Loving Nature To Death

Loving Nature to Death

More than 30 vehicles encroaching on a leopard that was hiding in the bushes.

More recently I have witnessed how our love for wildlife and getting the perfect shot may be affecting the migration of thousands of ungulates in Africa.  While visiting the Mara River in Kenya to document the Great Wildebeest Migration, I was appalled to see how many tour operators will park their vehicles right on the path of the migrating wildebeest to give their clients the ultimate view.  It was bad enough to prevent the wildebeest from crossing the river. Instead of allowing enough room for them to cut across, the vehicles on the opposite side of the river bank acted as a concrete wall preventing the animals from even attempting the crossing. This is the largest land migration on earth with more than 2 million animals crossing the Mara every year as they move from Tanzania to Kenya. I also learned about an apparent practice in Tanzania to set fires to delay the migration of the wildebeest in an effort to keep the business in the country. While Tanzania denies the practice, many tour operators in Kenya continue to blame Tanzania for the stalled migrations.

A few days later, we encountered a leopard that was surrounded by nearly 40 safari vehicles loaded with tourists with cellphones in hand.  The vehicles were inching against each other in hopes to get a clear view of the shaken cat. The story later repeated itself, this time with a lonely cheetah. Vehicles circled the exhausted animal, with the insensible occupants taking pictures with their phones at close distance. Both experiences were too much for me to bear and I asked our drivers to leave the area immediately. My conscience was telling me: “the shot is not more important than the welfare of the subject.” But for the tour operators, putting their clients in the best spot usually means more money in the form of tips. A hard habit to break when they need the money.

So, what can be done to avoid this type of wildlife encroachment? Perhaps the answer lies in each one of us and how we communicate with the people near us about the dangers that our actions pose to wildlife. National parks and preserves need to teach their operators about safe viewing distances, and proper wildlife-watching etiquette.  We need to make it illegal to approach the wildlife, and denounce those who commit the crime. We can never allow money to dictate our actions and we must always work for the safety of our wild animals and natural resources. At the end, we won’t have anything to photograph when it’s all gone. Do your part and learn what is too close or too much.

Visitors taking selfies with a white-faced capuchin on their shoulders at Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica.
A cheetah poses for the thrilled visitors as they snap a group shot. Masai Mara , Kenya.

Leaf Cutter Ants: The First Farmers

Leaf Cutter Ants: The First Farmers

Rainforests are among the most biodiverse places on Earth. Millions of years of evolution in these regions have resulted in some of the most amazing organisms ever known to man. Being able to survive in a harsh environment dominated by high temperatures and high humidity is a requirement more than a choice. These conditions promote plant growth and attract many arthropods. Insects are among the most diverse animals in the rainforest.  Butterflies are perhaps the most eye-catching of all with vivid colors and metallic shine, some using these colors to warn off their toxic nature.  Beetles, grasshoppers and leaf insects all munch on the exuberant vegetation with little remorse for the plants they are eating.

But those who visit the rainforest will rarely do so without crossing the path of one of the most laborious species in the world –the leaf-cutter ants. There are 47 species leaf cutting ants. My first encounter with these ants came as no surprise in Costa Rica, where they seem to inhabit almost any land ecosystem except for high elevations above 6,500 feet. You may even find them carrying leaf pieces as you exit the airport terminal towards the parking lot where several trees make up the landscape.

The most interesting fact about leaf-cutters is their ability to farm their own produce- a fungus, to be exact. The pieces of leaves they collect are cut in smaller pieces before inoculating them with the fungus, the only source of food for the ants and their larvae. A well-established colony can contain over 5 million ants, of which most are females. The queen is about 2 inches in length and may live for over 20 years. During her lifespan, she can lay more than 200 million eggs.

These social arthropods are well known for their well-structured society divided into castes. The different castes are defined by size. The Mimims are the smaller workers helping to harvest the fungus and feed the larvae, while the Minors are found along the trails and are in charge of defending the workers from any intruders. The Mediae are larger and are responsible for collecting the leaves and bringing them inside the colony. Finally, the Majors are the largest of all, working as soldiers to protect the colony. They are also known for helping clear the paths used by the Mediae and getting rid of waste produced by the colony. Waste workers are usually left isolated from the fungus gardens to avoid contamination.

