Return to Paraguay: Conserving the Taguá, a Living Fossil

In 1972, mammalogist Ralph Wetzel and colleagues were studying armadillo ectoparasites in the Paraguayan Chaco when they came upon a peccary (what we call javelina in Texas) that didn’t look like those already known to science. The result was Catagonus wagneri – the Chacoan peccary, known only from a fossil discovered in 1930 by Argentinian paleontologist Rusconi. During the next two decades following this discovery, a cadre of various scientists ventured to Paraguay to learn everything they could about this rare living fossil. Some such as Jon Mayer and Phil Brandt went on to other careers, while others such as noted peccary biologist Lyle Sowls have passed on.


Chacoan peccary or taguá (Catagonus wagneri).

I was fortunate in being the youngest of this earlier wave of scientists. In 2008, for my first blog ever for BEYONDbones, I wrote about my experience in the Paraguayan Chaco, fresh out of undergraduate training. Here is the part relevant to today’s blog, taken directly from the Introduction of the 2008 blog:

“I spent 1989-1990 studying a semi-captive baited herd of Chacoan peccaries (Catagonus wagneri), an endangered medium-sized mammal endemic to the Chaco biome of central South America; taguá is the Guaraní Indian word for this distant relative of the pig sub-order. They are extremely rare, and very few people ever see a live one in the wild. Writing this piece takes me back to a time when I accomplished a lot by knowing very little. Only in my early 20s, I did a lot of growing up during my stint in the Chaco – hot water, electricity, air-conditioning, phones, TVs, stereos, etc. were nonexistent in my life, but the fauna was diverse and abundant, and the studies I was able to accomplish during my time there paved way for a lifetime of disciplined work.”

In early February 2016, I received an invitation to attend an international workshop in Asunción (Paraguay’s capital) dedicated to creating an action plan for the taguá. I received this with very mixed feelings, having not worked intensively with taguá for nearly three decades since I was very young and very green. I contacted the workshop coordinator to express my concern, and she gently and politely let me know that it was her hopes to get all the taguá biologists, present and past, together in one room, where the young could learn from the older and vice-versa. After figuring out how to get to the meeting and get the necessary blessings and permissions, I was holding plane tickets to return to Paraguay…

When I first went to Paraguay in the late 1980s to work with taguá, barely a handful of people were interested in this endangered species, let alone conserving them. I was truly heartened to see that has changed at this workshop!  All the necessary stakeholders were represented at the meeting – not just scientists, but also indigenous Guaraní who depend on taguá for protein and the hide for other uses. Landowners and administrators who advise ranchers on integrating wildlife and ranching were present, including representatives from the Mennonite colonies (Mennonites occupy a good chunk of the range where taguá occur in Paraguay) and important government officials including the heads of National Parks for certain states.


Geographic range of the Taguá in the Chaco of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.

In total there more than 30 representatives from the range of the taguá (Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia) as well as a few biologists from other countries who met from late February to early March for a week of intensive meetings. On the first day of the meeting, the taguá biologists worked on reviewing the taguá’s status and distribution, and generating a population viability and habitat suitability analysis (PVHA) using a computer modeling program called Vortex. Various life history parameters from data I collected as a youth were entered into the computer program, and it spat out the number of individuals necessary to conserve the taguá well into the future.


During the remaining three days, participants worked on identifying a vision for the action plan based on the main primary threats to the taguá. Participants were separated into three break-out working groups (habitat loss, hunting, lack of knowledge) to determine isolating problems and goals and actions that address the main threats to the taguá. The latter group (lack of knowledge) also worked on identifying potential roles for captive breeding programs. Additionally, a network of committed professionals and institutions was created to put the recommendations and priority actions into practice.


The habitat loss break-out working group.

I think everyone enjoyed getting to work with other like-minded people toward a common goal. It was a lot of fun reuniting with old friends after so many years, as well as building new friendships. Hopefully, the governments of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia will incorporate the action plan into their respective conservation planning.

