What Am I Seeing?

On the Value of Observation

“Come quick—you have to see this!”

It was our first morning in Ecuador, ever. Bret and I, with our two boys, then aged 9 and 7, had flown in the evening before, and come straight to Maquipucuna, a giant reserve of mostly cloud forest that climbs high into the Andes. It is home to the elusive spectacled bear, which comes downslope to feast on avocados when they are ripe. We never did see any spectacled bears. Having woken up to crimson-rumped toucanets outside our rustic cabin, we had then seen impossibly beautiful tanagers as the sun rose. We were the only human visitors at the reserve. And now, on a hike not far from the cabin, Bret had come running back to find the rest of us. Gesturing silently, he beckoned us to follow. What had he found?

Cautiously, quietly, we followed him down the trail. He stopped, finger to lips, turned, and pointed up to an understory tree just off the trail. We saw…a sloth hanging near the terminal end of a branch that wasn’t too sturdy. A sloth! And wait…some thing else? Some things else…dark and menacing, slowly advancing on the sloth.

What am I seeing?

We stood there, transfixed, watching, as our eyes and brains began to resolve what we were seeing.

In the study of animal behavior, one of the most difficult things for many people is learning how to observe without interpreting what they are seeing. Even the language that we use to describe what we see is often overlaid with interpretation: Territoriality. Mating display. Anti-predator tactics.

Categories are useful, but also constraining. When walking into a system that is new to us, it can be more effective to be naïve to what others have thought, at least at first. If you are already certain of what the solution set of possibilities looks like, you lose some of what it is to be human. You lose awe. You lose serendipity and the ability to be surprised. And you lose access to truth, because the only way you will see what is true is if it is already a match for what you thought beforehand. This is a path that therefore cannot grow your understanding. It is, de facto, stagnation.

When I taught Animal Behavior, one of the things that I had my students do was conduct a complete piece of research from beginning to end. In summary, that meant the following (this is from one of my syllabi):

Collaborative Field Research Projects

You and one or more partners are going to do empirical field science, a project which you will imagine, research, design, implement, analyze, interpret, and present, from start to finish:

1.     Imagine: What are you interested in? Are you driven to study a particular organism (e.g., the pileated woodpecker)? Or a particular question (e.g., seasonal territoriality)? Figure it out, and pick a topic. Specifically—what is your hypothesis? What question are you trying to answer?

2.     Research: Now that you have a topic, what is known about it already? You will be producing a scientific paper at the end of this, which requires a “literature review” of the topic that you have done research on. Your library research will likely be ongoing as you discover new things about the system you are studying, but before you begin field work, you should be able to write an outline of the Introduction section (barring unforeseen changes in your topic as you embark on field work).

3.     Design: Now that you know a fair bit about what has already been done on your topic, hone your hypotheses. Come up with as many alternative hypotheses as you can to explain the pattern, or question, that you are trying to answer (alternately, you might learn even more if you attempt to generate your list of alternative hypotheses in advance of searching the literature for what the “experts” think). Derive the predictions that must follow from those hypotheses. Now figure out what test (be it experimental or purely observational) would enable you to distinguish between the hypotheses (check in with me and your Measuring Behaviour book frequently to help you with this step). Can you implement this test? Is it feasible and practical? If yes, you’re ready for the next step.

4.     Implement: The field work. You’ve got a set of hypotheses, you know what we (scientists) already think is known about your topic, you’ve designed a test to answer your question—now get out there and start collecting data! Be prepared for roadblocks, and for nothing to be done as quickly as you were hoping for.

5.     Analyze: Once you’ve got all of your data, you need to do something with it. This will involve statistical analysis. Our statistics workshops will familiarize you both with the power and meaning of statistics, and with some statistical software.

6.     Interpret: You’ve got analyzed results, but what do they mean? How do they fit into the context of what is already known about this system? About these sorts of questions generally? About evolution, ecology, or animal behavior at large? What has your study added to our knowledge? Is it another brick in the wall of knowledge (as most research is), or have you discovered something truly new and different? What is the most exciting (yet rigorous and honest) meaning that your data could have? This is where you tie theory together with your data, and you make them sing. This is also the step most likely to be forgotten in the last-minute scramble to complete your research—but it’s exciting and creative and allows you to push your scientific limits, so don’t give this short shrift.

