March 23, 2009
Big is beautiful in Brazil
If I were to say giant rodent, what would your immediate reaction be? Well, my mind conjures up images of ROUSes, with their small, black, beady eyes, their long, wrinkled snarling snouts, full of vicious looking teeth and their greasy, filthy, burning fur. If you have no idea what an ROUS is, which I find just a little “inconceivable” (said in a slightly high pitched, effeminate tone, with a very definite lisp), then you need to get out of your cardboard box, head down to your local emporium of visual delights, and rent The Princess Bride. If you do know what I am talking about, remove this image from your mind (I know, easier said than done, since I just put it there), since the giant rodent that I was looking for is the complete opposite of this fictional beast, except for the fact that it is big.
To find the unusually large rodent, we were on our way to the Pantanal, the largest wetlands in the world. Seems appropriate that we should be looking for the world’s largest rodent in the world’s largest wetlands, don’t you think? The Pantanal is mostly located in Brazil, although parts of it do slop over into Bolivia and Paraguay. We were there during the dry season, and so we were able to get around mostly on foot or in the back of a rather dodgy four wheel drive truck. Other forays were done via boat or on horseback. All methods of transport were fairly safe, somewhat comfortable and I didn’t think that I was going to die in any horrible way what-so-ever. Although, there was the episode with the bees...perhaps I will come back to that later.At this point, I would like to tell you just how beautiful the Pantanal is. This is where I would normally wax lyrical on how gorgeous the scenery was and where I exhaust the thesaurus and find all the synonyms out there for spectacular and beautiful. Well, I have to be honest and admit that the Pantanal was none of those things. Really, it was just kind of scruffy and scrubby. A little bit shabby, unkempt and dishevelled. Have a look at these cattle. They pretty much sum up my impression of the Pantanal. Well, to be fair, most places that get inundated by vast amounts of water for half the year and then spend the other half of the year drying out and being trampled by huge numbers of cows are likely to be a little the worse for wear, don’t you think? So, one does not visit the Pantanal for the pretty views (or, apparently, for good steaks). Oh no, one goes for the wildlife. And one was not disappointed. If you can cast your mind back to my adventures in the Amazon jungle, you may remember the difficulties we had in spotting any of the wildlife – all those trees and all that lush vegetation just kept getting in the way. Well, that was not such a problem here. The trees are shorter, the vegetation less dense and there are large open areas that allows ample wildlife viewing opportunities. Another thing that you may remember about my Peruvian jungle exploration was my disappointment in not spotting the elusive giant otter. Well, you can just imagine my surprise and my delight when, within minutes of entering the Pantanal, the truck squealed to a stop and the guide casually turned to his eager tourists and asked “Would anyone like to see an otter?” Now that is a stupid question. It turns out it was an even stupider question than I initially thought, since these were not any old otter, these were GIANT otters! Woohoo! I was in wildlife heaven. Giant otters are the most amazing creatures. They are the largest of the weasel family – six feet of lithe, supple, rippling muscle beneath a smooth, incredibly dense, chocolate brown fur coat. Huge webbed feet and more whiskers than a walrus. And the teeth – well, take my advice and never mess with a giant river otter. These guys are very social animals, living, hunting and playing in small family groups that will defend and protect each other and their home. They eat mostly fish, along with crustaceans and they have even been known to catch caimans and anacondas! Like I said, don’t mess with a giant river otter. They are very intelligent, extremely playful and are more vocal than any other species of otter. Listening to a family of these incredible creatures was one of the highlights of my trip. They squeak and whine, they growl and purr. They scream and wail. Snorts, hums, barks and coos, all coming from a mass of tree roots in which the family was hiding. They then came out and started playing with us – they would swim underwater, pop up somewhere, whistle, give us just enough time to locate them, but not enough time to get a photo and then disappear with a hoot. Very entertaining and very frustrating, since you never got a really good look at them. Still, we did see some others later that were too busy emptying a small pond of all of its fish, to be worried about a few photographers. So is big beautiful? Oh yes, most definitely.
The Pantanal is home to a plethora of other animal species and it is a wonderful place to go if you are a big birder. One of my favourite birds here was the toucan. There was one that lived in a tree near the dining room of our hacienda and he spent most of his day making sure that no other birds came near him or his tree. There were also many colourful species of parrots, parakeets and macaws, including the endangered hyacinth macaw, a magnificent bird with the most beautiful lapis lazuli blue plumage, so coveted by collectors that one bird can fetch around $10,000, resulting in dramatic declines in wild populations. Due to the large numbers of cows that looked like they were about to keel over and die, there was also a surfeit of raptors, such as vultures and caracaras, just hanging around, waiting for a meal to expire. “What you wanna do?” “I don’t know, what you wanna do?”
