Watching Agoutis

I came to Dinacon already a devotee of agoutis. I had been observing them, photographing them, and following them around a city park in Rio de Janeiro for over a year.

In Rio the urban population of agoutis are not quite tame, but not quite wild any longer – they are not afraid of humans. Humans bring them vegetable scraps, french fries, even piles of cat food that they congregate around to enjoy. These agoutis only rarely flare up their butt hair, the signature agouti skittish gesture of fear. They co-exist with the population of stray cats, ducks, pigeons, geese, and peacocks that call the park home…

getting close to agoutis, Campo de Santana, Rio de Janeiro, BR
french fries + agoutis, Campo de Santana, Rio de Janeiro, BR
the agouti crowds, Campo de Santana, Rio de Janeiro, BR

In Gamboa, I had planned to film the local agoutis. I knew on some level that they would be different from their quasi-domesticated Brazilian cousins, but I did not realize that my entire understanding of agouti behavior was skewed by the city population I knew.

In Gamboa, an agouti is approximately 7.92x more skittish (data forthcoming). They hear the crinkly sound of a human stepping on a decaying leaf on the ground, and they snap to attention, look up, and run away. The most common image I captured when I began agouti observation in Gamboa was that of a retreating rear end.

The biggest difference was how the jungle agoutis in Panama did not seem to crowd around in groups. I never observed more than two agoutis in the same place, and often if there were two grazing, one would attempt to dominate the other and scare it away (cue: flare butt hair). The urban agoutis act more like we do in cities, gathering, eating fried food. In the jungle, the agouti’s important job of burying and dispersing seeds around the forest seems to be a solo endeavor.

So: in order to observe the agoutis of Gamboa, I knew I needed to get closer, and get quieter.

I took note of a spot near the water on the Laguna trail where multiple agoutis had crossed the footpath – frantically, running from me. I went back to the same spot on different days, in the early afternoon, and saw agoutis retreating from me on multiple occasions. This was a place they liked. This would be my stakeout. I set up a very lo-fi camera trap: my Ricoh GR II fixed-lens camera, attached to a hanging vine with a gorilla tripod (approximate cost: R$15, or less than $4 USD).

Under the gaze of the camera, I set up an offering. This was not the french fries and cat food of the Rio park, but a near-rotting pile of orange peels, banana peels, and hibiscus flowers. I set the stage. The bright colors of my food offering lay against the greying palm underneath it. I walked away. I waited.

lo-fi agouti camera trap set up
for watching agoutis, Ricoh GR II and cheap gorilla tripod

I waited until the forest forgot I was there. Or until I forgot to consider myself different than the forest. I looked through my scopes at hummingbirds, at toucans in the canopy. I knelt until I no longer felt my quads burning. A blue-crowned motmot landed on a branch inches above my face. A Panamanian flycatcher looked at me, asking. I became like a stone, and when I quieted the forest came alive, dense and throbbing.

I stayed wilding myself for a little more than an hour. When I stood up creaking and walked back to my camera, I saw that some of the food had been taken. I realized in that moment I could have caught any creature in the act – who else might want that banana peel?! But after about 40 minutes of filming only the food pile, my camera caught this:

key moments in the video:

0:18 – the second agouti arrives, clucking
0:22 – brief moment of shared snacking
0:47 – agouti fight!
1:30 – paws out, digging underneath the palm
2:47 – agouti returns, from under the palm
5:42 – return of the agouti, part ii

stills from the video:

If the garbage-food offering was a step towards domestication for these jungle agoutis, my sitting in the woods was a step towards wildness. We met somewhere in the middle.

possible extensions of project:

-what would the urban agoutis of Rio have to say to the forest agoutis of Panama? with a similar simple set-up, a signal could be sent (Arduino connected to Internet) from one group to the other – an LED light, a banana peel being delivered…the above could have been Phase 1 of “Cross-Continental Cutia Communication” (cutia = the Brazilian Portuguese word for agouti)

-an agouti hide, like a birding hide, built to be able to disappear and observe like my camera

-more footage, and a full-on documentary about agoutis

Thanks to everyone at Dinacon! And to agoutis everywhere.

-Madeline Blount

complexity + leafcutters: code/improvisation

The shimmering, industrious leafcutter ants that build highways on the forest floor make up a complex adaptive system – the sophisticated structures and patterns that they build are well beyond the sum of their individual parts. The ants’ collective intelligence emerges through the repetition of simple tasks, and somehow through self-organization they build cities without architects, roads without engineers. There’s something magnetic about their energetic movement as they carve through the jungle – wherever I found them at Gamboa, I found that I could not look away.

from pipeline trail and laguna trail, Gamboa
ant, Atlas
going around the stick barrier

I altered the code from a classic NetLogo simulation to model the behavior of the leafcutters. NetLogo allows you to code agent-based models and watch them play out over time – each of the ants acts as an autonomous “agent” with a simple task to perform, and the iteration of multiple ants performing these tasks begins to simulate how the ants behave in the jungle. What starts out as random walking drifts into road-like patterns as the ants pick up pixel leaves and deliver them to their digital fungus…

Ant Tasks:
1. choose a random angle between -45 and 45 degrees
2. walk 1 unit in that direction
3. repeat.
4. IF there’s food (green leaves or pink flowers), pick it up by turning green, and deliver it back to the fungus at the center.
5. IF you sense digital pheromone (ants carrying food tag the pixels they walk over with digital “scent” as they head to the center), follow that pheromone.

The Twist: music
A symphony of digital fungus stockpiling
An audio representation of the complex patterns and surprising order that arises from randomness…

Each ant in the simulation has an ID number, and that ID number corresponds to a note on the piano. When an ant picks up a leaf and successfully brings it back to the fungus in the middle, that ant will sound its unique note. I calibrated this so that extremely low notes and extremely high notes on the scale won’t play – instead of those extremes some ants are assigned the same middle C, which you can hear throughout the simulation over and over like a drum beat…

the simulation: turn up the sound!

The ants play their own bebop, they compose their own Xenakis-like songs. No two ant improvisations will be exactly alike; whenever you run the simulation, each ant makes different random choices and the behavior of the model will be different. But they sound like they spring from the same mind:

ant improv #1
ant improv #2
the ants start searching for food
making highways
one food source left…
starting the last highway

Our minds love patterns too – I find myself cheering the ants on when I watch the simulation, rooting for them to find the next leaf, hoping for them to route into the highway pattern, waiting to hear their eerie plunking, playful jazz…

coding in the jungle – on the balcony, adopta

extensions for this project:

-there is a web extension for NetLogo, but without sound; could translate these ants into Javascript/p5.js so users can press “play” themselves online and control different variables (how many ants? speed of ants?)

-connect the MIDI sound that the ants are making to a score, print out sheet music written by the ants, play it on the piano

-make the model more complex, closer to the structure of actual leafcutter colonies: different sizes of ants, different tasks…

-interactive projection version

you got this, ant.

Thanks to everyone at Dinacon!

-Madeline Blount

NetLogo citation:
Wilensky, U. (1999). NetLogo. Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.

Madeline Blount

Dates: August 24th-31st

coder/technologist, explorer, researcher, artist. very much looking forward to meeting others at the intersection of fields at Dinacon!

currently splitting time between Brooklyn, NY + Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – hoping to focus on filming the agoutis (Panamanian cousins of the Brazilian “cutias” I’ve met!). also interested in complex systems dynamics, birds, sound, dance, writing, + any chance to spend time outside.

fellow: Blue Ridge Labs