Thursday, March 7, 2013

Close encounters of the Animal Kind

Neva and I have travelled to many national parks around the world, as well as aquariums and zoos.  The experience of meeting an individual at their prime residence, whether in the wild or in captivity, is very powerful.  From the tall to the small, we respect our animal friends, wherever they are.  Okay, you should know by now that I am cheesy, and I stick by my rhyme.

In our travels, most of our wild animal encounters have been with monkeys living in the forests of Central America. A long gaze from the human-like eyes of a fellow primate, whether behind bars or simply in a tree 20 feet overhead, is hypnotic and leaves the mind quiet and awestruck.  Staring into the complexity of their being, you see the reflection of recognition and understanding. The same question seems to resonate from both conscious minds simultaneously..."I wonder what they are thinking?"

In February, 2011, while hiking around la Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua, we spotted howler monkeys and three-toed sloths.  Howlers are pretty used to humans in this part of the world and are fairly docile.  The sloths are usually found nearby, and the two species co-habitate nicely with their relaxed attitudes.  Sloths don't seem to be startled by the daily 5 am wake-up call provided by their noisy neighbors.  I, on the other hand, after camping under a tree containing a whole band of howlers, thought a sacrificial ceremony of sorts was taking place at the crack of dawn.  The howler "bark" can be heard for miles around, and we were lucky enough to have a front row seat.

These guys definitely aren't shy, and the sloths are...

well, sloths.

Less than a month later, we were in Okinawa, Japan and visited the zoo which has an extensive primate exhibit.  Some monkeys were jovial.  One in particular would gesticulate flirtatiously with lady passers-by, and then get chased by his cage mate, and presumably partner in life, when she got fed up with his cross-species public display of affection.

There were also monkeys like the baboon.  I'm not sure what his story was, but he did not seem to enjoy his home as much as the other monkey that had a daily ritual of cat-calling for human female attention.  The intensity with which he paced was unmatchable.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.  His focus, undeterred.   Knuckle over knuckle in rapid succession, emulating that of a soldier marching in a choreographed 21-gun salute every time he turned on his heel.

And then, he stopped...and looked at me.

His hands look so human...

Truly one of the most beautiful, and powerful creatures I have ever laid eyes upon.

A couple more months pass.  It's now the summer of 2011, and Neva and I have moved to Texas.  Christian took us to the Dallas World Aquarium which housed the only three-toed sloth in North America (according to the personnel).

This sloth was very content with his teenage caretaker and moved around a lot more than the three-toed sloths we saw in the wild.  The markings on his back were also quite lovely.  Any markings on the Nicaraguan sloths were hidden in the layer of green algae covering it's wiry fur.  The caretaker makes sure no one touches the sloth because their fur is naturally hydrophilic, and the oils in our hands can cause the opposite effect.  This adaptation is thought to have co-evolved with a specific species of green algae, resulting in a symbiotic relationship.  One day, this juvenile will grow up bearing the beneficial green hue of his photosynthetic phriend from another phylum.

We didn't visit the home where the wild alpacas roam, because there aren't any wild alpacas.  We did however visit Peru which is known for their alpaca and llama livestock.  In the middle of Cusco, there is a museum which houses an open alpaca and llama enclosure.  Alpacas are bred for their wool, while llamas are bred as a beast of burden and can be twice the size of alpacas. Their friendly demeanour and desire to be part of a group makes this touristy museum a perfect residence for them.

My step-dad Jim giving this alpaca some much appreciated pets.
They are happy to follow you around...

Unless you chase them off.
The year following, in July 2012, the whole family took a bicycling tour journey on the famous RAGBRAI bike ride.  On the way, we made a stop in Kansas to visit our friend Sue who raises llamas.  She does a great job raising this happy bunch.  The little one in front is the youngest, born less than a year before this picture was taken.  He is quite big for his age and he struts with confidence.  He is quite the rambunctious yet loveable male.  The whole group welcomed us into their space.  All were content in the shade, with newly shaved wool coats.

Later that month, Neva and I were privy to meet a reptilian individual that shared our space.  We would see this turtle pop-up here and there for a couple of weeks.  One day, we saw it digging, and this is what we saw...

