Published: August 15, 2018

The Jaguar and Its Grandchildren

Nigel Pitman, Mellon Senior Conservation Ecologist, Keller Science Action Center

We set out to explore a part of the Amazon that scientists hadn’t visited for over sixty years—and spotted a jaguar with a fascinating link to our collections. 

The Field's rapid inventory team visits some pretty remote places in the Amazon. Sometimes, we’re the first scientists to ever go to an area. Other times, we’re following in someone else’s footsteps. We start our survey before ever leaving the museum, searching all the collection rooms and databases for any previously collected specimens from the same region. Most of the time, we turn up a handful of plants or animals brought in by an expedition that reached that lonely corner of the Amazon decades before us. And sometimes, those expeditions were Field Museum affairs.

In spring 2018, we ventured out on the Museum's 30th inventory—a 20-day, 60-person expedition to four campsites in a remote region of the Colombian Amazon. Our Colombian colleagues routinely refer to that region—along the lower Caguán and Caquetá rivers—as a blank spot on the map, scientifically speaking. Its forests were under the de facto control of guerrillas for decades, and biologists didn't dare to ask what kinds of plants and animals lived there until the peace accords were signed in 2016. When we ran some background searches for specimens collected in the region, we didn’t expect to find much. We certainly had no idea that a jaguar from this exact region of Colombia was downstairs, or that a bird from those forests sat on a shelf right down the hallway.

Philip Hershkovitz collected the bird in question—a Wattled Curassow—back in 1952. Curator of mammals at the Field from 1947 until his death in 1997, Hershkovitz was a towering figure in mammalogy (and an energetic collector of birds, lizards, and other creatures as well). He got more done in his eighties than a lot of us accomplish in our twenties. His obituary reported that “[Collections] he made in southeastern Brazil mainly as an octogenarian included 17 new species and four new genera.”

Hershkovitz sounds like a colorful figure. Apparently, whenever he was short on cash during an expedition in Ecuador, he’d spend a few weeks trading horses on the Peruvian border until he had enough to fund his next collecting trip. My favorite story about Hershkovitz, though, is that as a 75-year-old curator emeritus, with offices in the museum three stories apart, he never used the elevator. I think about that every time I head upstairs.

For a month in 1952, Hershkovitz rented a house near the confluence of the Caguán and Caquetá rivers. We’re lucky enough to have a transcription of his field books from that very trip. It’s a traveler’s diary rather than a formal field catalog, and it gives us a glimpse into the mind of a master collector. The diary notes how many traps he set, checked, or repaired; where he hunted, for how long, and what he got; and how many hours he spent preparing skins, skulls, and bones. He also describes the frustrations and triumphs of his days in the field. Here’s a typical passage:

Thursday, 24 January

Hunting goes on. We have about as much work as we can handle. The Hermano is resigned, does his work but so slowly. He prefers to putter with the scullery duties. Guillermo works hard. He checks the traps at night and gets up about 5:00 A.M. to check the traps again before going off on morning hunt. It is too dark before 7:00 A.M. to skin mice so I hunt from about 5:45 to 7:30 A.M. Nothing organic can be left overtime. Everything spoils quickly. Weather has been good and the skins are drying quickly.

Other passages from his notes describe daily life in the field, from the mundane to the unexpected: 

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It’s disappointing to find some passages that make a modern reader wince. As a traveler in South America, it’s generally a good rule to avoid starting sentences with “The chief characteristics of the people here are….”—especially if you happen to be a white male who was born in Pittsburgh in 1909. Some of his generalizations seem pretty offensive now, but they have the fortunate side effect of making one reflect on one’s own behavior under exhausting field conditions. If anyone is around in the year 2100 to read the stuff that I scribble down when I’m in the field, I wonder how they'll interpret my notes.

Another passage from Hershkovitz's field notes has special resonance for our conservation work today—one in which he describes the process of collecting a jaguar.

It's pretty hard for an Amazonian conservationist to read, given how close jaguars are to our hearts, and knowing that they’ve been driven out of most of their range over the last several decades. But it’s important to remember that this particular cat is invaluable for science.

The jaguar specimen here at the museum has already contributed to dozens of studies and will contribute to dozens more in years to come. And now it’s contributing to the conservation of the forests it came from—another example of how having access to one of the world’s great natural history museums, with colleagues down the hall who are actively curating specimens from these places, gives our team an edge when it comes to protecting forests.

Yes, it felt a little somber the day we opened the specimen box downstairs in the mammal collections. But it felt a lot less somber once I saw what our mammalogists brought back from the rapid inventory.

After setting up camera traps at some of the campsites, our three Colombian mammal experts—Hershkovitz’s academic grandchildren, so to speak—captured nine photos of jaguars, including one on the prowl shortly after midnight.

Those camera trap photos also show a lot of jaguar prey like peccaries, deer, and tapirs. The data go a long way towards answering one of the biggest questions we had about this region of Colombia, which is how the animal populations had fared during decades of guerrilla control. It turns out that the rebel commanders restricted hunting pretty effectively during their tenure, and as a result, populations of large mammals are still healthy—including many descendants of Hershkovitz’s cat.

That tells us something crucial: that the Bajo Caguán-Caquetá region is well-suited for the role that we and our Colombian partners envision, as a conservation corridor linking the national parks to the east and west. Keeping these forests wild will ensure that animals like the beast in this camera trap photo—and its grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and our own grandchildren—will patrol Caquetá for centuries to come.

Keep an eye out for more stories from team members about the expedition, for a glimpse of what it’s like to work on an inventory in this especially beautiful corner of the planet. We'll share how our work is connected to other projects in Colombia and the museum, and what conservation impacts we’re actively working to achieve for the forests, rivers, and people of the Bajo Caguán-Caquetá region.

Nigel Pitman
Mellon Senior Conservation Ecologist

Nigel is an ecologist and conservationist with a special interest in South American forests. His research focuses on Amazonian tree ecology, but he has also worked on the endemic floras of Ecuador and Peru, long-term trends in Amazonian animal abundances, and extinction risks in South American plants. He has been working with the Museum's rapid inventory team since 2001 and has taken part in six inventories in Ecuador and Peru. He currently coordinates the conservation tools program in the Museum's Keller Science Action Center.

The photo was taken at a campsite on the Blanco River in Amazonian Peru during a Field Museum rapid inventory of the area in October 2014. In the photo Nigel is pressing one of the 1069 plant specimens collected during the inventory by the botanical team, which included Marcos Ríos, Luis Torres, Tony Mori, and Corine Vriesendorp. Photo by Tom McNamara.