Today, Juan Campos is the director of the project I worked on so many years ago. The project’s name has been changed to CCCI/Proyecto Taguá (translated: Chaco Center for Conservation and Investigations/The Taguá Project). Juan is a true gentleman and is doing some outstanding work!  We are currently making plans to collaborate on various projects.


Juan Campos, left, with a current version of yours truly.


Me circa 1989.

The man who initially sent me to Paraguay was Dr. Kurt Benirschke, who was one of the originators of the concept of breeding endangered species in captivity as a conservation tool. He is also the father of former San Diego Charger’s star kicker, Rolf Benirschke! Kurt instilled some great concepts in me at a very young age, like the one and only medicine you need in life is hard work. He used to tell wonderful stories of wildlife encounters he had in Paraguay and other areas. I remember on one such occasion he was telling me that just 25 years ago (some time around 1964), massive woolly spider monkeys or muriquis (Brachyteles arachnoides) lived in the tri-country region of I’guasu, but sadly the species had gone extinct. One of the most funny, yet very real and bittersweet moments of the week involved some storytelling of my own. Some of the younger biologists, newer yet already very experienced with Paraguay’s wildlife, were lamenting that black howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya) were now becoming extremely rare in Paraguay. I told them they were mistaken, since I remembered them from when I lived in Paraguay just 27 years ago. They were extremely common, even in the neighborhoods of Asunción, where it was possible to see them using utility lines to get around! My new, younger friends looked at each other with shock, then looked at me with suspicion, and cautiously informed me that howler monkeys disappeared from Asunción many years ago. Saddened by this, I realized that things had come full circle – another fantastic, large and charismatic vertebrate had become locally extinct in another span of roughly 25 years. Hopefully it won’t be too late for the taguá…

Stay cool in the rainforest: summer events unfold at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Summer is here and the kids are out of school, so what better time to escape the heat and join us here at HMNS for some cool and educational arthropod experiences! The Cockrell Butterfly Center will be welcoming back a popular summertime program and introducing a couple of new ones which will be sure to excite the bug lover in everyone! Every week this summer, we will be giving you a chance to get up close and personal with some of our famous residents on three different days. Here’s a little about what we’ll be up to…

Small Talk: Tuesdays at 1 p.m.

Small creatures, big information! Every Tuesday, in the Children’s Area on the main level of the CBC, we will be introducing you to a different resident of the Brown Hall of Entomology. Our entomologists will bring out our biggest and most exotic creatures as well as some familiar (or not-too-familiar) Houston natives. Giant katydids, Atlas moths, and odd arachnids are just some of the creatures you will meet. Each talk will fill your head with all kinds of cool information and facts about our feature creatures. Afterward, we will answer any questions you may have. Up-close viewing and sometimes touching will be permitted, and definitely feel free to bring the camera!

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Wing It!: Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m.

At the CBC, you can watch brand-new butterflies emerging from their chrysalises, pumping blood into their newly formed wings, and preparing for their first flight. After this, enter the rainforest filled with lush tropical plants and hundreds of butterflies fluttering through their naturalistic habitat. But, how do they get there? Every Wednesday morning, join our entomologists outside of the Chrysalis Corner in the Brown Hall of Entomology. We will talk about a typical butterfly release and answer questions. Then, you can walk into the rainforest and watch as brand new butterflies take their first flight in their new home. Touching of the delicate butterflies will not be permitted, but please feel free to take as many pictures as you want.

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Friday Feeding Frenzy: 9:30, 10, 10:30, and 11:30 a.m.

The main event! Get ready to see huge, ferocious, carnivorous insects and other animals feast on their prey in front of your very own eyes! This Friday and every Friday throughout the summer, the Cockrell Butterfly Center will be feeding a live animal for your viewing pleasure. We have several arthropods and even some reptiles that we will showcase. Here is a little about the line-up…


Green Tree Pythons (Morelia viridis): Our green tree pythons, Kaa and Nagini, will be ready to dine on mice! These snakes are native to Indonesia, Australia, and New Guinea. Pythons are non-venomous snakes that subdue their prey by constricting. Their food consists mostly of small mammals and the occasional reptile. They lay in wait, curled around a tree branch, and when potential prey approaches, they strike from an “S” position, using their tails to anchor themselves to the branch. Once their prey is snagged, it’s lights out!

