About Me

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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of four. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Evader of the snow dump

We had a snow dump last Thursday night.

We were greeted with 14 inches of snow on Friday morning, and it was still coming on strong.

That meant I couldn't get away with just making the fire and disappearing in the computer room the rest of the day.

When the redhead came in the house after an hour of shoveling I thought it prudent to inform her that I was just about to boot up and shake the snow off the trees.

"There's an owl in the Lady Banks' rose," she said, "so you probably don't want to bother it."

I  opened the back door and there it was peeping at me through squinted eyes.

The rest of the day it perched on the trellis under the eaves of the garage, but when the redhead checked at 5:00 it was gone.

It was back on Saturday morning, this time snoozing in the ash tree 15 feet from the house.

 The owl had the wisdom not to sleep under snow-loaded limbs, but what does it all mean?

 Why didn't it make use of the screech owl boxes near by?

I have one box about 40 feet from the house -- newly wired for surveillance, and another one 120 feet from the house, which has been used at least once in the past

Is there a girl owl in one of those boxes?  Is this the chivalrous mate?

When the snow melts I'll have to hook up the surveillance cam.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The shrew that makes a big stink

An Asiatic musk shrew sniffs the lure with its flank gland clearly visible.

It was my first night in Yangon, and I was itching to "set a cam".

I had my eye on the backyard of UMA's office-- a small paved space with a sewer vent, and a few ferns growing in the cracks of the cement walls.

"I'm going for house shrew", I announced.

"Only rats, U Chris.  No seeroos."

"Whatever ," I said,  I'm going for it."

I propped the cam between some bricks and dipped a stick into a small container of my secret potion -- castoreum.

The next morning before dawn UMA delivered the cam to my hotel, but we immediately departed by van for the Rakhine Yoma.

A couple hours later  I viewed the pictures at breakfast and instantly recognized the sleek body and tapiroid head of the Asiatic musk shrew.

An auspicious beginning.

Kipling knew the creature well, and in The Jungle Book called him Chuchundra the "musk rat".

But a rat he is not.

Chuchundra is of an ancient lineage of shrews of the white-toothed tribe -- the Crocidurinae.

We should forgive Kipling his error, for it was Carl Linne, the father of taxonomy who likened this shrew to a rodent when he named the species murinus -- the Latin name for mouse. 

Chuchundra is the largest and most cosmopolitan of shrews, and one of many species of Suncus.

You can meet him skirting the walls in the hookah bars of Cairo or the tea shops of Calcutta.

If you hear a shrill grating noise or catch a whiff of something strong, it's Chuchundra.

Ideal Suncus murinus habitat.

He rules the Subcontinent of India, and is completely at home in SE Asia.

Wallace's Line didn't stop Chuchundra from crossing deep water.

He stowed away with sea traders, and colonized New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan, not to mention quite a few other islands, including Madagascar.

He reached Guam in1953, where his speedy takeover defied the conventional wisdom concerning rates of mammalian dispersal.

Chuchundra's colonization was just too fast to believe, and mammalogists surmised that his conquest was aided by 4-wheeled transport.

They didn't like him in Guam -- he dined voraciously on indigenous species --  like the pelagic gecko, and when the US Fish and Wildlife Service tried to exterminate him he was uncooperative.

The gecko is gone and Chuchundra is here to stay.

In the 60s and 70s Chuchundra's devotion to human culture took a strange turn.

Musk shrew habitat. Have a cup of tea while you live-trap your shrew. 

Shrew hunters from the US and Japan started live-trapping him in Okinawa, Nagasaki, Jakarta and Guam, and the captives found themselves in a brave new world.

There was plenty to eat and their other yearnings were always met, but their days of rambling were over.

The peripatetic but enigmatic Chuchundra, until now under the radar, found himself in the biomedical limelight.

He was the first insectivore to become a laboratory animal -- a new bag of tricks for those of the white lab coat.

In some ways Chuchundra was superior to domestic rats and mice.

