It has been some time since I’ve posted a Q&A, mostly because I haven’t been able to get any responses to my inquiries. :-p Field biologists are a busy lot! Anyway, Andrea Dechner is one such multi-tasking biologist and I’m very pleased to share her story and photos. Muchas gracias, Andrea!!
- Please tell us a little about your background.
I was born in Colombia and from an early age, had a strong interest towards nature and animals. At the age of 16, I started my Bachelor’s degree in Ecology in Colombia, and when I was 24 I started my Master’s degree in Environmental Conservation in England. I have conducted research in a variety of areas such as botany, primatology and carnivore ecology. For my PhD, I worked on the ecology of a carnivore community in an agroforestry system in the North-Eastern part of Brazil.
- How did you become interested in carnivores?
I am interested in neotropical mammals in general, however I decided to work with carnivores because they are very charismatic, and because of their role as predators, are essential in structuring ecosystems. I was originally planning to work only with tayras (Eira barbara), however after several months of field work producing limited results, I decided to broaden the scope and included results from the whole carnivore community.
- Tayras seem like such interesting animals. What has been your experience with them? How would you describe their personalities in a few sentences?
I still remember the first time I saw a tayra. It was in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta around the year 2000, I saw a mother with a juvenile, and they were playing on a fallen banana plant. Since then, I have seen them in the wild just for seconds. Tayras like many members of the weasel family are fast, fearless, and very active. So when you get the chance to see them, it just happens for seconds. Besides the sightings in the field, I also had the chance to work with them for a short period in a Zoo. I was amazed by their energetic behavior, they were playful and the keepers had to be very careful because, once in a while, they managed to escape from the enclosures.
- What is the reaction of Howler Monkeys to the presence of Tayras?
I have never witnessed an encounter between a howler monkey and a tayra, but there are reports of predation and attempted predation by tayras on howler monkeys (Alouatta sp.) as well as reports on the behavioral response of the howlers to avoid predation. This response has been registered to include loud vocalizations and/or the display of offensive predator avoidance behavior by females.
- Speaking of Howler Monkeys, they’re often referred to as “lazy” and “phlegmatic.” What’s your impression of them?
(Laughs) Many studies have reported that howler monkeys spent most of their time resting, and that is why they are often referred to as lazy. However, the reason why they do so, is because that resting time allows them to digest the leaves they consume given their partly folivorous diet. Leaves are relatively a low-quality food and to obtain the right nutrients from them, folivorous primates have certain conditions such as intestinal bacteria to break down the cellulose and other compounds, and enlarged guts and/or intestines to be able to consume larger amounts of leaves and to allow longer time for the digestion process.
- Can you tell us a little about your PhD research and what you have found most interesting about being in the field?
My research sought to determine the effect that different habitats have on the distribution of carnivores in a rubber/Atlantic forest landscape in Brazil, as well as to determine the factors that affect tolerance towards carnivores. To reach these goals, I used camera traps and conducted semi-structured interviews in human communities in an approximately 5,000-ha area. The carnivore community I studied included eight species of the cat, weasel, raccoon and dog families. Results indicated that habitat was a key factor that determined the distribution of some species in the carnivore community. Some species, such as the crab-eating fox, had a high probability of using rubber crops and a low probability of using forested areas, whereas others, such as the South American Coati, had a low probability of using rubber crops and a high probability of using forested areas. Results from interviews with stakeholders showed that, the carnivore with the highest frequency of reported negative impacts was the puma due to the fear related to its presence. I also found that the factors that best explained tolerance for pumas were related to personal evaluative attitudes (likability) and perceived benefits. These results made an important contribution to the knowledge of why carnivores adapt or fail to adapt to agricultural landscapes.
Although field work can be exhausting I really enjoyed being in the field. On one hand there was always a chance of seeing an animal or observing something interesting about the behavior of a species, and on the other hand, you had the chance to interact with local people and to learn more about their culture. Since Brazilians were extremely friendly and welcoming, I enjoyed and learned very much from my conversations with the people who lived in my study area.
- What do you see as the major impediment to carnivore conservation in the tropics? Is it loss of habitat? Human persecution? Both?
It is definitely both. Of course the magnitude of the effect of each one of these factors varies per site, but in general I would say that the conservation of carnivores is directly affected by the loss of habitat, either by fragmentation or full conversion of natural areas into urban/agricultural areas and by human persecution. Although not all carnivore species respond to habitat loss in the same way and not all carnivore species are persecuted by humans in the same way, in general these two factors have a negative effect on the abundance and diversity of carnivore communities. Another factor that is having a negative effect, not only on carnivores but on wildlife in general is the invasion of domestic dogs into natural areas. Either by intra-guild predation or competition, several studies have demonstrated that the presence of domestic dogs have a negative effect on native carnivores.
- Conversely, what do you think can be done to increase tolerance towards carnivores in the tropics?
In general, educational programs are essential to improve the understanding of the direct and indirect benefits derived from the existence of carnivores and of the actions that can be taken to reduce the negative effects resulting from the co-occurrence with them. More specific actions would depend not only on the perceived negative effects (e.g. if the negative impact of a certain species is associated with risk to personal safety or economic losses) but also the economic capacity of each human community. It is extremely difficult to talk about tolerance towards carnivores in communities that are losing essential resources for their subsistence as result of the presence of carnivores. In such cases, finding opportunities to improve the quality of life of the people is crucial in guaranteeing the establishment/continuation of any educational/conservation program.
- When you think about your years of research in the field, what animals or images or stories come to mind and give you pleasure?
Although being in the field has its own risks, such as deadly encounters with snakes, wasps, fallen trees etc., I must say that the positive experiences have always overcome the negative ones. I have approximately 6 years of field experience in tropical countries. Over those 6 years there have been many images, animals and people that have stayed and will stay in my mind for the rest of my life. However, walking and spending days in solitude in the forests are the moments I frequently recall when I need to relax, the smells and the sounds of a forest are a vivid spectacle of beauty. It is inside a forest (and certainly not working at my desk in front of a computer) that I remember why I decided to choose the path I chose, the one of conservation.
- What do you think you’d like to study next?
I would like to continue working on the ecology of mammals in agricultural landscapes. It is estimated that 48.6% of the terrestrial surface of the planet is under agricultural use, and it is projected that agricultural production will still need to increase globally by 70% by 2050, and in the case of the developing countries by 100% in order to supply the population demand. Therefore, I believe that one of the main challenges in tropical biodiversity conservation is to find strategies that promote biodiversity friendly agricultural practices.
- Anything else you’d like to share?
I would like to share some pictures of some of the species of mammals of the Atlantic forest of Bahia, Brazil.