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Giant Asian Mantis (Hierodula membranacea): This praying mantis, one of the largest species, comes from Southeast Asia. Mantises are ambush predators and have several features that ensure their success in catching prey. Their amazing camouflage allows them to resemble either living or dead parts of plants, flowers, tree bark, stones, or sticks. Not only does this help conceal them from predators, it also keeps potential prey oblivious to their presence. An insect that wanders too close is snatched by raptorial front legs (legs specialized for grabbing) and held still by several tough spines. The mantis uses chewing mandibles to eat its victim alive. Mantises have excellent vision at close range and can see as far as 20 meters. Their eyes are large and located on the sides of their head, allowing the insect to see all around itself. They can keep their eyes on potential prey by inconspicuously moving their heads up to 180 degrees. Nothing can escape their field of vision. Most mantises feed on smaller insects, but some giant species can take down small reptiles, amphibians, and even rodents!


Giant Centipede (Scolopendra heros): Centipedes are predatory, long-bodied arthropods with many pairs of legs – one pair per body segment. Centipedes are venomous and can be dangerous, so they are not to be confused with the congenial millipede, which poses no threat to humans and has four legs per body segment. This centipede, AKA the giant red-headed centipede, can run very quickly to pursue and catch its prey, which it immobilizes with repeated bites from two venomous fangs. Once dead, the prey is devoured. Giant centipedes of this and similar species are found in Mexico and the southwestern United States. The coloration, known as aposematic or warning coloration, serves as a message to other animals: “Touch me, and you’ll get more than you bargained for!” A bite from one of these can cause intense pain that lasts for hours or days and can cause a severe reaction in someone who is allergic. These hunters take down smaller arthropods, small reptiles and amphibians, small rodents, and have even been known to hunt tarantulas!

Wolf Spider (Hogna carolinensis): This is the largest species of wolf spider found in the United States! Most wolf spiders are large and can sometimes be confused with tarantulas. The name wolf spider refers to their hunting behavior. Instead of building a web, they wait to ambush their prey and at other times, they chase it for a short distance. Wolf spiders inject venom into their prey to immobilize it. They then use digestive enzymes to liquefy the insides and then slurp it up through a tube that leads to the stomach. Wolf spiders have no interest in biting people, but will if provoked. The severity of their bite has been compared to that of a bee sting.

Goliath Birdeater Tarantula (Theraphosa blondi): This is the big mama of all tarantulas and regarded as the largest spider in the world. They can reach a weight of 5.3 ounces (more than a quarter pounder) and have a leg-span of 12 inches (about the size of a dinner plate). The name birdeater is a misnomer as they do not eat birds, although they could. They are native to marshy swamplands in South America, and like other large spiders, they feed on mostly insects. However, because of their size, they often go for small reptiles, amphibians, and rodents. If threatened, these tarantulas can produce an eerie hissing noise by rubbing together setae on their legs. If that doesn’t creep you out enough to stay away, watch out for the urticating hairs they kick off their abdomens into the air. If these hairs come into contact with your skin, you get really itchy, and you don’t even want to know what happens if they get in your eyes! Birdie is our resident birdeater and she’s a thrill to watch as she shoves as many crickets into her mouth as possible!

So if creepy crawlies are your thing, visit the CBC this summer, and witness the goings-on of our staff and our tiny, fascinating residents.

