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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Brushfoot Butterlies (Nymphalidae): Mariposa!

Although we all enjoy watching butterflies in passing, not many people give them much attention. We all know that they pass from caterpillars to flying beauties via a dramatic physical transformation we call metamorphosis. But of the thousands of butterflies and moths (Order Lepidoptera) found in Nicaragua, much is not known. Only a fraction of the species found in Nicaragua of the moths-those which fly at night-are even documented in Nicaragua, and many species of the butterflies-those that are active in the daytime-have not been documented in the country.
Several species of Hamadryas genus butterflies are found in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Photo Max Schellekens.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Researchers at FUNDECI/GAIA have documented well over 200 diurnal butterfly species so far (see this link for a publication). One group of butterflies, called the brushfoots (family Nymphalidae), is notable for its tendency to feed on fermented fruit on the forest floor. This ample group is represented in this area by dozens of species. Some of these species are quite numerous during appropriate seasons. 
Una mariposa grande! Photo Max Schellekens.
The great species richness of this group in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve depends on diversity of vegetation. The larval forms of butterflies are usually limited to only a few species of plants for each species. Many species are very particular about the host plants for their larval forms.  Wherever a butterfly species is found, one or more of a small number of potential host plants for the caterpillars of that species must also be found. 
The eyespots on the underside of the wing of Morpho helenor. Photo Max Schellekens
This means, quite simply, that butterflies can be important indicators of the conservation status of a natural area. Activities such as selective cutting, forest fires, and clearing vegetation from the forest floor may impact some butterfly species by altering the number of potential host plants available. We have been studying the butterflies of the Nymphalidae family with quantitative methods for a few years, with the intention to compare the communities of this group in different areas of the forests with different land use patterns. 
The Malachite (Siproeta stelenes) is quite common in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Muy bonita mariposa! Photo Max Schellekens.
Two interns from Holland, Max Schellekens and Hessel van der Weide, reviewed the accumulated data on Nymphalidae butterfly communities and reported on their findings in a presentation in July, 2013. As we expected, the butterfly communities were altered dramatically by more intense land uses such as housing and in secondary forest formed after deforestation. 
la mariposa
The underside of the Malachite (Siproeta stelenes) is far less colorful and dramatic than the upperside, aiding in avoiding predators while perched on the forest floor. Photo Max Schellekens.
Meanwhile, these interns developed some interesting information on when the populations peaked for each species of the group, and where they were most common. This information can be used to determine what environmental factors can be most important for each species, to develop conservation strategies to protect the forests and the animals in them. 
Although well-camouflaged when the wings are vertical, many butterflies of Nymphalidae family are conspicuous when viewed along the dorsal side. Photo Max Schellekens.
As consumers of the juices of fruit on the forest floor, these species require strategies against potential predators in trees as well as on the ground. Most Nymphalidae are well-camouflaged when sitting on the forest floor, where checkered patterns of dark and light, neutral colors dominate among leaf litter. When these butterflies as perched on the forest floor, they maintain their wings erect, showing complex patterns of neutral colors on the ventral sides of the wings, which blend with the surroundings.  
Some Nymphalidae butterflies are particularly subtle, with cryptic patterns on both sides of the wing. These butterflies tend to inhabit altered areas more, where greater need for hiding is necessary. Photo Max Schellekens.
When dropping their wings, other patterns and colors appear, more vibrant and spectacular. Most brushfoots show dramatic coloration above. Perhaps the most popular of the butterflies of the forests in Nicaragua is the Morpho butterfly (Morpho helenor montezuma), whose dorsal side glows with metallic blue, whereas the underside of the wings are dark with eyespots. One particularly large eyespot near the rear of the hindwing may aid the butterfly by giving the impression of an owl. Many potential predators of a Morpho butterfly would not want to run up against an owl, so this spot may reduce the pressure of predation.
Even when butterflies are practically invisible from a distance, the wing patterns upon close examination may be very attractive. Photo Max Schellekens.
As the photographs show in this essay, studying the brushfoot butterflies does not require harming them. The butterflies are trapped passively when they come to the fermented fruit bait, and there they are held a few hours without harm until they are removed, identified, and then released. These butterflies have colors and design patterns that are much better appreciated up close, too, as the photos show. They are all beautiful!
Hamadryas butterflies are especially abundant in altered areas in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Photo Max Schellekens.
 By making careful observations, the interns were able to make commentaries on the abundance of the butterflies during different seasons and in different locations in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Furthermore, they gathered information regarding the sex on the butterflies. Males and females of many species act very differently. Often, females are not very active. Many aspects of the basic biology of the Nymphalidae butterflies is simply not known, and we hope to make a small contribution to the knowledge base, while learning about the butterfly diversity in the different areas of the reserve.
La Mariposa Aliazul, or the Bluewing, is far more conspicuous on the dorsal side than the ventral side. Photo Max Schellekens.
By learning when and where each butterfly species is most common, we can build patterns of the web of diversity in the forests of this reserve. Seasonality of butterfly abundance depends on environmental factors such as appropriate conditions for feeding caterpillars in the host plants. 
Hamadryas butterflies show dramatic colors and patterns on the dorsal side of the wings. Photo Max Schellekens.
The interns Max and Hessel built on a substantial database developed over five years. During this time, we counted on the labor of several interns and volunteers, and the volunteer support of the students of Apoyo Spanish School as well. Their final presentation was attended by a standing-room-only crowd of conservation professionals, tourism operators, biologists and students. More work is to be done, so potential interns and volunteers are invited to apply!
Wing underside patterns of the Nymphalidae butterflies are subtle but, on close observation, filled with fascinating detail. Photo Max Schellekens.
All visitors are welcome to visit us and discuss the butterflies, or to volunteer to participate in our studies. Please contact us for any information you request.
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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Wildlife Monitoring in Laguna de Apoyo

