Dr. Alexine Keuroghlian Interview Transcript

On April 29, 2004, students interviewed Dr. Alexine Keuroghlian online. The following is a transcript of that interview.

Question: Why do you want to save the otters?
Dr. Keuroghlian: We have dying otters in the area of the Pantanal and otters are considered a top predator in the ecosystem. Not only do we have the giant otters we also have the neotropical otters which are a smaller species. The South American giant otter is considered endangered but both species are important role in the food web of the Pantanal ecosystem. They also extremely important and effected by any kind of environmental degradation like over tourism, over fishing, and sedimentation in the rivers because of agricultural practices.

Question: Why are the otters dying off?
Dr. Keuroghlian: Sorry, they are not dying off but they are considered endangered. They are considered endangered because they are so sensitive to any change in the rivers.

Question: Hello from Highland Park 2nd graders in Austin, Texas, USA! We'd like to know how long giant river otters stay with their mother, and how long they can live?
Dr. Keuroghlian: My expertise is with peccaries so I'm not actually sure. But the behaviors of the otters are one of the things our PI, Helen Waldemarin, is studying now. Very little is known about their behavior. I can tell you that their groups are an extended family. So for example, you have parents, offspring from previous years that still stay in the group, so members of the pack help raise the new otter babies.

Question: What about peccaries, do they have the same ecological significance?
Dr. Keuroghlian: Their ecological role is slightly different because they are terrestrial, and they have a different role in the food chain. They are not top predators but usually eaten by top predators like jaguars and large cats. They are primarily fruit eaters, which we term Frugivores.

Question: Do jaguars eat peccaries?
Dr. Keuroghlian: Yes, they do. It is one of their favorite meals.

Question: Since you have been studying peccaries in the Pantanal have you seen any change in their population?
Dr. Keuroghlian: Not in the Pantanal where they are fairly well preserved. In other places like the Atlantic Forests, they have been severely reduced because of habitat fragmentation. That is when people cut down forests and leave little patches of isolated forests. Depending on the size of the patch, you loose a lot of species and peccaries require a large area in order to survive.

Question: Hi, exactly where is Pantanal?
Dr. Keuroghlian: It is in Southwest Brazil. It borders with eastern Bolivia and northeastern Paraguay. It's the geographic center of South America. It's 210,000 square kilometers of flood plain.

Question: What is the Pantanal like? Is it wet all over?
Dr. Keuroghlian: Yes, it is considered one of the largest wetlands in the world. And it's the largest tropical wetlands in the world. This year we had more rain than the previous years that we have been working there. We work at a place called Fazenda Rio Negro which is owned by Conservation International-Brasil and in partnership with Earthwatch we have created this research center called the CRI (Conservation Research Initiative). Because of the fact that it rained more, we have a change in our fruit production. It increased so the peccaries and all the fruit-eating animals were very happy and enjoyed a good variety of fruits. They will be healthier this year, but one good season does not mean their population will grow. The reason for that is because this is only one small portion of the year and other times they have to face periods of fruit scarcity.

Question: What do peccaries feel like when you hold them, and do they ever bite? We'd also like to know what kind of food they eat besides fruit and fruit seeds, and how long do they live?
Dr. Keuroghlian: Yes, they will bite you, which is one reason why, when I capture them, I have to anesthetize them. They feel a little like a porcupine because they have these bristles. It's not like fur but it's not pointy. But it's not how they feel but how they smell. They have a gland that makes them smell between rotten cheese and chicken soup! They do eat aquatic vegetation, which is super important, they do some grazing, and they also eat grubs and worms and things like that. In the wild, we really don't know, but we suspect that they live around 15+ years but it's not certain.

Question: What is the difference between a peccary and a feral pig?
Dr. Keuroghlian: Good question. They are completely different species. Pigs and peccaries came from a common ancestor 50 million years ago. Once the continents separated about 25 million years ago, the pigs and the peccaries evolved separately. Pigs evolved on the eastern hemisphere and the peccaries on the western hemisphere. So they are both pig like, but have many differences, one of them being that peccaries don't have tails and pigs do. Other things, pigs can have 10–15 piglets while peccaries have 1–2 offspring at a time. So they are really quite different.

Question: How many peccaries are in Brazil?
Dr. Keuroghlian: We have no idea. Our population estimate for the Pantanal is 8–10 peccaries per square kilometer.

Question: How can you tell the age of a peccary?
Dr. Keuroghlian: By their size usually. When I capture them, I can see their tooth wear. Depending how much tooth ware there is, we can tell their age. Today we use passive identification tags, which are microchips that allow individuals to be identified. For example if I capture a baby, I'll get the weight and measurements I need and put in a microchip and release it. Then if I capture that peccary again, I will be able to identify it and then compare the new measurements to the old ones and be able to see the growth.

Question: Do you ever name certain peccaries that you see a lot?
Dr. Keuroghlian: I name them all. And usually I name them after the staff at the Fazenda. Usually we use local names so that local people can pronounce the peccary's name. For example, we have a pig called Mariza, a colleague of mine from CI-Brasil. I have peccaries named "Baiano," "Picole," and "Rose," which are all workers at the Fazenda. I always tell people that it is an honor when I use their name for a peccary.

