Thursday, 16 December 2010

Why did the sloth cross the road?

A good question, as sloths are not really compatible with motor transport. Nonetheless this one decided to go where no sloths had gone before, and started to cross a busy road in the hills above Vitoria. Ten minutes later he was still there, making painfully slow, but determined, progress with now an audience from the cars and lorries who had stopped to let him pass.

TVGazetta 14 Dec 2010

He, or indeed she, it's hard to tell with sloths, appears to be a Maned sloth (Bradypus torquatus) found especially in the Atlantic forest, from Rio to Bahia and one of six types of sloth in South America. Maned sloths have very little muscle mass for their size, which saves weight when hanging from branches, but it does mean they can hardly stand on the ground, let alone walk. Their only means of locomotion is to slowly drag themselves along (if attacked they stop completely and lash out with their claws, which can be surprisingly effective).

But why exactly are sloths so slow? They are very, very, specialised in what they eat, concentrating on leaves of forest trees, especially Cecropia, a common pioneer related to nettles. This has pros and cons. The pros are that leaves are very abundant and easy to catch, the cons that, well, leaves are rubbish as a food. That's why so few animals eat them. There is very little nutrition or energy there, and what there is is extremely hard to digest. Even sloths, with specialised stomachs full of plant digesting bacteria can take up to a month to digest their food so that as much as two thirds of a sloths body weight can be just it´s stomach contents. With very little energy to spare, sloths save all they can. They have very low metabolic rates, and low body temperatures. Mostly they just hang in trees, using special hooked claws so that even this doesn´t take much effort.

Sloths seem to only leave the tree tops for two reasons. Firstly to defaecate, which they do one a week, usually in the same place. Quite why they do this isn´t exactly clear, though the smell might help to attract a mate, otherwise a bit of a problem for an animal that normally hardly moves. Which brings us to the second reason, and maybe the answer to our question. Why did the sloth cross the road? To find another sloth!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Beware the wings of Summer!

Christmas is coming
Bruxas in the flat
please put the aircon on
and squash the mossies flat

Summer is coming to the Mata Atlantica, which means hot days and nights, and rain - perfect conditions for insects. This, not Halloween, is the time for witches, "bruxas", huge (up to 16cm) moths the size of bats who invade your house at night. As I mentioned in a previous blog, bruxas, (Ascalapha odorata) are of course completely harmless, if occasionally annoying, and they feed on rotten fruit. They'll probably be around until January.

Bruxas might be harmless, but other summer visitors not so much. Termites ("cupims") swarm at this time of year, males and females abandoning their nests and flying out into the sky. They are weak fliers, and blown hither and thither by the wind. When they land they shed their wings and, if they are lucky, start to make a nest from the wet trees and timber they have landed on, so if you see discarded insect wings on your furniature, watch out! Mated queens produce huge quantities of workers that build the nest where they will all live, either underground, in mounds in the pampas or fields, or as nests on the side of trees and fence posts.

As many house holders have found to their cost, termites are very good at digesting wood, which is beyond most creatures. Although some can actually do this by themselves, most have colonies of microbes in their gut who do the work for them. Humans though are having their revenge. Firstly, termites are edible and easily caught when swarming. Apparently they are best lightly grilled on a hot plate, their natural oils supplying the cooking fat. Secondly, they are potentially a source of fuel - producing hydrogen from waste wood, although nobody has quite made a termite power station yet.

And worst of all are the mosquitoes, their life cycles speeded up by the heat, and with plenty of puddles to lay their eggs. Development time for Aedes aegypti, from egg to adult, goes from 33 days at 16C to 9 days at 32, although if it's any consolation they do die younger. With more mosquitoes comes more disease, the incidence of Dengue fever for example starts to rise steeply in December before peaking in March to May.

So beware, the time of the insects is coming!

Friday, 19 November 2010

A really good cup of coffee

A fresh cup of Jacu coffee

First pick your coffee berries, and this is where your problems start as berries on a plant ripen at different rates. It is possible to use green, unripe, berries, but the resulting coffee is more bitter and lacks the mellow taste and aromatic aroma of ripe, red berries. The problem of course is that selecting only ripe berries is very labour intensive and cannot be mechanised, but for the best quality coffee that's what you have to do. Well..., normally. In Malaysia, "kopi luwak" or civet coffee, is produced from berries that have passed through the local palm civet, a type of cat, producing an aromatic coffee which is one of the most expensive in the world. One grower in Espirito santo has improved on this idea.

