A Weekend in Rio

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A marvelous view awaits those who travel to the top of Sugarloaf mountain on the sky trams.

In Rio de Janeiro, mountains come straight out of the ocean. My flight flew in over the ocean with mountains and city views on both sides and before I even landed, I was sold on the incredible natural scenery, which instantly became, and stayed, my favorite part of the city. The mountains in Rio are part of the Serra Do Mar mountain range, which stretches along the southern and southeastern coasts of Brazil. The range initially rose when the South American and African continents split, and continued to rise and shift during two major magmatic, or volcanic, events. Today, the drastically-shaped formations rising from the ocean in Rio are a result of constant erosion from wind and ocean waves.

These incredible formations form the basis for many tourist activities in Rio. I happily jumped at the opportunity to ride a train to the top of Corcovado, where the world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue resides. As one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” the statue is a can’t-miss in Rio. It was cloaked in fog when we arrived, but the large restaurant and gift shops at the top of the mountain kept us occupied until the sun exposed the statue’s true height and the sprawling city below. After riding the train back down the mountain, we traveled to the base of another famous, rocky formation: Sugarloaf. A series of sky trams will take passengers to the top of Sugarloaf, but we decided to hike to the first station along a rugged and steep, yet well-maintained trail that winds through classic Atlantic forest vegetation, complete with furry, squirrel-like marmosets. Visitors can purchase snacks and souvenirs at both sky tram stations. Atop Sugarloaf, we watched the sun set beyond Christ the Redeemer and the Serra Do Mar mountains.

Alongside the mountains of Rio are the classic beaches. On a tip from a friend, I stayed in Ipanema and it was there I rented a bike to explore the sandy shore. I biked north the length of Ipanema Beach and continued on to the end of Copacabana. Even in winter, beach-goers are plenty. Between the surfing, swimming, innumerable food and drink stands, and crafters selling products, anyone can kill a day at the beach in Rio. After my bike ride, I took a dip in the Atlantic, the same ocean I grew up visiting some 4000+ miles (~7000+km) south of my childhood vacation spots. The water was warm, but turbulent, a characteristic attributable to Rio’s foundation; parts of the city were built directly on top of marshy, wet areas, placing it exceptionally close to open ocean. This proximity means the waves are great for surfing, but can be quite strong for swimming. A walk along the Ipanema shoreline at dusk concluded my beach day.

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The Candelária Church is the site of several historic events, including the movement to give citizens the right to elect a president through popular vote and the site of the 1993 massacre of eight children by police, which shone a light on police brutality globally.

As the outdoorsy type, it is hard for a metropolis to beat out a natural area when it comes to vacation spots for me. But, I had to do my trip to Rio justice by exploring the city center. Rio was founded in the 1500s and its first city square sits near a port along the coast. In this area, it is easy to catch an Uber, street train (originally built for the 2016 Olympic Games), taxi, or metro to major landmarks in and around the Santa Teresa and Lapa neighborhoods, including the Selaron Steps, Candelária Church, and the newer Museum of Tomorrow. Running through the center of Lapa are its famed arches, which once served as an aqueduct. Today, visitors can ride a trolley on top of the arches for an excellent view of Lapa; the trolley stops in Santa Teresa where several restaurants serve up the city’s most popular dish: feijoada. A stew made with black beans and pork, feijoada is a deliciously rich and filling dish best known in Rio. This area of the city is also well-known for its colorful night life, with live music around every corner.

With its rich culture in dance and art, charming architecture, and sprawling beaches with mountain views, Rio de Janeiro has a little something for everyone. There’s a reason it lives on every travel junkie’s to-visit list; it’s utterly beautiful and simply impossible to get bored in the Marvelous City.

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Serra da Canastra National Park, Minas Gerais, Brazil

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Pampas deer graze in a Cerrado landscape.

The Brazilian Cerrado is a globally unique and quickly vanishing savannah that is home to incredible plant and animal biodiversity. Considered a wooded savannah, the Cerrado is a vast, open landscape interspersed with clumps of dense, woody vegetation. Threatened by over-exploitation through primarily agricultural development, the disappearing Cerrado could take with it charismatic fauna like the maned wolf along with hundreds of plants found only in this region. With over 71,000 hectares, Serra da Canastra National Park is one of the largest tracts of federal land protecting this ecologically special landscape.

In Brazil, federal land is classified into one of many land-use types, ranging from exploitative use of timber and other products to preservation without recreation. The objective of the national park classification is to primarily preserve biodiversity and secondarily provide environmental education and recreational opportunities for citizens and tourists. In Serra da Canastra National Park, visitors can drive a long and winding road through a typically open, rolling Cerrado landscape. Lucky guests will witness giant anteaters toppling over the large termite mounds for a snack; crested caracara and a pair of pampas deer defined the wildlife experience during our drive down the dirt road.

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The Casca D’Anta waterfall in Serra da Canastra National Park.