We’d like to introduce you to the four new species of African house bats

Editor’s note: This blog post is a summation of “New Species of Scotophilus (Chiroptera: Vespertiliondae) from Sub-Saharan Africa,” written by HMNS Curator of Vertebrate Zoology Daniel M. Brooks and John W. Bickham, and published as a monograph in the Occasional Papers of the Museum at Texas Tech University.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a hotbed of biological diversity. A seemingly endless stream of new species has been discovered from different locales every year for centuries. The idea of this great biodiversity is widely accepted and, in fact, celebrated. But advances in genomic sequencing and morphology and an increased ability to obtain reliable specimens while recording their location shows that we’ve really just hit the tip of the iceberg. Many individual clades (or groups) of species should actually be distinguished further from each other as unique species themselves.

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Distribution of the four new species in Africa

The conservation question

Hold on a second here. Why is this important? What kind of difference could it make if there are 15 or 19 or 30 species of house bats in the world?

Glad you asked! Having an accurate taxonomy (naming and classification system) guides conservation efforts, while incomplete records impede these same efforts. Look at it this way: if you don’t know that a species exists, how can you protect it? In our modern era, we’re seeing rapid climate change and urbanization, which puts habitats under stresses to which species cannot quickly adapt. Therefore, having complete records allows us to make more meaningful conservation efforts because we have a better picture of what we’re trying to conserve. Having an accurate taxonomy also helps us to learn about biogeography, evolution, biodiversity and biology in general.

Now on to the bats!

As of 2005, there were 15 species of Scotophilus (house bats) documented. These were distributed between Indonesia, mainland Asia, Madagascar, Reunion Island and mainland Africa. However, these 15 species do not accurately reflect our current knowledge of Scotophilus biodiversity.

A 2009 study by Robert G. Trujillo sequenced cytochrome-b (part of an organism’s DNA) in Scotoplilus. Cytochrome-b is found in mitochondrial DNA, which is the genetic material in mitochondria (the “energy factory” of cells, if you will). These sequences are very useful in determining species differentiation.

With this information, Trujillo identified four distinct clades (branches on a species family tree). These include clades 8, 9, 11 and 12. Brooks and Bickham examined specimens from each of these lineages to see if there were enough physical differences between the organisms to further classify them as distinct species.

The clades and species of Scotophilus studied for the mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene by Trujillo et al. (2009). The new species described in this  paper are circled.

The clades and species of Scotophilus studied for the mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene by Trujillo et al. (2009). The new species described in this paper are circled.

Brooks and Bickham used skull and body measurements to compare specimens of each lineage with specimens representing the appropriate nominate — “textbook specimens” — of a given species).

Basically, they got very specific: measuring specimens from one predetermined area, and compared them to the nominate “textbook specimens” to see what physical differences there may or may not be.

When they compared the specimens, we saw that the genetic differences between the clades matched up with physical differences, which is why I’m proud to introduce to you four new species of African house bats (Scotophilus)!

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Study skin of Scotophilus andrewreborii holotype


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Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus andrewreborii holotype

Scotophilus andrewreborii
Andrew Rebori’s House Bat

It is our honor to name this species for Andrew N. Rebori (1948–2011). Rebori unknowingly touched lives and inspired many individuals, including many museum professionals. He always maintained a keen interest in animals, especially bats, which exemplified his spirit and attitude toward life: “Take flight every new day!”

Type locality: Kenya: Rift Valley Province, Nakuru District, 12 km S, 4 km E Nakuru (0º24’S, 36º07’E).

Diagnosis: Scotophilus andrewreborii is distinguished from S. dinganii from Natal by a combination of external and craniodental features. S. andrewreborii averages slightly larger in body size for most characters. Additionally the dorsal pelage in S. andrewreborii is more reddish than the browner dorsal fur of S. dinganii, and the ventral pelage in S. andrewreborii is orange versus a much darker grey in S. dinganii.

Cranial measurements in S. andrewreborii are smaller, with non-overlapping measurements for braincase breadth for males, and shorter mean skull length (18.9 in S. andrewreborii vs. 19.6 mm for S. dinganii), narrower zygomatic, shorter braincase height, narrower interorbital width (4.4 vs. 4.8 mm), decreased breadth across upper molars, and decreased breadth across upper canines for females.