On one of our walks through the scrub, we came across the sensitive mimosa plant. Now, I am well aware that many people find plants rather dull – well, they don’t “do” anything, do they? Well, this one does, as you can see in my before and after photo below. You can see in the “after” photo that a light touch to the leaf causes it to completely close up. So how exactly does the plant do this, since it is the animals that hold the patents for muscles and nerves. The answer is water pressure. When the leaves are touched, water rapidly leaves the cells at the base of the leaflets, resulting in a loss of pressure. This pressure normally keeps the leaflets open, so as the pressure drops, the leaves fold up. “But why?” I hear you cry. Well, who really knows, but it seems likely that this rapid movement would be enough to frighten away the smaller herbivores that might otherwise be chowing down on this leafy delight.
Since not everyone will be excited by this floral oddball, I shall now include a couple of delightfully furry (or not) and endearing animals that were also spied on this walk through the wetlands. Here we can see the charming coati. They are very inquisitive creatures, with an acute sense of smell, using their elongated, very manoeuvrable noses to sniff out their food, which they then capture with their sensitive paws. We also saw a very myopic armadillo that managed to bumble along the path, rooting around in the soil with its snout, right up to the feet of my husband. A not very impressive display of animal senses! Towards the end of this walk, I heard the low, droning hum of many bees. Was I worried? Oh no, I could see lots of happy, content bees busily collecting pollen and nectar from the flower laden trees. But then the hum became more menacing and I noticed large numbers of bees emerging from a nest close to the ground. These were not happy-go-lucky, too-busy-working-to-worry-about-you bees. Oh no, these were mean, nasty and angry bees that did not appreciate intruders this close to their nest. What followed was a break down in communications between the English-speakers and those that spoke other languages. My Spanish is severely lacking and any French completely deserted me as my mind slipped into panic mode. Having said that, I would have thought that me screaming, hopping around, waving my arms around my head and trying to run past everyone on the path in front of me might have been a clue that something was amiss. Sadly, for me, a bee managed to find a chink in my clothing armour and stung me. Now, I am not allergic to bee stings, but I do react over time, often with quite spectacular results. One time I was stung by a wasp right underneath my eye. Just imagine, a very large wood wasp, flying right up behind the glasses of a very sensible, highly professional entomologist. She would calmly remove her glasses and wait for the wasp to fly away, right? Hmmmmm, not exactly. Now imagine an idiot, arms waving, glasses flying and lots of squealing. That would be closer to the truth and the end result was a sting right under my eye. The next morning I woke up with a head the size of an elephant and I had to spend the next week with a paper bag on my head going around murmuring “I am not an animal.” On this occasion, it was my ankle that swelled. It was very painful, but not nearly as impressive as a swollen head. If you are still reading this, you are probably still waiting to find out about the giant rodents of the Pantanal. So, here they are – the adorable, the lovable and the very peaceful and docile capybaras. These are the world’s largest rodents and are the complete opposite of the ROUS (rodents of unusual size) of The Princess Bride. They do not tear flesh from the bones of pirates or princesses, rather they graze on aquatic plants and grasses and eat fruit or chew on the bark of nearby trees. Like cows, they regurgitate their food in order to chew it again and, since apparently twice is not enough, they eat their own faeces in order to have another go at all that cellulose in their diet and to replenish their gut microflora. They bark like dogs and are most at home in the water, where they can hold their breath longer than Mandy-Rae Cruickshank. They can even sleep under water with just their nostrils protruding above the surface. There are over 500,000 of these lovable rodents living in the Pantanal and they provide an important source of food for some of the local carnivores, including anacondas, jaguars and caiman. And there certainly are a lot of very fat and very content looking caiman around here. I have been told that capybara taste like pork, but, according to the Catholics, they are classified as fish. This allows their consumption during the forty days of Lent. Oh come on – they must be the hairiest fish I have ever seen. What is the point of having religious laws if you are just going to bend them whenever you feel like it? So, there you have it, the not-so-beautiful Pantanal and all its wondrous inhabitants.
I shall finish with one humungous spider and one tale of torture. The tarantula was spotted at night, from a moving vehicle, so you can just imagine how big it was. The torture occurred on the bus ride home from the park. It was raining armadillos and anteaters, lightening was streaking across the sky, thunder was booming and cracking all around. Now this wasn’t too bad, since you could close your eyes so that you didn’t have to watch as your bus driver repeatedly swerved into on-coming traffic in order to pass a vehicle that was going two kilometres an hour slower than you. Unfortunately, it is harder to close your ears and so we were all subjected to our guide as he sang along to all of his favourite Brazilian hits which he was listening to on his MP3 player. There would be intervals of tuneless humming until he got to the parts where he knew the words. At this point, the humming would increase in volume, words would start to coagulate from the hum and the wailing and screeching would begin. This sounded something like a jaguar with a lot of porcupine spines embedded in its nose (OK, so I am guessing here, since I haven’t actually ever heard a jaguar enduring this particular pain). There were some brief intervals of blissful silence, and then, just when you thought that the worst was over, the tonal torture would start all over again. Now, I am not a religious person and I don’t believe in God, but desperate times called for desperate measures and I started praying...please God, oh please let his batteries die...
If you have some time, you just have to go and watch the series of videos about 'Raising Sancho', about an orphaned giant otter. If you watch all seven of these videos, I should warn you that you will need a very large box of tissues for the last one.