Canopy Family Panama

BBC Science & Nature Article: The rainforest mammals of Panama

The noted biologist Dr Thomas Lovejoy remarks in the foreword to the book Tropical Nature that rainforests aren't, on first appearances, the reservoirs of diverse and colourful life that they are sometimes made out to be. His first impression on going into a rainforest just outside Belem, in Brazil, was that it is very green, quiet and still. "Little moved except ants," he wrote.

I reckon this is bang on - a first visit to a rainforest can be a desperate anticlimax. Where are all the colourful birds and flowers and the extraordinary mammals that you've read about? But then you learn a few basic techniques - crane your head up, and you'll start to see some of the more exotic bird species - toucans, parrots and motmots, for instance; peer into the undergrowth and listen out for rustling noises, and some of the more subtle (but sometimes strikingly beautiful) antbirds, antwrens and antpittas appear.

But mammals, in most cases, remain frustratingly out of sight. This is for a number of reasons. The majority are crepuscular or nocturnal by nature, and so you won't see them in daylight. Most don't want to be spotted, the minute they get a whiff of you (long before you've whiffed them), they're gone. As Lovejoy said, "Most animals are occupied in not attracting attention."

So, when I visited Soberania National Park, I was surprised by just how many mammals we did see, particularly considering the park entrance is just a 45-minute drive from Panama City's main international airport. Capuchins screamed and threw sticks at us from the treetops, agoutis calmly sniffed the air on forest tracks, and even sloths did more than you might expect.

One evening, we were stopped in our tracks by the sound of something crashing through the undergrowth in our direction. It sounded enormous, and if I hadn't known better (and been on a different continent), I might have assumed we were about to be flattened by a rampaging rhino. But in the fast-fading light, we briefly glimpsed an animal longer (but less bulky) than a badger. It was a tayra, a large, weasel-like mustelid, one of the real gems of New World rainforests.

We didn't see jaguar, or any other cats. My view is that, unless you are very, very lucky, splash out on an expensive trip to somewhere such as Manu (in Peru) or the Pantanal (in Brazil) or spend a lot of time in primary rainforest (probably working as a field researcher), you're unlikely to see felines. But here, in no particular order, are some of the other mammals you will see (with just a few early starts and late finishes).

Howler monkey

I heard them first in the shower the evening we arrived and immediately felt reassured. I'm not sure I've ever read a good description of the howler's call. It certainly isn't a howl - if anything, an extremely hoarse roar probably comes closest to describing the noise. The next morning, we saw them from the top of Canopy Tower, a former US radar station converted into a hotel. We watched while an infant gave its adult minders the run-about in the treetops more than 25 metres above the ground. Harpy eagles are being reintroduced to Soberania, and howler monkeys are their favourite dish, and so keep a look out for these extraordinary raptors while ogling the howlers.

Silky Anteater

This was the other 'find' that caused Carlos near apoplexy. I had been lagging behind the rest of the group - I often find it pays to either be in front or behind other people when walking in rainforests - when I glanced to my left and saw something small, round and furry in the crook of a young sapling. It was clearly a mammal, but I couldn't be any more specific. It was suspended on a tangled nest of vine leaves, and - on very close inspection - was breathing. Well, Carlos's excitement knew no bounds - though, again, not that rare, silky anteaters are creatures of the night that spend their waking hours walking tightrope on pencil-thin branches in search of, yes, ants, and are rarely seen. We watched for 10 minutes while our silky continued its late-afternoon snooze. The plate in the field guide shows a strange, golden-brown animal with a prehensile tail, hook-like claws and a funny snub nose. All we saw was a ball, but that was enough.

Nine-banded armadillo

There are parts of the world where people don't get too excited about seeing armadillos, but for me there was something magical about this encounter. It was shuffling and snuffling its way through the leafy understorey, poking its nose into the detritus in its search of beetles, termites and other invertebrates. It showed absolutely no sign of being aware of our presence as it bumbled its way to the forest edge to within just a few feet of us.

White-nosed coati

A group of birders staying at Canopy Tower at the same time as us reported each evening on the huge troops of coatis they had seen that day. Compared to them, we were unlucky - we had only a couple of sightings of these most endearing mammals, who, with their long, white muzzles and dark markings round the nose, are the rainforest's pantomime burglars. But one incident springs to mind. We were walking along the Pipeline Road (some half an hour's drive from Canopy Tower), when there was a flurry of activity ahead. Two, maybe three, coatis crossed the track in front, pausing briefly to look in our direction before continuing into the forest on the other side. I barely registered that something that didn't possess the coatis' lean, muscular bodies was following in hot pursuit, but our guide Carlos looked at us in goggle-eyed excitement. "Oh my God!" he exclaimed. "A ground cuckoo." It turned out that, while the (technically, rufous-vented) ground cuckoo wasn't that rare, it was very rarely seen and that this was Carlos's first in more than 10 years of birding. Personally, I'd take the coatis any day.

Agouti

We were driving down Pipeline Road at six in the morning. The air was fresh and cool, the overhanging branches were still damp and the sun had a beautiful, golden glow. The agouti - a large, golden-brown rodent which looks about as succulent a meal as a jaguar could ever hope to find - emerged from the forest and stood sniffing the air. It seemed to be making sure that all was safe before tucking into something on a nearby log that turned out to be fungi. After five minutes, it stood on its hind legs, and as I raised my binoculars to look at its head, something caught my eye in the distance. A large animal - certainly larger than the agouti - scooted off the track and into the forest. A capybara, possibly, though I couldn't be sure.

Kinkajou

This was one of the mammals I most wanted to see while in Soberania. Kinkajous are largely nocturnal, and to see them, you really have to do a night trip. It's their huge eyes that give them away, and it's their huge eyes that give them such an endearing, childlike appearance. This one was walking delicately along a branch 15 metres above us and appeared unconcerned by either our presence or its turn in the spotlight. That night trip also yielded a highland tinamou, two Virginia opossums and - after half an hour spent staring at a yellow eye in a distant tree - what turned out to be a potoo (a night bird not unlike a nightjar).

Three-toed sloth

We saw plenty of sloths of both the three-toed and two-toed variety throughout our stay in Panama, and so I didn't feel I needed to see any more by the time dusk was falling on our last evening. Still, with their oddly humanoid features and slow-motion, 'six million dollar man' movements, they are totally entrancing. This one had manoeuvred itself into an exposed position and was climbing in a laboured manner up a twisted, dry vine that was coming away from the tree. Clasped to her chest was a youngster. Any minute, I thought, that vine is going to snap off, bringing down mother, baby and all. Instead, with a seemingly superhuman effort, the sloth reached out for a main branch of the tree - it was suspended on just one arm for several seconds while its three other limbs dangled in mid-air - and hauled itself to safety. I'm sure it was just a run-of-the-mill episode for the sloth, but, for me, it was a cliffhanger.

White-faced capuchins

The contrast with the sloth couldn't be greater - noisy, irascible and hyperactive, capuchins are the rainforest's music-hall performers. The tree just ahead of me came alive as if it were being shaken by a giant. Through the foliage, I could just see animals taking death-defying, 15 metre leaps, and with careful positioning, I soon got a decent view of the troop. Some petulant stick-throwing occurred, but I'm not sure if they were more concerned about me or the hawks I had seen just moments before. We had also seen some Geoffroy's tamarins the day before, but they weren't what you'd call an exciting bunch compared to this lot.

 

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