YOU’VE GOT TO BE TOUGH TO BE AN AGOUTI
Author: Jack Ewing
When you’re walking through the rainforest and surprise an animal that goes bouncing through the undergrowth emitting panicked, bark-like grunts with every bounce, you’ve certainly startled a Central American Agouti (Dasysyprocta punctata). After 20 years of living here, I finally saw one standing still. Once the hunting was under control on Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge, their fear of humans diminished considerably.
Some say that agoutis look like rabbits with short ears. For me, their shape, habits, and mannerisms are more like those of large (3 kg), tailless squirrels. Like squirrels, during times of plenty, they bury seeds. Though rainforests produce an abundance of seeds and fruits, there is always a time of scarcity, and these hoarded seeds can mean the difference between survival and starvation.
Agoutis have figured out that white-fronted capuchin monkeys are very wasteful and dribble lots of goodies on the ground, so they often follow along underneath a foraging troop of monkeys salvage the edible refuse.
Baby agoutis are the only newborn mammals I know of that select their den site, separate from their mother the day after their birth. Their den is so small that the mother agouti can’t get inside and has to call them to come outside and nurse. At about three weeks, the infants start following mom around and learn what they need to know to face the world alone. Once the mother agouti determines that they are ready to fend for themselves, she chases them away.
Mother Nature applies the law of the jungle to these youngsters unmercifully; only the fittest and luckiest survive, a mere 30%. Their two main challenges are avoiding starvation and predation by coatis, ocelots, pumas, and others. You’ve got to be tough to be an agouti.
In 2015 one female agouti got brave enough to leave the protection of the forest at dusk, scamper across a driveway to Hacienda Barú Lodge, grab a fallen mango, and hurry back to the jungle. Each day she made her jaunt a little earlier, without incident. She soon lost all inhibitions and could be seen in broad daylight sitting under the tree pigging out on mangoes. Her offspring learned from a young age that there was nothing to fear from humans and got in the habit of wandering around in the gardens.
Feeding them is prohibited at the lodge, but they have learned where all fruit trees are located, and check them out regularly. This has been going on for about a dozen generations. If for some reason, these semi-tame agoutis were forced to return to the forest and make an honest living, like wild agoutis, they wouldn’t stand a chance of survival.
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