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Natureman in Trinidad & Tobego




I have just returned from the Island nation of Trinidad (and Tobago)!


I was lucky enough to stay in the world-famous William Beebe research station. It’s a Victorian style building located up a mountain in the Arima valley amongst dense rainforest. Small ponds are located in the grounds, populated by guppies. In fact, it’s possible that most guppies found in captivity share their ancestry with these wild guppies! William Beebe is most famous for being the inventor of the Bathysphere - a steel sphere used for exploring the depths of the ocean. 

 

Trinidad is located just a few miles from the coast of Venezuela and gives ample opportunity for species to make their way across to the islands. It is an island with mainland ecology, and therefore a paradise for naturalists. I have a few species that I always look for...


The Bushmaster is the longest viper in the world and can reach lengths of 12 feet long. Its venom can be considered as one of the worst - the venom itself is a mix of proteolytic, anti-coagulant, haemorrhagic, and neurotoxic proteins. (You should still have a few hours to get to a hospital, however).


The only wild cat in Trinidad is the Ocelot - a beautiful medium sized spotted cat, that's as stunning as it is rare. I have never seen one and really doubt I’ll get lucky enough for a sighting.

 

On this trip I did manage to see an animal that's arguably much, much harder to see...

 

Most evenings I would walk down the trail, keeping a keen eye out for snakes, bats, spiders.... anything that moves. I hadn't gone very far when I noticed something slowly crawling along one of the steep banks that are either side of the path. It was a pink caterpillar looking creature.



When I looked closely, I saw long antenna and a large number of legs! I had just found a 'grail' animal! It was a velvet worm! These prehistoric animals date back 400-540 million years and are exactly the same as the fossils that have been found. These things are straight up weird... they give live birth to a single baby that can be 40% of the mothers body mass, the pregnancy is around 13 months! They are predatory, hunting by shooting a glue-like substance to trap its prey. It then feeds at its leisure, and they don't come out to feed often - around once a month. DNA suggests velvet worms could be the common ancestor to both crabs and spiders! To most it's just an odd-looking worm, but to those who know about them realise it’s like seeing a unicorn! I’ve travelled to many rainforests all over the world, but I never expected to see one, so finding one was an awesome experience.

 

The first snakes I saw were Tree Boas coiled up in the overhanging mangrove trees. These are pretty common in Caroni swamp, a huge 12,000-acre mangrove forest, consisting of large lagoons, marshes and mudflats. It's teaming with life, so tree boas are almost guaranteed.



One of the lesser seen animals is the silky anteater, the smallest anteater in the world. During daylight hours they sleep amongst the thinner mangrove branches. They look a lot like a brown tennis ball stuck in a tree. In the dark they will wake up and go in search of food of choice - termites.



I got a great sighting of an Osprey, drying itself in the sun. The draw to this swamp, however, is the roosting of Trinidad's national bird, the Scarlet Ibis. These strikingly vibrant birds come from miles around and congregate in their thousands. It’s quite the spectacle. These birds are protected the right way, with extremely harsh punishments. If you are found with a single Scarlet Ibis feather you could be given a fine for a few thousand pounds, if you are suspected of poaching an Ibis then it could be 10 years in prison. 

 

Bush Bush Island is another of Trinidad's protected areas. It’s more of a peninsular nestled inside a large marsh than an actual island, it’s one of the few places in Trinidad you can reliably see the Red Howler Monkey. This area was paramount to the reintroduction of the Blue and Gold Macaw. It's dominated by huge Fig trees, even larger silk-cotton trees, and the occasional smaller palm species. Some of the palms had their fronds cut so they hung down, hiding underneath were tent-making Bats, that bite the leaves to use them as shelter.


One of my favourite parts of Bush Bush Island is an area of about 1km where, under the leaf litter, is a layer of seashells. If you dig it, goes down about 18 inches before you get to soil. This is not a natural deposit of shells, as among the shells are small shards of pottery. The whole area is a trash pile left behind by the native Arawak people hundreds or thousands of years ago. No research has been done to find out exactly how long ago it was inhabited. 

 

Tamana cave is a well-hidden natural wonder. You need to walk up the side of a small mountain and about halfway up, obscured by the undergrowth, is an entrance. Living inside the dark caverns are millions of bats, covering the walls, ceiling, and the air around you. Around 12 species of bat can be found inside, using some of the possible 20 miles of unmapped and unexplored darkness. It's quite hard to explain what being surrounded by millions of bats is like, but I'd describe it as being inside a living tornado, where all the debris avoids touching you. 

 



Some other highlight species seen were a 'Bootlace' snake, one of the smallest snakes on the planet. It was just sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor in the research centre. These rarely seen snakes are around the thickness of the lead out of a pencil. They're normally underground living in small burrows and they specialise on feeding on ants and termites.



I finally saw the Bearded Bell Bird, which I have heard many times but never got close enough to see it. The reason for this, like the howler monkey is to communicate over long distances in thick habitation, and so pinpointing the animals exact location can be difficult. I managed to get a photo close enough that I could see where the name 'Bearded Bell Bird' came from.


Thankfully its only a short time before I can visit this small island paradise again, and I will be keeping my eyes open for more unusual animals!



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