It is no secret to us who frequent Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve that it is under siege from several types of human activities. Forests disappear without anyone taking note and speaking out. Usually, this happens not in fell swoops of forest, but rather, one branch, or a small stem, at a time. Areas get cleared by surreptitious actions of hired workers, a little at a time. Trash and concrete slowly creep across what was jungle.

How this process, of conversion of land from wild jungle to farmland and summer homes and gardens, affeds wildlife on the scale it is conducted in Laguna de Apoyo, has not been tested much. Common sense would tell us that small alterations to the forest make big changes in the animals that live in it. But we live in a society where lies and misconstructions are stated and accepted as facts, so we set out to compare the fauna of different parts of the forests in Laguna de Apoyo.

The title page of the presentation by three interns from Holland. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
 At FUNDECI/GAIA, we have been studying the impacts of human activity in the forests of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve for some five years. The results are now being prepared for publication. A presentation of the results of the impacts on fruit-eating butterflies (family Nymphalidae) and hummingbirds (family Trochilidae) was made at Volcano Masaya National Park, Tuesday 23 July, 2013. Bart Verdicjk, Hessel van der Heide, and Max Schellekens, biology interns from Holland, produced the following videos on the process, which were presented along with results of the studies on butterfly and hummingbird communities in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve.
Intern Max Schellekens presenting the results of butterfly studies while dozens of participants observe. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
These three interns collected data and then they analyzed data on hummingbirds and butterflies during the past five years in different locations in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Their presentation was well-attended, not a single seat was found in the house!
Volcano Masaya National Park Director, Liliana Diaz, during an animated discussion after the presentations by the interns. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
A rising consciousness and concern for wild nature is seen in Nicaragua today. The young people of the area of Laguna de Apoyo, many of whom attend Instituto Augusto Flores Silva, made an important representation of the audience, which pleased us infinitely to see.
A standing-room-only crowd in the auditorium of Volcano Masaya National Park! Photo Pablo Somarriba.
The risks that wildlife face in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve are enormous, and as many people recognized in the discussion, tourism provides important elements to a strategy to protect this beautiful natural site. Several professional tour guides were present as well, some of whom added important comments.
Las mariposas de la Laguna de Apoyo. Video Max Schellekens.

