Matt Swarner '00: On the trail of the elusive bush dog

In 2000, Matt Swarner was one of 50 graduating seniors from select colleges nationwide to earn one-year, $22,000 Thomas J. Watson Fellowships for postgraduate study. His proposal was titled “Field observations of the bush dog: a rare neotropical carnivore.” This is Swarner’s report from the field.

It’s 2 a.m. and the wooded savanna is dark and beautiful. The moon is yet to rise and the sky is filled with an array of stars only visible in places like this, hundreds of miles from the light pollution of cities. In the distance, the silhouettes of trees mark the edge of the pampa, and beyond that the meseta, a giant plateau of Brazilian sandstone rising out of lowland tropical forest. I watched a beautiful sunset and now await an amazing sunrise, parrots and more diurnal birds replacing the calls of nightjars and other nocturnal beasts. I am following one of them, in fact, a radio-collared maned wolf in Bolivia’s Noel Kempff Mercado National Park. I have been running after beeps with a hand-held antenna and receiver for the past 14 hours and will now very happily return to camp, not having lost the signal once.

During the past 12 months I have traveled in Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, passing through national parks, private reserves, research stations, indigenous communities, and all hostels in between. I’ve eaten monkey and peccary, suffered killer bees and innumerable biting insects, worn out several pairs of footwear, been delayed by various political uprisings, and experienced some of the more dubious modes of transportation. All in the name of science and small, forest dogs.

But what exactly is a bush dog? The species Speothos venaticus is characterized by a blunt snout, small ears, short legs and a diminutive tail (in summary, short and stubby everything). Although it perhaps resembles more a bear cub or wolverine, the bush dog is a true canid. Found in tropical rain forest, savanna edges, interior Atlantic forest, and coastal manglar, it has an extensive range from Panama, down the Pacific coast to Ecuador, across the Amazonian countries, and south to at least Paraguay. Bush dogs likely occur in packs of two to eight individuals, living in burrows and hunting their prey cooperatively.

There’s only one thing, though. Hardly anything is known about its ecology in the wild. We don’t know how big an individual’s range is, what it eats, when it is active, where and when it reproduces, what its habitat requirements are, the size of groups and how those groups are composed. We also don’t know why bush dogs are so rare. They are, one might safely say, infrequently seen. Biologists and indigenous people can spend years in remote wilderness and see bush dogs one or two times, or sometimes never. Jaguars and other difficult-to-observe fauna of Amazonian forests are relatively commonplace compared to bush dogs.

What little we do know about the bush dog in the wild, based on anecdotal observations and local knowledge, is more than intriguing enough to captivate the interest of numerous biologists and the wayward UPS Logger. Studies in captivity have indicated that bush dogs are “compulsively social,” living in tight-knit groups and maintaining a social hierarchy based on submission rather than aggression. The female urinates in a handstand posture, allowing her to place her scent higher than her leg-lifting mate. Unusual for mammals, a male’s presence may be required for the female to give birth and both he and other pack members likely contribute to the rearing of the litter. Molecular studies of the canid family are confounded by the placement of the bush dog; its closest relatives remain a mystery. There is nothing quite like a bush dog.

Morphological evidence suggests that bush dogs are among the most carnivorous of the wild dog species. Like wolves and African wild dogs, bush dogs hunt cooperatively in packs, pulling down prey larger than themselves that would otherwise be unassailable. But instead of the large ungulate quarry (deer and moose; wildebeest and other antelope in Africa) of their other social relatives, the little bush dog (about 12 lb.) probably preys upon the large rodents of South America: 10 lb. agoutis and 25 lb pacas. Their small but elongated bodies a likely adaptation to entering burrows, one individual may enter a paca den while the other pack members wait at the escape holes. Once the prey is flushed, bush dogs can follow it even into the water where they are capable swimmers. To kill their prey, each pack member grabs hold and pulls backward. In some places, bush dogs are known as the “best hunters in the forest.”

Fascinating as the bush dog may be, its elusiveness quickly complicates any attempt at study. Collaring an animal and following it by radio telemetry would be an ideal next step, but so far, no one has figured out how to trap a bush dog.

In Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, I visited communities, primarily indigenous, in areas where bush dogs exist or existed at one time. Indigenous people can be highly knowledgeable of their natural environment, resulting from both the functional experience of working and hunting in the forest as well as the natural-history lore that is passed down through the generations. Talking mainly to elders, I inquired about five general areas of bush dog ecology: what habitat they were found in, what they were seen hunting and eating, when they were active, how many were seen together, and when they reproduced and to how many young. In addition, I gathered a wealth of miscellaneous information about bush dog hunting strategies, color variation, vocalizations, denning behavior, and other folklore. I also asked the same five questions about the coati, another Amazonian social carnivore, which, in contrast, has been relatively well studied scientifically. Thus I could compare my data and either strengthen or weaken the confidence of my informants’ responses about bush dogs.

In total, I conducted interviews with 123 individuals representing 14 indigenous groups and other local campesinos. I found out that bush dogs are mainly seen during the day in groups of four to eight pack members, can be found in a variety of habitats but often near creeks or other sources of water, prey upon the aforementioned agouti and paca as well as small forest deer and armadillos, and may reproduce prior to the wet season. Much of my information strengthens previous anecdotal reports and suggestions from captive studies, as well as providing undocumented data on how bush dogs hunt and relative population levels. In September 2001 I traveled to Oxford, England, for the International Conference on Canid Biology to present my data and exchange pleasantries with my fellow bush dog colleagues. (There aren’t many of us).

Visiting South American communities resulted, of course, in more than just me conducting my project. From beetle grubs to indescribably delicious wild fruit, the foods I’ve enjoyed will, more likely than not, never be found in a U.S. grocery store. I’ve drunk gallons of chicha, a thick beverage of starchy manioc root that indigenous women sometimes first masticate and spit out to aid the fermentation process. I speared fish using barbasco, a naturally derived poison that lulls the fish to the surface, and helped pull a brand-new 30-foot canoe through almost a mile of dense forest on Christmas Day. I earned the nickname “bush dog” in several languages (perrito de monte in Spanish, sacha allcu in lowland Quechua, among others) and gained the wonder of many as to why someone would be so interested in talking about a small wild dog that hardly anyone ever sees. I was also exposed to the many complicated issues that concern indigenous communities today—health care and education, access to national infrastructure, land property rights, and confrontation with both foreign and local business interests, cultural change and emerging political organizations, as well as the general corruption that seems to pervade most everything in Latin America.

I also found time to be involved in much more traditional biological activities. I participated in expeditions in Paraguay and Peru, and assisted with studies of rodents, the short-eared dog, and the aforementioned maned wolf. On trips with Louise Emmons of the Smithsonian Institution, I learned to prepare museum specimens and some of my work now resides in our national Museum of Natural History. In Bolivia, I captured bats with fine mesh nets, recording several new species for that country. I worked with automatic camera traps, conducted mammal transect censuses, collected carnivore scats and learned to identify most mammal tracks of the forest.

And to arrive at the question that has preoccupied even my Grandma’s friends, did I ever actually see a bush dog? The short answer is no, unfortunately. I saw tracks. I found scats. I heard calls. I saw them in several zoos. But I never saw a bush dog in the wild. So, project titles change (“Field observations of the bush dog” became, “Asking people about bush dogs”) and life goes on. I know I’ll continue to work in areas where bush dogs exist (I’m writing this from a Bolivian field station right now, in fact) and my search will go on, if not in formal project, then in obsessive side pursuit. The elusive bush dog deserves such a determined search, and I for one am happy to provide it.