Native to the forests of the area are two type of"Jacu", seed eating birds about the size of chickens - the Rusty-margined Guan (Penelope superciliaris) and Dusky-legged Guan (P. obscura). Jacu are very selective in their feeding, only picking ripe berries, which in due course pass through the bird. Thus if you collect the droppings from a Jacu, you should have only ripe berries. It sounds bizarre, but Jacu coffee has regularly won prizes and is one of the most highly prized coffees in the world. I can testify that it makes a very mild, delicious brew.

Most coffee however is made without the aid of Jacus. After picking there are more or less two options, the wet and dry methods. Most of Brazil uses the dry method. Harvested berries are cleaned and debris and damaged berries removed, sometimes by passing through a flotation channel where the ripe berries will sink and the damaged ones float away. Ripe fruit are then spread out to dry, turning regularly to give even drying and avoid mildew. In many old manor farms in Brazil you can still see the large brick area where this took place.

Fazenda Santa Maria, Sao Carlos

This stage is very important in the final taste of the coffee and traditionally drying took about 4 weeks to reach the right stage - too dry and the beans become brittle and don't handle well later, too wet and they are prone to rot. Nowadays, many plantations use machine drying to give a more controlled result.

Quero quero (Vanellus chilensis) on drying coffee berries

Dried fruit are then send to a mill to remove all the remaining fruit residue, leaving just the coffee bean. Sometimes the beans are then aged, potentially for up to 8 years, but most experts seem to agree that flavour peaks at about a year after harvest. The last important stage is roasting, which normally takes place in a rotating drum heated from below to between 180 and 280 C. Coffee with delicate flavours are only roasted for a few minutes, but roasting itself endows a strong flavour which is also popular. Beans are then cooled (air cooling is much better than water) and then the last stage is grinding, which for optimum flavour should take place just before use.

Saturday, 13 November 2010


One of my favourite things.
Amongst the commonest plants in the Mata Atlantica region nowadays is the coffee bush. It has been like this for centuries, in the old days local magnates ruled over huge plantations in the states of Sao Paulo, Minas and Espirito santo. A characteristically colourful description of one such estate by Rudyard Kipling can be found here.....

Coffee appears to be native to the Ethiopian highlands, but it was soon spread through the arabic world, where it was used to make "kahveh". A taste for coffee developed fairly late in the west, but when it did demand exploded, with Coffee houses such Lloyds in London becoming very popular. Lloyds incidentally was near the Thames and so a popular haunt of sailors and shipping investors, from this grew the famous shipping insurers, Lloyds of London. Anyway, increasing demand led to plantations in various colonies, for the British, India and Sri Lanka, for the Dutch Java, and for the Portuguese, Brazil.

Coffee plants are evergreen shrubs, with dark glossy leaves. There are two main types, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora var robusta, which give arabica and robusta coffee respectively. By far the better quality comes from Coffea arabica, but it requires conditions similar to those of it's Ethiopian ancestors, high slopes above 600m, as well as being vulnerable to disease. In contrast, robusta is, well, robust, being very disease resistant as well as able to grow even down to sea level and having 40-50% more caffeine. The tradeoff is that the quality is not so good, very bitter, and it is mainly used for instant coffee which doesn't command such a high premium.

Coffee plants grow for about 5 years before producing any berries, from which coffee is made, although they will fruit for another 15 years after that. Because of this they are often intercropped with short lived species in the early years, such as banana. There are varieties of coffee like any other crop, but it seems that the soil and growing conditions are more important. Not surprising when you realise that over 800 different compounds contribute to the taste and flavour of coffee and the proportions of these vary with how and where the plant is grown. And with how the berries are prepared, but I will talk about that another day.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Snowy egrets

Snowy egrets (Egretta thula) are small herons found throughout the Americas, from the Great Lakes to Argentina. The first problem is to distinguish them from the very similar Great and Cattle egrets. Seen as photos they look almost identical, but Snowy egrets have black bills and legs with yellow feet whilst Cattle egrets have yellow bills and grey legs. It's also a question of habitat as Cattle egrets follow cattle in pasture, snapping up disturbed invertebrates, whilst Snowys feed by water. Great egrets also feed in water, but they are quite a lot bigger, up to a metre in height as well as having yellow bills.

A Snowy egret in Cachoeiro de Itapemirim, ES, Brazil

Snowys are fairly sociable and will commonly flock with other "heron types" throughout their range. In the Mata Atlantica, for example, they can be found with Little Blue herons, and Great egrets as well as others. Although the group may appear to all mixed together they're probably after different foods - a study in mangrove swamps found Snowys to mainly eat shrimps and guppies while Little Blues ate crabs. Having said that, predation of fish farms in the US is equally effective by both! Snowys and Greats separate by depth, Snowys sticking to shallow water - they hate swimming! When they were observed swimming in a pond in Florida, apparently tempted by lots of prey fish, it made the wildlife press.