7.     Present: Every research group will both give a talk, and write a scholarly paper.


All of this is challenging—every single step. Research rarely proceeds linearly, even with the best planning, work ethic, and execution. Evergreen’s educational model of full-time programs provided a tremendous gift, in that I could teach all of this, including evolutionary theory and behavioral ecology and philosophy of science and statistics and field methods, and do field trips, and really get to know the students, and so much more. For nearly every student, some different aspect of the curriculum that I built was what grabbed them most, and made a lasting impact. But the place that people most often got tripped up, at least in these research projects, was more universal. Perhaps because it seems like the easiest but really is not, the most challenging for so many was in step 4, specifically the field work—the implementation of the hypothesis test, which in animal behavior very often involves carefully designed observations rather than experiments. Making observations of what animals are actually doing proved the most difficult for many people.

People who like animals often romanticize the study of animal behavior. Some of us do indeed love it. But for many others, it turns out to be tedious and boring. Why would you resist a conclusion that you just know is true, and instead sit there writing down a “1” every time the bird feeds or vocalizes or whatever. It requires a kind of patience that I think can be inculcated in anyone, but I am also certain now, having led many classes of students through this, that for some people, it’s just not playing to their strengths. It’s not the best use of their time.

That said: everyone can and should learn to be a better observer. Not everyone can or should learn to be an animal behaviorist. But observing your world carefully, becoming aware of your own bias, of your own previously held beliefs and how they limit what you can see—it’s utterly necessary if you are to have independence of thought. And if you don’t have independence of thought, what do you have?

Back in Maquipucuna, on that bright cool June morning, we stood still for a long time watching that tree. It was long enough to determine that what we were seeing was a tayra…no, two tayras, attacking a three-toed sloth.

Most Americans—and most Ecuadorans—would not, if they saw such a thing, know what to call it. Most people, never having even heard of a tayra, would have had to work harder than we did to make sense of what they were seeing—dark, sleek and slinky; rapacious and focused and sharp; an animal—or wait, it’s two animals—going on the offensive against a sloth.

Our backgrounds helped us more easily interpret what we were seeing. We had a decent sense of what species of mammals were a possibility in this place, and by process of elimination arrived at “tayra” (Eira barbara). Tayras are in the weasel family (Mustelidae). This helps explain where they get that dark, sleek, and slinky form. Tayras are agile and well capable in trees, territorial and willing to fight. And sometimes, apparently, they hunt sloths.

Tayras seem unusual for weasels—bigger than you might expect, for instance—until you realize how many other species of mustelids there are. Mustelids include yes, weasels, but also ferrets and minks and stoats; pine martens and sables and fishers; otters of all stripes; wolverines; badgers and honey badgers and even ferret-badgers, which you may know from the laughable proposition that frozen ferret-badger steaks were the source of SARS-CoV2 and therefore to blame for the pandemic that we are all still slogging through.

Like all mammalian predators, tayras are reclusive, and hard to see. Bret had seen them a few times in Panama before, on Barro Colorado Island, and I had been with him there once when we had watched two scamper by. Since then, I have seen just one more, in the Amazon. It was running down a tree head first before disappearing into the underbrush.

But these tayras were not fleeing. They were fierce and unrelenting. They had the sloth trapped at the end of a limb. Sloths fall from trees, and often do fine, but if this sloth had fallen under these conditions, those tayras would likely have been on it quickly.

This was a three-toed sloth, which comes armed with giant claws. The sloth was defending himself (herself? We do not know) valiantly. The battle went on for a long time, and it was not clear which side would win. The sloth became visibly bloodied, but the tayras were so dark that we would not have seen wounds on them. The sloth did not seem to be faring well.

At some point, despite our attempts to be as silent and invisible as possible, the tayras noticed us. They looked at us long and hard, their deep dark eyes trained on us, and then left. The sloth remained, hanging on the tree branch, bloodied. Soon thereafter we were called by forces that perhaps we should have ignored, back to breakfast at the lodge. We went.

After coffee and babaco and other Ecuadoran delicacies, we went back to the tree where the tayras and sloth had been. All was quiet. There was nobody there, and no evidence of a battle just an hour before. We do not know what happened after we left. What we know is that we saw something extraordinary, something wholly unexpected even by the naturalist guides who live in or near Maquipucuna. And that something extraordinary, which we had not previously imagined, adds both to our understanding of the world, and of our awe in it.

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