By Dara Adams
Apologies for the long radio silence but we’ve had our hands full with monkeys, cats, and more! Wildlife veterinarian Renata Leite Pitman returned to the field site in September to assist on our project. Renata lived at the field site with her husband Nigel, who was CICRA’s Scientific Director, and her two young girls until 2008. During this time, Renata captured, radio collared, and studied a variety of mammal species, including short-eared dogs, giant armadillos, jaguars, and…ocelots! When our project took a turn to include predator behavior we didn’t hesitate to consult Renata. Our goal during her two-week visit was to capture and place a GPS collar on Zeus, the male ocelot that became an expert at evading our traps back in August.
The first week of Renata’s arrival we were met with a new challenge preventing us from successfully capturing Zeus – Chaska, the first ocelot we trapped! Chaska began visiting the traps in the early evening and, mimicking Zeus’ behavior, would leave her back leg in the doorway as she stretched her body as far as possible to the back of the trap. This resulted in the door coming down and bouncing off her foot, which gave her just enough time to slip under the door. Each morning the team crowded around the computer to watch footage from the camera traps placed outside each box trap. With great despair (and slight amusement) we watched as Zeus approached the traps late in the evenings and curiously tried to open the doors that had been left shut after prior visits by Chaska.
Two of our field assistants, Marlon and Alberto, became determined to outsmart Zeus. On one particular day, they spent over 6 hours constructing their own modified traps, each convinced that their own trap design would be the one to finally capture Zeus. Marlon’s design involved removing the door from one box trap and connecting that trap to a second trap, thus creating one very long trap. Surely Zeus would be enticed to the back of the trap (thus unable to leave his foot in the doorway) where a speaker broadcasting baby chick calls and the smell of chicken would greet him! Alberto decided to remove the push plate from his trap and instead thread the wire connected to the door to the back of the trap where a small piece of chicken fat hung at the end. Alberto was convinced that Zeus would be so concentrated on removing the bait at the back of the trap that he would forget about the door and it would close securely behind him.
The following morning we split up into three teams to check traps. Marlon eagerly volunteered to check the route where the two modified traps were located. I could tell by the look on Marlon’s face that he was certain Zeus would be waiting in his modified trap. When I arrived back to the station Marlon was sulking in the lab — both of the modified traps were closed with nothing inside. We inserted the camera trap SD card in the computer and were astonished by the first video, in which Zeus was inside Marlon’s long trap with the door securely shut behind him! After skimming through an hour’s worth of video, all showing Zeus sitting inside the very closed trap, the camera suddenly stopped working. A flood of thoughts rushed through me and everyone on the team suddenly began talking at once. How in the world did he escape? Why did the camera stop working? What if he is hurt? My number one goal was finding Zeus (remotely via spotting him on other camera traps) to make sure he was uninjured. I was also certain that our chances of getting a GPS collar on him were zero, as he would never enter a trap again.
To distract myself, I started showing Renata videos and photos of Chaska. I was describing to Renata how comfortable Chaska appeared with our team and the traps – she seemed completely at ease and not at all scared. In one camera trap video taken after she was captured but before our team arrived to the trap site, Chaska is seen stretched out on her back lounging comfortably with her feet in the air. In another video, she causally bats at a leaf poking into the trap. Renata commented that she had collared an adult female ocelot, Moro, several years ago only 200 meters from where we captured Chaska and that female exhibited a similar laid back behavior. A couple of hours later Renata showed me photos from her capture of Moro in 2008. I casually commented that Moro looked a lot like Chaska. We started to compare photos of Moro with photos of Chaska and could not believe our eyes. The two ocelots had the same exact spot patterns! As we compared various photos, we realized that indeed we were looking at the same ocelot.
This is incredibly exciting news for several reasons. In 2008, Renata estimated Moro’s age to be around 2.5 to 3 years (based on body measurements, canine length, and dental wear), which means her age is now estimated around 8.5 to 9 years old! Ocelot lifespan in captivity can exceed 20 years but in the wild they are said to live from 8 to 13 years of age. While Chaska (or shall we call her Moro?) is getting up there in age, her blood panel results indicate she is in good health. Even more exciting, we can now compare Chaska’s ranging behavior and activity from 2008-2009 with our current data from 2014-2015. Chaska wasn’t done doling out surprises just yet. Not long after capturing her, she appeared on our camera traps with a beautiful female kitten! There was no evidence that Chaska was lactating at the time of her capture and the presence of the kitten out on the trail system suggests it is already a few months old. We’ve been able to monitor the kitten over the past few months via camera traps and it has been exciting to see her grow!
Read on to our next post to find out what became of Zeus!