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Study skin of Scotophilus livingstonii holotype


Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus livingstonii holotype.

Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus livingstonii

Scotophilus livingstonii
Livingstone’s House Bat

It is our honor to name this species for the late David Livingstone (1813–1873). At a time when most of Africa was barely known compared to today, Livingstone, a young Scot of humble means, explored central Africa. Between 1841 and his death in 1873, Livingstone made several expeditions into the interior of the continent, mapping uncharted lands and searching for navigable waterways.

Type locality: Kenya: Western Province, Kakamega District, Ikuywa River Bridge, 6.5 km S, 19 km E Kakamega (0º13’N, 34º55’E).

Diagnosis: Scotophilus livingstonii is distinguished from S. dinganii from Natal by a combination of external and craniodental features. S. livingstonii averages larger overall in body size. Additionally the dorsal pelage in S. livingstonii is more reddish-mahogany than the browner dorsal fur of S. dinganii, and the ventral abdominal pelage in S. livingstonii is light buff vs. a much darker grey in S. dinganii.

Scotophilus livingstonii is also distinguished from S. dinganii from Natal by cranio-dental measurements. Male S. livingstonii have a shorter mean skull length, and females have a longer mean mandibular length.

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Study skin of Scotophilus ejetai holotype


Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus ejetai holotype.

Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus ejetai holotype

Scotophilus ejetai
Ejeta’s House Bat

This species is named in honor of Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, Distinguished Professor of Plant Breeding & Genetics and International Agriculture at Purdue University. He was born and raised in the village of Wollonkomi in west-central Ethiopia. Dr. Ejeta is a plant breeder and geneticist who received the 2009 World Food Prize for his research and development of improved sorghum hybrids resistant to drought and Striga weed. The results of his work have dramatically enhanced the food supply of hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Type locality: Ethiopia: Orimaya Region, Dogy River Bridge (8º21’43″N, 35º53’02″E). Collected at 1390 m above sea level.

Diagnosis: Scotophilus ejetai is distinguished from S. dinganii from Natal by a combination of external and craniodental features. S. ejetai averages smaller overall in body size, with females presenting non-overlapping forearm length.  Additionally the ventral pelage in S. ejetai has an orange hue, whereas the ventral fur is buff with a greyish abdomen in S. dinganii.

Cranial measurements in S. ejetai are smaller, with non-overlapping measurements for skull length, zygomatic breadth and braincase breadth for males, and zygomatic breadth and braincase breadth for females.

Study skin of Scotophilus trujilloi holotype.

Study skin of Scotophilus trujilloi holotype


Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus trujilloi holotype.

Study cranium and mandible of Scotophilus trujilloi holotype

Scotophilus trujilloi
Trujillo’s House Bat

It is our honor to name this species for Dr. Robert Trujillo (b. 1975), whose ground-breaking doctoral dissertation on the molecular systematics of Scotophilus paved the way for the description of the four cryptic species described here. Dr. Trujillo’s dedication to science and environmental stewardship are reflected in his outstanding career in the US Forest Service.

Type locality: Kenya: Coastal Province, Kwale District, Moana Marine Station, 1 km S, 2 km E Ukunda (4º18’S, 39º35’E).

Diagnosis: Scotophilus trujilloi is distinguished from S. viridis from Mozambique Island by a combination of external and craniodental features. S. trujilloi averages larger in body size and shorter in forearm length, with females presenting non-overlapping head-body and forearm lengths. Additionally the dorsal pelage in S. trujilloi is mahogany, whereas the dorsal fur is brown in S. viridis. The ventral pelage in S. trujilloi is orange with a greyish abdomen, whereas the ventral fur is grayish-brown grizzled whitish abdominally in S. viridis.

Cranial measurements in S. trujilloi differ from S. viridis, with shorter mean braincase height in males; and females, as well as non-overlapping mandibular length in females. 

