Category Archives: Volunteering

Heliconia, Hummingbird and Soldierfly Research

Andrew Proudfoot, REGUA Volunteer, reports on research work at REGUA.

“The two men in the middle drop in on Caio Missagia (right) who, helped by his friend Juan, is working towards a doctoral thesis on the intricate relationship between Heliconia spathocircinata, three Hummingbirds (Violet-capped Woodnymph, Reddish Hermit and Saw-billed Hermit) and a Hoverfly (Syrphidae) and Soldierfly (Stratiomyidae) species.

Juan and Caio with Andrew and Thor (REGUA Volunteers) (© REGUA)

Who benefits, who loses and by how much?    Heliconia needs pollination visits from the hummingbird and could provide a plentiful nectar reward.   Larvae of the two fly species are kleptoparasites, gorging on the sugary tissues deep within the protected bracts of the plant’s familiar boat-shaped flowers.   If only those paired bracts were more open, marauding ants might rid the flower of its freeloading flies.

The Amazonian species has no hiding place for Diptera larvae and perhaps it has no trouble supplying its pollinators with nectar. Natural selection could have driven the development of a less enclosed host plant flower. As the Heliconia provides less resource for the hummingbirds, what is the impact on pollinator behaviour and fitness? Fewer birds are recorded visiting infected flowers.

As yet, Caio has no clear answers to these important questions and whether or not Heliconia spathocircinata might be pushed to control these unwelcome freeloaders? An unfolding story; at REGUA we await the next instalment with excitement!”

Andrew Proudfoot

Yellow-rumped Marshbirds close to REGUA

Yellow-rumped Marshbirds Pseudoleistes guirahuro near REGUA, 24 July 2017 (© Nicholas Locke)

On 24 July, Raquel and New Zealand volunteer Marc Vanwoerkom were helping me to map a property that has been offered to REGUA adjacent to the João Paulo Farm. Clambering up steep hillsides is never fun, but the work has to be done to accurately map properties with GPS and avoid issues on property size and location.

The day ended well and we were walking home when to our surprise we found a chattering bunch of Yellow-rumped Marshbirds Pseudoleistes guirahuro perched on a shrub in the pastures. This is rare bird in Rio de Janeiro state and Marc got some great photos and I managed a register shot.

Yellow-rumped Marshbird is a species of marshland and grassland, with a distribution covering much of southern Brazil but also east Paraguay, northern Uruguay north-east Argentina. They are not usually found in Rio de Janeiro state and this is the first time we have seen this bird so close to REGUA land. Perhaps it is spreading eastwards? Nevertheless, it is a stunning bird and I am hopeful we can get some better images soon.

Butterfly rarity

Ortilia polinella
Female Ortilia polinella, REGUA, 15 October 2013 (© Duncan McGeough)

Work on the next REGUA field guide, Observation Guide to the Butterflies of the Serra dos Órgãos, is progressing at good pace, and with it lots of new knowledge about the local butterfly fauna, together with some novelties, new records from guests, volunteers and visitor’s photographs have been consistently pouring in.

One notable rarity was found by Duncan McGeough, a volunteer from Germany in October 2013, just 30 metres from the REGUA office. Ortilia polinella (A. Hall, 1928), a crescent butterfly, is a cousin of the Glanville Fritillary Melitaea cinxia from Europe. Known from less than a half-dozen localities in the Brazilian states of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and Espírito Santo, and also very seldom found in collections (only three females and six males in the Natural History Museum, London) this was a superb find!

Adults are mainly forest species that dwell in sunlit areas like trails, clearings, forest edges, etc. It’s biology is unknown, but other species in the genus use Justicia spp. as foodplants (Acanthaceae). The photo depicts a worn female sun basking, probably in between short exploratory flights to find a suitable plant for ovipositing.

Duncan has also helped with the creation of the REGUA moth leaflet that guests can pick up at the lodge, featuring 60 common moths easily spotted in the moth wall.

Further information about Ortilia polinella can be found here:

Type specimens photos: http://butterfliesofamerica.com/L/t/Ortilia_polinella_a.htm

Higgins revision of Phyciodes/Ortilia: http://archive.org/stream/bulletinofbritis43entolond#page/119/mode/1up

Spider-hunting Wasp

Michael Patrikeev has been working on the identification of species he found at REGUA during his stay and has more news for us.

Pepsis-inclyta (© Michael Patrikeev)

“I have identified another species for the reserve this time it is a giant black-blue spider-hunting wasp, which has very likely been seen when it was busily looking for its prey in the forest understorey. The size is impressive, 50-55 mm, and its sting is very painful, apparently scoring 4.0 on the Schmidt sting pain index, next to the bullet-ant (4.0+).