His teeth were not specialized like those of rodents -- making him a model for studies of dental development.

He had an emetic reflex-- meaning he barfs when something disagrees with his stomach, and since rodents can't barf, he became a model for studying drugs with digestive side-effects.

However, the scientists soon realized that Chuchundras were not all alike.

For one thing they differed greatly in size.

There are Indian populations where goliath Chuchundras weigh in at an average of 177 g, while on Guam the average male is a puny 30 g.

There are even significant size differences between shrews from Okinawa and Nagasaki.

As Suncus aficionado Gill Dryden said, Suncus murinus is "a highly plastic species".

Though chromosome number is usually 2n = 40, in some areas it is as low as 2n = 30.

Japanese scientists have now shown that continental South Asia was most likely Chunchundra's homeland.

It spread to SE Asia with Myanmar being the genetic crossroads of Chunchundra's peregrinations between the two areas.

Chuchundra's fertility is another part of its success.

Females are sexually precocious; they can conceive about a month after birth, and while their litters usually number between 2 and 4, they have as many as 8.

Unless food is scarce they can breed year-round.

What's more females are not beholden to their estrous cycle -- they have none.

They are mating-induced ovulators, and it works like this.

Boy meets girl, boy follows girl with amorous intent, girl bares teeth rudely and shrieks in a most irritating manner, boy persists, and girl gives in.

Five intromissions and boy keels over.  Ovulation and fertilization follow within the next 24 hours. The deed is done.

But there's an ironic twist.

While Lady Chuchundra likes a little privacy after romance, Mr Studly peevishly follows and nips her behind.

She'll receive him again when she is good and ready, but any strange male is immediately welcomed as Mr. Right. 

Chuchundra's musk may not tame the lady shrew, but it definitely hastens her receptivity and activates her ovaries.

Indeed, anosmic lady shrews, those with surgically severed olfactory lobes can be seduced, but they don't ovulate.

Chuchundra's jitterbug perfume is a distinctive bouquet shared by the sexes.

You can't help but notice it.

But stir them up and they make a big stink you won't forget.

Maybe this is why shop owners and hungry cats give Chuchundra a wide berth.

Puss watched but kept her distance as Chuchundra ran along the wall.

Early Suncus enthusiasts Gil Dryden and Clint Conaway however wanted to know which of the shrews' several skin glands produced the musk and designed the first scent-smeller's smorgasbord.

The smellers, whom I suspect were loitering students waylaid in the biology building, were asked to sniff and rate cotton swabs that had been rubbed on various glandular areas of the shrews' skin.

In both sexes the potent musk came from sweat glands in the throat region and behind the ears.

Castration eradicated the musk of males, but some ovariectomized females still stunk, probably because of compensatory hormone production by the adrenal glands.

They concluded that the mild smelling flank glands, which are sebaceous and were previously thought to be the stink source, may serve as musk carriers in the same way that other kinds of musk enhance the smell of fine French perfumes.

Anyway, we were enjoying a beer in a local rice and curry shop when I decided to conduct a small survey.

"Do you think the owner knows what a musk shrew is?"

"Maybe," smiled UMA. "I ask."

The proprietor looked a little baffled, and when UMA tried to clarify the question by mimicking Chuchundra's pointy nose he looked at us like we were crazy.

Our amusement didn't help matters -- he knew we were nuts.

He admitted to rats, but not shrews.

"Shrews are good luck." I piped. "They eat the cockroaches."

"That may be",  he said, "but they still stink".

With that we ordered another beer.


Dryden, G.L. and C.H. Conaway. 1967. The origin and hormonal control of scent production in Suncus murinus. Jounrla of Mammalogy, 48(3):420-428.

Dryden, G. 1969. Reproduction in Suncus murinus. Journal of Reproduction and Fertility Supplement, 6:377-396.

Fritts, T. and G.H. Rodda. 1998. The role of introduced species in the degradation of island ecosystem: A case history of Guam. Annual. Review of Ecology and Systematics, 29:113–40

Ishikara, A. and T. Namikawa. 1987. Postnatal growth and development in laboratory strains of large and small musk shrews (Suncus murinus). Journal of Mammalogy, 68(4):766-774.

