How tame are animals that are not afraid?

Grey leaf monkey checking out the pictures I took on its mates. I am the guy in the green shirt.

Grey leaf monkey checking out the pictures I took on its mates. I am the guy in the green shirt. Picture taken by Henrik Sjödin

During my recent trip to Asia, I visited a couple of places where animals never experience hunting. One of these was the Labuk Bay proboscis centre just outside Sandakan in Sabah, Borneo, created primarily for proboscis monkeys living in a remnant of forest surrounded by palm oil plantations. The proboscis monkeys are supplementary fed regularly at the centre, and at times even grey leaf monkeys visit the feeding areas. Some of the grey leaf monkeys accept vegetables, while other individuals seem to be less interested. However, all the grey leaf monkeys show very little fear of people, to the level where some of them interact freely with visitors. The young female in the picture above actually looked at the pictures I showed her on the screen of my camera. The proboscis monkeys also show an amazing lack of fear, with certain dominant males ignoring people irrespective of distance.

Proboscis monkey, allowing me to approach close enough to be able to take a wide-angle picture starting at its hand.

Proboscis monkey, allowing me to approach close enough to be able to take a wide-angle picture starting at its hand.

The second place I visited with no hunting or other persecution of animals was the Danum Valley field centre outside Lahad Datu, also in Sabah, Borneo. This research centre has been active for more than 25 years, with a total protection for all animals inside the protected area. Some animals live close to the field centre itself, and become incredibly accessible. One wild orangutan has totally lost her fear of people.

Fearless orangutan female

Fearless orangutan female

In Danum Valley, there is also a resident herd of Sambar deer. These deer are generally hunted outside protected areas, and are shy there. In the Danum area, all deer let visitors approach to around 15 metres, while some of the deer have become so tame, that they can be petted and hand fed.

Sambar deer

Sambar deer

Bearded pigs and other animals, such as longtailed macaques, some civets and tree shrews seem to very quickly loose their fear of man in protected areas.

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Bearded pig

So, what is my point? Animals that are not shot at are less afraid! That is not a major revelation. But there is a consequence to the hunting and other activities that are not often discussed. As an avid animal watcher, I find most animals very hard to find, and even more so, really hard to actually follow and study. That is outside protected areas. Inside protected areas, many animals are very easily observed and do behave seemingly natural even in the presence of humans. On a scientific notion, such observations give a lot of information on the ecology of such animals. Furthermore, on a more societal notion, to many people including myself, it is a great experience seeing wild animals behave naturally in their environment. I wonder what a world without any hunting and other similar activities directed towards animals would be. It is easy to envision some kind of “Eden”like place where we could interact with animals in a much closer way than we do now. I would for one really like to try it.

Red leaf monkey, feeding next to my breakfast table

Red leaf monkey, feeding next to my breakfast table

All animals portrayed in this entry are wild, are not restricted in movements in any way and are free to leave and go wherever they will. None of them are captive bred, and none have ever been in captivity. All allowed me within 5 meters distance, and some obviously even closer without any sign of stress.

Mind blowing parasite

One can find really weird things when walking along a Southeast Asian rainforest path. Common examples are ants, and more rarely other insects or spiders, sitting under a leaf with weird club shaped appendages growing out of them. At closer inspection of the ants in question, it is clear that the ants have their mandibles firmly anchored in the leaf, and, furthermore, that the ants are quite dead. Almost always the arthropods showing such of appendages are positioned right under the leaf, often biting around the leaf stem, thus keeping as dry as possible in the rainy and humid environment of the rain forest.

Cordyceps on Camponotus ant

Cordyceps on Camponotus ant

What has happened to these poor animals? Well, the fungus Cordyceps, or close relatives to Cordyceps, has happened. Cordyceps is a genus of endoparasitic fungi which attack arthropods such as insects or spiders. The attack from the Cordyceps starts when a spore from the fungus gets attached to the outside of the arthropod and germinates. The mycelium of the fungus enters the insect or spider through its breathing apparatus, which consists of small tubes, so called trachea, that transverses the body of the animal (or in the case of spiders, book lungs, that from the perspective of the fungus serves the same function).

Cordyceps on spider

Cordyceps on spider

The fungus soon starts to grow inside the animal, reaching every corner of the still live animal, converting animal matter to fungus mycelia. After a while, when the fungus more or less have exhausted all non-vital parts of the infected animal, the fungus by chemical means takes control over the ”brain” of the arhtropod. The arthropod is ”told” to climb up in the foliage and attach itself to a leaf, where it sits well protected from the frequent rains. Here the Cordyceps finally kills of its victim, converting the last matter left from insect or spider to fungus. Then the fruiting bodies, the appendages, grow out of the victim, and the fungus starts producing millions and yet millions of spores. Due to the positioning of the now dead victim, these spores are kept quite dry, and can thus spread over quite some distance in the hope of infecting yet another ant.

Cordyceps on ant

Cordyceps on ant

So is this a aquisition that the ants and other victims of the fungus havent yet had time to evolve a countermeasure to? It turns out that there are 48 000 000 years old remnants of bites of infected ants on fossil leaves. The bite marks are so characteristic that researchers are confident that Cordyceps have been taking over the minds of ants for at least so long. It is somewhat surprising that the ants haven´t been able to adapt to the fungus and evade the quite gruesome effects of getting infected.

Cordyceps on moth

Cordyceps on moth

Interestingly, some Cordyceps species are considered to have medical effects and have been used in traditional Tibetan medicine as an aphrodisiac. It is quite clear that the Cordyceps fungi group contain biological active chemicals, and some of those are being studied for use in modern medicine. Wouldn´t it be incredibly cool if a 48 000 000 year old chemical used to take over the mind of ants and other arthropods could be used to cure some of our modern day ailments?

Cordyceps on ant

Cordyceps on ant

The weirdest thing

During a recent trip to Borneo, I participated in an inventory of frogs in rainforest streams. When searching for frogs along streams of Borneo, usually something really interesting shows up on the banks of the stream. This time we found something even more interesting than usual, a thing  I have never seen before despite numerous visits to this area.

_MG_6299It was a white, quite unstructured “thing”, suspended in silk threads inside a cage like structure. None of the participants in the inventory, including several field assitants that had worked in this part of Borneo for many years had ever seen anything like this. I had no idea what it could be and posted the picture on several web sites, hoping that someone would recognise the structure.

The power of internet is amazing. In just a day several of my colleagues had solved the problem. It turns out that this is the pupa of a certain butterfly. The butterfly is very hairy as a caterpillar.

Hairy caterpillar

Hairy Bornean caterpillar

Apparently, the caterpillar use its hairs to create the cage in which the butterfly hangs suspended during its pupa stage. One can only guess why this intricate behaviour has evolved, but a fair guess is that it in some way protects the pupa from predators or parasites.

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One of the evenings frogs

Marine reptiles

Sabah, Borneo