The species is Pepsis inclyta Lepeletier, 1845. It is  “commonest in southern Brazil to central Argentina, but ranges over most of South America” (Vardy 2005).

More images and details on identification can be seen here (http://www.wildnatureimages.org/Insects/Hymenoptera/Pompilidae/Pepsis-inclyta.html).”

Michael Patrikeev

Three Generations visit REGUA

Helmut Seehawer has been visiting REGUA for many years.   As a former Lufthansa Airline Pilot, he flew from Germany to Brazil regularly, and in his free time explored the countryside.

On one occasion he travelled with his colleagues to Paraty in Rio State.  In those days there were no roads and travelling was a real adventure.   One of his friends was keen to find orchids and although Helmut could not understand the fascination, he wanted to explore the jungle.   He was delighted when they found some unspoilt forests with their huge trees, tangles and epiphytes.

The friend pointed out large, bright flowers of orchids on the branches of the trees, and at times the two of them climbed trees to get closer views, occasionally jumping from one tree to the other using the branches and vines.

Whilst climbing the trees, Helmut noticed some smaller plants with more delicate flowers, these too were Orchids and a passion was realised.

Helmut purchased a “Sitio” or property in the mountains near Nova Friburgo so that he could explore and protect the habitat there, especially the wonderful orchids he had grown to love.

Three Generations ~ Klaus, Helmut and Katja back at REGUA (© Seehawer family)

A collaboration with David Miller, Richard Warren and Isabel Moura Miller in the late 1990’s resulted in the  acclaimed book ‘Serra Dos Órgãos Sua Historia e Suas Orquideas’ [Serra Dos Órgãos your history and your orchid]’.

Published in 2006, the book features over 200 superb illustrations by Helmut, in wonderful detail. [See below for just one example]

Helmut is back at REGUA for an extended visit with his son Klaus and grand-daughter Katja, who are both carrying on the family love of biology and nature.   Klaus is a snake enthusiast and has spent long days in the field looking for snakes, whilst Katja has previously spent time as a Volunteer researcher at REGUA, studying the mammals around the wetland.

 

Illustrations by Helmut Seehawer (photo by Sue Healey)

 

The Capybaras of the REGUA wetlands by Katja Seehawer

Inspired by my Grandfather’s (Helmut) stories of adventure in identifying orchids and my Father’s (Klaus) passion for snakes, I visited REGUA as a volunteer in 2015. I want to pursue a career in biology and my focus then was on which mammals venture to and from the wetlands and which routes they choose to take, using camera traps positioned on visibly active animal trails.

Katja Seehawer with Capybara (© Klaus Seehawer)

I showed that trail building in an around the wetlands is almost exclusively done by the Capybara Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, that permanently live in the wetlands though other animals would also use their trails. These animals like to use the main tourist trails, but between the wetland lakes and the major routes also exist a network of minor “social” trails.

The Capybaras’ stronghold at REGUA is the wetlands but they leave the wetlands for feeding. This was done on three major routes leading to neighbouring farmland, adjacent wetlands and into reforested rainforest with remnant pastures.

I returned to REGUA in March 2017 and observed that all the major routes still existed. There was no change in the trail network although there was an obvious change to where the Capybaras stay during daytime. The object of my stay was to determine how the Capybaras live in the wetlands.

Based on different counts I estimated that there were 50–70 Capybara living in the wetlands in March/April 2017. These numbers were less than we expected. I did not count them in 2015, but I have the feeling their numbers have declined. In 2015 there were seemingly two major groups of Capybara and they were apparently present everywhere in the wetlands. But this was not the case this year, when there was only one group left and other individual Capybara were scattered.

In 2015 I also noticed that many Capybara had wounds and cuts especially on their rear body parts. Some were seriously wounded and were noticeably limping. They seemed to be quite aggressive between each other and I could witness several moments when Capybaras bit each other. The wounds were not as obvious this year. Fighting still took place but the wounds were not as numerous and not as severe. I have the feeling there may have been over-population in 2015 and the lower numbers could have diminished social pressure in 2017.

I also observed that only the group near the volunteer houses remained and concluded that the animals also formed “Capybara nurseries”. A group of 20-30 Capybaras would gather on an island and look after the new born and young less than six months of age, guarded by three to six adults. The young were clearly protected with the adult guards looking in every direction supervising the group. This nursery island was abandoned about one hour after sunrise each day, the young guided to their day area and to other Capybara groups. The majority of Capybaras live loosely dispersed on the shores and islands all over the wetlands.