Los colibries de la Laguna de Apoyo. Video Max Schellekens.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Animal Rescue XIII: Variegated Squirrel returns to the wild

Although many attempts at wild animal rescue do not end as one would wish, sometimes there are happy endings. Several days ago, a Variegated squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides) was rescued from illegal hunters in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. This species is abundant in the protected area, and common throughout much of the Pacific region of Nicaragua. Although not endangered, any wild animal inside a protected area is part of the national heritage and therefore is protected.
variegated squirrel
"Mango" nibbles on a cucumber at the dinner table. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
The poor squirrel arrived practically dead. Her injuries were severe, and she was semi-conscious. She could not use the paws of one side at all, and she suffered convulsions, and pain was acute. She slept almost all the first two days. We force-fed her milk the second day, and then she nibbled on a little mango. The third day, she ate more mango, but she was untidy, and covered in her own urine (a good sign, no serious abdominal injuries), and mango pulp. Hence, her nickname.
sciurus variegatoides
Mango plays affectionately. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
The gaping wound on the left side of Mango's neck healed rapidly, helped out by donations of antibiotic ointment from students of Apoyo Spanish School, and lots of rest. Her right eye remains cloudy, and apparently is completely without sight.
sciurus variegatoides
Mango, the Variegated Squirrel, has adopted Jeffrey's shoulder. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
Mango began exploring the environment beyond her cage only during the past few days. At first, she was terribly shy, and bonded to Jeffrey, who had rescued her and was handling her daily. She wanted to be climbing on people, not trees. The dogs sniffed her and were reminded to treat her kindly, in case she wandered into their path. Last night, she wandered considerably throughout the house and patio, with the old dog Cuco behind her. After a few rounds, she returned to Jeffrey and stayed attached to him while playing, until she fell asleep on his shoulder. Animal rescue sometimes can have affectionate rewards!
variegated squirrel
Only a week earlier, we thought she would not live! What a miracle. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
The previous day's play must have been sufficient to encourage her to take on more challenges. To think that just two weeks ago, she lived permanently in the trees, but now she did not even look up, was baffling. This morning, Mango was released to the patio again, while the wild squirrels were very active in the trees overhead. She ran in one and another direction, and then disappeared with her friends.
variegated squirrel
Variegated squirrels return to the wild readily, even after being handled by humans. Mango is our fifth successful re-introduction of this species in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
Mango has not gone far, but she has made the definitive step back to the wild. This is an easy transition for a squirrel, because it is a social animal, and it feeds on things that are easily found. We only had to give her the opportunity to regain her strength and confidence. She won't be able to jump as before, but she appears to be strong enough and happy. So we, too are happy, because wild animals should live free, not in cages
variegated squirrel
Mango, a Variegated Squirrel, feels very comfortable on Jeffrey's shoulder. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
Mango has now found the other squirrels that she knew, so, we are hoping they watch out for her. She has superficial injuries such as damage to her tail and scars on her jaw, as well as more serious injuries such as blindness. To think that only a week ago, neighbors were suggesting we sacrifice her! Additionally, she may have lost the wariness and instinct that is vital to survival as a squirrel in the wild. We have learned a little more about caring for squirrels, and she has a chance to live and die as a wild animal.
Variegated Squirrel
Variegated squirrels are very affectionate, when given the opportunity. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
FUNDECI/GAIA studies and advocates for wildlife in Nicaragua. Both Nicaraguans and foreigners can join forces us to make Nicaragua a better place for wildlife. Biologists and other scientists, veterinarians, and interested folks are welcome, as interns, researchers, and volunteers. You don't have to have a special talent to contribute.
variegated squirrel
Squirrels are asleep before nightfall, so this is past Mango's bedtime. She slept more than an hour on Jeffrey's shoulder. Photo Pablo Somarriba. 
Mango the Miracle Squirrel has gone on to live and die in the forest, not in a cage. We at GAIA receive requests to take other animals daily. We need help, allies who would like to participate in the rescue of wild animals in Nicaragua. If you would like to help with the costs of animal care, we are also grateful for donations. Please contact us if you would like to make a small donation to pay for food, infrastructure, and veterinary care for the rescued wild animals! For just eight dollars, for instance, a bag of cashews feeds our two macaws an entire week.
animal rescue
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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hummingbirds II: Amazilia cyanura/saucerrottei species complex