Kawano, K. 1992. Aggressive behavior of the domesticated house shrew (Suncus murinus) in inter-male, inter-female and heterosexual interactions. Journal of Ethology, 10(2):119-131.

Kurachi, M. et al. 2007. Phylogeography of wild musk shrew (Suncus murinus) populations in Asia based on blood protein/enzyme variation. Biochemical Genetics 45(7):543-563.

Matsuzaki, O. 2002. The force driving mating behavior in the house musk shrew (Suncus murinus). Zoological Science 19:851-869.

Rissman, E.F. and Xia Li. 2000. Olfactory bulbectomy blocks mating-induced ovulation in musk shrews. Biology of Reproduction 62(4):1052-1058.

Temple, J. 2008. The Musk Shrew (Suncus murinus): A Model Species for Studies of Nutritional Regulation of Reproduction. ILAR Journal, 45(1):

Yamanaka, A. and M. Uemura. 2010. The house shrew, Suncus murinus, as a model organism to investigate mammalian basal condition of tooth development. Journal of Oral Biosciences 52(3):215-224.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Alive and well -- Buddy the bachelor wolverine

Tom Knudson has written a splendid update on California's most eligible bachelor wolverine.

Check out the pictures and video, and thanks to Aviva for the heads up.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A shy pie -- dog, that is

A shy pie, or pariah dog-- loved by his family.

If you are trying to read this dog's body language, allow me to help.

He was a shy pie or pariah dog, and he didn't want his picture taken.

I suppose I didn't look right, smell right, or act right.

This was the best I could do.

We had stopped on a country road to buy dried fish (camera trap bait), and as the lady weighed out 3 D-cells worth of fish I noticed the pie dog.

He was clearly trying to be discrete.

So I sidled around the family members and he lowered his head.

Good enough, I thought -- I'll just squat down for a shot at his level.

He wanted no part of this weird looking old dude.

Village dogs may keep their distance from strangers, but they are not afraid to look at you.

This dog acted like I was going to catch and eat him. 

Frank Kingdon Ward, the famous botanical explorer wrote of a caravan of yoked Chinese dogs --"prick-eared curs of no breeding" on their way to market in the headwaters of the Irrawaddy.

That is far from here, and he had nothing to fear.

And there may be more to his story, but as far as I could tell, he was just a shy pie.


Kingdon Ward, Frank. 1990. Himalayan Enchantment, an anthology. (Chosen and edited with an introduction by John Whitehead). Serindia Publications, London. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Puma jackpot photo

This camera trap photo has to be the record for the most pumas photographed at one time, and it makes you wonder how often pumas have conventions.

Read the comments too.

I sure wish deer hunters were a little more enlightened about predator ecology and age specific survivorship.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A jungle rat and a surprise

This was the long-tailed rat that kept showing up in our camera traps in the Rakhine Yoma.

As to what it is, it's anyone's guess.

The locals call it atee-phyu-chewet, or white-tailed rat -- though I'd hardly call its tail white.

Looking at the range maps in Charles Francis's Field Guide to Mammals of Thailand and SE Asia tells me it should be the white-footed Indochinese rat (Rattus nitidus).

That's the only rat in the area resembling this one.

So it could be that or something else.

We will never know.

However I do know this. There are undoubtedly more species of rats in this corner of the Rakhine Yoma than indicated by the range maps in the field guide.

Mammal collections from colonial Burma and more modern times have been spotty at best, and the only sure way to identify rats is to collect a few specimens for comparison with voucher specimens in a museum.

Which brings me to this tantalizing photo of another unknown small mammal taken at the same set under a fallen tree.

 It looks like a shrew, but we'll never know for sure.

It seems to have two thingies on either side of its tail -- scent glands?  Mud balls? Parasites? Testicles?

We'll never know for sure.