Question: How do you capture a peccary — do you use bait?
Dr. Keuroghlian: I use bait — mandioc, which is a kind of tuber like a potato, corn, and native fruits. I use traps and small pigpens to capture them. I can capture about 10–12 peccaries in a pigpen at a time. The trap captures about 2. If I'm lucky.

Question: How much does an average adult peccary weigh?
Dr. Keuroghlian: An adult white-lipped peccary weighs about 30 kilograms. The collared peccary weighs about 18 kilograms as an adult so there is quite a difference between the two.

Question: How are the peccaries Casper and Lipstick doing? How old are they?
Dr. Keuroghlian: I don't know these peccaries. Maybe they don't live at the Fazenda.

Question: What are the differences between the types of peccaries?
Dr. Keuroghlian: There are three species of peccaries in South America: the chacoan peccary which is considered an endangered species because it is endemic to an area called the chaco forest. And then we have the collared peccary which ranges from southwestern United States throughout South America. Then we have the White Lipped peccary ranging from southern Mexico throughout South America. The white lipped peccary move in very large herds. About 50–200 individuals. They are the only rainforest ungulates (hoofed animals) which form large herds. So their effects on forest habitats can be very dramatic because of their numbers. The collared peccaries move in packs of 8–12 individuals. The chacoan peccaries are similar to the collared peccaries but they require fairly large home ranges.

Question: Where else can you find peccaries?
Dr. Keuroghlian: You can't find them outside the western hemisphere.

Question: Are Javelinas (found in Southwest USA) the same thing as peccaries?
Dr. Keuroghlian: Yes, Americans call collared peccaries "javelinas" they are the same thing. Javelina in South America is referred to as the European Boar.

Question: Are there are any laws to protect peccaries?
Dr. Keuroghlian: In Brazil, all wildlife is protected. You are not allowed to hunt, but that is not true of other South American countries where certain hunting is permitted. People hunt and eat peccaries in other South American countries. There of course illegal hunting in Brazil where peccaries are hunted and eaten. This illegal hunting is more of a problem in the Amazon and Atlantic forests.

Question: Do you like living in Brazil? Why did you want to be a scientist, how long have you been one, and how did you find your job? (By the way, we just remembered that Casper and Lipstick are river otters in the Pantanal, not peccaries.)
Dr. Keuroghlian: Yes, I grew up in Brazil.

Ah, now I remember Casper and Lipstick. They are fine, I think!! I would have to check with Helen.

I've always been a big animal lover and always knew that I would try to help preserve the wildlife that faces so many problems in our world today.

In my previous job working in the Atlantic Forest, my research was funded by Earthwatch and then Earthwatch developed a partnership with CI-Brasil and invited me to run this research center.

Question: Besides peccaries what else have you studied?
Dr. Keuroghlian: Primates. I was a monkey researcher. I studied Amazonian primates and then an endangered species in the Atlantic forest called the Black Lion Tamarin.

Question: Do you miss the monkeys?
Dr. Keuroghlian: I do miss them. Peccaries are lower down on the evolutionary scale. BUT, I have my own monkeys at home that keep me entertained — my two children!

Question: What first interested you about working with peccaries?
Dr. Keuroghlian: When I was working with the black lion tamarins, I worked in an area that had peccaries, and when I started to read about them, I realized that there was almost nothing known about these animals beyond descriptive sightings. From personal information and the literature, they are intriguing animals because they are not your typical ungulate. For example, you can't tell the difference between male and females by size. They also form these huge herds which is unusual for a tropical environment. My study at the Atlantic Forest was one of the first study of wild peccaries conducted.

Question: How do you travel around in the Pantanal? Do you have to use boats all the time?
Dr. Keuroghlian: We use boats and four wheel drive vehicles. We also use horses.

Question: Do you have any advice to kids who want to help?
Dr. Keuroghlian: I think for any wildlife you are going to work with, make sure you read all about them and learn as much as you can about the animal in the literature. Then see what kinds of questions are still needed to be answered to help with the general conservation of the species and their ecosystem.

Question: Do peccaries hibernate?
Dr. Keuroghlian: No, we don't have winters in the Pantanal like your winters.

Question: Do peccaries like humans?
Dr. Keuroghlian: No not particularly because they are afraid of people since they are hunted by people — most animals are afraid of people, and their first reaction is to take off.

Question: What is the most surprising thing you have found out in the Pantanal?
Dr. Keuroghlian: I think the most impressive thing about the Pantanal is the huge variability between the wet and dry seasons. This variability causes huge changes in resource availability, mammal movement, and migratory birds. , Basically all the life in the Pantanal is impacted by this huge seasonality. This also creates this cycle of rapid growth of plants and dying off of plants, so it makes the environment very productive. In other words, lots of food around allowing to support a large number of various organisms.

Question: Can you advise kids who want to be scientists?
Dr. Keuroghlian: Study hard, have passion for your work, and do well in school.