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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Like Here, Only Different ~ Tracks in Traps

Of all the varied experiences, I think learning about and working with track traps was the most interesting and exciting.

We started out on one of our first days for the trap track making exercise.  A track trap is 1 meter by 1 meter.  Typically on trails they are spaced every 250 to 500 meters apart.  The debris is cleared and the soil is chopped up with a machete.  First thing we learned at station was how to properly sharpen and carry the machete.  We all had a go at the proper 45 degree angle whacking needed for most efficient cutting.

Cutting up the soil is a different matter.   A cross between chopping meat and making bread.  Once a trap is dug , the maintenance work is easier.  Breaking virgin soil took a lot of angled whacks.  The rough clods are gathered up and further whacked and chopped into a finer grit, then gathered further and whacked some more.

Then the whole pile is distributed and smoothed

Then you get to stand back and admire your handiwork.  Perhaps dreaming of what might leave its mark.

Traps were checked as part of daily walks.  It is more of a challenge than you might think. 

Leaves fall constantly and they leave imprints in the soil.  Moisture falls from the trees every morning and the rain drops leave splatters of imprints.  Sometimes when a leaf is positioned above,just so, its drip tip runoff produces imprints which resemble the footprints of the smaller animals.

But key to foot print identification is that there are more than one print.  The one meter square captures stride length and multiple footfalls of the animals that live here.  Sometimes it is possible to see the tail mark left from an armadillo and we even found a snake mark.

At the mammal colpa, the sticky mucky ground is smoothed over as best as possible to help identify the animals and birds visiting the clay. 

Arriving at a trap the debris is cleared very carefully, noting what marks the leaves leave.  Marks are examined very carefully.

Lighting is everything and a flashlight was a vital tool.  By lighting from different angles you can see subtle impressions and shapes that  might otherwise be missed in flat, full light.  Photography can be a challenge and shading with your body and side lighting sometimes helped make the recording picture.  Sara was brilliant at analysing signs and shared her vast knowledge with us.  Under her guidance I felt confident evaluating the traps myself.

My first assignment was into an area, a special bit of hell called "The Matrix"

The matrix was a 300 meter by 300 meter grid of 49 traps spaced 50 meters apart and numbered like a conventional X/Y grid.  0/0 the start - 0/150 three tracks up that line... and so on all the way over to 300/300.  At the center of the matrix is the Mammal Colpa.  We had come over the day before and whacked the foot ways to beat back some of the brush.  We also reset the traps making the soil smooth.  The area had not been visited for some time and it was serious rough going.  Often the only way you could see was small red or yellow ribbons hanging in trees.  You also used a compass bearing, the grid being set up on due north/south lines with connectors alone the "0" and "300" line east and west.  once on a line there was no east west connection, you had to go all the way to the end.  Lastly you could see machete marks from previous cutting.  I think during these times of navigation and observing the vegetation wrapping completely around us, seeing the machete marks is when I had that first "I am really here and REALLY in it" moment.

The challenge of walking back and forth in the matrix, navigating without an expert present AND actually making identification of the footprints we found was a solid effort of which I am pretty pleased.

There was a Control Matrix that was a bit apart from the study matrix.  This grid had no colpa, but did have the same winding stream cutting through its center.  Crossing that stream on each line got to be a bit trying.  Often the bank was steep and broken.  Seldom were their logs and thankfully in the dry season the water only came half way up the boots.  The downside was that the control matrix was rougher , less trod.  Navigation was challenging and a couple large downed trees made getting across the top of the grid impossible.

During one trap evaluation duty I was navigator.  It was the end of a very long day and I was darn pooped.  It was time to navigate out of the matrix and I took the bearing and we headed out.  The trap 50 meters from our start had prints in it.  I looked at them and at the trap id strip and asked, "didn't we check this one?"  Yes we had checked it.  Now there were fresh Jaguar prints in it.

She was just there.  She probably had us under surveillance the whole time.

Wheeee it was a little thrill.  The lucky part was, I guess, that i had navigated us the wrong way and made a 180 degree error.  If I had done it right the first time we would not have had that little thrill.

Easier duty was the Mammal Track detail.  Traps every 250 to 500 meters along the transect trails meant brisker walking.  You could take time to watch the environment and even stop to enjoy birds or animals you might see.  The traps yield just as much fun stuff as the matrix.  Indeed, one transect was a Jaguar Highway.  Paw makes in both directions.  One one walk we encountered a trap with easily 20 prints in it.  We called it the Jaguar Dance floor.  It looked like the cat had stopped and perhaps turned this way and that.  I am sorry my pictures did not turn out.

But here are a few that did.

3 nice Jaguar prints

That is my hand

The prints in a trap are not always so clear cut.  These prints gave Alan a pause.  It was a matter of deciding what they were not and then noticing a detail.

Moderate foot sized with long deep finger like toes.  Not a cat, not a canid.  Not a primate, certainly not hoof stock.

The Alan noted that the footfall was together.  Two prints side by side, two sets of them.  A member of the Weasel family does this.  And this sized weasel could mean only one thing.  Giant River Otter.  An odd location but not so very far from a stream that an animal might not have come up from the river.  We walked along and it was not very long before we found a huge pile of ants.  You bet, those ants love scat and when shooed away we found poop.

That Ladies and Gents, is Otter Poop ( not to be confused with that Summer treat "Otter Pop" ) .  The white flecks, indeed most of it, fish scales!

The last full day of our time at camp, I trekked out with Sara and three other team members.  We evaluated the track traps along the Brazil Nut Farm trail and once we got to the end we were to continue on further into rough territory to recover cameras from  some distant placements made the days previous.  Nick and I navigated with GPS and compass.  He had been to this location on the original placement.

Even though he had been to this location, he did not readily recognize one of the rough areas.  We floundered around with the GPS, venturing our on likely paths and returning back.  I think we tried all the false leads and rejected trail efforts of those before us.  This area is harvested for Brazil Nuts and there is a farm on the next property over.  Finally we got on the right track and recovered the camera.  In front of the camera there was a track trap and it showed a bold Jaguar print.  The camera would later show us a blurry image of a male Jaguar.

Sitting there in the jungle far from everyone else we had our snacks.  Rosie, our camp cook, had a little concession of packaged snacks for sale.  I am glad I thought to pack some for this trip.  We were out 8 hours.  The little sugar frosted flakes were just the thing.  Sitting there, a Blue Morpho Butterfly flew into the clearing.  We had talked about hand landing Morphos the day before.  Could I?  Would it?

I tapped some of the sugar crumbs into my hand and put it out.  The butterfly, a four inch wide bit of blue magic circled me three times, each pass coming closer.

And it did land on my hand and politely dabbed at my sweaty palm, totally ignoring the sugar.

This day was the epitome of the whole experience.  Hard work, a bit of adventure, contributing to research and encountering the rare grace of the creatures of this amazing place.

I so long to return.


  1. What a wonderful experience you had. But, knowing you, other adventures await and I can't wait to see what they are. Thanks again for taking us along with you.

  2. What an interesting post, Marti. Glad to see you are back safe and sound and it all sounds like a wonderful experience.

  3. Thanks!

    Ron I thought of you and Nancy. This would be a great trip for you two.