It had only taken seven minutes for my shirt to begin show clear signs of saturation after stepping off of the plane. Thrust into clouds of night and a thick layer of concentrated humidity, it felt as though every pore on my body was precipitously aware of itself in a new place. We landed in the middle of Panama City, an urban atmosphere where skyscrapers tower over neighboring one-story homes and stand in stark contrast to the surrounding wooded forests. Though it was nearly midnight, the air outside of Tocumen International Airport was alive with the buzzing and chirping symphonies of winged insects, frogs, and cicadas that harmonized somewhere in the distance.
While Panama City offers an impressive index of tropical wildlife, my travel companion and I knew we wanted to position ourselves deep in the rainforests and explore some of the country’s more rural wilderness. A 10-hour ride on the night bus landed us in the middle of Bocas Del Toro, a series of tropical islands solidly shrouded in towering trees and green vegetation. Once settled into our lodgings (aptly named ‘Jungle House’), we strapped on our boots and set out to uncover the secrets of the forest around us. Our first hike was led by three clever dogs who spent most of their days trudging through murky waters and up slippery slopes like truly wild beings. Polo, a large, yellow Labrador Retriever presented himself as the leader of the pack, guiding us through tangled branches and rough terrain. Hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare bird, our gazes were locked on the skies when suddenly, Polo called our attention to the floor beneath us. Refusing to immediately believe what I had seen, I rubbed my eyes ferociously, finally allowing them to focus on what appeared to be a moving surface. I watched open-mouthed as hundreds of tiny leaves traveled around the forest floor, carried on the backs of astonishingly strong little ants.
The leafcutter ant (Atta cephalotes) is one of the many species found in the rainforests of Panama. As their name suggests, these invertebrates have the instinctive ability to cut through dense greenery with their powerful jaws and to transport the heavy trimmings back to their nests. This is no easy feat as larger leaves can weigh up to 50 times their body weight! Once they have returned to their nest, these farmers of the insect world turn gathered leaves into a paste by chewing them, and then use them as a food source for their cultivated fungus gardens. As soon as the fungus has had its fill of the proteins and sugars produced by the broken down leaves, it is harvested it is used to feed a colony of millions.
Each colony of leafcutter ants encourages a complex social system that separates the aunts by class, or castes. Within the caste system, individuals are distinguished as workers, soldiers, or reproducers. Aside from the reproducers, all other ants in the colony are female and none of them are fertile. Mediae workers, who are responsible for cutting and transporting the leaves, are stronger and more larger-bodied than the minims, workers who use their small bodies to labor inside of the fungus garden. Soldier ants, or majors, are also grand in size and use the bulk of their bodies to protect the nest and all of its residents. The ant that requires the highest level of security is the queen, who is responsible for birthing an entire colony. Entomologists have estimated that a single colony can contain anywhere from one million to eight million ants! Interestingly enough, male ants are only born when the colony needs to reproduce. Like the young queen, male ants have wings to allow for easy travel and more widespread mating opportunities. Prior to leaving her parental nest, a virgin queen will carry bits of the fungus in her mouth so that she is able to start a fungus garden of her own. The queen relies heavily on this mouth-packed fungus to help build her budding colony’s food supply. For young queens, the stakes are high. Should her packed fungus fail to produce more fungi, her entire colony of young ants will starve.
Researchers have determined that next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal cultures on Earth. They suggest that leafcutter ants consume nearly ten percent of all tropic greenery, making them the single most destructive pest in the world tropics. However, many tropical plants have evolved with defense mechanisms that prevent total defoliation and instead encourage a pruning by the ants which helps to stimulate plant growth. These incredible ant colonies have populations that parallel or extend beyond human populations, and their role in the Panamanian ecosystem should not be overlooked.
As we walked away from a conga line of leafcutter ants working diligently to dissect the forest, I thought about what it would look like to pick up something 50 times my own weight. picturing myself pinned beneath the wrinkled hind quarters of an enormous elephant, I realized what unbelievable achievements these ants make every day.
