Road ecology

Arboreal crossings abroad

Waiting, waiting, waiting. Documentaries tend to show explorers and naturalists chasing wildlife down to get a good glimpse. But more often than not, sitting still is just as good a strategy.

And so we sat under the bromeliads and waited. First silence. Then came the twittering, scratching, cooing chorus of the Atlantic forest.

We were waiting for woolly spider monkeys – “Muriqui” to the Brazilians. According to intel from local researchers, they often pass here after a busy day of foraging. As the largest primates in South America, you’d think they’d be easy to spot. But I’m told they’re rather graceful when scampering through the canopy, 20–30 m above the ground. Their scent markings have a whiff of brushtail possum about them (just in case you were wondering).

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I’ve just realised that my pondering face is kind of pouty…Photo: Fernanda Abra.

I was sitting on the floor of Carlos Boethelo State Park for three reasons:
1) it was home to not just the muiriqui, but many species of arboreal mammals (capuchin, tamarin, and sloth!)
2) it was divided by a road
3) that road was connected by rope bridges
A recipe for my kind of expertise.

I’d come to Brazil to talk about rope bridges at the 2nd annual Ecotrans conference. Hosted by ARTESP (the local transport agency) and attended by students, practitioners, researchers and politicians, it’s a great place to share knowledge about urban environmental issues. The range of topics was astounding. Experts spoke about everything from wildlife fencing and water-sensitive urban design, to the history of bird-plane collisions. I was limited by my very primitive Portugese (a deficiency I hope to rectify before my next visit) but this meant that my talk was ‘live-translated’. Just like the UN. With headphones and everything.

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Me and my headphones. Photo: ARTESP. Check out their Facebook album.

One of the main messages from my talk, was the looming gap between the published research and the work that’s being done on the ground. To look at the published science, you’d think that we only ever built rope bridges for possums and gliders in Australia. But crossings for our furry, tree-dwelling friends have become more and more common all over the world. They’re built for primates in India, Kenya, Japan and Costa Rica, as well as red squirreldormouse and pine marten in the UK and Europe.

And these aren’t just out in the forests – there are urban crossings too. Brown howler monkeys in southern Brazil were having a tough time moving through the more developed areas in their landscape – ending up hit by cars or electrocuted while trying to cross roads using power lines. The ‘Urban Monkeys Program’ worked with researchers, the local environment agencies and the energy company to install 6 rope bridges at howler monkey hotspots. Each bridge cost $US 100 a pop and research showed howlers happily used them to cross.

I spotted another bridge for myself while visiting the University of Sao Paulo in Piricicaba. Some recycled fire hoses strung across the road through the campus to help the resident marmosets cross safely. A nice, simple approach.

These stories give me cause for some much-needed optimism. Not only did I see people who have a passion for conservation, but also a willingness to put that into practice in creative ways. Pair that with good research and evaluation, and it’s a recipe for conservation gains.

Take Carlos Boethelo State Park for example. The small, dirt road that cut through the forest was recently paved to allow traffic through more easily and safely. But paved roads mean bigger gaps in the forest and faster traffic – a bigger risk that the local wildlife will end up as roadkill or avoid crossing the road all together. It’s the perfect opportunity to test out some mitigation and learn some lessons.

Road ecologists put their heads together and tried a few clever solutions. The road is closed at night, when many rainforest species are most active, and a speed limit is set during the day (though it’s often ignored). Rope bridges were installed to bridge the gap for capuchins, sloths, porcupines (yes, they’re arboreal!) and of course, the woolly spider monkey. Local researchers are now working to evaluate their success and test out some alternatives to improve the bridges. While I was there we talked about monitoring methods and study designs – and then ventured into the forest to try and spy some of these species first hand.

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Rope bridge for arboreal mammals in Carlos Boethelo State Park, Sao Paulo

Even though I waited very patiently, the woolly spider monkeys never did appear. But it’s hard to be too disappointed when you’re hanging out in a beautiful patch of tropical forest on the other side of the world. Some time out under the bromeliads was good enough for me.*

Thanks to Fernanda Abra, Marcel Huijser, Bethanie Walder, Katia Ferraz, Camylla Silva Pereira and Mariana Landis for showing me every wonderful thing!

I’ll leave you with some fun facts about Brazil…

  • The people are warm and generous and wonderful. They will, however, convince you that every single dish on the menu is ‘very typical Brazilian style’ and therefore you absolutely must eat yourself stupid at every meal. Take stretchy pants.
  • Tapir poo looks a lot like horse poo. Not nearly as exotic as I would have expected.
  • Take a ball of spiced, shredded chicken, wrap it in cheese. Then wrap that in mashed potato. Now crumb and deep fry it.  It’s called a coxhinia and it’s the best thing in the world (see point 1).
  • Urban wildlife abounds: capybara live at the hotel carpark, kowati raid picnics and vultures circle the airport.

*Seriously though, show me the monkeys.

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Capybara: The giant guinea-pig surveys it’s urban domain. Look at all its majesty.

2 thoughts on “Arboreal crossings abroad

  1. I wonder if there is any work on creating arboreal crossings to suit koalas? We sometimes see them on the roads (in the Wingecarribee Shire, south of Sydney), including on the major expressway south between Sydney and Melbourne.

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