Working from zero: How exchange programs and scientific sleuthing fuel our Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Our collection focus in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology is dictated by both our exhibits and current areas of research. We are heavily vested in birds and mammals (and herps to a lesser extent) from Texas (yeehaw!), Africa and Latin America, as well as globally threatened/endangered species that transcend political boundaries.

Tightly correlated with this latter category are some of the exotic pheasants — sadly, rare in nature due to their capacity to feed hungry families in otherwise impoverished areas. The majority of the planet’s pheasants come from Asia — although it’s not a continent the collection focuses on per se, the fact that most pheasants are threatened/endangered makes them a targeted focal group for our collection.

However, Asian Bird Flu virus has all but shut down all export of birds from Asia! Consequently, we rely heavily on the captive stocks of zoos and private game breeders to build our synoptic series of pheasants. We have managed to build a respectable collection of most genera and at least 35 different species, although there are still a few species we are lacking, which can only be obtained through exchange programs with other museums. Such exchange programs are difficult to get off the ground for a number of primarily bureaucratic reasons.

Nevertheless, one of the many exciting developments in Vertebrate Zoology this year is a new exchange program with a large museum in the northeast. The Museum provides them with data-rich specimens that we already have represented in our collection, and they, in turn, provide us with study skins to help fill various gaps.

In terms of our current pheasant holdings, we currently have all species but one in the cases of junglefowl (Gallus), and peacock pheasants (Polyplectron), which are very different from peafowl (Pavo), and tragopans (Tragopan). In the latter case, we were fortunate to recently receive a beautiful adult male specimen of the Western Tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus) through the above-mentioned exchange program.

Unfortunately, the specimen arrived with very little information. For example, was it collected from the wild or hatched in captivity? Although this seems trivial, knowing this information can mean the difference between a specimen that is valuable in studies dealing with biogeography and systematics, versus one that is only useful to make drawings from or is just something pretty to look at.  This is where detective work comes in handy (such as the sleuthing highlighted in my blog dealing with Col. Richard Meinertzhagen).

Between the tags on the specimen and data at the bottom of the online catalog, I was able to glean the following information: The specimen was cataloged on Oct. 3, 1908. Either the species or specimen was from northern India, obtained from the private collection of Tristam.

Western Tragopan

First I needed to determine if the specimen was collected from the wild or hatched in captivity. The late Jean Delacour was a fascinating individual who was very interested in a broad array of topics dealing with gamebirds. His family owned a large 14th-century French castle and estate in the quaint town of Cleres (just north of Rouen) which he inherited and used to raise and study exotic gamebirds. Ultimately, he donated the facility in full to the Paris Museum (I was fortunate to visit the Cleres facility for a meeting about 15 years ago).

Delacour was an authority on pheasants and wrote a first edition on these birds in the 1950s that included everything known at the time of its writing, including the status of different species in captivity. Delving into this source, I learned that about 50 Western Tragopans were imported from northern India between 1863-93, mostly to breeders and zoos in France, as well as the London Zoo.  Apparently they were very difficult to raise, but one French aviculturist managed to raise a limited number by the mid 1890s.

However, Delacour then indicates that every single Western Tragopan died out in captivity by 1900 and they were never imported again, so they never reached the U.S. So it seems intuitive that because our new specimen was cataloged in 1908, it would surely have to have been collected from the wild as it was collected eight years after the last Western Tragopan perished in captivity.

Simple enough, right? Not that simple, I’m afraid.

The British Collector Henry Baker Tristam died in 1906. It fits logically that the specimen then made its way to the institution we received it from, where it was cataloged in 1908. It is possible that Tristam had the bird in his possession for a while prior to his death, and it is therefore plausible that the bird could have been one of the captive imports that died out.

However, given that so few were bred in captivity, it is likely that this male was indeed collected in nature — even if it lived in captivity for a spell prior to its death. Reinforcing this, apparently very few, if any, of the birds in Tristam’s specimen collection were raised in captivity.

Have you done any scientific sleuthing lately?