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3. Black Caiman
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It is said that few birds are as breathtaking as a Scarlet Macaw in flight. Stunning in appearance with their brilliantly red body and vibrant blue-and-yellow wings – sometime observed in large flocks, these impressive parrots often fly up to 35 mph soaring high over the treetops of Central and South America.
Scarlet Macaws are one of the largest of the 17 macaw species, averaging nearly 3 feet in length – with half their length being their tail. Males and females have similar plumage, their bodies are mostly covered in large red feathers, with yellow and blue feathers on their wings. They have large curved bills and a featherless area around their face, their eyes are light yellow as adults, as a juvenile they have grey eyes.
Scarlet Macaws have zygodactyl feet – meaning they have two toes facing forward and two toes facing backwards on each foot. This gives them the ability to move up and down trees and branches easily as well as grab and hold onto items. Scarlet Macaws tend to be “left-handed.” They typically use their left foot to pick up objects.
Highly social animals, Scarlet Macaws are rarely alone in the wild. They live in family groups or in pairs, and they form lifelong monogamous bonds with their mates. While many parrots remain with their mate only during the breeding season, Scarlet Macaw pairs stay together year-round.
Both parents teach and care for their chicks. They typically nest in natural or previously excavated cavities in trees, where the female will incubate a clutch of 1-4 eggs for an average of 28 days.
Even after they are able to care for themselves, juvenile Scarlet Macaws will stay with their parents for up to two years. With a high capacity for learning, the young macaws learn from the parents how to navigate the forest and handle tough foods. The parents won’t breed again until their previous offspring are totally independent, making it common for a breeding pair of Scarlet Macaws to only breed every-other-year.
Parrots have more movement in their beaks than do other birds, which allows for a more powerful bill. Scarlet Macaws primarily eat fruit and nuts, and will occasionally supplement their diet with nectar and flowers.
Individuals are known to consume fruits before they are ripe. Premature fruits have a tougher skin and pulp that is difficult to access but the Scarlet Macaws large and flexible beaks allow them to access unripened fruits and tough nuts that are not possible for most other birds to eat.
Scarlet Macaws possess special structures on the inside of their beaks that allow them to press the hard seed between their tongue and palate and grind the seed so that it can be digested. As consumers of large amounts of fruits, Scarlet Macaws serve as important seed dispersers throughout their forest range.
Scarlet Macaws live much of their lives high in the rainforest canopies of South America in tall woodland forests usually near rivers. They often roost overnight in flocks of up to 50 unrelated individuals. They are also often seen in the company of other parrots, with a peculiar habit – eating clay from riverbank cliffs.
While many scientists aren’t totally sure of the reason behind this behavior, many believe the clay aids in digestion by absorbing and neutralizing the harsh chemicals such as tannins that are ingested when eating premature fruit and other potentially toxic plants.
Scarlet macaws, like many parrots, are highly vocal and their vocalizations can be heard several miles away. Most adult birds, due to their size and capable flight, have few predators such as large cats like jaguars and birds of prey such as eagles and hawks.
Two subspecies of Scarlet Macaws are recognized: those that live in parts of Mexico and northern Central America make up one group, and the second subspecies can be found from central Nicaragua to Brazil.
With only a few thousand individuals left, the northern subspecies is endangered in Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama, and Honduras and this subspecies has disappeared entirely from El Salvador. The southern subspecies remains common in South America, although some populations are declining.
Scarlet Macaws are naturally, long-lived birds able to live up to 50 years in the wild and birds in human care may live up to 75 years.
While Scarlet Macaws are iconic animals in the tropical forests of Mexico, Central America, and South America, a key threat to the species at large is habitat loss. In recent decades, the Scarlet Macaws have also been captured and removed from the wild in large numbers to supply the pet trade, despite numerous national and international laws making it illegal to sell wild-caught scarlet macaws.
Found in a range from the southwestern United States, south to central Argentina are unique pig-like animals known as Peccaries. Their head and body length ranges between 2.5 to 4.5 feet. Some species may weigh nearly 90 pounds.
