Capuchin Encounter

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View up the valley with Mt. Uran in the distance

There was an intermittent reward for the 3 hour up hill climb I did yesterday with Beth and Oscar as we made our way to maintain the distant trap cameras on the edge of the reserve near the top of a mountain after an hour of steep scrambling up slippery litter-covered and root-lain ground. The reward was a troop of capuchin monkeys, numbering a dozen or more, some swinging off into the dense growth, some closing in to check us out.

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These kinds of encounters prompt a feeling that one might have heard in documentaries or passing conversations, something along the lines of a unique experience or connection, “when you swim with whales or dolphins it’s as if they peer into your soul.” Similar untranslatable experiences have been described by astronauts who get the opportunity to hold continents with their gaze, emphasising the unity one feels when seeing the one earth for what it is without arbitrary borders and petty politics that seem to strain the fabric of communities. A similar experience caught my attention when staring eye-to-eye with a curious capuchin hanging from a branch a mere 10 metres away. The unity here was of shared experience across arbitrary distinctions of life (species). If a 30 – 50 cm capuchin can arouse such an encounter, I cannot imagine what troop of chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, or gorillas could enkindle.

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Beth & Oscar setting up the camera trap in moss-coated vibrant bush

The camera traps work on a triggered system. While attracting animals with scented cloths on the end of sticks in the ground they stroll passed the sensor, setting the camera to start recording. The conservation groups on the Otago peninsula donated some chew cards that we have installed opposite these cameras, too. By filling the slots in the card with peanut butter, banana, papaya, and other foods, animals chew into the card to consume the treats and leave a distinctive trace from their bite-mark. Installing them next to the camera traps means we can cross-reference the bite-mark to the animal so that volunteers can distribute them around the reserve and discover what animals are lurking without having to visually confirm their presence. Cheers to the Otago peninsula group for providing us with a sweet as idea like that.

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Our research passports were accepted and so Oli and I are now official visiting scientists. This means we have the permission to collect all the bugs. Bugs, bugs, bugs. We had a velvet bug day this week. Velvet worms come from a very ancient lineage of animal that has its roots 540 million years ago in fossil records. A misconception about phylogenetic (life-tree-relationship) ages of animals is that once they diverge from close relatives they stabilise until the present day, a misconception as evolution doesn’t just stop; evolution is a constant battle and governance for competition and resources, a probable reason for economics being one of biology’s parents. The Tuatara, another example, is the only remaining species of the order Rhynchocephalia which flourished over 200 million years ago (in comparison, the primate order is only 55 million years old, and the human species < 1 million). But that does not mean the tuataras of today are the same as those that diverged. Adding to the velvet day was a velvet ant which is actually a family (multillidae) of female wasps who mimic the morphology of ants and who possess a tremendously painful sting, giving them their common name of cow-killers.

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Velvet ant
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