A New Season of Wildlife Observations

By Jackie Willis
February 1, 2004

Jackie and Greg in the rainforest

Greg and I are back on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama for another exciting season of rainforest studies. We are with Anna Mazzaro and Katrina Macht, teachers from New Jersey who have the spirit of adventurers. They have had 3 weeks of field experience this year in the forests of BCI, and have lots of stories to tell. We are all planning to share our experiences with you over the next two months, continuing to answer student questions after we return to New Jersey. So check our website frequently for new postings and be ready to view our photos and video clips.

We have recently done 2 weeks of videoconference programs from the rainforest with schools in NJ, NY, TX, and TN. Last week I also enjoyed talking with one million students through live TV programs with the Jason Project. You would probably enjoy visiting their website too. And if your teacher is not a JASON teacher, we have a training scheduled for July at Montclair State University, NJ.

I thought you all might want to see the kinds of questions that JASON participants have asked me, and my answers. The following is an online chat from last November, in which I answered questions from the 9 schools listed below. These questions and answers might be exactly what you were thinking to ask, or they might stimulate new questions in your head. Hoping to hear from you!


Dr. Jackie Willis - Chat 11/17/03

PARTICIPATING SCHOOLS: Note locations of participating classes:

1- sdefibaugh : Hello Dr. Willis from Quantico Middle School, Quantico, Virginia.

2- glasgonancy : Good afternoon from Loveland City Schools, Dr. Willis.

3- palmersh : Hi Dr. Willis! from Loveland,Ohio

4- lnhfbo : Hello, from Jefferson Elementary Faribault, MN

5- kwbcarl : Hello from the 4th graders in Arlington , Va.

6- argo14gbroughto : Hello, Dr. Willis!

7- rb04soar : Good afternoon Dr. Willis from Oak Creek Elementary in Lewis Center, OH

8- erinsavial : Hi Dr. Willis! I'm from Cygnet, OH

9- emileahstc : Welcome, Dr. Willis from St. Clement School, Toledo, OH, U.S

jfejosh : OK, Dr. Willis is here, so we'll go ahead and get started. Thanks Jackie for being here with us today. Let's start with a brief introduction to you and your work. Why don't you tell us about yourself.

jackiewillis : Hello everyone, my name is Dr. Jackie Willis, I'm a mammalogist at Montclair State University in New Jersey and a host researcher for JASON XV in Panama. I'm really looking forward to all your wonderful questions! My speciality is mammal populations.

fperez : how old were you when you started studying squirrels

agabriel : At what age did you know that you wanted to study animals?

jackiewillis : I was 20 years old. I started with flying squirrels in New York.

jackiewillis : I was 18 when I first wanted to study animals. I've always loved animals, but I found out that one could have a career in animals when I was in college.

agabriel : What sparked your interest in mammals? Why not reptiles or amphibians? or All animals?

jackiewillis : Actually, I started with a deep interest in frogs and frog breeding. My first field trip was to a frog pond and I loved it! Then I got to study lizards and loved that too. But it was more practical to study mammals, living in New York City. And in NYC, I found the wonderful flying squirrels.

shroped : Are any of Panama's mammals only located in Pananama? (Drew from RVES)

jackiewillis : I'm not sure. I don't think there are any that are only in Panama. Most animals there also live in Costa Rica and other nearby areas. Red-tailed squirrels are also in South America for instance.

powersd : Aproxemitly how many different species of mammals live in Panama

jackiewillis : I would say there are over 100 bat species and 65 non-flying mammal species in Panama. It's a wonderful and diverse ecosystem..

agabriel : Have you discovered any new species on BCI? and how many species have been identified on BCI?

jackiewillis : There haven't been any new mammals discovered on BCI. But there are about 45 non-flying mammal species and 70 bat species on BCI alone.

glasgonancy : What is the strangest mammal found on BCI?

jackiewillis : To me, the strangest species is the silky anteater. They can't really open their mouths wide so they can't carry their babies that way. The babies have to cling to their backs, both the moms and dads! They have silky golden fur and they are somewhat small. They're also very hard to find. They have little paws for grasping vines and ripping open twigs to get at insects with their sticky pink tongue. They sleep during the day, curled up in a ball. They look like little golden tennis balls up in the treetops!

edqms : As a mammologist what is your job at STRI? Does anyone work with you?

jackiewillis : I work in New Jersey mostly, but down at STRI my role is to census the non-bat mammal populations. Bats are Elisabeth Kalko's field. I come down once a year to perform a walking census with my husband. We do a 100km census along the trails on BCI. I also work on still and video camera censuses to learn more about the animals.