Camera traps are not the ideal tool to survey many small rodents and insectivores, but pictures like these make me search the literature, wonder, and dream about a future trip.

Monday, February 14, 2011

More on bamboo bamboo rat traps

Wa oo or bamboo root

The best bait to catch a bamboo rat is onion, garlic, or other aromatic roots from the forest.

The bait is tied or pierced by bamboo cord that has been worked over an edge and twisted to make it pliable.

A clove of garlic is an irresistable bait.

The wire or string noose is smoothed against the inner circumference of the tube.

The bait cord is fastened with a knot through a hole under the bamboo tube, and the other end is tied around the splint that is attached to the rubber band on top. 

The peg anchors the noose, the bait cord and one end of the rubber band.

The rubber band is lashed to a post -- a foot-long splint of bamboo tightly fitted into slots at the back of the tube. 

The post is tapped into a narrow slot.

After setting the trap the trapper carries it to a crop field, enlarges an active burrow and inserts it.

Then he covers it with dirt.

The bamboo rat always cuts the bait cord which releases tension on the rubber bands and snaps the noose tight around its neck. 

Before the days of rubber bands, a flexible bamboo post was whittled down to serve as a spring pole. 

A final observation: bamboo rats are valued as a cure for rheumatism, and in Myanmar the belief is widespread. 

Of course the tuberous foods of the rats could contain anti-inflammatory compounds, but this is purely conjecture.   

What is known however is that bamboo rats  (both Cannomys and Rhizomys) are natural hosts of Penicillium marneffei, which causes a debilitating fungal infection. 

Nine to 95% of bamboo rats trapped by epidemiologists in China, Thailand, and India tested positive, and soil samples from their burrows sometimes test positive, too. 

Five others species of rats however tested negative. 

Penicilliosis causes fever, and is a secondary infection associated with HIV infections and other symptoms, but the natural reservoir is not well understood. 

A case study from northern Thailand showed that bamboo rats were not reservoirs for human infection, but that people who worked with plants and animals had a higher risk of infection. 

Penicilliosis is treatable with drugs, and the bamboo rat eaters I met look pretty healthy.  


Gugnani, H. et al. 2004. Role of Cannomys badius as a natural animal host of Penicillium marneffei in India. J. of Clinical Microbiology 42(11):5070-5075

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The remnants remain

The bridge of Chitgon Chaung, probably pre-1940s
still stands beside its working neighbor. 

"As for timings, I can't predict to within half an hour either way exactly when a train will be crossing the Namkwin bridge. Red and Dennis will have to use their initiative . . . Pat and Bunny will do their stuff not less than thirty seconds after hearing the Namkwin explosion."

The China-Burma India Theater -- World War II.

Bridge demolition was the work of Force 136 -- ten saboteurs of the Indian Army charged with breaking the supply lines on the Myitkyina Railway.

A C47 transport plane droned east from "somewhere in India" to the Kaukwe Valley where three fires framed the landing zone in the darkness below.

"Well, boys, this is it!, We're almost over the target, Get yourselves ready."

From the Dakota they bailed out into darkness, landed safely, and buried their parachutes in the jungle.

Then they made for the rendezvous point 4 miles away.

And in due course they blasted the bridges.

John Beamish, an Anglo-Burman told the story in Burma Drop -- and a good read it is.

I pulled my worm-eaten copy off the shelf the other day.

Having just paid respects to the Bailey bridges of WW2, I needed to refresh my memory.

The Burma Campaign was among other things a war of bridge building and bridge destruction.

In the chaos of the evacuation of Burma the British demolished bridges to stall the advancing Japanese.

The Japanese repaired the bridges, and then destroyed them during their own desperate retreat 2 years later.

From Sir Donald's Bailey Bridge

The Bailey Bridge was a convenient solution to trashed bridges.

The genuine article on the Gwa Road heading east into the Rakhine Yoma. 

Donald Baliey (1901-1985) was a civil engineer and a hobbyist model bridge builder who designed a portable truss bridge in his spare time.