Follow us closely to hear more about our incredible wildlife adventures in Panama, and stay turned for next week’s blog about the Panama Virus that swept through massive banana plantations and led to the emergence of the cacao movement.
As always, don’t forget to get outside and explore the world around you!
As I walk through the gates of the the Santa Clarita Gibbon Conservation Center (GCC), I catch a blur of rapid movement in the distance. Heading towards the action, I can just barely make out the long arms and fast moving body of a captive gibbon, swinging speedily from branch to branch within its enclosure. I had done a bit of research on gibbons before our scheduled tour and learned that gibbons, like the chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan, are apes, not monkeys. If ever faced with the question: ape or monkey, you can resolve the query by taking a peak at a primate’s hind quarters. If there is no tail present, then the primate is likely an ape. With 20 species divided into for genera, gibbons are the most diverse group of any apes. Although all apes are threatened, some of the gibbon species are presently on the brink of extinction. Facilities like the GCC provide safe and caring environments for some of the rarest group of apes in the Western Hemisphere.
Currently, the GCC is home to 41 gibbons spanning five different species. Located in the Santa Clarita Valley, temperatures at the GCC can reach into the hundreds. During our visit, the morning is cool and foggy, and the gibbons who have finished breakfast are eager to interact with us. Our small group of four is greeted by a cheerful woman who warmly welcomes us. She introduces herself as Gabi Skollar, director of the Gibbon Conservation Center. A native Hungarian, Gabi tells me that she has dedicated the last twelve years of her life to caring for captive gibbons at the GCC. She lives in a tiny transportable home within the encampment; and while her house is smaller than some people’s washrooms, it has been well cared for and is surrounded by a multitude of rocks and succulents that she has collected over the years. Staying onsite allows Gabi to give the gibbons around the clock attention whenever they need it while offering her the unique experience of living among the gibbons.
Our tour continues through the facilities, where Gabi informs us that gibbons are well known for being the “song birds”of the apes. According to her, gibbons sing up to three times a day. Before the information could really sink in, I catch the soprano melody of the first singing gibbon calling out to 40 others. Varied in pitch and tone, gibbon’s songs are unlike anything my ears have ever heard. Within minutes of entering the GCC, the air is flooded with a choir of low hums and high-pitched chants that build into a symphonic masterpiece, striking the chords of my heart. Holding back tears, I stand still and allow their music to envelope me. A gibbon’s song is loud and impressive, and, as Gabi articulates, a single song can be heard at a distance of up to two miles away. Gibbons use these songs to mark territories, ward off predators, and to call out to the start of a new day. Each species of Gibbon has its own unique vocalization, and while partnered males and females of the same species often sing duets, their harmonies are quite different from one another.
For mates, Marlow, a Siamang gibbon, and U Mynt Swe, an Eastern Hoolock gibbon, their species division changes the pitch, tone, and style of their singing. Gabi explains that as two distinct species, Marlow and U Mynt Swe cannot copy one another’s song, and are incapable of vocalizing in the same language, so one can only postulate about whether they understand what the other is saying. this news drums up a pang of sadness within me. I turn to Marlow, who is munching enthusiastically on a large kale leaf, not yet ready to join the other singers. As she finishes her meal, I notice a large, round pocket inflating in her throat. She locks eyes with U Mynt Swe, who has been singing for the last two minutes, and compliments his high-pitched crooning with her own deep, throaty song. It is a spine-tingling experience to observe a gibbon’s throat expanding and filling with air before producing a deep humming resonance that sounds a bit like the hum that comes from blowing air into a large empty bottle. Siamang gibbons like Marlow, are the loudest land mammals on earth. Both male and the female Siamong gibbons have gular sacks, a throat pocket which allows them the greatest range in their song of any gibbon. Other gular sacked gibbons include the Northern White-Cheeked gibbons, whose throat pockets are reserved for the male population only. As we move on to visit the other gibbon species, we discover that when Marlow is tired, she inflates her gular sack and uses it like a pillow. What a wonderfully convenient addition to her anatomical form!