Aside from the nursery, I could not find evidence of a constant group of Capybara larger than five animals during my three week study. I could not mark any Capybara and there are no individual markings on any Capybara body to distinguish them apart. From the pictures of the camera trap I could see that there were no uniform constant groups. Capybara would go alone or form differently composed groups daily.

Katja with curious Capybara (© Klaus Seehawer)

Over the past three years there was a noticeable relocation of the Capybara population towards human housing especially during night time. This behaviour could be the result of a clear increase of larger predators in the wetlands. We have seen at least three large Broad-snouted Caiman Caiman latirostris longer than two metres and there was a clear evidence of an increase of big cat activity in the wetlands. I had read tales from African safari camps of alternating behaviour of animals with young moving towards humans to avoid their predators.

It is possible that the whole population of the REGUA wetland Capybara are in fact a loosely connected society but their behaviour may vary seasonally. This has to be verified.

The REGUA wetland Capybaras give me the impression of a healthy population that very well adapts and regulates itself by wandering off to the adjacent habitat and perhaps also through increasing predation. For future work on the Capybara and to study their social behaviour I will have to find a way to mark individual Capybara. Radio tagging would only make sense when and if we could get funding for a major work on Capybara.

There are excellent conditions to study the life in nature of Capybaras and other wildlife at REGUA because wildlife is diverse and abundant and almost free from human pressure. I look forward to returning and conducting further research work at REGUA.

A new born Jararacussu found on REGUA trail by Klaus Seehawer

I am fascinated by snakes.  My father, Helmut, is an orchid specialist and he knows of over 680 species of orchids that can be found in the cloud forests of the Serra dos Órgãos mountains in South East Brazil.   This is a really important area for biodiversity.

Accompanying my father on his trips to the Atlantic forest starting in the late 1970’s we frequently stumbled over different species of snakes without really knowing them.   I became interested in what was creeping between our feet.   Looking closer, my fascination for these creatures grew and looking even closer I finally fell in love with snakes.  Over the time I have specialized on true vipers and pitvipers.   In the past 30 years I studied female Bothrops jararaca and other snakes in upland habit of the Atlantic forest.    Looking for snakes at REGUA is quite a different story because it is lowland habitat and snakes behave quite differently.   Generally higher temperatures give these poikithermal animals even less reason to expose themselves to the sun.   Snakes are well camouflaged, shy and secretive. Especially vipers will hide most of their lives.   All this makes snakes very hard to find for the naturalist.   However,  on 9th of April 2017 I found something very special here at REGUA, a new born Jararacussu (Bothrops jararacussu) on one of its trails.

The little snake was only a little over 20 cm long, which is small for this species.   Literature gives 26-28 cm for this species but it is not mentioned if this data was taken from captive animals or those in the wild.

Breeding of the genus Bothrops takes place between November and March.   Bothrops are ovoviviparous; Juveniles are born alive or under breaking a transparent egg hull.   Up to fifteen young can be born simultaneously.    This happens usually at the end of the rainy season.

Juvenile snakes are difficult to identify.   In this case it had to be determined whether it was a Jararaca or a Jararacussu. The unicoloured top of the head, the more triangular shaped head, the slightly upturned and sharper edged snout, the more rounded A’s on the snake’s flanks and the little spots along the snake’s spine between the A’s make this snake a Jararacussu.

The Jararacussu is a large heavy bodied terrestrial snake. Females longer than two metres are frequently encountered.   Males are smaller.   Preferred habitat is rocks in close proximity to water.   It is often said to live in semiaquatic conditions. Generally it prefers damper habitat and is by far less abundant than its generalist cousin Jararaca (Bothrops Jararaca).

Please forget your possible fears and dislike for snakes for a moment and have a look at this beauty.   This tiny, vividly coloured creature already has all the scales that it

Jararacussu (Bothrops Jararacussu) (© Klaus Seehawer)

will have when it is a two metre giant.   So these scales are only micrometres small and still are individually coloured in grey, brown, black and white or even have a pinkish hue.

Did you notice the snake’s pale tail?  Many Bothrops as juveniles feed on frogs.  By waving the tail a worm is imitated and frogs are lured into striking range.   Remember Bothrops are born at the end of the rainy season when young frogs are numerous also.  Growing up, Bothrops change their food preference to warm blooded rodents.   At this stage the tail colour changes to the ground colour or black in this species.

