Arnaud’s Blog: Giant armadillo expedition updates from the Pantanal

October 29, 2015 § 1 Comment


Left: The Pantanal Team - Danilo, Camila, Arnaud, Gabriel. Right: Bruna Oliveira

Left: The Pantanal Team – Danilo, Camila, Arnaud, Gabriel. Right: Bruna Oliveira

It has been a little over two months since my last update and, as usual, we have lots of news to share.

We ran two expeditions in the Pantanal and numerous short expeditions in the Cerrado (the latter I will tell you about soon in another blog). The August expedition into the Pantanal included me, Gabriel, Camila and Bruna (our veterinarian Danilo Kluyber is currently finishing his master’s degree in Sao Paulo). New to the team, Bruna Oliveira is a biologist who will work mostly in the Cerrado after her training is complete in the Pantanal. She is enthusiastic, hardworking and experienced with (Geographical Information System) GIS software and the programs we will be using to model giant armadillo distributions in the Cerrado.

Maramedia filming the team for an upcoming documentary on giant armadillos.

Maramedia filming the team for an upcoming documentary on giant armadillos.

For the first few days, we were joined by a cameraman from Maramedia, who are creating a documentary about giant armadillos. Seeing the Pantanal through the lens of the camera was fascinating, and the detail and colour of our beautiful surrounds were magnified and somehow made me fall in love with them all over again. It was such a privilege to catch Isabelle again and to fit her with a GPS tag while Justin was there. I have such a soft spot for Isabelle that I am so glad we were able to film her. The battery of her transmitter has almost run out and I was very conscious this could be the last time I actually see her.

To our surprise, whilst searching for Isabelle we actually found another active giant armadillo burrow! The burrow belonged to a male and was right in the middle of Isabelle’s territory. Although there is some overlap between giant armadillos on the border of their territory, we have never before documented overlap in core areas. It was a shallow burrow that we describe as a ‘resting burrow’ as they are generally only used by animals for one night. This was the typical pattern for a visiting male.

But who could this borrow belong to? Could it be Ben, a large juvenile we caught two years ago who we believe to be Isabelle’s son? Could it be Don/Hannibal, who was responsible for killing her first young almost three years ago and whom we caught last July and is known to make brief incursions into Isabelle’s territory? Or Zezinho, a male we caught over three years ago who was the father of Isabelle’s first baby? What if it was Robert or Wally? Their territories are very far away but these animals always surprise us… And what if this was a female? That would change everything we thought we knew. Who could this be?

We set our trap and then spent the whole evening reviewing everything we knew about giant armadillos and the relationships we know we have established. Our conversations that evening would have made a gossip columnist proud. Even the lives of celebrities pale in comparison to the gossip and relationships we came up with! We even got pretty close to suggesting a long lost twin brother separated at birth… giant armadillo soap operas at their best…

Around 11 pm the piercing sound of the transmitter indicated that the trap had closed and we raced to the trap in the pitch dark. There HE was, just beautiful and calm and waiting for us… We were ecstatic.

As we fit all the animals we capture with a tiny micro-chip (the same as used on pet dogs and cats), Camilla our veterinarian was able to run the small reader over the animal’s stomach and to our mounting excitement it beeped! It was a known animal – but which one? We had to wait until we returned to the ranch to check our files.

We quickly placed the giant armadillo in a night box, as we always do, so it could settle down before being anesthetised at the crack of dawn. We do this for the animal’s health and welfare, but also so that sample collections and transmitter fittings can take place in daylight.

Left: Giant armadillo male Zezinho. Right: The team fit a GPS tag to Isabelle

Left: Giant armadillo male Zezinho. Right: The team fit a GPS tag to Isabelle

You can imagine the mood of the team was at its highest. Camila Luba, who focuses on male reproductive characteristics, has been collaborating with the project for over a year. However, since she has started we have had terrible luck with males. Houdini’s transmitter stopped working and then when we managed to find him again we were unable to catch him as he refused to come out of his burrow. Don/Hannibal’s transmitter never worked, so when his GPS fell off we lost him. Then, as you know, Alex never reached sexual maturity before he was predated. Wally had been the only male Camila has been able to study to date.

So, that night when we arrived at the ranch, we checked our files and discovered the identity of this male. It was Zezinho, one of Isabelle’s old flames that we had not seen since June 2012 when he mated with her! We had caught Zezinho in January 2012, but at the time we were experimenting with other transmitters and got very little data from him. What a great opportunity to study him this now was. It was almost too good to be true…

It was too good to be true… Zezinho broke out of the holding box!

Our wooden box has been reinforced in every possible way since Houdini and then Dolores broke out of it. I was 100% sure it was unbreakable. Check out the pictures… it obviously was not. You can imagine we were all gutted. We could not believe it. I will never leave a giant armadillo in a box on its own again; from now on we will remain until daylight with the animal. So much work, effort and patience only for Zeninho to escape…

An incredible demonstration of the burrowing capabilities of giant armadillos.

An incredible demonstration of the burrowing capabilities of giant armadillos.

Another crazy thing occurred during in August, when our three female giant armadillos appeared to exhibit nesting behaviour. This sees them building huge burrows with large sand mounds, and animals re-using the same burrow for many days. Once again all our excitement was crushed as the armadillos eventually changed burrows… how frustrating! We never got to the point of seeing a female leave a burrow and closing it, which is a sure sign that a baby was born.

All in all, the August Pantanal expedition was an emotional rollercoaster; however, if there is one thing we have learned throughout the years is perseverance. You can never give up.

I’ll update on the Cerrado in my next instalment but until then… all the best from Brazil!

Arnaud and the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team

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