Though they are bipedal mammals (bipedal means that one has the ability to walk on two feet), gibbons spend the majority of their lives high up in the trees. The anatomical structure of their shoulders and their highly extendable arms help make them some of the world’s best acrobats, and it is not uncommon to see them spinning wildly among the branches. In their natural habitats, wild gibbons propel themselves through the dense forests of Southern Asia through a process known as brachiating. Brachiating, or the swinging movement from branch to branch, requires elongated arms, curved fingers, and strong, rotating wrists. At GCC, gibbons also brachiate energetically throughout the many branches spread across their spacious enclosures. Elevated in the trees of the Asia’s many jungles, wild gibbons can move at speeds of up to 35 mph and can be found as high as 200 feet above ground.
All in the Family: Javan Gibbons
While exploring GCC, I cannot help but notice that gibbons act a lot like humans. From their movements and posture to their facial expressions and behavior, the resemblance at times is uncanny. This shouldn’t really surprise me, as the Chimpanzee, another ape, has recently been revealed as the closest mammal (genetically speaking) to humans. As we approach the Javan gibbon enclosure, Gabi tells me a story that further affirms my position. After raising five children together, the staff at GCC noticed that mates, Shelby (male) and Chole (female), were spending time on opposite sides of their enclosure, with little to no interaction between them. Having grown apart, GCC staff believed it best to separate Shelby and Chloe and offer them the opportunity to find new mates. Though gibbons are monogamous, meaning they live with one partner at a time, they are not limited to one partner in a lifetime. Hoping to find Shelby a new and exciting partner, staff members introduced him to Khusus, a Javan gibbon just a few paces away from the place that Shelby and Chole once called home. Khusus, who had a son from a previous paring, is actually Chloe’s cousin, so when Shelby revealed his interests in Chloe’s cousin, he kept things pretty close to home. Ever the gentleman, Shelby adopted Khusus’ son, and together, the couple had two children of their own. Following the birth of their second offspring, GCC staff detected that the energy levels of Khusus and an ageing Shelby were quite dissimilar. Shelby was removed from their shared enclosure and given time to allow his progressive arthritis and diabetes to be regulated. He is now being cared for near the Center’s main office, where his conditions are monitored, while Khusus is raising their children. To me, their story seems like the kind of thing you would find on a television soap opera.
Gibbons are amongst the scarcest primates in the wild and many of their species are on the verge of extinction. With only 25 individuals left, the Hainan gibbon is one of the rarest mammals in the entire world. Currently, the biggest threats to gibbons in the wild include deforestation, escalating change in the climate worldwide, and poaching for pet trade, food, and medicinal purposes in Vietnam and China.
How the Gibbon Conservation Center Makes a Difference
According to Gabi, the GCC uses their knowledge and experience to improve the lives of captive gibbons by assisting and advising zoos and rescue centers in better captive management. They offer consultation, caregiver training, and enclosure design and construction services free of charge, to zoos, and gibbon rescue centers throughout the world.
Each year, they provide educational tours for veterinarians, anthropology students, graduate students, K-12 school children, scout troops, and animal lovers of all ages. Additionally, the GCC encourages noninvasive behavioral studies to increase public knowledge and understanding of gibbons, both captive and wild. The GCC also works with its international partners to maintain healthy stable bloodlines for five endangered gibbon species. The northern white-cheeked gibbons are down to less than 1,000 in the wild. Thankfully, they are a part of the GCC’s successful captive breeding program, so the work is being done to help rehabilitate dwindling populations.
What You Can Do
Understanding these magical creatures whose habitat is threatened by deforestation and human activity is imperative. Learn more about gibbons by visiting www.gibboncenter.org and if you are ever in the Southern California region, set up a tour.
