“Conservation Tools” is Human Nature’s new blog series that aims to spotlight how cutting-edge technology is helping scientists explore and protect the natural world. To kick off the series, we bring you a guest post from Guilherme Ferreira, a biologist who is a past winner of a Future Conservationist Award from the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP).
Ten years ago, I saw a bush dog (Speothos venaticus) for the first time at the zoo in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. I was beginning my undergrad biology studies, and went to the zoo to start a research project on squirrels. But that all changed when I read the bush dogs’ exhibit sign: “Bush dogs are the only South American canid that hunts in packs.” This information caught my attention, and I decided to study bush dogs in the wild.
I soon learned that the zoo sign had been missing an important piece of information: The last time a bush dog was seen in Minas Gerais — a state in southeastern Brazil, where I live and work — was in 1842, when it was first described to science. So, though I didn’t know it yet, I had just decided to study a species that was locally extinct. As you’d expect, my task was far from easy.
Why are bush dogs so special? Weighing about 5 kilograms [11 pounds], the bush dog is a stocky animal with an elongated body and short legs and tail. They are the most social of small canids, living in groups of up to 10 individuals. They also differ from all other South American canids in that they are exclusively carnivorous, hunting relatively large prey such as agoutis and armadillos.
Bush dogs are currently listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and as Vulnerable on the Brazilian Red List. Despite its large geographic range and occurrence in a variety of habitats, bush dogs are thought to be naturally rare throughout their distribution. Few aspects of their ecology and behavior in the wild — as well as accurate population numbers — are known. Most of the information about the species comes from occasional field encounters and captivity observations.
A few years after that encounter at the zoo, a bush dog footprint was found in northern Minas Gerais in a stunning region known as Peruaçu Valley. Few places on Earth combine species abundance, speleological and archaeological importance and scenic beauty in such a magnificent way. In the upper Peruaçu River one can find clear water lakes and large palm swamps locally known as veredas. The lower Peruaçu harbors several panels of prehistoric rock paintings, caves several kilometers long and the world’s largest stalactite, all surrounded by a picturesque setting of dry forests over rock outcrops.
With this one bush dog footprint, the species had been officially rediscovered — yet there was no other evidence of its presence in the state. That was all I needed to start my quest to obtain a photo of a wild bush dog.
Since then I’ve been studying mammals in the region using automatic cameras, also known as camera traps. At first I used 35mm photography film, taking still images. Now, my camera traps are all digital and can take stills or videos.
To set up this equipment in a harsh environment is quite an adventure. We climb over slippery rocks, explore gigantic caves, walk through palm swamps, and fight our way through dense vegetation. Sometimes we even walk on trails for 15 miles [24 kilometers] at a time.
The main objectives of my studies are to assess how abundant large mammals are in this area, understand which factors affect their abundance and evaluate if this abundance will change over time.
Thanks to a grant from the CLP’s Learning Exchange Programme, I recently had the opportunity to visit Jorge Ahumada in the U.S. A CI scientist who has much experience using camera traps, Jorge helped me to analyze my data using new techniques.
Over several years, 23 large mammal species were recorded by my camera traps in Peruaçu, but the bush dog still didn’t show up. In 2011, I moved to a city nearby to live closer to the field site — but it was only after seven years regularly traveling to the valley that the bush dog was finally recorded by one of my camera traps.
This video may seem underwhelming, but the 1.5-second footage of a sole bush dog sniffing the ground is the most unequivocal proof in the state that the species is still alive. This animal caught on video was the first of its species seen alive in Minas Gerais in 170 years!
By the time we got this bush dog record, 100 different sites in Peruaçu had been sampled for an average of 130 days each. This kind of field effort cannot be achieved without using camera traps. Without them, we would need 100 researchers in the field working 24 hours a day for more than four months, which would be absolutely impossible. In times when many species are becoming rarer each day, technology is an important partner for conservation biologists.
We are currently preparing a research paper about bush dog occurrence in the region and highlighting the potential of northern Minas Gerais for more bush dog records. Meanwhile, all we have to do is keep searching.
Guilherme Ferreira works at Instituto Biotrópicos, a Brazilian NGO. In 2007, Guilherme received a Future Conservationist Award from the Conservation Leadership Programme, a partnership of CI, BirdLife international, Fauna & Flora International and the Wildlife Conservation Society. His project in Peruaçu is currently funded by Panthera, IEF-MG and WWF-Brasil.