, north and west of São Paulo.  This immense grassland, which floods almost completely during the rainy season, is home to an amazing diversity of birds and mammals, but also to hundreds of cattle ranches, which are not entirely compatible with the wildlife.

Driving down dirt roads, we made an exciting discovery around every corner.

I worked hard to get a clear shot of this Toko Toucan eating papaya. The next morning, they visited us at our open air breakfast table!

Toko Toucans, also known as Common Toucan, or just Toucan are popular attractions at zoos, and famous on cereal boxes.  That big bill might be useful in radiating heat in this extremely warm environment.  They do eat a lot of fruit, which they deftly manipulate with the tip of the bill, but also are known to help themselves to small birds, mammals, and any other delectable small wildlife that cross their paths.

A nest box right at our lodge, where a pair of Hyacinth Macaws have taken up residence.

Hyacinth Macaws are back from the brink of extinction in the Pantanal, thanks to a dedicated crew that have put up nest boxes.  With their favorite nest trees disappearing as land is cleared, production of young from nest boxes has tripled the dwindling population to about 5000 birds in Brazil.

Coexistence of cattle and macaws is difficult when the cattle stomp on the fruits and young shoots of the Hyacinth Macaw’s favorite food, the fruits of the Acouri Palm. Protection of these trees, as well as provision of nest boxes are essential to the survival of this magnificent bird species.

Stopping along the road to photograph a rare bird, we almost missed the action occurring behind us across the road.

Two male Rheas (the large flightless bird of South America) are duking it out, pushing against each other breast to breast while beaking each other.

At last, one male chases the other off. Male Rheas maintain a territory, to which they attract a harem of females to lay eggs in a nest they construct.   Males then incubate the eggs, and protect the newly hatched young chicks in a reversal of parental roles in this species.

We found a Tegu lizard crawling through the brush along side the road.  They look like small Komodo dragons, but they are more closely related to Teiid lizards like whiptails.

Around another corner, we spied a safari vehicle stopped by some short grass and brush along the road.  There had to be something unique to see there.

A rare find by sharp-eyed guides, a Southern Tamandua anteater.

This relatively small anteater digs around clumps of bushes and fallen trees for ant nests, which it excavates with strong front legs armed with some sharp toenails. They actually walk on the back of their front knuckles, like a chimpanzee or gorilla might.

All this and much more highlighted our first day in the Pantanal, and the sunset didn’t disappoint us either.

Sunset in the Southern Pantanal of Brazil

Morning visitors

The deer usually make their rounds of the backyard just as it’s getting light in the morning, between 5 and 6 a.m.  They wander by the flowers, nibble a few and move on.  But one morning, the fawns were just too tired to keep up with their mom, and took a rest in the long grass.

The lawn that hadn’t been mowed for 3 weeks must have looked inviting for a morning nap.  The fawns spent over an hour resting here, with no mom in sight.

Finally, one of the fawns seems to think it’s time to move on…

Benign neglect of the backyard, which has become somewhat of a jungle with all the rain and our long absence this summer, seems to make it more attractive to the wildlife.

Close encounter

Sometimes you look out your window at just the right time and are fortunate to witness some of the drama of wildlife encounters that are probably regular occurrences in the backyard.  And this was tonight’s drama.

Mrs. Turkey decided to bring her week-old chicks for a quick dessert in the wildflower garden at sunset.  A few days ago she had 10, tonight she only had 8 with her.

This must be a second nesting attempt for this hen. It seems very late to have such small poults, and I wonder if they can grow big enough in time to survive a winter here.

She finally led them off into the brush at the very back of the backyard, about 100 feet from the house.

And I thought that was all I would see of them, until she reappeared five minutes later, clucking loudly with chicks running behind her.  The little ones took off flying into nearby trees, while she stayed on the ground, still clucking loudly.  Something was after them…

One of the local red foxes that inhabits the wetland beyond the backyard had discovered the turkeys, made a brief stop to pose for me, and continued its stalk through the bushes toward the birds.