Tours & Events
PUBLIC TOURS: The Gibbon Conservation Center is open to the public every Saturday and Sunday morning from 9:30 a.m. to noon (except for rainy days and holidays). No reservations are required. A tour is given at 10:00 in the morning. Admission: $15 (adults); $12 (Teens and Students); $10 (seniors); $5 (children 6-12); $0 (Children under 5). Checks, cash, and credit cards are accepted. No need to Book for the Public Tours! Just come and enjoy! See you at 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
PRIVATE TOURS: Private tours can be arranged for any day of the week, in advance, for a minimum charge of $120 (covering 8 people). For information and scheduling, contact us directly. See contact information below.
Contact Information for the Santa Clarita Gibbon Conservation Center
Physical address: 19100 Esguerra Road, Santa Clarita, CA 91390
Mailing address: PO Box 800249, Santa Clarita, CA 91380
Direct line: 661-296-2737
E-mail address: Info@gibboncenter.org
A silvery light shimmered in the distance, and as I turned my head towards it, I encountered the arched neck of a slender Snowy Egret. The Snowy Egret is a medium-sized bird with an impressive wingspan, and though the morning sky at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands was shrouded in fog, one could easily make out the white-feathered frame of its magnificent body and the brilliance of its yellow feet. Sandor Havasi and I approached the bird quietly, hoping to capture the moment on film and further investigate the origin of the shimmer. Standing just twenty feet from the Snowy Egret, we watched as the light bounced off of the silver scales of a flat-bodied fish (see image below).
Though the Snowy Egret is very similar in form to its larger cousin, the Great Egret, their hunting styles could not be more different. Great Egrets patiently perch on one foot while stalking their prey, preparing to strike with a single fluid movement. The more animated Snowy Egret, who uses its bright yellow feet to stir up surrounding waters and herd tiny aquatic animals, can be seen continuously plunging its head in the water. On this particular occasion, a few shakes of the foot secured a fish larger than our Egret friend could swallow. I observed a frustrated Egret who repeatedly tossed the fish up in the air, like a spinning coin, and strained to force the meal down the length of its narrow beak. In the end, the fish was too great a match for the Egret and the elegant bird stalked bitterly away from the rocky shoreline where his abandoned meal lay.
The Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, California are teeming with wildlife, including some of the most spectacular avian species I have ever seen. In addition to the Snowy Egret mentioned above, we saw Great Blue Herons; who look a lot like small airplanes when their wings are fully extended, Great Egrets, and Reddish Egrets; who, along with the Snowy Egret, are relatives of the Heron,
and several Caspian Terns who allowed us to photograph them while they were hunting for food.
Walking through the neatly-carved paths cut from the bluff’s dense shrubbery, I was amazed by the number of birds, lizards, and small animals that call Bolsa Chica their home. Sandor and I spent close to four hours exploring the wetlands, and as we turned to leave he asked, “How many species do you think you saw today.” My honest response was somewhere near ten, but as he recounted each bird, lizard, squirrel, and rabbit, the number quickly surmounted twenty. The sheer knowledge that such biodiversity exists in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands has inspired me to look to the skies and the grounds and pay closer attention to what I see. While some of you may have the chance to see Bolsa Chica in your lifetimes, many of our readers are spread across the world, and will not have the opportunity to get there. The truth is that you do not need to travel to a wetland to connect with nature, because the wild is happening all around us. The connectedness that I experienced when exploring my local watershed, can be shared by everyone, no matter their global location. We, at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation, urge you to get outside and explore the world. Peel your eyes away from the phones, laptops, and tablets that have your attention throughout the day, and instead, open your eyes to the wildlife around you. Pull out those headphones or earbuds and listen to the sounds of the wild- it is, after all, a soundtrack that is 4.54 billion years in the making.
