Tamandua! and Other Mammals

My sister and I grew up playing Green Bin Games, named after the plastic container where all the toy animals were kept. One of my favorites was the "tamandua," a shaggy-tailed, tube-nosed, slouchy sort of critter. The more precise name for this toy was giant anteater, or ant-bear. I pictured it slinking along mossy branches in the Amazon like an upright sloth.

My first tamandua in the wild. This is a giant anteater, Myrmecophaga tridactyla.

You can imagine my surprise when, during my first week in Brazil, a rock in the pasture lifted its snout and revealed itself to be an exact replica of my plastic tamandua toy!

A simple turn of the head reveals a snout of oddest dimensions.

It turns out that although my toy was perfectly accurate in shape and color, my perception of the tamandua's ecology was partially wrong. These animals do behave somewhat like upright ground-sloths, and their range includes the Amazon, but they also belong in the arid savanna of Cerrado. They prefer to forage in open grassland and rest in the shade of the forest.

During my interviews with farmers about dog and cat diseases, human health, and wildlife conflict, I often hear that the dogs tussle with tamanduas at night. Many dogs have been killed by these slow, rock-mimicking behemoths. "How can that be?" I asked one farmer. He slowly raised one long, curved finger. He was demonstrating the tamandua's claw.

When a tamandua is threatened, it cannot outrun a predator. It rears on its hind legs, rises to an intimidating seven feet, and delivers a fatal puncture with a four-inch-long nail. Anteaters don't pose much threat to humans -- except for the story I heard about a drunk man who tried to save his dog from an anteater, only to take the claw to his own body. Luckily, all survived.

In interviews, I hear about two kinds of tamandua: the tamanduá-bandeira (giant anteater, above) and the tamanduá-mirim (collared anteater, below). Both fight with domestic mammals, but the giant anteater poses a greater threat to the dogs, while the dogs pose a bigger threat to the collared anteater.

Look at those sweet, soft, teddy-bear paws! (Just don't get in the way of the claws.) This is a collared anteater, Tamandua tetradactyla.

Tamandua may be my favorite mammals of the Cerrado, but they are not the only ones -- cows, horses, dogs, cats, and humans aside (we live all over the world and can be rather boring, you know).

There are peccaries, of course! The animals I originally came here to study are white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), known locally as queixada (pronounced kay-shaw-duh). I haven't laid eyes on those yet, but I have seen their close relatives, the collared peccary (Pecari tajacu), several times. Collared peccary are common all the way from Tucson, Arizona (where one spied on me in the middle of the night) to the southern states of Brazil.

A tame collared peccary named Violet munches on manioc.

I have met two collared peccaries quite personally. They can be raised as pets and integrated into the family. They're just like dogs, except for the sound of their tapping little hooves on the kitchen floor. And they say "hello" with a frantic whacking of their oversized head back-and-forth between your knees. So that's a little different.

Collin told me to "kiss a peccary" on my last trip to the field, but I did one better. I got this friendly collared peccary, named Queng-Queng, to kiss the camera -- and all of you!

Here is Queng-Queng deeply enjoying a neck scratch, while its ignored canid cousin begs for a little love.

A wild herd of collared peccary.

I was far more thrilled to see a herd of collared peccary in the wild. This group contained at least twenty individuals. I saw them gamboling around the edge of a cattle pasture at dusk. The tiny babies leap and bounce like rubber balls off the red dirt.

They don't see well, but when they smell danger, they run away with a comical, short-legged gallop.

A more elusive mammal is the crab-eating fox (Cerdocyon thous), known here as the lobinho. I have seen one up-close as roadkill, and another skulking in front of me in the road at twilight, always just beyond a clear view.

We thought this shape might be a dog, fox, or phantom.

Then it turned to look at us for a frozen moment before melting into the brush.

For the cute side of mammalia, we can always look to the rodents. Here we have the Azara's agouti (Dasyprocta azarae). Usually quite solitary and shy, this individual was happy to eat corn from a trough and look pretty for tourists at a river-snorkeling resort near Bonito. These little guys are also relevant to disease because in 2011, nineteen percent of Brazilian agoutis tested positive for toxoplasmosis.

Azara's agouti.

Later that day, while snorkeling the Rio Sucuri, I was lucky to see another species of rodent in a more wild setting: the lowland paca (Cuniculus paca). This mammal has an orange coat with distinct white polka-dots. I watched a mother and baby scamper along the river bank into a paca-sized hole among the tree roots.

And a rodent collection wouldn't be complete without the capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), largest rodent in the world!

A group of capybara crossing a pasture to reach their preferred home, a marsh.

Rodents might be cute, but what can grab our hearts more firmly than the dextrous little fingers of our own kind, the primates? Monkeys here are known as macacos, and the only species I've seen is the Azara's capuchin, also known as the hooded capuchin (Sapajus cay).

An Azara's capuchin in a tree near Quinta do Sol.

Before going snorkeling in Bonito, I watched a group of about six Azara's capuchins frolic through the trees. I saw two small babies, and Duca noticed a mischievous capuchin dart across the lawn to bop an agouti on the head before running back to cover. I took a video of a curious individual exploring a chimney!

Mom's Daily Bird

These greater rheas (Rhea americana) are the world's biggest bird-brains. We all just watched the male rhea step through the fence, no problem. So why are these knuckleheads so confused? They probably face this dilemma five times a day.

Dad's Daily Bug

This small wasp landed on our table while we ate lunch with a family in a quilombo called Comunidade Boa Sorte. (Quilombos are communities populated mostly by Afro-Brazilians. Originally created by escaped and freed slaves, they operated in isolation from the rest of the world until encroached upon by Brazil's military government from the 1960s to '80s. Then, in 1988, the federal government guaranteed their eternal right to exist, making them similar to the Native American reservations in the US and initiating one of the largest slavery reparations projects in history. Despite laws promising land titles to the quilombolos, as residents of the communities are called, most still don't own their land. The federal government owns it and, for now, allows the quilombolos to live there.) Anyway, back to wasps. This little guy preened itself like a cat for longer than I bothered to watch. Who knew wasps were so clean?