So, the next time you come across a trail of leaf-cutters, take your time to follow them, as you will be surprised at how far and large the colony may be. While these may be one of the toughest insects to shoot, you get plenty of opportunities as these guys will be on the move non-stop. Try them the next time to visit any country in Central or South America. There are two species that are found in the U.S. ; they can be found in Arizona, Texas and Southern California.

Rainforests are among the most biodiverse places on Earth. Millions of years of evolution in these regions have resulted in some of the most amazing organisms ever known to man. Being able to survive in a harsh environment dominated by high temperatures and high humidity is a requirement more than a choice. These conditions promote plant growth and attract many arthropods. Insects are among the most diverse animals in the rainforest.  Butterflies are perhaps the most eye-catching of all with vivid colors and metallic shine, some using these colors to warn off their toxic nature.  Beetles, grasshoppers and leaf insects all munch on the exuberant vegetation with little remorse for the plants they are eating.

But those who visit the rainforest will rarely do so without crossing the path of one of the most laborious species in the world –the leaf-cutter ants. There are 47 species leaf cutting ants. My first encounter with these ants came as no surprise in Costa Rica, where they seem to inhabit almost any land ecosystem except for high elevations above 6,500 feet. You may even find them carrying leaf pieces as you exit the airport terminal towards the parking lot where several trees make up the landscape.

The most interesting fact about leaf-cutters is their ability to farm their own produce- a fungus, to be exact. The pieces of leaves they collect are cut in smaller pieces before inoculating them with the fungus, the only source of food for the ants and their larvae. A well-established colony can contain over 5 million ants, of which most are females. The queen is about 2 inches in length and may live for over 20 years. During her lifespan, she can lay more than 200 million eggs.

These social arthropods are well known for their well-structured society divided into castes. The different castes are defined by size. The Mimims are the smaller workers helping to harvest the fungus and feed the larvae, while the Minors are found along the trails and are in charge of defending the workers from any intruders. The Mediae are larger and are responsible for collecting the leaves and bringing them inside the colony. Finally, the Majors are the largest of all, working as soldiers to protect the colony. They are also known for helping clear the paths used by the Mediae and getting rid of waste produced by the colony. Waste workers are usually left isolated from the fungus gardens to avoid contamination.

So, the next time you come across a trail of leaf-cutters, take your time to follow them, as you will be surprised at how far and large the colony may be. While these may be one of the toughest insects to shoot, you get plenty of opportunities as these guys will be on the move non-stop. Try them the next time to visit any country in Central or South America. There are two species that are found in the U.S. ; they can be found in Arizona, Texas and Southern California.

A mediae carrying a heart-shaped petal back to the colony. Costa Rica.
A mediae carrying a large leaf fragment and a protecting minor.
Leaf-cutters follow pheromone trails on their way to and from the foraging tree
Leaf-cutters live in underground colonies holding millions of ants.
The author and his wife at one large leaf-cutter colony in Costa Rica.
In 2022 we came across a nest colony that was over 35 feet wide. Here's Carolina Villegas posing on top of these massive nest for size reference.

Documenting Ophaga pumilio in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

I have a true passion for amphibians, those creatures with moist skin and sticky toes that many people fear or dislike. They are jumpy and at times hard to find, yet that’s nothing more than a challenging proposition to a frog fan like me. This time the trip took me for the second time in less than 6 months to the Bocas del Toro district in Panama. There’s something magical happening in this area composed of the mainland and few surrounding islands to the point that scientist called them the Galapagos of the Caribbean. By now you should know the importance of the Galapagos Islands and if you don’t here’s a tip. The Galapagos are a living evolution laboratory, where we can observe the effects of adaptive radiation, a process in which organisms diversify rapidly from an ancestral species into a multitude of new forms. In the case of Bocas del Toro, a tiny frog has evolved many different phenotypes – a description of observable physical, physiological or behavioral characteristics that separate a group of individuals from the rest of the species. Different from genotypes which are the actual genetic identity, phenotypes are affected by both the genotype and the unique environmental conditions surrounding the individual. My subject is a tiny frog — Oophaga pumulio — a.k.a. the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog. In it’s most common form it looks like the one below.

A Strawberry Poison Dart Frog (Oophaga pumilio) carries her to tadpole to a water source, usually a bromelia.