There are lots of interesting and important bird studies to be performed in Nicaragua, among them, issues regarding hummingbirds. What habitats hummingbirds prefer, and how human land use impacts each hummingbird species can be an important issue for Nicaragua, especially now that Nicaragua is developing rapidly. To make such analyses, however, identification of the hummingbirds is vital, but not always straightforward. Both the Blue-tailed hummingbird, Amazilia cyanura, and the Steely-vented Hummingbird, Amazilia saucerrottei, are reported for Nicaragua, although they are so similar that we don't trust any distinctions made in reports about them. Conservation science intern Bart Verdijck has been examining the populations of the species in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, to determine which is here and whether any distinctions can be made in the field, where supposedly, the two species occur together.
Blue tailed hummingbird
This hummingbird is lending us a few minutes of his time to further the knowledge about his species. Is he a Blue-tailed Hummingird (Amazilia cyanura) or a Steely-vented Hummingbird (Amazilia saucerrottei)? Photo Bart Verdijck.
Ten hummingbird species have been recorded in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve to date. Some species are quite rare or even accidental, whereas others are very common. These two species, however, intrigue one in a special way, because little information exists on the two species in the same place.
Steely vented Hummingbird
FUNDECI/GAIA technician Elmer Nicaragua holds a hummingbird. Photo Bart Verdijck.
The intense urbanization all through the region means that hummingbird habitats are being altered rapidly. Without knowing what resources are required for year-round sustenance and reproduction of each species, we are gambling against the hummingbirds with every new forest cleared, building constructed, and parking lot paved. Which hummingbirds among the great diversity of the region will be lost?
Amazilia cyanura
Hummingbirds are easily captured by mist nets for study. Photo Bart Verdijck.
The overlapping ranges of A. cyanura and A. saucerrottei mean that resources upon which the two species depend must be divided somehow. Our first goal is to compare the abundances of these and other hummingbirds in each of several sites in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, to look for trends according to forest structures and land use patterns.
Amazilia saucerrottei
Elmer examines the tail and wing colors on this hummingbird. Photo Bart Verdijck.
In addition to comparing A. cyanura and A. saucerrottei habitat preferences and abundances in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve through analysis of mist netting data, Bart is examining the populations of all the hummingbirds, using both mist netting and point count results.
Amazilia cyanura
Undertail coverts showing the characteristic pattern of the Steely-vented Hummingbird. Photo Bart Verdijck.
Among the trends hopefully found in the analysis are patterns of reproductive activity. When birds are captured through mist netting, nesting can be inferred from examination of the brood patch which many bird species have-a bare section on the belly, which is highly vascularized and swollen to transfer warmth to eggs, when the birds are sitting.
Examination of the brood patch can demonstrate whether a bird is nesting. Photo Bart Verdijck.

Blue-tailed Hummingbird
This hummingbird shows a wet head after our technicians examined the ossification on its cranium. Photo Bart Verdijck.

