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Solenodon & hutia – new approach required!

By on December 30, 2009 in Uncategorized, EDGE Updates, Focal species, Mammals, Hispaniolan solenodon, ZSL

It has been over a month since my last update so I thought it was time to bring you up to date with everything that has been happening.

The last few weeks have been very busy and productive ones. The most exciting news I have to share with you is that with the help of our two intrepid research assistants (Nicolas Corona and Dionis “Lleyo” Corona) we have managed to catch both of our species (solenodon and hutia) in the wild. I cannot fully describe the excitement and huge privileged I felt to be able to hold and observe these unique animals. They truly are amazing and, I hesitate to say it, incredibly cute.

Trapping with standard baited cage traps had proved relatively inefficient and ineffective in the past for both species. Our new approach relies on the skills that our research assistant team possess and consists of a two step process. First, we searched areas during the day to look for the signs of both species; these include “nose pokes” for solenodon and signs of feeding for hutia (nibbled leaves and gnawed bark) along with the distinctive dung of both species. Secondly, after nightfall, we returned to the areas with the freshest signs to catch the animals by hand. Watching Nicolas and Lleyo at work I realised that it may take me a while to gain the skills that they have but that learning process has now begun.

Having caught the species we took the opportunity to do some basic recordings of the sounds that they make. The solenodon recordings consists of a series of clicks and high pitched calls that sound a bit like dolphin sounds to my untrained ears. The recordings for both species have raised a lot of interest with scientists who work with acoustics. We used the recordings to begin to trial playback experiments, particularly for the arboreal hutia, to see if they respond to the sounds but this has had limited success so far but we have not given up on this option by any means.

We have also done camera trapping with a great deal of success. We have been placing camera traps at the entrance to burrows of hutia, which are relatively easy to identify, as well as along paths left by both species. Our efforts have given us good results with some great footage of the comings and goings of a hutia family in addition to this we have the first film footage, as far as I know, of a solenodon in the wild.

[flashvideo filename=Videos/solenodon_camera_trap_JOE.flv /]

Most of the work we have done so far has been done in a small number of forest patches running along steep valleys and gorges set in the middle of agricultural landscapes. First indications suggest that the hutia and solenodon appear to be holding on here but obviously we still need to assess how well they are doing and identify the particular threats they are facing in these areas.

Other project news includes the fact that the project now has its own truck to get us into all our sites including some of the most challenging ones. We have also entered the final phase of selecting a local counterpart project manager and will be conducting interviews over the next couple of weeks in order to select the best candidate. I look forward to introducing you to the successful candidate by the time the next update comes round.

In terms of raising awareness of the two species, we have been making progress at both the national and international level. We had a journalist from Der Spiegel (a very popular German news magazine) join us for a few days to report on the start of the project – you can see a video linked to the article at the Der Spiegel website. We have also launched two facebook groups called “The last survivors – Hispaniolan Land Mammal Project” and its Spanish language equivalent “Los últimos sobrevivientes – Salvando el solenodonte y la hutia”. If you join either of these groups you can look at a range of photos, listen to the sounds that both species make and see videos as well as getting more regular updates as to what is going on.

This month will see the launch of a competition in the Dominican Republic to design the logo that will be used to identify the project – we are hoping that as many people as possible from different age groups and backgrounds will participate and in doing so raise the profile of the project at the national scale.

The initial planning and preparatory phase of the project is gradually coming to an end, it has definitely been an eventful time so far but the next phase promises to be even more exciting. The amount of field work carried out will be increased in terms of both the amount of time spent in the forest and the extent of the work as we explore across a much wider area including three national parks and beyond. Something for all of us to look forward to in the new year.

If you would like to support the conservation of the Hispaniolan solenodon and hutia and the conservation of other unique species on the verge of extinction, please become an EDGE Champion, or donate here.