Stealth approach…

Not even trying to remain hidden…

Wondering where the little ones went?

Realizing they are out of reach in the trees…

The chicks are out of reach, but the hen isn’t, and the Fox made a move toward her.

At this point, I interrupted the action by opening the porch door to get a better view, and the fox gave up its chase and disappeared.  Could the hen have escaped an attack?  I know turkeys can fly quite well, so unless she was molting a lot of flight feathers, she should have been able to escape — I hope.

Unseen places — Montana ranches

We passed through a portion of south central Montana on our drive back to Minnesota, and stopped to drive around a beautiful ranch southwest of Bozeman.  Off the beaten track, it turned out to be a great place to see wildlife.

Looking up the canyon divide where the ranch property begins at Gallatin Gateway, Montana.

Turner Enterprises owns the 100,000 acre Flying D ranch, a haven for wildlife and for bison production.

The ranch runs between the Gallatin and Madison Rivers. I imagine there is some good fishing there.  Not a bad place to live either.

A couple of Sandhill Cranes called to us as we drove by.  The wildflowers were in bloom in the prairie areas.

A Yellow-bellied Marmot (relative of the woodchuck) called to us from atop his rock next to the road.

I’m not sure which grouse species this is, but this little hen really didn’t want to get off the road in front of our car.

From a high viewpoint on the ranch, we could just make out a scattered buffalo herd in the distance.  Was this what it looked like 150 or more years ago, when Native Americans scouted for buffalo?

Turner Enterprises conducts annual bison round-ups to select animals to harvest for the market. There are probably 5000 animals scattered through the ranch.

Elsewhere on Montana byways, along another ranch road, we watched a Red-tailed Hawk buzz a Bald Eagle sitting on a fence post.

The hawk (far upper right corner) made a couple of dives at the Eagle, but then circled overhead and left it alone.

This bird might have been sickly, because it’s feathers look shabby and it never moved while we drove right up next to it. Lead poisoning is not uncommon in raptors here, if birds scavenge deer or elk carcasses with lead shot fragments embedded in the flesh.

the Flint Hills

Explorer Zebulon Pike coined the term “flint hills” for the rocky, flinty limestone-rich tall grass prairie that runs north to south down the eastern 1/3 of Kansas into Oklahoma.

Flint hills near Bazaar cattle ranch, Kansas

Rolling prairie as far as the eye can see, dotted with cattle.

Early settlers found the ground much too rocky to farm, but it made good cattle pasture. Today, the prairie is managed by regular burning, which returns the previous year’s nutrients to the soil, and creates a lush green carpet.

Flint hills near Bazaar cattle ranch, Kansas

The contrast of green, previously burned and yellow-brown, unburned prairie is obvious on opposite sides of the highway.  We just barely outran the thunderstorm that was moving east as we drove south.

Flint hills near Bazaar cattle ranch, Kansas

The Flint Hills are the most dense coverage of tall grass prairie in all of North America. Imagine what this must have looked like in the early 1800s when huge herds of buffalo roamed the prairie.

Why is this extensive formation here, you might wonder?  Because 250 million years ago, this area and much of the Midwest was covered by a shallow sea, where silt and sand, as well as the carbonates from the rich invertebrate fauna in the sea, were deposited in layers.  Erosion of softer materials over time left the rocky, flint- Continue reading

Buried treasure

April blizzards create new challenges for wildlife, already limited by the diminished resources available.  Can squirrels really remember where they hid some buried treasure last fall?  Apparently so.

After the blizzard, gray squirrels ventured out in the deep snow, digging holes down to the dirt surface in search of their buried treasures.
This shot begs for a clever caption. Got any ideas?

It looks like the squirrel found what it was searching for — a dried up walnut.

I wonder if they can smell nuts under snow cover?