Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Field Journals: Sloth Bears

As some of you may know, I've been busy with a documentary about Sloth Bears on the island of Sri Lanka.

Have been in the process of getting all my footage sorted out, but I'd like to share some of my experiences here - and share with you just what its like to be in the wilderness away from Humanity for a few precious days!!! (I need it from time to time, and fortunately my job allows me to do just that!)

Here is the location where the crew was based... a little piece of heaven on the south-east coast of the island!

For obvious reasons I can't post too many visuals from the shoot just yet - technically it all belongs to Discovery! - but I will selectively post some of my own digital photos and sketches up here.

Although the subjects of my documentary are highly endangered Sloth Bears, of which there are fewer than 300 left in Sri Lanka, we do have a strong supporting cast!

Sri Lanka is still one of the best places to see Leopards in the wild, and they obliged on our shoots too.

As for the bears, there were signs of them everywhere - claw marks on trees, pugmarks in the dust. Problem is that they are most active at dawn - so the crew had to get special permission to access the deeper parts of the reserve at 4:30 in the morning... no more late nights!

First positive ID of a bear was a sighting of a young male splashing his paws lazily in a rock pool - looked like he was just amusing himself with the ripples - but then the tracker said this particular bear was splashing deliberately to try and scare the frogs out - catching them as they leapt into the air! Never heard of this behaviour before.

Well he didn't seem to have any luck on this occasion, and in any case the light was too poor to film.... one of those wildlife moments which will have to be recorded to memory rather than onto film! You get used to these little disappointments...

Of course the best thing about doing this job is when everything happens like clockwork - for the first time ever - we were getting more leopard sightings than bears (usually when I REALLY want to film leopards - they never turn up...)

But the bears finally showed - I had researched their behaviour for the past couple of years, and had already gambled on the fact that this time of the year would be the best bet to see them.

The bears had arrived, and the leopards were keeping watch too. Finally we seemed to be in the right place at the right time. I had been planning this story for almost ten years, and finally things were starting to happen...

Sunday, June 18, 2006

'Fossil' rock rat pictured alive

Hello All,

Apologies for the long absence - have been busy with my Animal Planet project, but have found enough respite from my schedule to get back to the blogger!

A fascinating update about a fossil rodent-like creature whose carcass had recently been found in a Laotian meat market, believed to have become extinct 11 million years ago (!):

Images have been obtained of a live Laotian rock rat, the animal science now believes to be the sole survivor of an ancient group of rodents.

The kha-nyou, as it is known locally, was trapped by an expedition in May. The pictures show a friendly, furry creature about the size of a squirrel that waddles a bit like a duck.

Experts say the kha-nyou can trace its line to a rodent family that initial studies had suggested became extinct more than 11 million years ago.

The expedition to central Laos was led by a retired Florida State University scientist, David Redfield.

"We were extremely fortunate in so many ways to be able to do this," he said of the discovery. "It's easily one of the most gratifying experiences of my life, and I hope these pictures will help in some way to prevent the loss of this marvellous animal."

The kha-nyou was picked up near the village of Doy, close to the Thai border. It was released back into the wild after being photographed and videoed.

Now classified as Laonastes aenigmamus , the animal first caught the eye of international researchers last year in a hunters' market - dead specimens were on sale.

Based on differences in the skull, teeth, bones and other body features together with DNA analysis, scientists initially put the creature in an entirely new rodent family more closely related to rodents in Africa and South America than in Asia.

But then a particularly impressive fossil of a long-extinct rodent was unearthed in China last summer, and that prompted experts to wonder whether the kha-nyou might be a living member of the long-gone family.
They went back through the fossil evidence and found that the kha-nyou's skull, teeth, lower jaw-bone and other skeletal characteristics were a striking match to the fossil.

The latest thinking is that the Laotian rock rat belongs in the same group - the otherwise extinct rodent family Diatomyidae.

Mary Dawson, curator emeritus of vertebrate palaeontology at the Carnegie Museum and primary author of the scientific paper which made the re-identification, has reviewed the latest images.

She has confirmed their authenticity. "This is a truly exciting discovery," Dawson said. "Dr Redfield's sighting of the living animal is the first to be recorded scientifically. These are the first photographic images of the recently discovered 'living fossil' Laonastes aenigmamus."

The animal was trapped and then released
(Image: D. Redfield).