It had the versatility of a toy erector set, and Bailey's superiors knew a good thing when they saw it.

Bailey bridges still span some of the streams and rivers -- chaungs in Burmese -- that cross the narrow coastal plain between the Bay of Bengal and the Rakhine Yoma.

The X-shaped trussed sections supported tanks.

There are old bridges of at least two styles, but you can single out Bailey bridges by the emblematic square plates crossing the X-shaped trusses.


The transoms -- linked sections of beams that support the plank road (stringers and chesses) -- stand out with their circular perforations and welded plates.

Topside bracing frame.

Bracing frames connect double-trussed panels of larger bridges.

They are still there, gleaming in the midday sun and rusting in the monsoon rain.


Beamish, John. 1958.  Burma Drop. Elek Books, London

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Winning Team

Female hoolock gibbon,  Hoolock hoolock

Team 2 learned their lessons well.

When I talk about camera trap sets I show various examples: trail sets, water sets, log sets, burrow sets, cavity sets, carcass sets, etc.

And windfall sets -- that is, resource concentrations like beehives, fish and amphibians in evaporating waterholes, salt licks, and fruiting trees.

While the other teams trudged off to set their cameras at water holes, game trails, and fallen logs, team 2 sought a fruiting strangler fig.

They found one on a ridge, aimed the camera at the trunk, and waited for the fig-eaters to climb up the trunk.

Maung Myat Soe does the walk test at Team 2's fig tree set.

They soon figured out that the fig-eaters weren't climbing the tree trunk.

They were arriving by an aerial or twiggy route, so the team moved their camera up into an adjacent tree to get a view of the canopy.

The result was 700+ exposures -- mostly false exposures of moving branches.

But the tedious task of viewing all those photos was worth the trouble.

The camera had caught 9 photos of a lady hoolock dangle-dining on figs in the morning sun.

They also got 32 pictures of great hornbills,

and 4 of an Irrawaddy squirrel.

The three members of team 2 were quite pleased.

They were was the only team to photograph these 3 species.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The class shows their pictures

Reviewing last night's camera trap catch with the class

The purpose of the 6 camera trapping teams was to incite a little healthy competition.

Lectures are fine, but once you've heard it, the best way to learn is to go out and do it.

When the teams returned from the field with their SD cards they were eager to see if there were any animal pictures.

No matter how bad the photo, they were thrilled to see it.

Thandar Kyi kept score by tabulating the results in a spreadsheet, and at the end of 6 days we had camera trapped tree shrews, an unidentified shrew, jungle rats, muntjac, hoolock gibbon, great hornbill, Irrawaddy squirrel, and two species of civets -- the toddy cat and probably the Large Indian civet.

A muntjac was photographed the first night.

Red  muntjac, Muntiacus muntjac 

 The tree shrews showed up when we started to scent lure (castoreum) and baits, like bananas.

Northern tree shrew, Tupaia berlangeri

The toddy cat or common palm civet was photographed on trails and at baits.

Common palm civet,  Paradoxurus hermaphroditus visits a log set baited with chicken viscera.

A large Indian civet trotted quickly past one camera, but its underexposed image was good enough to identify it.

Large Indian civet, Viverra zibetha

I encouraged the class to use of bait, and we got a decent number of rat photos too -- all of a long-tailed species known locally as atee-phyu--chewet -- or white-tailed rat.

We also had a Chin forager pass through with his dogs. He didn't see the camera, but his dog smelled the bait at the log set.

 Stay tuned. In a day or two you'll see photos taken by the winning team.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

From school house to bamboo classroom

The Rakhine Yoma Elephant Sanctuary camera trapping class -- UMA is standing to my right

The training course commenced in the school house with my charming old friend UMA at the helm.

Opening ceremonies are normally a bit drawn out over there, perhaps a vestige of colonial protocol.

Typically, a charming lady, fetchingly attired in form-fitting longyi carries on at the podium with various formalities.

Finally she smiles, and . . .