Peccaries are covered with coarse, wire-like gray or brown fur, and all species have contrasting areas of white or yellowish fur on their chests, backs, or faces. There are three species of peccaries: the White-lipped peccary, the Collared Peccary, and the rarest species the Chacoan peccary.
Like pigs, peccary are considered omnivores though they primarily consume plant matter, especially cactus. Peccaries can swim and are also known for wallowing in the mud – much like their swine relatives.
Peccaries have a large head on a short, thick neck and a very characteristic flexible snout made of cartilage that ends in a flat disk.
Peccaries are well known for having big canine teeth and they differ from pigs in that both the upper and lower canines are used in biting. While a pig’s canine teeth grow out and backward into large, curved tusks, a peccary’s canines grow in a more vertical orientation: upper canines grow downward, and lower canines grow upward.
In addition, a peccary’s lower canine lack enamel on the rear surfaces and these teeth are constantly sharpened as they move against the enameled front faces of the upper canines. A peccary’s upper and lower tusks interlock, which stabilizes their jaws and strengthens their biting force though they a basically incapable of moving their lower jaw from side-to-side when their jaws are closed.
Collared Peccaries are the smallest peccary species and are often confused with pigs due to their appearance. Their coat is a grizzled grayish black throughout, except for a yellowish tinge on the cheeks and a whitish to yellowish collar extending the mane, over the shoulders, and to the throat. While males and females are very similar in size and color, young are a yellowish brown color, with a black stripe down the back.
In South and Central America, the Collared Peccary inhabits tropical rain forests. In the southern United States they may appear in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. There they prefer mesquite habitats with an abundance of prickly pear cacti. Collared Peccaries have also become common in residential areas, where they may rely on human handouts for food.
Collared peccaries are also commonly known as Javelina. Javelinas have a distinct dorsal gland on the rump that they use for marking territory and other social behaviors such as identification. Often when meeting, they will rub each other head to rump.
Javelina have very close social relationships. They live in herds of 5 to 15. Members eat, sleep, and forage together. The herds hierarchy, includes a dominant male and the remainder of the order is largely determined by size. Adult females can give birth any time during the year, young javelinas are often called “reds” due to the red color of their hair.
Collared Peccaries are primarily herbivorous, and have complex stomachs for digesting coarsely-chewed food. In its southern range, this species eats a variety of foods, including roots, bulbs, fungi, and nuts, in addition to fruits and occasional eggs, carrion, snakes, fish, and frogs.
In the northern range, Collared Peccaries eats more herbivorous foods, such as roots, bulbs, beans, nuts, berries, grass. However, their main diet consists of agaves and prickly pears. The prickly pear is ideal in the Javelina’s arid range due to its high water content.
Javelina, or Collared Peccaries, have long been a source of economic income due to their skins and as hunting trophies. They are considered an important big game species in Arizona and several thousand are killed each year in Texas. The young are often captured and serve as domestic farm animals.
White-lipped peccaries are distributed from southern Mexico south to Ecuador, and from the Entre Rios in Argentina to the Pacific coast of South America.
Whie-lipped peccaries live in a variety of habitats, including desert scrub, arid woodland, and rain forest. Thickets, caves, and even large boulders often serve as shelters. White-lipped Peccaries tend to live close to the place of their birth, and they rarely travel far from a water source.
The largest and rarest peccary is the Chacoan Peccary. Once thought to be extinct they were made known to western science in 1972 by Dr. Ralph Wetzel.
The Chacoan Peccary is endemic to the South American countries of Paraguay, Bolivia, and Southern Brazil where they live in uninhabited, harsh, hot and dry area known as the Gran Chaco. This region was often considered impenetrable and generally untouched by humans for years.
The Gran Chaco region contains few scattered giant trees but the majority of the vegetation is thorny scrub vegetation. Chacoan Peccaries have developed adaptations like well-developed sinuses to combat dry, dusty conditions and they possess small feet which allows maneuverability among spiny plants.
