A dark, medium-size dog walks straight toward the camera as we flip through photographs, plopped in a small clearing carved into a jungle in southeastern Peru.
“Short-eared dog!” Daniel Couceiro says excitedly. An ecologist working with the ecotourism company Rainforest Expeditions, Couceiro is on a mission to find out as much as he can about the animals whose lives are ordinarily hidden from human eyes.
One of the rain forest’s most elusive inhabitants, the short-eared dog evades all but a few stubborn scientists. In fact, walking these Amazonian trails, you’re much more likely to see a jaguar—or just about anything, really—than one of these canines.
That’s why using automated camera traps, as Couceiro is doing, makes sense.
Over a few weeks in 2016, he hacked through miles and miles of dense forest and set up more than a hundred cameras in a grid straddling the Tambopata River. He placed the devices—triggered by motion or temperature changes—along streams and in blackwater palm swamps, spiked bamboo thickets, and shaded clearings. (See "These Beautiful Maps Reveal the Secret Lives of Animals.")
The Big Grid, as it’s nicknamed, monitors more than 77 square kilometers of mostly pristine jungle—and if all goes well, it will continue to do so for the next five years.
Up and running since July, it’s already generating so much data that Couceiro and his colleagues have uploaded the images to the citizen-science Zooniverse platform, under the name AmazonCam Tambopata.
The goal is to ultimately improve conservation by learning where and how certain key species—like jaguars, peccaries, spider monkeys, and more—live in the forest. And because there are so many images coming from the camera grid, the team is relying on citizen scientists to identify the animals online.
“We need good and truthful long-term data to know how healthy their populations are,” Couceiro says. “We all depend on the Amazon rain forest, no matter where you live.”
Over two days, we’d huffed, staggered, and cursed our way along one of the grid’s lines to swap out camera cards and batteries, and were now resting in the shade near the last camera.
We flip to the next photo, in which the dog is vanishing into the woods. Bummer. But then, in the next image, she’s back, walking away from the camera. We look at the time stamps on the images; they were taken less than an hour apart. What is she going back there for?
The next image says it all.
“Is that a puppy?” I ask incredulously, enlarging the photo and squinting at what appears to be a furry pup gently clutched in her mouth. She’s once again heading toward the spot where we’re now sitting.
“Woooowwwwwwwww,” Couceiro manages.
The flipbook version of this day in a dog’s life shows her coming and going, delicately ferrying her puppies from one spot to another, maybe five of them in all. Couceiro shakes his head. He’s never seen any images like these before.
Turns out, no one has: These are quite possibly the first recorded glimpses of a jungle dog and her puppies in the wild.
“This is totally amazing,” says Duke University’s Renata Leite-Pitman, who has studied short-eared dogs at a nearby field station but is not involved in AmazonCam. The dogs are so elusive that no one knows how many exist, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers the species near-threatened by shrinking habitats and vanishing prey.
Leite-Pitman is hoping the team will be able to find the dogs’ burrow and install a camera before mom leaves her pups to live in the jungle on their own, which will probably happen sometime in May.
“It’s a great opportunity to study this species, a unique opportunity to study the maternal care of the babies, how the babies disperse,” says Leite-Pitman, also a National Geographic Waitt grantee.
“What are their survival chances? How many of them will survive? None of these questions are answered for this species.”
Another major goal of AmazonCam is to study the local jaguar population.
These majestic, stealthy cats lord over both ecosystem and mythology, but how many of them slink through this rain forest—and how much land each cat commands—is a mystery.
Data from radio-collared animals in Peru, he says, are already suggesting that jaguars don’t partition their territories as previously believed. (Also see "Rare Jaguars Caught in Camera Traps—for Science.")
“Their territories are very irregular and are typically many times larger than the survey areas used in the past. That violates pretty much every model for jaguar density and populations that’s been used,” he says.
Inaccurately determined territorial ranges can lead to inflated estimates of jaguar densities, which in turn can stymie conservation efforts. The big cat is also listed as near-threatened by IUCN.
“You can think you have a really healthy and abundant population where you don’t have it,” Couceiro says.
Already AmazonCam has provided valuable data on jaguars. (Read "6 Nat Geo Photographers Share Their Favorite Wild Cat Moments.")
Between March and August, three different jaguars—distinguishable by their unique spot patterns—visited the same 250-acre patch of land near the ecotourism lodge Refugio Amazonas, one of the lodges owned by Rainforest Expeditions. Couceiro calls them Luzbel, Tunche, and Chuyachaki, the latter two named after forest devils.
“I wouldn’t suspect that you can find four different jaguars in just this tiny area,” he says. “How much do they overlap?”
The Big Grid
Anyone with an Internet connection can sort through AmazonCam's photographs and help identify species.
The hundreds of images collected so far feature oodles of wildlife, including pumas, jaguarondi, giant anteaters, tapirs, coatis, and peccaries—in fact, the Big Grid’s cameras have captured pretty much every mammal in the area except for the bush dog, which travels in packs and apparently hates trails. (See a rare photograph of bush dogs in Ecuador.)
By the end of five years, “we are going to have a complete mammal inventory," Couceiro says.