The location site of this snake was well off the regular tourist trails.   Venomous snakes are very rarely seen on REGUA trails.   Still everybody should remember venomous snakes could be encountered everywhere in tropical areas.   Snakes will never attack unless seriously cornered or hurt.

Give snakes their space and try to enjoy the rare adventure of seeing a snake in the wild, and if you are lucky enough to find one remember to take a good look, get a sketch, photograph or video and as much information as possible to enable an accurate identification.

Please give snakes their space, have respect and try to enjoy…

Klaus Seehawer

Possible new snake for REGUA by Klaus Seehawer

Whilst counting Capybara, Katja and Helmut Seehawer found a wonderful green snake in the REGUA wetlands.   It has been provisionally identified it as Chironius multiventris.   If this is confirmed it would be a new snake for the REGUA snake species list.

Chironius multiventris showing blue irridescence (© Seehawer family)

The Chironius family of the Atlantic forest consists of five species of elegant green, grey, brown or black snakes.   The green variants are especially difficult to identify.

The common name of Chironius multiventris is cobra-cipó – liana snake.   It is a non-venomous snake that grows to nearly two metres.    The snake is diurnal and actively hunts for its prey in trees and on the ground.   It preys – good news for you birders out there! – mainly on amphibians.

The snake seen at noon right in the middle of the wetlands was 120 cm long and of a wonderful green colour with a blue shimmer reflecting from the sky above.  It was observed for a while and obviously distracted by hunting.

With the growing number of species across many taxa in the wetlands the number of snakes will also increase.   In intact Atlantic Forest habitat (without human snake killing) 80% of the snakes encountered will be nonvenomous.

Chironius multiventris well camoflagued (© Seehawer family)

On a separate occasion the Seehawer family encountered another large green snake on Green Trail.   This snake was possibly Chironius exoletus or Chironius bicarinatus, but they were not able to make a reliable identification as the colour and back marking was in between these two snake species.

Give snakes their space and enjoy the rare adventure of seeing one.

Klaus Seehawer

N.B. it should be noted that snakes are not easy to find at REGUA, their natural defence means they are well aware of human presence and will slip away rather than be found.  The Seehawer family are very experienced in finding snakes and walked in the forest with REGUA Rangers.

 

 

A Volunteer’s Story

Thor Smestad looks back on his time at REGUA.

“Well I am back in Canada now .. after six fantastic weeks at REGUA.

I accomplished what I went there to do – to learn as much as I could about their reforestation program, and also have a great time.    I had the opportunity to collect tree seeds in the forest, help with the process producing seedlings from these in the REGUA nursery, and even plant some trees too. I plan to go back .. for the tree planting season – this was only the beginning for me.    

Thor Smestad Planting Terminalia acuminata (© Nicholas Locke)

The constant stream of researchers that stay there too, looking at everything from bats to frogs and owls .. made things even more interesting.

For anyone interested in tropical reforestation and ecology, I highly recommend spending some time at REGUA. Thank you to all the people at REGUA, you were wonderful – and so was the food and accommodation, I think I even put on a little weight.
Thor”

Thor’s Project – part 3

Thor has returned from the north of Brazil, and revisited REGUA and his cuttings in our nursery on his way home to Canada.

Marianeira cuttings (acnistus arborescens)

Talking to him about the progress of his project made interesting conversation.   He enjoyed the whole experience of being in Brazil, and making new friends at REGUA and found his time with us an excellent opportunity to learn about different techniques of tropical forestation.   From helping in the nursery, planting the seeds in prepared pots to planting the trees, Thor took on board the whole process.

He particularly enjoyed his time walking with Mauricio [head nurseryman] and Barata [forest ranger] in the forest, collecting seeds and trying to identify the myriad of  tree species.

As for his project – to experiment with taking tree cuttings rather than germinating seeds.   Thor has just re-checked his samples.  Although they were probably not take at the ideal time of year there were at least a dozen new plants from the Marianeira (acnistus arborescens) species  and a couple of Tabebuia cassinoides.

Thor plans to return at a different time of year and next time maybe use hormone rooting powder.    As he says

“REGUA and many other projects in the tropics are still having problems germinating some species of tree and if I try at a different time of year we may have more success.  

Thor with one of his successful cuttings. (© Sue Healey)

I also want to go and see other projects here in Brazil.   Before I come back however, I need to tackle identifying some of the tree species and they are overwhelming here.   I would recommend REGUA totally as an experience, with its peace and quiet and such welcoming people, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here.”

REGUA looks forward to Thor’s return.