Introducing the predators: Chaska, Nina, and Zeus!

By Dara Adams

Our team has been attempting to trap and place radio collars on ocelots since May. The goal is to use camera trap and telemetry data on felids in conjunction with data on saki monkey behavior and movement to determine whether sakis are perceptive of felid movement and activity patterns. In July we were very close to capturing a female ocelot we named ‘Chaska,’ which means ‘star’ in Quechua. During our last night of trapping with our vet Jesús Lescano, Chaska finally entered a trap and triggered the door but she bolted out so rapidly that she barely escaped under the trap door as it closed shut. We placed camera traps (which are triggered by movement) outside of each box trap and it was excruciating for our team to watch the video of Chaska’s escape!

Chaska in trap

Chaska calmly waiting in the trap before immobilization.

In August a veterinarian named Nancy Carlos arrived to oversee the capture and immobilization of ocelots. We opened all the trap doors around 4 o’clock in the afternoon the day Nancy arrived and only four hours later Chaska was staring back at us from inside a trap! She was sitting calmly and was quite beautiful! We briefly immobilized her so that we could examine her body, take blood samples to assess health, and fit her with a VHF collar. Since then we have been tracking her movement via radio telemetry and she thus far spends more than 85% of her time within the home ranges of our two saki focal groups.

The team working on Nina

The team (Marlon, Alberto, Nancy, and Dara) taking blood samples to assess Nina’s health and fitting her with a radio collar.

A few days later I was sitting in the lab with Nancy reviewing camera trap footage as the team was out on their morning routine checking box traps. Alberto Escudero, a local assistant to our project, calmly entered the lab and very casually said, “There is an ocelot in the trap on trail Huaperito.” For a split moment Nancy and I thought he was joking because of his nonchalant demeanor but we quickly realized he was serious when we saw the beads of sweat on his forehead (he must have dashed back to camp after finding a cat in the trap).

The team with Nina

The team with Nina (From left to right: Nancy Carlos, Alberto Escudero, Kailin Olufs, Dara Adams, Marlon Guerra, and Gordon Ulmer).

I sprang from my chair and ran out of the lab to locate the rest of the team when I saw Kailin, a student volunteer, and yelled for her to get ready because there was an ocelot in a trap. She responded, “Yeah, I know. Wait…how did you know?!” As it turned out, Kailin also checked a trap that had an ocelot inside, so there were TWO ocelots trapped that morning, and they were located only 300 meters apart. One of the ocelots was Chaska (again) and the other was a new female. While Chaska appeared calm and laid back, this new female was feisty, growling at anyone who dared to advance toward the trap! Fittingly, we named her Nina, which means ‘fire’ in Quechua.

We were able to follow the newly collared Nina for a couple of days and then lost her signal. We became increasingly concerned after a week of searching with no luck. Finally, Marlon Guerra, the other local assistant working on the project, located Nina’s signal late in the afternoon in a swamp not far from camp. Her signal was within 50 meters of Eleanor, a nearly 20-foot anaconda that also has a radio transmitter and has been monitored since May. The next morning Marlon located Nina’s signal again in the same location. He was extremely concerned that Nina had become an anaconda snack, but fortunately her signal started moving later in the morning and all is fine! We now have a better idea where Nina ranges and have been able to locate her much more easily.

During the last week of trapping, a male ocelot we named ‘Zeus’ started visiting some of our traps. He appears to be much larger than the females and is incredibly smart and agile. Zeus first figured out how to trigger the trap doors by pulling the push plate up (as opposed to stepping on it to push it down, which triggers the trap door).  As a result, the doors do not shut properly and he is able to escape. He then figured out that if he stretches his elastic body as far as possible he can inspect the trap and leave one foot in the doorway, preventing the door from shutting completely. As a result, our team was welcomed by closed trap doors every morning with nothing inside them!

We have also discovered that Chaska and Zeus have been ‘hooking up.’ Our camera traps have recorded hours of camera trap footage spanning over several nights of Chaska and Zeus taking turns sitting in front of camera traps. Every few minutes a different cat appears in front of the camera! Chaska is vocalizing in almost all of the videos so we are fairly certain she is in heat. With luck, maybe there will be a little Chaskita running around on the camera traps in a few short months!

Renata Leite Pitman, a wildlife veterinarian that has over 10 years of experience trapping felids, arrives today and we will begin our last trapping initiative. We are hoping to finally capture and collar Zeus, so stay tuned!

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