A Snowy egret and Little Blue heron

They hunt by plodding around in shallow water, catching whatever moves, though as mentioned above they will raid fish farms given half a chance. At night they roost in colonies with other herons on wooden platforms built in the tree tops. Snowys used to be quite endangered from hunters after their feathers for hats, but nowadays they are protected and flourishing.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Sounds of the Forest

Walk through the Mata Atlantica and you will be aware of the wild life around you, the birds, monkeys and insects, by sound more than sight. Calls to warn of intruders, defend their territory, or find a mate. Mankind, being of an inventive and devious nature, has long used this to his own ends. The Puri indians, one of the tribes inhabiting the Brazilian state of Espirito santo when the Portuguese arrived, used wooden whistles to attract birds and monkeys to the pot, and were adept at imitating the calls, or even the sequence of calls as two birds get closer to each other.

At the start of the 1920s a local amateur hunter, Maurilio Coelho, encountered these Indians when working in his day job for the electricity company, and got to know them well. They taught him how to make various whistles, and as importntly, how to use them. The whistles he then made were so successful that in 1903 he openned a factory in the city of Cachoeiro de Itapemirim and people came from miles way, even distant Rio, to buy. Business plummeted when hunting was prohibited, but one of Maurilio's grandsons is continuing to make the whistles, one of which can be seen above, and is renovating the factory and reopenning it as a tourist attraction.

The best wood apparently comes from the Ipe tree, a catchall term for several members of the Tabebuia genus. These are large shrubs or trees noted for their durable and insect resistant wood, which makes good decking, and whistles. Finding them is not a problem as at this time of year they are bedecked with clusters of large yellow flowers and are visible from miles away even in dense forest.

Friday, 8 October 2010


This is the Jacutinga (Pipile jacutinga). It's about the size of a small turkey, but unfortunately the resemblance does not end there. Their meat is highly prized, and not being over endowed with survival instincts, they are very easy to catch. Once common in southern Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, heavy hunting has reduced numbers considerably and they have disappeared from many states such as Bahia and Espirito santo. In Paraguay even protected areas have been hunted out due to a shortage of wardens.

One of their strongholds is the Igussu park in Brazil and Argentina, where this one was seen. They are forest birds, preferably by rivers where they hunt small invertebrates, so whether this one was drinking or eating is unclear - a bit of both probably. The major part of their diet though is forest fruit, especially from palms. They are reportedly also very fond of laurel berries.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Pretty, Pretty

This rather gorgeous little bird is Euphonia violacea, or the Violaceous Euphonia (one of their many Brazilian names is the Bonito-lindo, or "pretty-pretty"). Found from Trinidad to Paraguay, this pair are actually Argentine, nesting by the Iguassu Falls - they rivalled the waterfalls for photographic attention, flitting around near their nest and with no concern for the tourists just a few feet away.

Violaceous Euphonias are fruit eaters on the whole, though they will take insects. As you can see the females and males are very different....

This is probably because females alone incubate the eggs, though both feed the young. The males, of course, have to display to catch females and so are much more conspicuous, though having said that, their colours are cunningly arranged so that from above they are almost completely dark blue. This means that viewed from above by hawks, their main predators, they are much more camouflaged than they might appear to us.

For a movie of this pair at Iguassu, which shows them off much better than a photograph could, go to...

The species has quite a pretty song, well "chirp"as well, but the males in particular are known for being mimics, especially of the alarm calls of other birds, which probably does not endear them to their neighbours. Anyway, for examples of their natural songs, and mimicries, go to...

Tuesday, 21 September 2010


The largest waterfalls in South America, and one of the great sights of the world, are buried deep in the continent, at Iguassu (which means "Big Water" in the local Tupi language). The river Iguazu falls 270 ft over a basalt cliff into a canyon which then drains into the nearby Parana river and flows out, eventually, to the South Atlantic. The total surface area of falling water at 1.3 million sq ft is 2nd only to the Vitoria Falls in Africa (1.8 million sq ft), but here it is divided into 275 separate cascades creating a vista of waterfalls.

The Falls lie on the border between Brazil and Argentina, and both have excellent viewing points for tourists. Both are impressive, but it has to be said that the most spectacular is the Devils Throat, on the Argentine side.

The Brazilian side uses buses to transport you around the site. One option here is the Macuco Safari, which takes you by speed boat along the canyon and then directly under a waterfall (you will get wet!). Access on the Argentine side is via the "Rainforest Ecological Train" which trundles though 5 miles of the National Park to a little station where one exits and walks about a mile on a raised footpath to the falls. The train incidentally was built in Ross on Wye in England, and transports about 900,000 passengers a year though the forest.