dylsteiner : Is your husband a reasearsher too?

jackiewillis : Yes! He is a researcher who has worked with me for the last 23 years, we even honeymooned on BCI. He is a naturalist and is very good at finding the animals and we love to observe them together.

glasgonancy : Dr. Willis, what do you lke the most about your job? What

cynbad4263 : Is it cool being a mammalogist?

jackiewillis : It's only cool to be a mammalogist if you love what you do. And I do! It's most "cool" to have a field of study if you are passionate about your field. I love being outdoors and I love that I'm doing something useful for our planet too. My favorite part of the job is to see new behaviors and making observations on rare animals. It seems like I learn something new each time.

nickqhs : Out of the two major careers you have had which did you enjoy most? Which one did you benefit from more?

jackiewillis : My favorite career is the field research, I would love to do just that. But I also have to make a living so I run the science education center at the University as well. Each year, I'm always looking forward to my trip to BCI.

stracey : What animals are you studying at thistime?

jackiewillis : Our work right now is lookingat the agoutis and their population changes and the ocelots as well. I've also been looking closely at peccary and deer populations with their predator: the puma. Pumas are now back on BCI after being away for 30 years. I also look at squirrels and their relation to dipteryx fruits.

sophiesan : what is the most difficult mammal to track or that youve ever tracked, why?

jackiewillis : I would say the sloths are hard to keep track of. We can look for them during a census but we don't see many. We only see a small percentage. We go through times when we find many that have died on the ground and we're not sure what causes that. We believe that their numbers may be very low right now. In September we only found 4 dead sloths and no live ones. Many still live there but it's hard to find them. They also cannot be trapped and are easily hidden by all the leaves in the canopy. We've used infrared cameras to look through the leaves but even then we couldn't see any! The sloths may not show up on the infrared cameras because their fur hides their heat.

shroped : How slow are the sloths? (Drew from RVES)

jackiewillis : Sometimes they are very slow and lazy. They might just move from one branch to another over one week. Sometimes though they decide to travel and they will go down to the ground and move up another tree. In general they can move a few feet in 10 seconds, but only if they want to. I once saw a sloth fighting with another sloth way up in the trees and they were slugging at eachother in very slow motion. One fell to the ground and that was fast! Don't worry though, he was fine and went back up the tree verrrrry slowly

aliceqms : I read that you do a census of mammals in the forest on BCI. What tools that you use do you find most useful?

jackiewillis : There are several tools. Some are simple and others complex. The simple ones are binoculars and pencils and paper. More complex are remote sensing cameras that automatically take pictures. We use both still and video cameras. The video cameras give us behavior data and the still cameras give us population data.

sdefibaugh : Have you ever been attacked or been scared away by an animal? If so what animal?(Matt)

kcicchese : Did you ever get scared of something you've seen or studied?

jackiewillis : The only animal that ever attacked me was a margay. It attacked me because it was lonely and wanted to play. It hurt a little because it bit me, but she was just playing and didn't want to hurt me. I have never been attacked by a wild animal though. An elk did threaten me once when I got between her and a calf in Washington state. I'm more concerned with bears in New Jersey than any animals in Panama!

ancarlson : Do you have any pets ?

zpowell : How old is the average squirrel?

jackiewillis : Yes. I have one flying squirrel, Roxanne, who must the oldest in the world: 15 years! The average age is only 2.5 years and the oldest before mine was 11. I've owned 20 over the years, all with names starting with "r"

nikkiqms : How have humans affected the large mammal population since STRI was founded?

jackiewillis : Humans have been, and continue to be, hunters of mammals in Panama. The national parks there are protected by law but hunting still continues. All of the larger mammals, tapirs, big cats, monkeys, deer and others are all endangered.

jackiewillis : BCI is well protected and that makes it very special and important.

kmwhite0913 : Have you ever stopped anyone from poaching or trying to hunt or kill an animal?

jackiewillis : No I haven't and I doubt I'd do that in Panama. It could be dangerous as poachers can be very protective of their hunting and will hurt other people. They have done so often in the past.

jackiewillis : I would say that humans are the animal I'm most afraid of in Panama.

magic2528 : Are the squirrels in NY different from the squirrels in BCI?

jackiewillis : Yes! The New York squirrels include gray, red and flying squirrels. In Panama there are not flying ones but they do have squirrels similar to our gray squirrels. They have different foods and social organizations on BCI. Female squirrels are actually territorial and the males are not.

