The bullet ants, the anteater, and the scaredy-cat

Rainforests are brimming with life. Big, small, and smaller still. Camouflaged coats and colourful garbs. Picky specialists and opportunistic generalists. Dedicated architects and cumbersome foragers. Despite this, most of their most famous inhabitants are very hard to see, in truly untamed forest. Take it from someone who lived in the Amazon for a year and has been going back for shorter periods for over six years.

I am yet again back in San José de Payamino at the moment, this time for a couple of very brief visits between getting through some lab work in Quito. Although it will be great to get this lab work done and it will hopefully lead to more future collaborations with the Universidad de Las Américas, who are kindly offering me the use of their laboratory facilities, I can’t help but think about this time last year. In January and February 2018 I spent five weeks in Payamino, kicking off the first lot of field work for my PhD, which led to acquiring some of the samples I will be working on in the Ecuadorian capital on this trip over the next few weeks.

Although I have previously used camera traps to study the mammal diversity of Payamino, my current work here consists mainly of collecting and dissecting epiphytic bromeliads to study the biodiverse microcosms lurking within them. And climbing trees to collect the plants, of course. It seems strange then, that the first time in six years that I was in Payamino solely for this purpose, I should see more mammals in a shorter space of time than I ever saw in the flesh while camera-trapping.

Saddle-back tamarins (Saguinus fuscicollis) are not an uncommon sight in Payamino [Fig 1] , if you’re quiet enough. I have seen groups of them jumping between and scurrying up and down trees on many multiple occasions – but it is always a pleasure to observe them and I did on two separate occasions this time. A little more surprising, was when one afternoon I was taking a bromeliad apart and spotted movement down on the river bank. After momentarily thinking it must be a dog, the tayra (Eira barbara) exploring the shore ran up a log right into the station clearing, seemingly inspecting the perimeter before disappearing into the forest.

Fig 1 – Tamarin in Payamino, 2013. © X O'Reilly Berkeley

More mammal sightings included one morning on our way into the forest, when my Kichwa guide, Fernando, spotted a young armadillo (Dasypus sp.) [Fig 2] curling up to sleep in amongst some shrubs right at the edge of the research station. On a walk back from primary forest we say an agouti (Dasyprocta fulliginosa) and, in broad daylight, one of South America’s few marsupial species, a mouse opossum (Marmosa sp.).

Fig 2- Armadillo just outside the research station. © X O'Reilly Berkeley

Field work had got off to a shaky start on that trip, what with it raining for a solid week, the station being sparsely populated (meaning more time spent running the station), and being the only tree climber and not an entirely confident one, at that. Sampling numbers were far lower than I hope, but all these sightings were making up for it. Perhaps not literally by contributing to my sample size, but at least by lifting my spirits. And here I’m only talking about the mammal sightings – check out these beautiful spiders too! [Fig 3-4]

Fig 3 - A colourful jumping spider (Salticidae). Seems relatively common in Payamino, as I have seen one at least once on most of my visits over the years. © X O'Reilly Berkeley
Fig 4 - A flowery crab spider, Epicadus heterogaster. First time I have seen one. © X O'Reilly Berkeley
As if I didn’t already feel lucky enough, one day while rigging a tree I pulled down my ropes that I had hoisted over a brach about 11 metres above the ground, only to find it crawling with bullet ants. If you have never  heard of bullet ants, you are probably thinking “how is this lucky?”. If you haven’t ever heard of bullet ants, I suggest you read about them. To be honest, although I have encountered bullet ants on countless occasions and am yet to experience their infamous and painful sting, I did panic somewhat seeing a steady stream of them marching down my rope in single file, from up a tree that I would have otherwise climbed.

In addition to having an army of bullet ants on my ropes, I was also alone – ill-advised, I know. The colleague, students, and guides I had set out with had gone on to start sampling another site for spiders. I had stayed behind to rig a tree harbouring some good-looking bromeliads, but was going to wait until my colleague returned before climbing it. I am not yet reckless enough to climb trees without someone on the ground to lower me down should I get into trouble. So, I decided that rather than attempting to shake the ants off vertical ropes and possibly shower myself in insects who are named after bullets whilst alone, I would wait.

Fig 5 - The site of all the commotion. © X O'Reilly Berkeley

I sat on the ground in silence and just looked around, taking-in the damp earthy smells of the forest and the glimmers of sunlights sneaking through the canopy [Fig 5]. In that sort of peace a falling leaf can be overheard, and the sound of a cat creeping in the undergrowth need only be betrayed by a single brittle twig underfoot. When I looked in the direction of the rustling vegetation, I was excited enough at the prospect of seeing an paca, a sort of large rodent common to Payamino. I hardly expected the mottled yellow and brown coat of an ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) [Fig 6] appear, a mere 15 metres or so away from me, walking in my direction.

Fig 6 - An ocelot, downloaded from © A Rouse

I doubt the ocelot saw me crouched in the undergrowth – until, of course, I dropped my camera case on the tarpaulin that my climbing and sampling equipment was laid out on. As soon as I did, the cat scampered.

Ocelots are probably not uncommon in Payamino. They were one of the more common things captured by the camera traps I set in 2012-2013 [Fig 7], although even so, not in great numbers. They are about the size of large, long house cats, dwarfed by their larger cousins in Payamino – pumas and jaguars. Like most felines, they are solitary animals and mostly nocturnal (although this particular encounter happened some time before noon). They have a large distribution throughout the Neotropics, found as far north as the southern United States of America down to northern Argentina.

Fig 7 - An ocelot caught very early one morning in 2012, by a camera set in Payamino. © X O'Reilly Berkeley

Twenty minutes later, the buzz of having seen a wild ocelot in the jungle had not even begun to fade, when I hurt another rustle. I didn’t think it would be the ocelot, it was louder and sounded clumsier. It was coming several metres to the left of where the ocelot had been, in a perpendicular trajectory to the cat’s; but still coming closer. The amount of rustling made it seem quite large, I thought a peccary might emerge from the bushes.

Just as my colleague returned, rounding a curve in the trail I had station myself at, he came to a full stop right as a giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) [Fig 8] bounded out of cover and off in another direction. As their name suggests, giant anteaters live off ants and are can reach 2 m long, and weigh up to 55 kg. Pretty big for something that lives on something so small. I don’t suppose it would have eaten the ants off my rope even if it hadn’t become aware of our presence, but it’s fun to imagine. Giant anteaters have a similar large-scale distribution to ocelots, occurring from Honduras to northern Argentina, but with a much sparser occurrence within that range, due to local extirpations in several places. Whereas ocelots are listed by the IUCN as “Least Concern”, giant anteaters are classified as “Vulnerable”. However, where they do occur then can live in a diverse range of contrasting habitats, such as rainforest and dry shrublands.

Fig 8 - A giant anteater, downloaded from © S Bonneau

Fig 9 - Humid camera trap photo of a giant anteater in Payamino, in April 2013. © X O'Reilly Berkeley

Back in Payamino, my colleague and I set to work recovering my ropes back from the bullet ants. Truth be told, at that point I was close to abandoning my ropes in the hope the bullet ants would get bored of it eventually, so I am grateful to my colleague for convincing me otherwise.

That day I may not have collected the samples I wanted, but I wouldn’t trade seeing an ocelot and an anteater for a couple of bromeliads that I could collect another day.

Try spotting some of the bromeliads I never collected... There are actually a few in this photo © X O'Reilly Berkeley


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