In the wake of accelerated environmental changes, nations around the globe are participating in movements that encourage worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment. Equipped with the knowledge that the safety and conservation of the human environment is a major issue, which affects the welfare of global inhabitants and economic growth throughout the world, the United Nations designated the 5th of June as World Environment Day. To celebrate this day, individuals were invited to get outside, connect with nature, and explore the world around them. This year’s theme for World Environment Day 2017 was “Connecting People to Nature,” and the Havasi Wilderness Foundation is proud to share this message with the world.
This year, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation spent World Environment Day exploring the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, California.
On May 25, 2017, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation had the great pleasure of speaking at the Ventura County Bird Club’s monthly meeting. As we walked through the doors of the Ventura Moose Lodge, we met a friendly Cockatoo who greeted us with quick “Hello.” A regal looking Blue-and-yellow Macaw, an African Grey Parrot, and another lively black-and-white Cockatoo rounded out the list of birds in attendance. While happy squawks and avian chatter filled the air, attendees signed raffle tickets for a chance to win packaged walnuts, a bird swing, or one of two large wooden ladders that were sprawled out on a table at the front of the room. Some birds clung to their humans and nibbled at their necks, as others paced around the folding tables searching for vegetable scraps and putting on a show for anyone who would watch.
Mr. Havasi took the stage to present on three of Southern California’s prime bird watching spots: Lotusland, Lake Casitas, and Bolsa Chica. Audience members and our new bird friends listened attentively as he described his encounters with avian wildlife populations locally and globally.
Located in the hills of Montecito, Lotusland was founded by the renowned Polish opera singer and socialite, Madame Ganna Walska, in 1941. It took the Walska family over 43 years to turn Lotusland into one of the ten best gardens in the world. Today, the Lotusland estate grounds contain several distinct gardens that incorporate bromeliads, succulents, butterflies, ferns, Japanese flowers and orchards into their landscape design. Lotusland’s diverse landscape makes it an ideal habitat for several astonishing birds, including the Anna’s Hummingbird and the House Finch pictured below.
Just north of Ventura, Lake Casitas was once a sizeable reservoir that formed following the damming of several branches of the Ventura River. The long-standing California drought has significantly affected water levels and though last years rains were significant, the lake is close to the lowest it has been in decades. In spite of the drought, the riparian habitat where the freshwater marsh and reservoir meet, still supports birds like the Great Egret, the American Wigeon, and the Great Blue Heron (pictured below) as well as a number of other faunae. The land surrounding the reservoir is privately owned and if developed, many of these majestic creatures would find themselves without a home.
In Huntington Beach, California, the Bolsa Chica Wetlands are known as a central migratory stop and nesting grounds for many avian species. In fact, nearly half of the birds discovered in the U.S. have been seen in the Huntington Beach area over the past decade. This impressive offering of birds could possibly be attributed to the distinctive moisture level of the surrounding wetlands, which are fed by an ocean and a river so that water is abundant all year long. On past trips to Bolsa Chica, we have encountered such majestic birds as the Black-Necked Stilt, the Black Skimmer, the Long-Billed Curlew, and the Surf Scoter (pictured below). As more people buy homes in the area, shrinking habitats force wild animals into smaller areas which allow predators like coyotes, foxes, and hawks, to find the birds easily.
As an indicator species, birds offer humans insight into the overall health of our planet. Though the number of birds seen at Lotusland, Lake Casitas, and Bolsa Chica is impressive, the global loss of wild bird populations remains an imperative environmental concern. Human activity and development have driven many bird populations to the brink of extinction. While wildlife protection agencies have been diligently working to rehabilitate these populations, it is still essential to understand how our actions impact ecosystems. By exploring your local marshlands, lakes, and beaches, you not only have the opportunity to discover the amazing birds that call these environments home but also have the power to make sure that their habitats are protected!
Join us at the Ventura Moose Lodge, 10269 Telephone Road, Ventura, CA on June 29th at 7:00 PM as Marilyn Fordney and Alex Havasi of the Havasi Wilderness Foundation share stories about the wildlife that they encountered on their journey around the world, a National Geographic trip!