ponies : what is a Margay?

katret : In one of your answers you said you got attacked by a margay. What is a margay?

jackiewillis : A margay is a medium sized spotted cat. They weight 12-18 pounds. They look a lot like ocelots but spend more time in trees. They are able to climb up and down head-first as their heels can twist around behind them! That is a special adaptation for arborial life. Their favorite foods are birds.

parisia : jackiewillis are humans a threat to wildlife in panama

jackiewillis : Yes, very much so. The two biggest threats are habitat-loss (caused by humans), and hunting by humans. The humans compete with the natural predators and they shoot them which is not very fair competition at all. The wildlife there is in peril right now.

zpowell : If you could marry a squirrel would you?

jackiewillis : I'm already married to a squirrel as my husband is very squirrely! He's also a "nut!"

kcicchese : Have you ever seen an animal eat another animal?

jackiewillis : Yes I have. I've seen snakes eat lizards. I've seen tarantulas eat lizards. I've seen coatis try to eat squirrels. I've even seen harpy eagles eating sloths. But it is often hard to see predation in action. Once I was in Africa where I saw many many big cats but only once saw a leopard sleeping next to a caught antelope.

efinger2 : Have you ever seen a Harpy Eagle?

jackiewillis : Yes, I've seen the two that were released on BCI. I saw them feeding on prey.

magic2528 : Have any mammals in BCI been or close to extinction?

hyde10 : What is the most endangered species in Panama?

jfejosh : we're just over halfway through our chat with Jackie Willis. Thanks for all your great questions, keep them coming. We'll get to just as many as we can in the next 1/2 hour\.

jackiewillis : Many of them are endangered. Harpy eagles are in trouble. Tapirs, jaguars, peccaries and many other large mammals are in trouble because people hunt them. The howler monkeys and spider monkeys are probably the most endangered along with jaguars.

ponies : what is a coatis?

jackiewillis : A coatimundi, or coati, is a member of the racoon family. Coatis are intelligent and curious just like racoons. However coatis live in groups: several mothers with their young. They have interesting social behavior. They are longer and more slender than racoons. They are as cute as can be.

wk59 : Are there times when you wish you were not a mammologist?

wirerims : have you ever saved a animals life?

jackiewillis : Yes there have been times. When I hear that 2 or 3 jaguars have been shot this year already in a park, I wish I had enough money to pay the farmers not to shoot the jaguars or to buy enough habitat for them to live in safely. Of course sometimes is really hot or rainy or snowing (in New York) and it's so uncomfortable. I do love my work usualy though.

jackiewillis : Many times. In New Jersey I'll save animals from the road or try to care for orphaned young animals: birds, squirrels, lizards, turtles. Not cockroaches.

katret : Do you eat meat or are you a vegatarion?

jackiewillis : I do eat meat, mostly venison from New Jersey.

argo14gbroughto : How is your research in Panama funded? Do you have to write your own grants?

jackiewillis : I do have to write grants. We also spend our own funds on our research. The Smithsonian has also been very generous with funding and other support. Montclair State (my University) has as well. CamTRAK South, which makes cameras, has also helped.

leah : Have any animals been re-introduced to Panama? How successful were/are their re-introductions going?

jackiewillis : BCI lost many species when it became an island. Spider monkeys were introduced and they are doing well on BCI. Tapirs were reintroduced but wild tapirs came over too! Harpy eagles were reintroduced too, but they keep flying away so it has not been very successful. Reintroductions are problematic, the animals have to be returned to a safe area and those are hard to find.

wb58 : What was the coolest place you've visited?

jackiewillis : The coolest place I've visited would have to be BCI, but I've been to many cool rainforests. I've been to rainforests in Australia, the Amazon, and Washington state. But the Galapagos Islands are very weird and neat as well. Africa is a wonderful and diverse place too. If a place has a lot of species diversity and low human-impact, I'll probably think it's cool.

mikaelanishita : Are jaguars nocturnal?

magic2528 : Are more mammals awake in the day than at night ?

jackiewillis : Jaguars tend to be more active at night, but they are still pretty active during the day. If there isn't enough game at night, they will keep hunting during the day. This seems to be the case with ocelots too. In general, there are a lot of nocturnal mammals on BCI because there are so many bats! Non-bat species tend to be nocturnal there as well so you have to get out at night to do a lot of research.