Iguassu is surrounded by national parks on both the Brazilian and Argentine sides, with a total area of 868 sq miles. This huge area of forest and rivers, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains rare giant otters, giant ant eaters, jaguars, tapirs, parrots and toucans. There are over 500 species of butterflies, and 5 species of swallows whose flying displays chasing insects through the spray add an extra element to the splendour. A truly spectacular place.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Beach thistles

A beach is fun for people, but not so much for plants. You are growing in, basically, powdered glass, with almost no nutrients, what water there is is salty. And yet there are many plants growing on the beaches of the Restinga, the coastal strip of the Mata atlantica. One of the commonest is Cereus fernambucensis, the beach thistle.

Cacti are especially adapted to living in hot arid places. It's all about storing what water you can, and minimising loss, so thick succulent stems with no leaves to reduce surface area and evaporation, and a waxy coating. Cacti, like all plants, have to "breathe", but they are adapted to only do so at night, storing CO2 from the atmosphere for use in photosynthesis during the day.

Cereus fernambucensis takes this one step further and even flowers at night. This means it can't be pollinated by the usual suspects, but no problem, it relies on local hawk moths. Both win, the cactus being pollinated and the moths getting a good supply of nectar. Once pollinated, the white flowers form red seeds pods which eventually burst releasing black seeds.

A little less mutually beneficial is an association with the local skinks, Mabuya agilis, which mostly run around in leaf litter catching and eating insects and spiders. Cereus makes a good perch for catching the suns rays and warming their little bodies, but even more so in the afternoon when the sun is low and the air is starting to cool. Heat absorbed by the cacti means they act as radiators, and skinks climb up the stems and absorb the heat directly.

Cereus would be a tempting source of succulent flesh it were not so fearsomely armoured with spines. But it has another enemy to cope with, fire. The restinga is baked dry by the sun, and fanned by winds off the south Atlantic, and fires are not uncommon. Even here Cereus toughs it out, being one of the first plants to regenerate on burnt restinga. The one thing it can't cope with is cold, suffering at temperatures below 10 C, which restricts the southern part of it's range.

A beach is not a healthy place to live, but as Robinson Crusoe found, if you are tough and adapt, a living can be made.

I would like to acknowledge the help of Helio Pacheco Filho in the preparation of this article.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Witches of the tropical night sky

At certain times of the year, normally around December and January, it´s not uncommon to see "bats" fluttering through the night, and circling street lights. It´s only when they enter your apartment that you realise that they are huge moths, "bruxas". Bruxa means "witch" and this matches the English name, the "Black witch moth" and in deed the size of the moths has impressed many peoples, so that in French it is "La Sorcière Noire" (the Black Witch) and in Spanish, "Mariposa de la Muerte" (the Moth of Death!). The Mayans, with rather more humour, call them "Mah-Ha-Na", or "May I borrow your house", an allusion to their habit of entering houses, and the way they make their presence felt when they are there!

In fact, although Ascalapha odorata is large (up to 16cm) it is completely harmless. Indeed they can actually be eaten, well the larvae. They are especially a delicacy in Mexico and feature prominently in a book by Professor Julietta Ramos Elorduy on edible insects, which includes a recipe for "Black witch fondue". According to another source they have the taste of herring.

Ascalapha are found from the southern USA to Rio Grande do Sol in Brazil, and they are, not unnaturally, strong fliers, migrating through their range. The adult males and females can be distinguished by a pale stripe across the wings of the females and feed on fruit, though unlike some moths they cannot penetrate the skin and have to feed on rotten or damaged fruits. The huge larvae (up to 7cm) feed on leaves, and can be a pest of figs and mesquite.

It is not just humans who can eat then, adults make a tasty meal for bats too. Ascalapha is not without defences though. Bats hunt by echo location, or radar, and Ascalapha has the ability to tune it´s ears to the particular frequency of local bats and take evasive action when they are close.
So this is the Black Witch Moth, not dangerous, but magic in it's own way.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Symbols of the Tribe

It seems to be human nature to associate oneself with an animal. The earliest cave paintings were, it has been suggested, attempts to absorb the spirits of mammoths and bison. Later, the Roman legions marched behind eagles, whilst for the ancient Babylonians and Greeks the lion was the symbol of kingship. In more modern times the British lion battled the eagles and bears of the Kaisers and Tsars in cartoons across Europe.
In what strenuously contrived manner can this be connected to modern day Brazil, and it's wildlife? Well, many of the human population again organise themselves into tribes and clans, in this day and age based on loyalty to their local football teams. And these have mascots. Can the mascots of the Brazilian first division tell us anything about the world around them?