At the end of the road, we were met with a natural swimming hole and a trailhead. The approximately 2-mile (3.5km) trail wound down a steep mountain, through grassy and woody vegetation. The trail terminated at the base of a 610ft (186m) waterfall. The Casca D’Anta waterfall is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region and it was there we took the opportunity to dip our toes into the frigid São Francisco river. Flowing 1,811 miles (2,914km) across Brazil, the São Francisco is the longest river in the country, bringing water, hydroelectric power, and habitat for hundreds of riverine fishes to five states before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Serra da Canastra National Park was initially established to protect the spring where the São Francisco is born as well as the first several miles of the river. The water in the park is remarkably clean and refreshing, and at around 43°F (6°C), taking a dip at the base of the falls is not for the faint of heart. Just bordering the park is a privately-owned swath of land that is protected under a conservation easement. We took the time to hike the short loop trail on the easement, which winds through a forested area past three waterfalls and two large natural swimming holes along the São Francisco.

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Cheese is matured for up to two years in this room at a farm in Minas Gerais.

Outside of the opportunities to explore the natural beauty of the Cerrado, any trip to Minas Gerais would be lacking without exploration into the local culture of cheese-making. Originating during Portuguese exploration of the Brazilian interior, cheese-making has become a tradition passed on through generations. The traditional cheeses are made with raw cow milk and have a mild, salty flavor. Slight differences in taste throughout the region are a result of the differing vegetation that makes up the dairy cow diets. Despite the rich culture surrounding cheese-making in Minas Gerais, few people outside of Brazil have ever heard of this tradition. Changing national laws that regulate where the cheese can be sold within the country helped amplify the product nationally and recently, Minas Gerais cheese is increasingly recognized at an international scale. We visited two cheese makers in the area, one of which offered a small tour of their facilities and both of which offered incredible cheese sampling platters. My favorite had to be a purple cheese that was matured in wine and by the time we left Minas Gerais, there were at least six rounds of expertly-matured cheeses tucked alongside our luggage.

Like all trips to somewhere incredible, the Serra da Canastra National Park weekend was too short. Personally, I call that feeling a good excuse to come back; the cheese and the trails will certainly be waiting!

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The Tayra in a Changing Brazilian Landscape

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Illustration of the Mustelidae Family from Handbook of the Mammals of the World: Volume 1 by Toni Llobet.

While many mammalian species found across Central and South America are declining due to habitat loss, forest fragmentation, and agricultural development, the tayra is trying something different: persistence. The tayra is a medium-sized omnivorous mammal that looks like a mix between a cute teddy bear and a giant weasel. In fact, it is a member of the weasel family (Mustelidae), which includes weasels, otters, wolverines, and a diverse range of other noodle-shaped mammals. It’s this fun-to-look-at species that brought me to Brazil this summer (or winter, depending on which hemisphere you’re reading from). With support from the Brown Graduate Research Fellowship Program through the College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources at Mizzou, I partnered with Assistant Professor Rita Bianchi and her lab to analyze data they collected on the tayra.

The Bianchi Lab Group works extensively on mammalian ecology in Brazil. To achieve their varying objectives, many students use camera trap data. Camera traps are a remote-sensing technology that allow researchers to gather information on exactly where mammals are at specific dates and times. Over the past several years, the Bianchi Lab Group has methodically scattered camera traps throughout state parks and other natural areas in São Paulo State. These camera traps captured images of several mammalian species, including giant anteater, puma, agouti, and of course, tayra! Pairing the date and time stamp from the camera trap images with the camera trap location and species present in the photo, researchers can answer a breadth of questions about when and where animals spend time. Answers to these questions can help scientists and land managers understand the resources needed for species to thrive.

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Two tayra are captured on a camera trap in São Paulo State, Brazil.

Despite a growing shift from natural forest to agriculture throughout Brazil and other parts of Central and South America, tayra seem to be handling increasingly fragmented forests just fine. Why bother looking at data for an animal that we aren’t too concerned about? First, we must understand what a species needs if we are to keep it on the landscape. For example, what type of forests do tayra live in? When are they most active and what foods do they rely on? Can tayra survive in small forest fragments? Answers to these questions allow land managers to ensure tayra needs are met and prevent a future decline. Secondly, other species of mesocarnivore (medium-sized carnivorous and omnivorous mammals) are not faring as well as the tayra. Understanding the specific tayra traits that have allowed it to persist longer in this changing landscape could offer insights on why other species are declining.

Using camera trap data collected by the Bianchi Lab Group, we are working on two objectives: 1) Determine tayra habitat selection and 2) Evaluate tayra activity patterns. The first objective will help us understand where tayra are choosing to spend time, including which type, size, and structure of forest. We can also determine whether the presence of other species, like large predators or potential prey species, dictate where the tayra are on the landscape. The second objective will provide insight on when tayra move around the landscape and whether this activity changes by season. We anticipate this research will provide a much-needed update on tayra ecology in the current Brazilian landscape. Stay tuned to this blog for more insights on life in Brazil, tayra ecology, and other wildlife research.