8473 : How can an eagle eat a sloth? How big is a sloth?

jackiewillis : Think of a bird with a claw as big as an adult's hand with talons 3 inches long on each finger. The leg is a thick as your arm! The sloth is only as big as a house cat and has small claws and teeth. The sloth has to stay within a tangle of vines so that the eagle cannot come in. They are very easy prey for harpy eagles.

glasgonancy : Do the seasons affect most mammals and if they do, how?

jackiewillis : The seasons in Panama are wet and rainy. The seasons control leaf, flower and fruit production. There is a lot of fruit between March and October and not much during the rest of the year. The mammals who eat fruit have a hard time from November to February. The dry season (January through March) makes it hard to find water. Deer have to travel downstream to find pools of water which makes them more vulnerable to predators. Monkeys and coatis have to search in trees for rainwater and some predators will wait there for them. Tyras (like big weasels) often visit the tree holes.

pollyr : Does the humidity in the rainforest affect the functioning of your cameras?

jackiewillis : Yes indeed! I was just talking today with the camera manufacturer about making the cameras more moisture-proof. The problem is we have to open the cameras to change film so some moisture will always get inside and cloud the film and lenses. This makes the pictures look awful so it can be a big problem that we are always trying to solve.

rkuhn : have you written or been in any books?

jackiewillis : Yes I was in a book about flying squirrels by Nancy Wells-Gosling, but I haven't written any myself.

andygre : How much of the year do you study animals

jackiewillis : I spend about 6 weeks a year on BCI. I also take data and photos home with me and work on it all year long. I also take business trips and I always try to get to a natural location to learn about the local wildlife. So I guess you could say I study mammals as often as I can.

hyde15 : What is some of the most interesting thing you have came across from learning about the mammals?

jackiewillis : The thing that sticks in my head the most is what we are learning about ocelot behavior from the automatic video cameras. We have 3 cameras set up at ocelot bathrooms, areas in the forest where they urinate and deficate. They leave their scents here. We used to think this was where male ocelots would leave scents to scare away other males. However now we find females leaving scent messages for males as well. We believe this has to do with mating patterns. This is a new and exciting area for us.

jfejosh : OK - time for one last question....

argo14gbroughto : Are there any schools or universities you recommend for the study of mammology?

jackiewillis : I would recommend Montclair State university! The School of Conservation here is wonderful. Students learn to radiotrack mammals here and learn more about habitats. For instance, we are radiotracking local bears right now.

jfejosh : Well, Jackie, thank you so much for your time

jfejosh : we appreciate it and look forward to hearing more from you as JASON XV goes on.

sdefibaugh : Thank you Dr. Willis from Quantico Middle-High School, Quantico, Virginia. We enjoyed the chat!

jackiewillis : Thank you all! I would say that my long range plan would be to bring students from Panama to our school here to learn about mammalogy. We would then send both American and Panamanian students back to Panama to work to preserve their ecosystem.

cynbad4263 : Goodbye and thank you so much for your time.

ponies : thank you Ddr. Willis, i got alot of great info. kim

pollyr : Thank you so much. I am a teacher from CT who participated in the class with my whole class. They really enjoyed it a lot.

chadhea : Good by from chad at Texada

sota2 : Thank you so much! We will be so prepared for Thursday's Chat Room now that we understand! It's been a pleasure. SOTA II

colepou : thank you,jackie for coming to teach us about the panama! i have learned lots thank you again:)

wirerims : Thank you so much for your time we enjoyed it and i leared a lot to so thanks!

danielgre : good-bye too all of you from texada school b.c

rkuhn : Dr. Willis: Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to answer our question.you are GREAT!

glasgonancy : Good bye from Loveland, Ohio, and the 3rd grade LEAP class.

jackiewillis : It was a pleasure meeting all of you. Take good care of the mammals in your own neighborhoods. I hope you enjoy the rest of your year with JASON!

stracey : I've had a wonderful time in this chat with you and it has been an honor, I think you're an excellent researcher

argo14gbroughto : Thank you for chatting with us today, Dr. Willis! Have fun on the expedition!

hyde11 : Thank you!

mikaelanishita : Thanks for answering my question!

hyde6 : Bye bye, thank you for giving us all the information that you did!

hyde9 : Thank you for the infomation you gave us.

hyde8 : Good bye, nice talking with you!

emileahstc : Thanks, Dr. Willis, for inspiring students!

arossato : thank you for all the answers to the questins

astufflebean : Thank you Dr. Willis for your time.

jfejosh : Well everyone, that's all for today's chat with Dr.Jackie Willis.

"Used with permission from JASON Project: Copyright JASON Project 2004"