The critically endangered Giant River Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) is restricted to the drainages of the Orinoco and Amazon river basins in South America and among the largest of the aquatic mammals to inhabit these neotropical rainforests. The giant otter measures approximately 2 meters from snout to the tip of its tail. They have been observed eating caiman and anacondas in Peru, but prefer fish, eating them bones and all. With keen vision, underwater sensing whiskers and powerful webbed feet, these are formidable semi-aquatic predators. They are stealthy animals that appear suddenly and often vanish just as quickly. They are sometimes seen eating their fish or resting on uprooted trees cast against the riverbank. Individual otters can be recognized by the patterns on their throats.
I joined a Ecuadorian friend and fellow zoologist in Yasuní National Park who had been studying the local family of giant otters for over a year, but still had not been able to identify each member of the family. During my second week in the park, I heard the “barking” sound of a single otter near the entrance to a lagoon. Hoping it might enter the lagoon with the entire family, I took a position near a fallen tree which extended out from the shore. I anticipated correctly. The otter photographed above “spyhopped” just long enough to check me out.
The research team was jubilant tot learn that I had successfully photographed the group during their brief topside appearance. From those images, I created the series of drawings shown here which allowed the team to confirm the size of the otter family and identify each member. The ability to identify individual animals is key to tracking movement, surveying habitat use and recording behavioral observations of endangered wildlife. These are important baseline data from which to assess potential impacts and make conservation recommendations.
Which drawing depicts the spyhopping otter in the photograph?
I enjoy sharing some of the human stories behind my work and my efforts to illustrate traditional ecological knowledge. My work focuses on biocultural topics.
There is a story of indigenous science in the image below. These lowland Quichua men prefer this local tree known as “canela.” That’s my friend Luis Yumbo at the helm. This group trees (Ocotea spp.) take up a high amount of silica from the soil. That’s the stuff of glass. In turn, the canoes are much more resistant to rotting. That’s value added in an environment that receives upwards of 250 inches of rain a year! Traditional canoe carving involves an entire community and can take from 15 to 30 days.
This spider is known as the Huntsman, and I photographed this it in Yasuní National Park one of my night hikes. Participants in my tours consistently enjoy the discoveries made at night on the trails adjacent to our lodge, when amphibians and other small hunters come out before our cameras.
Measuring about four to five inches in length, it is a strikingly beautiful as it is stealthy. I watched this one for at least a good half hour as it waited for an insect to approach. Then the spider, coated in a velvety track suit of dense orange hairs, pounced on its prey.
Closeups like this are made possible by mounting a bright flashlight onto the strobe with a rubber band or a strap of velcro. In this way, you can focus easily, but more importantly, since the light is attached to the strobe, you have a real-time preview of your lighting results. Personally, I like this Versabrite light made by Pelican because like all of their products, it is waterproof.
I photographed this wild cocoa plant (Herrania sp., Family Sterculiaceae) in primary rainforest near Pañacocha lagoon (Pañayacu river drainage) in Ecuador’s Sucumbios Province. I was captivated by the tentacle-like appendages of the petals set against the shadowed forest interior. The extended petals may attact pollinating insects. It is a close relative of the cocoa plant (genus Theobroma) which produces a larger fruit and is cultivated widely in Ecuador for the tangy pulp.