"I hereby declare that the blah-blah-blah training course is officially open".

Someone strikes the sacred GONGGGGG, and the smiling class applauds, knowing that the time has come for repast and refreshment.

But not this time.

UMA said a few words, introduced yours truly, the generator fired up, and Khaing Khaing Swe switched on the LCD projector for my canned lectures.

The venue -- 24-mile Chin Village.  School house is the long building in the distance 

In their spanking new Friends of Wildlife T-shirts, the class sat on their diminutive stools, listened attentively and took notes.

Lecture following opening ceremony.

Meanwhile the cooks plucked and butchered our lunch behind the building.

Meal preparation during the lecture

I rambled for a half hour about elephant survey methods, making the point that images of elephants provide more information than monthly counts of dung balls along transects in the forest.

UMA's translations I noticed were not only more animated then mine, but decidedly more prolix.

This means one of two things.

Your translator is either terribly enthusiastic or terribly imaginative.

In this case I knew it was the former.

The morning wore on and the smell of steamed rice and chicken curry wafted past the heads of children peeking through the door.

 ("Never worry, chicken curry").

"Shall we break?"

"As you like," grinned UMA.

The class took their places on their diminutive stools.

A meal is always part of the opening ceremony

After lunch another illustrated lecture -- this one about making camera trap sets, pre-visualizing pictures, anticipating animal movement, and so on.

They were still focussed, still taking notes in Burmese and English.

This enduring patience always amazes me.

Then we discussed camera protection against elephants.

I asked if they could make an elephant deterrent out of bamboo and punji sticks -- an indigenous version of my angle iron and nail camera protectors.

They could, but we decided to go with metal.

UMA translates in the bamboo hut.

Finally we passed out the 6 camera traps and went through the menus until each of the teams had set the date and time, and standardized the other settings.

Then we adjourned to the bamboo hut up the hill.

Kids still have to go to school, so the hut was our Hdq for the rest of the 6 day course.

Two men hauled the generator up the road, but for some reason generator and location didn't agree.

We reverted to using the 3 laptops, a suitable arrangement.

That afternoon the class disappeared into the hills to set their first camera traps.

The course was off and running.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

With trappers of the bamboo rat

Proud trapper with his quarry. 

"U Chris!" called my friends as I lounged on the bamboo deck writing notes.


I roused myself and grabbed my camera.

Chin boy had just arrived with his dinner.

A silky-furred buck-toothed pway or lesser bamboo rat (Cannomy badius) dangled from his bamboo garrote trap.

Yes, while you were receiving my California posts during the past three weeks, the codger was spending his days East of Suez, not far from where  "the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the bay".

I was in Myanmar giving a camera trapping training course for  Indo-Myanmar Conservation and the Friends of Wildlife, a local grassroots NGO formed by my close friend, UMA. The Denver Zoological Society defrayed my travel costs, because the course was preparation for an elephant survey.

The class of 15 included protected area staff from Rakhine Yoma Elephant Sanctuary, a few local school teachers, and members of the Chin community living in the Rakhine Yoma.

A Chin village in the Rakhine Yoma was our base, and from it we descended daily into a patchwork of deciduous evergreen forest and bamboo brake to check our cameras.

Yoma means mountain range, and the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) Yoma is a coastal range, actually the tail of the Himalayas.

North of here and 70 years ago Japan's Imperial Army routed the 14th Army, and remnants of the war are still to be found.

General William Slim wrote about these hills in his WW II chronicle Defeat into Victory,  
"Flying over them you can realize what an obstacle they are to vision, but you cannot really appreciate what an obstacle they are to movement."
They are not much of an obstacle to the people who live here, but they travel lightly.

No 65 lb packs, or even water bottles.

Just a dah or long knife.

They know how to tough it.

The makeup is thanaka --  made from the bark of Murraya exotica. 

And when a hungry boy catches a bamboo rat, he doesn't need mom or dad to skin it or cook it for him.

He does it himself and roasts it to perfection.