By Lucy Sandberg
This summer, I spent a month in the Pantanal region of Brazil working as a volunteer for the Wildlife Conservation Society-Brasil (WCS Brasil). The Pantanal is the largest tropical wetlands in the world. It has a high biodiversity of aquatic plants and over 600 bird species. In addition, this region is home to many animals such as peccaries, caimans, capybaras, anteaters, tapirs, and jaguars. While in Brazil, I had the opportunity to work in the field studying peccaries, aquatic life, and forest conservation with specialists Alexine Keuroghlian, Don Eaton, and Maria do Carmo Andrade Santos.
Alexine Keuroghlian is the director of the Pantanal/Cerrado program for WCS- Brazil and coordinates the WCS project called “ Projeto Queixada”- or “The Peccary Project” – that studies peccaries, which are medium size even-toed ungulates that form large herds. I worked with Alexine and her team as they tracked the animals. Because it is difficult to study peccaries in their natural habitat, we set traps. Once caught, they are tranquilized and fitted with a radio collar that allows Alexine to track their movements. I got to hold a baby peccary and it was thrilling. When they were tranquilized, we took several biometric measurements such as the peccary’s foot, body length, neck circumference, and tail length. They were aged by looking at the wear of their teeth. This information will be used to understand wild population structure and dynamics in the future. We would also take a blood sample from each peccary, which will later be used for genetic analysis. I was lucky to experience this and had the chance to help label the blood samples and record all the measurements and weights. Peccaries are a social group of animals. Many scientists have been studying their special gland. Some scientists have made observations that peccaries rub against each other as a form of greeting, but this idea is not conclusive yet.
I worked on another project with botanist Maria “Duca” do Carmo Andrade Santos. We investigated the impact cattle have on the forests. Due to poor law enforcement, cattle from privately owned farms wander into the forest and streams, which adversely affects vegetation density. Duca and I worked with a group of high school students from York, Maine taking measurements of trees, seedlings, and grasses. We set up a dozen ten-by-ten meter plots around the forest and determined the density of each plot by comparing tree height and the number of seedlings and grasses. We could then see which areas of the forest were most impacted by cattle. Other groups working for the Wildlife Conservation Society-Brasil have been collecting similar data. This information could be used to start preservation efforts in certain areas, and to encourage local farmers to use sustainable practices like rotational grazing and agroforestry.
Don Eaton is an aquatic specialist. The high school group and I assisted him in doing a general survey of the aquatic life in the area. We would use nets to catch insects and small fish, which we would then bring to Don to identify. We also used instruments to measure the oxygen content, salinity, and pH in three different areas of this body of water. This is important in determining how healthy an ecosystem is by comparing the number of fish species to percent oxygen in the water. There were piranhas and caimans in the water we were working, and one day we ate piranha soup for dinner.
In addition to working firsthand with well-known scientists on these important projects, we enjoyed swimming in water holes near beautiful waterfalls. We rode horseback through the Pantanal, which is a great way to see the scenery. Macaws and toucans were abundant in the area. It was fun to ride in the back of the truck and occasionally see giant anteaters and armadillos in the field. We also had the chance to explore a cave with ancient cave drawings.
I found out about this program through a fellow student and friend, Sean Keuroghlian-Eaton, who is the son of Alexine Keuroghlian and Don Eaton. They are always looking for volunteers and would be happy to have anyone who is eager to learn and who has a good work ethic. This is a great opportunity for anyone who wants to gain experience in environmental studies, especially conservation and sustainable agriculture.