It's a girl!

Three months later, we found ourselves at Ostional on the Nicoya Peninsula, off the west coast of Costa Rica.  October is the start of egg laying season for some turtles in Central America.  We spotted a Ridley sea turtle and a Greenback sea turtle laying eggs the last evening we were in Costa Rica.  We did not see the elusive Leatherback turtle which is known for their size, and is highly endangered. The Ridley has a more raised, textured shell in the center of it's back, while the Greenback has a flattened, smooth shell that is tear-drop shaped.

Greenback turtle laying eggs.  It's estimated that only 1% of sea turtles will make it to full maturation.

Egg laying is done, and the Greenback makes her way back to the ocean.

Speaking of reptiles, we cannot leave out the most prolific pest predator :  the snake.  Costa Rica alone is home to 135 different known snake species, 17 of which are venomous.  Most of the venomous snakes are either pit vipers or from the coral snake family.  Most likely, you won't see them though because they usually keep to themselves, and lots of snakes are nocturnal.  Just watch your step.

To put this in perspective a little bit for those of you in the US, Costa Rica is roughly the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined, which is to say, not very big.  Because of Central America's relation to the equator, supreme locale between 2 oceans, and diverse climate and terrain, it's known for a large diversity of flora and fauna in a comparatively small area.

While in Nicaragua, we had been hiking for about 5 minutes before I heard a rustle in the brush.  Two steps later, and this 6 foot long snake whizzed passed us, shaking a sort of faux rattle, and disappearing into the forest.

The first part of our trip in Costa Rica, 2012, we were on bikes.  We started in La Fortuna and biked around Lake Arenal to get to Monte Verde.  On the path, we had seen a baby snake.  By the way it moved, and it's diamond colouration, I suspect it might have been a fer de lance, a very poisonous snake.  The vibration of me hitting my disc brakes on my bike sent off an annoying vibration that startled the snake from casually slithering to an all out run before I could take a picture.  I've never seen a snake run before, but I will never forget what it looks like!

The next day, we were made it to Monte Verde (taking a taxi for the last leg) and visited the Serpentario in Santa Elena which houses the most common snakes in Central America.

This Milk Snake was very friendly.  He put on quite the show moving around, wrapping himself up, and showing off his colour.
Neva looking at a Tropical Rattlesnake.  He struck at the glass the first time we passed by.  The thickest part of his body was the size of my calf, though it's difficult to tell from this picture.

Two months after we returned from Costa Rica, we couldn't forget the friendly milk snake, and visited a reptile convention in search of a pet.  We decided to get 2 corn snakes which have been great for the whole family.
For fun, I wanted to leave you with these thoughts...

Fresh Fish

Shark and friends in the Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa.  This aquarium cycles water from the ocean for their animals.  Two days after we went,  the Tohoku tsunami hit, and great care was taken to protect the animals from the resulting nuclear waste which polluted the ocean waters. 
Caught Fish

Fishing for dinner.  Friends took us out to catch stripped bass on Lake Texoma.  These stripeys have a sustainable living environment and spawn naturally in the lake.  The are able to live in both salt water and fresh water, and make the yearly migration, similar to salmon.  Neva pulled in this one, with a little help from Brian.
Work Fish

After a long soaking in the natural hot springs at Chula-u Bathhouse in Okinawa, we had to indulge in the Dr. Fish treatment.  These little guys are reddish long sucker fish, scientific name Garra rufa.  They are in the pirhana family, but don't actually have any teeth.  Though they are known for eating skin, this is a misnomer.  They are actually foraging for food, and removing your dry skin cells in the process, leaving your skin silky smooth.
Not Fish

My first bike tour, in December 2008, I biked up the Pacific Coast Highway (aka. PCH or Route 1) from LA to Napa Valley.  We stopped in at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium.  These are pictures of the Black Sea Nettle.  They can sting, but it's mostly to protect it's symbiotic friend, the Silvery Butterfish.  They share the table at the plankton buffet, and when danger is close, the butterfish hides in the cap of this gentle jelly.

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