Blue-throated Hummingbird
Now that this bird has been examined and measured, it is ready to return to the wild. Photo Bart Verdijck.
Some hummingbirds migrate, most notably the Ruby-throated Hummingbird which nests in North America and can be found in Nicaragua during the cold months in its nesting range. Other hummingbirds also migrate, particularly the Blue-tailed Hummingbird, as folks learned in a study in northern Nicaragua. Elevational migrations toward the end of the dry season may be necessary for many birds in tropical dry forest to survive the last weeks of the period, when food items may disappear.
Steely-vented Hummingbird
The vent of this bird has the characteristic pattern of the Steely-vented Hummingbird. Photo Bart Verdijck.
Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve is very small-only 4300 hectares, of which almost half is water. Knowledge of migratory patterns is vital to protecting the species found in this reserve.
The red coloration on the lower mandible terminates before the tip. Photo Bart Verdijck.

Lacking evident rusty secondary covert feathers (these are bronzy green) demonstrates that this bird is a Steely-vented Hummingbird (Amazilia saucerrottei). Photo Barth Verdijck.

Helping Nicaragua protect its native fauna in the face of rapid development is our challenge. FUNDECI/GAIA is dedicated to protecting wild nature in Nicaragua in harmony with its people. If you would like to work alongside Nicaraguans and visitors from other countries as a volunteer or intern, you are welcome to participate. Hummingbirds and many other species of animals are waiting for your help! 

Steely-vented Hummingbird
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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Animal rescue XII: Squirrel hunters stopped (GRAPHIC PHOTOS)

Three days after falling victim to hunters from The Peace Project, this squirrel faces a difficult path to recovery. Photo Bart Verdijk.
We can understand someone's desire to hunt, but always when, where and how require adherence to the law, customs and general good sense, as well as a respect for your neighbors. We recently had an encounter with friends of The Peace Project who had a completely different idea of hunting from ours. These folks entered our property and shot a squirrel with a slingshot, after enjoying a visit with their squatter friends. We gave chase and they did not get away. Miraculously, the squirrel was still alive, after a hard impact from a projectile and a long fall.
peace project
This friend of The Peace Project threatened Jeffrey McCrary with violence, after losing his prized squirrel hunting trophy. Photo by Lesley Eisenberg.
The visitors had been moving large rocks (without authorization) on the property the squatters are occupying, apparently later having a few drinks and then taking aim at the variegated squirrels which are abundant on our land. We gave chase but they ran and evidently, once out of sight, thought they were safe to walk off their drunken stupor. They were wrong. We caught up with them a few hundred meters away, and they were carrying the poor, wounded squirrel, wrapped into a tee shirt. What they had planned for the wounded animal, we can only guess, but they surrendered it in the midst of threats of violence. Fortunately, many people were witnessing, so they did not act on their threats.
The Peace Project
Furious but defeated. This person hunted a squirrel after a visit to The Peace Project in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Hunting is illegal in protected areas in Nicaragua. Photo by Lesley Eisenberg. 
We began nursing the poor squirrel immediately, which basically meant giving him peace, quiet and warmth, so he could rest. He was breathing, but scared, badly wounded, in shock and with a great loss of blood. He slept most of the first day, but began moving the following day and even ate a small amount of food.
The Peace Project
The squirrel hunted by visitors of The Peace Project is now badly wounded and semiconscious, but miraculously, alive. Photo by Lesley Eisenberg.
This poor squirrel is a wild animal, not a pet, and deserves to live and die wild, not in a cage. We forget that protected areas are dedicated to them, not to us. We are giving him every opportunity to return to the wild.
The Peace Project
This poor wild animal is now defenseless and struggling to live. Photo by Lesley Eisenberg.
Peace Project
We did not think he would survive these wounds, but we decided to give him a chance at life. Photo Bart Verdijk.

These visitors of The Peace Project threatened members of Estacion Biologica, as is frequent and customary. But they lost their squirrel. Photo by Lesley Eisenberg.

Violence follows generations when it is taught. These children accompanied the violent people involved in this illegal hunting incident. Photo by Lesley Eisenberg.

The Peace Project
If you know this young man with lots of tattoos or the others pictured herein, please inform us at Estacion Biologica. Photo by Lesley Eisenberg.