Latitude Zero investigates biodiversity in Amazonia

Universidad San Francisco de Quito hosted Latitude Zero: Amazonia, a talk with David Fernando Romo Vallejo, who is a professor, biologist, and researcher at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the Ecuadorian Amazon on Oct. 30. 

Tiputini is one of the most diverse sites in the Amazon, which was the main reason for conducting animal research there and hosting this talk. The land covered for this project is about 4 kilometers and the project started a bit before 2010. Initially, the research team had to use film cameras. Now, their cameras use memory cards that generate more information and have a longer battery life. The cameras sense movement and heat, and they are set up on opposite sides to capture both sides of an animal. So far, their team has captured 100,000 pictures, 10,000 videos and have documented the presence of 70 species. 

The first bird that Vallejo discussed was a species that is often the first bird species to be depleted by hunting. The presence of this bird “shows low impact from hunting and speaks to the quality of the forest,” Vallejo said. 

Also seen was a paca, a rodent which is frequently hunted as well. Another animal captured was a black agouti, similar to the North American squirrel. These animals aid in seed dispersal of plants. Opossums are also native to the region. These animals are significant to evolutionary history because they mark the moment in which marsupials evolved into placental animals, and there are few marsupial species in existence. 

An interesting find in Tiputini was the frequent presence of the red brocket deer. They are typically very elusive and difficult to find in person. That being said, they account for 30% of the total images captured by the research team. This means that they are very good at hiding from humans. 

The team had cameras set up by a salt lake, where as Vallejo said, “The presence of water makes vegetation less dense.” This allows for clearer visibility for the animals and alerts them quickly of the presence of predators. Salt lakes are necessary for these animals because they contain nutrients, such as salt and clay, which are vital to their diets. 

The research team also learned a lot about an elusive species called the short-eared dog, which is a canid species native to the region. Little information was known about this species because they are very elusive. Vallejo noted an interesting fact – both domestic dogs and wolves belong to the genus canis. Dogs are the species canis familiares and wolves are canis lupus. 

This demonstrates how recently, dogs and wolves evolved separately from each other. The short-eared dog belongs to the genus atelocynus microtis.  This is actually the only species in this genus, which shows that this species diverged from dogs and wolves much farther back in history. The cameras, as well as gestational images, captured images of them eating amphibians. This is more than has ever been documented about these species before. Even more elusive is the bush dog, of which only three images were captured.

The cream of the crop from this research expedition, and why many people have a fascination with the rainforest, was the presence of the big cats. “All the cats [were] present, very unique (and) within 4 kilometers, all the cats have been detected,” said Vallejo.

The goal for this project was to determine how many jaguars could be found. The research team used the markings of the animals, such as jaguars and ocelots, to distinguish them. The team recorded 20 different jaguars, which is unheard of for such a small amount of land. 

One camera shot of a researcher walking through was superimposed with the image of a jaguar walking though the same trail. The images were taken 30 minutes apart, which means that it is very possible for that researcher and cat to have run into each other. The team also captured a video of a female jaguar with two cubs, which Vallejo said“ represents the gold of what people want to see.” 

Another notable happening the cameras picked up was the frequency of interspecies interactions. The first was a porcupine and a sloth sharing a branch. The porcupine grew visibly frustrated because it wanted to cross the branch, but the sloth was being characteristically slow and would not move quick enough. 

Another unique sight was a video of a group of spider monkeys and red howler monkeys sitting together eating the nutritious clay by the salt lake. A baby howler monkey makes its way towards a spider monkey and climbs onto it’s back, as if it was the howler infant’s mother. Eventually, the infant’s parent retrieved it. The knowledge gained from the onset of this project is immeasurable. 

Vallejo, along with fellow researchers Diego Mosquera and Kelly Swing, wrote a book called “Los secretos del Yasuní: Avances en la investigación del bosque tropical: Estación de Biodiversidad Tiputini,” which translates to “The Secrets of Yasuní: Advances in the Investigation of the Tropical Forest: Tiputini Biodiversity Station,” and was sponsored by the University San Francisco of Quito. This book is heralded as one of the best scientific catalogues of Ecuador, and its authors are very proud of the research and work that went into it. 

Vallejo did address that the Tiputini research team is very concerned about climate change and its effects on this part of Amazonia. They are looking towards research funding to be able to study this aspect of the area, because they currently are not funded to be able to study climate change. But, Vallejo is hopeful. 

Studying the biodiversity of this region can lead to discoveries that will allow for the diversification of other parts of the rainforest. Vallejo’s book can be downloaded at researchgate.net for those interested in the specifics of this project, and student research teams are welcome to visit and learn at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station when it reopens post COVID-19.

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