The first mascot of the Rio team Botafogo was Donald duck, their second, following copyright issues with Disney, was the Manequinho, a replica of the boy, er, relieving himself, in Brussels. This probably says something deep about the psychology of Botofogo, but I'm not sure exactly what.
Moving on, we again find the lion, for Avai of Santa Catarina (above), and Vitoria of Bahia. Not native to South America of course, but neither is it native to Britain so we'll let them off. Anyway, Atlético Goianiense have a dragon. The eagle resurfaces in the form of the Gaviao or falcon. Corinthians of Sao Paulo have a supporters club known as the Faithful Falcons.

More prosaically, Atletico mineiro, of Minas gerais, have a rooster, or fighting cock (as do Tottenham in London of course). This works particularly well for them as not only do these birds symbolise aggression and a never-surrender spirit, but the commonest breed of domestic chicken in the region has black and white feathers, matching the team colours.

Colour is probably the reason for several choices of mascots. For instance Palmeiras , of Sao Paulo, and Goias, of central Brazil, both play in green and have green parrots as their symbols. These social, noisy birds are a common feature of rural Sao Paulo. Actually, Palmeiras have adopted another animal. Their Sao Paulo rivals would often refer to them as pigs, due to a perceived "espirito do porco" or lack of seriousness. Palmerians now yell "porco" as a war cry.

Santos, the port of Sao Paulo, have chosen the killer whale, Orcinus orca. To be absolutely honest, killer whales are not a regular feature of the Sao Paulo maritime scene, but they do occasionally appear working their way up the South American coast.

Cruzeiro, of Minas gerais, have a fox. Implausibly, arch rivals Cruzeiro and Atletico mineiro above both hired the cartoonist Mangabeira to assign their mascots in the 1940s. The fox was reportedly based on the then chairman of Cruzeiro, who was "sly, celver and intelligent, and never let anyone trick him, just like a fox". A somewhat backhanded compliment, but enthusiastically adopted. The mascot is often portrayed as a European red fox, but does sometimes seem to be based on the local grey/brown native crab eating fox, Cerdocyon thous.

It is noticeable that most of the mascots here are not especially Brazilian. This is perhaps understandable, the big clubs tend to be in big cities (in the case of Rio and Sao Paulo, VERY big cities) and so there isn't much contact with local wildlife. Many were also started by immigrants fresh from Europe. It is when one starts to look at smaller cities of the interior, with more of an agricultural past, that native animals start to appear. Surprisingly, there are very few examples of the jaguar (Panthera onca), but Resende, near Rio, has the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachurus), and Cascavel, of Parana, has the eponymous cascavel (Crotalus diurissus), an extremely dangerous rattlesnake.
What then would I recommend as a mascot for success? A lion? An eagle? A fox? Actually no, a vulture. Flamengo, the largest club in Brazil and current champions have adopted the Urubu, or Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), as their symbol. After all, at the end of the day, it's always the vultures who feast after any battle.

Sunday, 25 July 2010


A little of the beaten track for this blog - a field trip to the Canadian Great lakes and up the St Lawrence river to Quebec. Firstly, it was hot! Around 35 for much of the trip, which contrasts sharply with lows of -40 during the winter! A major challenge for local wildlife. Away from the cities there are huge stretches of deciduous woodland, much of it marshy, crossed by many rivers. These range from huge, slow moving waterways such as the St. Lawrence, to shallow rapids, to powerful torrents through rocky gorges, such as the famous Niagara below.

In cities such as Montreal and Ottawa the most obvious wildlife are, of course, sparrows and pigeons. I can't help thinking why?? How do these species flourish in Trafalgar square, Northern America and (in the case of pigeons) the beaches of Rio? Obviously they are tied to human habitation, but they don't have the environmental protections humans have, let alone the chance to don a scarf or swimming trunks. Yet they seem to do ok.
Cities and towns are fairly rare in Canada though, most of the country is agricultural or forested.

And of course there are migrants, such as myself. One common species being the accurately, if boringly, named Red winged blackbird. The photo here is a male, the females are quite brown and dowdy, as are juveniles. Rwbs fly north to breed and eat seeds and the abundant insect life, before returning to the southern US for the winter. Apparently, most of the native American names for the RWB have exactly the same meaning, it just seems to be what people notice.

Anyway, more indigenous wildlife includes deer and moose in the woods, at least evidenced by road signs warning drivers of their presence. By the same principle, Canada's seas contain Killer whales, according to this totem in the excellent Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa.

Next time, back to nice cold Brazil!