Biodiversity to take your breath away

By Mark Brazil | Nov 21, 2007

I promised that I would write more about my recent visit to South America, and as the first snows are now regularly dusting the mountains on view from my window here in Hokkaido — and even coating my balcony — it’s hard not to reflect on times spent in warmer climes.

There can be few (if any other) naturalists who have had the good fortune to travel in the country bearing their name, and I am so glad that my name is not Greenland!

Brazil is richly endowed with biodiversity. Not only does it have the lion’s share of the Amazon within its borders, but it also has an array of other biomes including the fabulous wetland region of the Pantanal and fragments of the extraordinarily diverse Atlantic rain forest, which predates the Amazon rain forest by perhaps as long as 20 million years.

Whereas in the business world they say “time is money,” in the natural world, time — combined with isolation — is an indicator (or a kind of measure) of diversity, as together time and isolation can be said to encourage speciation. Ecosystems that have been isolated in some way for very long periods tend to be rich in unique species found nowhere else on Earth — and Brazil has a remarkable number of such species, with the Atlantic rain forest especially abundant. Yet this is only one of Brazil’s special environments.

Monkeys, wherever you find them, are a delightful distraction — always so active and fascinating to observe because of their social behavior.

My most recent journey to Brazil began with monkey encounters straight away on the first day in the Rio de Janeiro botanical gardens, with tiny, fussy, high-voiced marmosets and tough-looking capuchins with their strange crown tufts that remind me of middle-aged men trying to cover up baldness with a wig.

Fossicking in search of sap

For my favorite monkey, I am torn between the marmoset, with its birdlike chittering calls and fascinating habits, and the oh-so-elegant muriqui.

Marmosets run and roam in small family bands like fussy, omnivorous squirrels, fossicking about in search of sap, fruits and insects, their tiny fingers adept at investigating crevices in bark and around leaf bases. They are as likely to appear at eye-level as in the canopy, up close or at telescope-viewing range.

Muriqui, on the other hand, are long-limbed to the point of being lanky; I think of them as gangly teenagers but with little pot bellies. Where Southeast Asia’s tailless gibbons brachiate neurotically, whooping it up at high speed through the canopy, muriqui move like gibbons on Valium. Muriqui have long graceful fingers and long arms with which they grasp and swing sedately through the canopy, aided by their secret weapon — a fifth “limb.”

Also, whereas Southeast Asia’s gibbons use their long arms and fingers like hooks beneath which they tuck up their legs and swing like pendulums, muriqui have a long prehensile tail with which they can grasp, hang and swing. Where gibbons swing and leap with abandon, muriqui look laid back and seem to ponder their moves. It appears that they feel the sway and bend of each branch, judging how far out on a limb they can go before carefully grasping the next one and so bridging their way across gaps in the canopy.

In the Atlantic rain forest I was delighted to find muriqui and to see a newborn in its family group, riding beneath its mother and clinging tight to her with all five “limbs.”

Muriqui-watching requires patience and strong neck muscles, as one must search high in the forest canopy. But some of South America’s more charismatic creatures are just as at home on the ground. It was in search of one of these that I traveled inland from the coastal forest, heading for the high grasslands of the Canastra Mountains.

This arid range is liberally studded with concrete-hard termite mounts, and where there are termites, and ants, there are creatures that eat them. This area is renowned for the largest such species in South America — the giant anteater.

This creature has the most extraordinary head shape of any mammal. Its head seems rather small for its overall size, while its snout is enormously elongated and tubular — all the better for housing a long protuberant tongue, which when coated with sticky saliva makes it the ideal tool for vacuuming up small insects.

Ripping into termite mounts

The giant anteater’s long tail has long fur that hangs like a broad flag. At first sight, it’s sometimes difficult to tell which is the head end, and which direction it is traveling in. It moves sedately, secure in knowing that their long, powerful claws capable of ripping into termite mounts are suitable defense even against the jaguar.

Yet giant anteaters are sensitive to vibration and to scent; play your cards right and they will obliviously snuffle right past you; step heavily or gauge the wind incorrectly and they suddenly pick up the pace and lumber away at a dash.

The grasslands and forests of Brazil’s Atlantic interior are home to another extraordinarily elegant creature — the maned wolf. Long-legged, this surprises all by its size and height and, at one location only — the seminary at Caraca — by visiting the chapel nightly for handouts of meat! Glimpsing one of these delightful creatures at long range in the grasslands of Canastra is one thing, but seeing one up close at Caraca is awesome.

The forests of Caraca support some delightful birds — pihas and cotingas, trogons and hummingbirds, and many many more — but one of the oddest parts of the morning chorus is the periodic outburst of maniacal laughter from the family groups of masked titi monkeys. These can be elusive, but even hearing them is exciting, rather like hearing the distant roar of howler monkeys.

In the west of the country, the seasonal wetlands and periodically flooded forests of the Pantanal make for one of the most exciting bird- and wildlife-watching locations on Earth.

One of the more unusual animals here is the world’s largest rodent — the sheep-size capybara. These placid creatures seem relaxed even around the region’s main common predator, the Jacarz caiman, and they spend much time just lounging about beside shrinking pools as the dry season saps moisture from the ground.

Enormous Jabiru storks build huge treetop nests; massive hyacinth macaws fly gracefully across the landscape; and herons in their hundreds forage around every available patch of water, hunting the fish that have become concentrated there by retreating waters.

Nocturnal excursions in the Pantanal could hardly be more thrilling — crab-eating raccoons, crab-eating foxes and South American coati can appear at any time. But constant scanning, and endless patience, are sometimes rewarded by even more exciting sightings: giant anteaters, ocelots and tapirs.

It’s tough to pick out favorites, but I was entranced by the pugilistic appearance, brusque antics and amusing vocalizations of the giant otters. So much larger than river otters, inquisitive and sociable, giant otters live in family “gangs” based at a riverside burrow or holt, or beneath riverside vegetation. From there, they explore their home range like a group of overmuscled youngsters with time on their hands.

Perhaps South America is too far afield for your holidays, but closer to home certain parts of Japan are rich in birds and mammals. During 2008, I will be running two workshops in eastern Hokkaido, in spring (late May) and in autumn (mid September) during the bird-migration seasons. If you would like to learn more about wildlife-watching here, then why not join me?