Chacoan Peccaries differ from other peccary species by having longer ears, snout, and tail as well as thinner skin. They also possesses a third hind toe, while other peccaries only have two.
Chacoan Peccaries feed primarily on various species of cacti. They use their tough snout to roll the cacti on the ground, rubbing the spines off before eating the plant. They will also seek out salt licks formed from ant mounds as a source of calcium, magnesium and chlorine for their diet.
Though Chacoan Peccaries live in a once isolated region of South America, human activity and encroachment is the greatest threat to their ongoing survival. Although they are a protected species, there is not much enforcement of these laws, and hunting even occurs in national parks. It is estimated there are only about 3,000 of these largest of the peccary species remaining in the wild.
The many waterways of South America are home to several crocodilian species. However only two true crocodiles can be found there – the Orinoco and the American crocodiles. The remaining species are more closely related to the American Alligator and they are collectively known by the name of Spanish origin – the Caimans.
Similar in appearance and closely related, Caimans do differ slightly from Alligators. Alligators have conical teeth while Caimans have sharper, more jagged ones and Caimans tends to have orange-tinted gums while Alligators have tan or beige-looking gums.
There are 6 species of caimans found throughout the South American continent – most prominently through the Amazon basin. These animals include the Smooth Fronted, the Broad Snouted, the Spectacled, the Yacare and the smallest of all crocodilians – the Dwarf Caiman.
But the largest caiman is the Black Caiman. Reaching a length of over 14 feet and averaging close to 800 pounds or more, the Black Caiman is the largest predator in the Amazon ecosystem. Though both the American Alligator and the Black Caimans are similar in size – the Black Caiman on average grows larger at maturity than the American Alligator making it one of the largest crocodilians in the world.
Found in lakes, slow moving rivers, black water swamps and the seasonally flooded areas of the Amazon throughout northern and central South America, the Black Caiman gets its name from its dark coloration as an adult. Adults have a grey or brown branding on the lower jaw, with white or yellowish bands on the sides of the body. As they age, the light colors darken and they may become a solid black.
Utilizing its keen sense of sight and hearing to locate food, the Black Caiman is a nocturnal hunter. With its dark black scales, hiding in dark, murky water at night allow them to make very successful, surprise attacks on their prey.
Black Caimans do most of their hunting in water where they feed primarily on fish such as piranhas and catfish though they also may emerge to hunt on land as well where they also prey on some terrestrial and aquatic vertebrates and mammals such as monkeys, capybara. Black Caimans have even been known to attack Amazon River Dolphins. Black Caimans are known to hunt nearly any animal they can catch.
An apex predator of their domain, adult Black Caimans have no known predator – though some smaller caiman species are preyed upon by jaguars – these large cats typically avoid waters where Black Caimans are common.
Female Black Caimans breed only once every 2 – 3 years – laying an average of 30 – 60 eggs at a time. During the dry season from September through December, the female builds a nest mound and digs out an egg chamber. After laying the eggs, the female usually remains close to the nest site though not all actively defend the nest.
Hatchlings tend to congregate together in groups called pods and these pods may include hatchlings from more than one nest. Black Caiman hatchlings are preyed upon by birds, rodents and other small mammals such as Coatimundis, very few Black Caiman hatchling reach adulthood.
For decades from the 1940s through the 1970s, the Black Caiman was hunted extensively for its valuable skin that was used to produce shiny black leather. It is estimated that the Black Caimain population was reduced by nearly 99% during the 20th century. By the 1990s a shift to hunting Black Caimans for their meat rather than their skins continued to deplete their numbers in the wild.
Today, due to legislation that restricts hunting, the Black Caiman population has seen a substantial recovery and is currently listed as a Conservation Dependent species on the IUCN Red List but illegal hunting remains a threat to many local populations and the Black Caiman it is still listed as Vulnerable in the country of Ecuador. These impressive and powerful hunters today have virtually disappeared from Colombia and the Amazon River itself.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Animal Diversity Web
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens
St. Augustine Alligator Farm
San Diego Zoo
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Wildlife Conservation Society
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