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

Binaural Audio/Video Recordings – Kristina Dutton + collab with Lisa Schonberg

I wanted to capture what it feels like to wander in the forests of Gamboa during both the sunset and evening choruses. Once I spent a little time on the Rio Charges I decided to weave that into the mix as well.

Binaural recordings imitate the spatial dimensions of human hearing. In other words, they reproduce sound the way we actually hear it. Because of this, listening to binaural recordings works best with headphones.

The microphones I used are designed specifically for quiet environments and I found the noise level of the evening chorus on Laguna Trail was enough to occasionally blow out the mics.

The audio was recorded in tandem with the video, so I moved both camera and mics (since they were attached to my ears) in whatever direction I was looking. This way, when I turn, the viewer hears the sound of the howlers from behind just as I did, whereas a moment before they were to the left, etc.

I wanted to convey the experience of sonic density in contrast to how little we actually see with our eyes in these environments, and to explore the idea that listening would have been important for our ancestors in wildly different ways than it is for us in most situations in modern cities or suburbs. Our relationship to sound has lost much of the meaning it once had and understanding it required. In cities we primarily filter out “noise” whereas, in the forest, we lean in and listen to understand what is around us.

For example, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton found that human hearing range is a perfect match for birdsong – that birds are indicators of a habitat that would be prosperous for human survival. He states that hearing is vital for all animals’ survival, and the bandwidth from 2.5 to 5 kHz are the resonant frequencies where we have super-senstive hearing – which is a perfect match for birdsong.

I’ve only made it through about 25% of what I recorded so I’ll continue to post more to my Vimeo page that will include other parts of Gamboa and the surrounding areas.

This video was taken between 6:30am and 8 am and includes sounds of the red-lored parrot, howler monkey, black-necked stilt, collared plover, ringed kingfisher, green heron, wattled jacana, northern waterthrush, smooth-billed ani, anhinga, and southern lapwing. And the occasional fish splashing around.
This 3rd vid is mostly made up of binaural recordings, but I threw in a moment recorded with a shotgun mic just to demonstrate the difference. Also this vid has a lot of great frog sounds!

The collaborative project I did with Lisa Schonberg involved combining technologies to enable others to experience the ecosystems in Gamboa from new perspectives. We made two videos. The first of leaf-cutter ants combined substrate-borne stridulations and locomotion on Pipeline Road with binaural ambient sound. The second was filmed underwater in the Rio Chagres and uses a combination of hydrophone and iPhone recording above and under water.

In the Rio Charges, while putting my iPhone in the water to film, I discovered that many small fish were interested in sucking at my skin. I ended up playing with them for quite a long time, as the fish didn’t react much to me scooping them into my hand. Playing in the water reminded me a lot what I felt like as a kid when I’d hang out at the edge of the pond near my house. I decided to make the video from that perspective – an intimate, playful view of the world just below the surface of the water.- wonder and curiosity being two of the greatest assets of art/sci/tech folks.

Recording Atta species on Pipeline Road
Wearing binaural headphone miss on Laguna Trail
Lisa Schonberg recording with ultrasonic mic on Laguna Trail
6:30 am on the Rio Charges with fellow Dinasaur Cherise