The challenging part was finding these tiny frogs no more than one inch in length while dodging the weather. For starters, these guys don’t like bad weather. In order to find them I needed to hear them first. Too much rain and they go mute, making them nearly impossible to find on the leaf litter of the forest floor. Even when the conditions were optimal, they will choose impossible places from where to call, making them inaccessible or difficult to photograph. Walking through muddied trails, slipping down the hill sides or landing on large puddles of water made the adventure more exciting at times. Once found then I had to battle the elements and the gear. Constant drizzle and high humidity sabotaged the gear more than once. The copious sweat getting in the eyes and all over the cameras added to the miserable ground conditions. To visit some of the sites where these frogs can be found we had to take boats. One of the interesting things about these frogs is the fact that several phenotypes can be found in one same island. In the case of Isla Bastimentos there are at least three different forms of the frog. Isla Colon also have their share. Every large island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago offers at least two phenotypes. But the mainland offer a unique set of conditions that produced even more phenotypes. Geographical isolation by either rivers or mountains provided enough separation for the establishment of various morphs, occasionally only separated by a river and in places where two distinct population exist, you can even find some individuals sharing characteristics of both populations. Insane to think that such a small area produced so much color evolution, but considering these frogs have a tiny range and small number of offspring.  Below are some of the phenotypes I found during a three day expedition. 

But there’s more to these tiny frogs. Their aposematic coloration announcing their toxicity is just one of the traits that allow them to survive in the wild. Their reproduction is extremely complicated for a frog and I even show a high degree of parental care. The males attract the females by means of their calls. Once they find each other, they mate by means of a “cloacal kiss”. Soon after the female lays up to five eggs on a small puddle of water, usually collected on leaves on the forest floor. During this period the male urinates on the eggs to keep them moist if the water evaporates, and rotates the eggs before they turn into tadpoles. Ten to fourteen days later the tadpoles emerge from the eggs. At this point the female takes full care of the tadpoles. As the water dries out, she will carefully move the tadpoles to water filled vegetation usually bromeliads.  To prevent cannibalism among the tadpoles, the female deposits a single tadpole per section of the plant. The collected water is low in nutrient, so the female deposit unfertilized eggs to feed the tadpoles until they are ready to leave the water phase fifty days later.

Nothing more exciting than being able to document this species and its many phenotypes. But the work is not complete. There are many more phenotypes still to be documented. The adventure continues on a follow up expedition in 2022.

A Unique Way To School

Traveling through Central and South America, it’s hard to miss kids walking to school. Some walk for miles even before the sun rises to make sure they arrive on time. In most of these countries, schools have separate morning and afternoon sessions in order to accommodate all the grade levels on limited resources that include small buildings, no budget to provide lunch and the lack of teachers. In the afternoon, the younger kids are going back home while the older students come to session.  In remote areas the daily migration is even more common. School buses are limited or non-existent, so it’s not unusual to see seven year-old kids walking long ways along the roads or picking up a ride on public transportation.

But nothing more challenging than going to school by water. Yes, in many remote areas of Panama, I have encountered kids traveling by water in dugout canoes. This time I was in the southern range of the Bocas del Toro archipelago. For a moment you feel in another world as you are surrounded by emerald waters hugged by mangroves tall enough to touch the sky. As idyllic as it sounds it is a dangerous risk that many kids take on a daily basis.  I can only assume that classes are dismissed if bad weather approaches, but then…how would they know when far from the reach of technology? For days I lived without the cellphone lifeline I’m so used to. I was so far away from civilization that any accident could have been devastating and venomous snakes are commonly seen along the forest floor here. The waters are also patrolled by sharks. In fact, I glanced at a hammerhead just a few minutes before snapping some pictures of three kids paddling their ancient dugout canoe to school. But despite all the dangers, students and teachers make the treacherous trip from and back to school.

But the students are not the only ones on a challenging trek. One day, while driving on the main land, I came across a teacher that was in need of a ride home. She teaches at a remote school that requires a one hour hike each way through a dirt road crossing three bridgeless rivers and up to two hours by bus to the city where she lives. Every day she makes this journey for the kids in this rural community of Panama composed mainly of indigenous people of the Ngöbe-Buglé tribe.

While the purpose of my trip was to document frogs, watching the kids paddling to school was an eye-opening experience that will last a lifetime. The pictures are just there to remind me of the things I take for granted and how easy life is on my corner of the world.