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Searching for Animals in the Peruvian Amazon

  • A group of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists and partners pose for a photo at their field site in Peru
  • A light brown/gray lizard stands on the ground surrounded by dirt and fallen leaves
  • A praying mantis-like insect stands on muddy grass blades in the Peruvian Amazon

Researchers with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation and Sustainability and partners are busy in the Peruvian Amazon monitoring flora and fauna around areas where pipelines, roads and other infrastructure may be built.

They can offer strategies to better protect wildlife by assessing biodiversity, understanding how animals use the landscape and identifying areas of risk. From the end of July through mid-August, the team identified species at their field site. The following is just a small sample of the wildlife they encountered.

A dark brown tamarin perched on a tree with green leaves in the Peruvian Amazon

Tamarins are one of the smallest species of monkeys. They travel the forest through the dense understory or the high canopy.

When the forest becomes fragmented by the construction of roads, pipelines and other infrastructure, they can no longer move freely through the forest.

Natural canopy bridges, formed by two trees that connect across a road or pipeline, allow tamarins to access the entire forest without risking their lives by running across the ground.

Smithsonian researchers help companies in the Peruvian Amazon identify and protect natural canopy bridges during construction to reduce the negative impacts of forest fragmentation.

A medium-sized bird with long tail feathers and mohawk-like feathers on its head perched in a tree

Hoatzins, also known as skunk birds, are prehistoric-looking animals that live near lakes and rivers. They primarily eat leaves and even have four-chambered stomachs, similar to cows.

These birds don’t smell or taste very good, so hunters don’t seek them out. Researchers regularly see hoatzins in the Amazon’s flooded forests where they monitor biodiversity and propose ways to protect species.

The hoatzin’s mohawk may be its most striking feature, but it’s not this bird’s only accessory. Chicks that fall into the water risk predation by caimans and piranhas. Claws on their wings help them climb quickly back into the safety of their nest.

A small bird, called a Pauraque, blends in with leaf litter on the ground in the Peruvian Amazon

Can you spot the bird in this photo?

With little cover and many predators, leaf litter is a dangerous place for a bird. So how does one manage to lay an egg and successfully fledge a nestling? The answer is camouflage.

This pauraque blends in with the dead leaves so well that spotting it from just a few feet away can prove challenging.

Pauraques aren’t the only hard-to-spot species for researchers in the Peruvian Amazon. Some lizards that forage on the forest floor have evolved camouflage to blend in with leaf litter.

Others, like this young tree runner, fit in with their mossy surroundings as they scurry up and down tall trees in search of food and sunlight.

A small lizard climbs up the side of a tree, blending into the bark and moss

Developing partnerships with local stakeholders is an important component of successful fieldwork. SCBI researchers work with indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon to monitor wildlife in their territories.

They train technicians to use passive monitoring devices, such as camera traps and acoustic recorders, to keep an eye (and an ear) on mammals, birds, frogs and insects.

A man, named Angel Mashingash Petsa, dressed in an orange work suit and construction hat holds a camera trap device

Angel Mashingash Petsa (pictured here) has quickly become an expert in setting up these devices and locating them in the forest using GPS. The help of Angel and his fellow community monitors is essential to successful wildlife monitoring in the area.

Fishing in the Amazon is not easy, but when sampling species richness, the goal is to capture and identify as many species as possible. That means fishing in rivers, creeks and lakes, day and night, on the surface and on the bottom, and using a variety of nets.

A tiny catfish sits on the tip of a researcher's finger in the Peruvian Amazon

This candiru, a tiny parasitic catfish, is native to the Amazon Basin. It survives by making its way into the gills of a larger fish and gorging itself on the host’s blood.

Because the candiru is translucent, it’s easy to see when its belly is full; this one looks hungry. The team came across this candiru while monitoring fish populations in an area undergoing development for oil extraction.

A wolf fish with its mouth open displaying sharp teeth

The researchers commonly encounter wolf fish at their field site in the Peruvian Amazon. This predatory fish uses its impressive teeth to ambush prey in the dead of night. Adults are vigilant parents; males guard their nests even after the eggs have hatched.

All told, the team identified more than 70 species of fish in just two weeks of sampling. Now, they’re busy sorting insects and waiting for data from their camera traps and acoustic recorders, which will remain in the field for a few more months.

Learn more about the Center for Conservation and Sustainability, and stay tuned for more updates from the Smithsonian’s team in Peru!