Though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World still manages to conjure images of prehistoric iguanodons and stegosauruses, don’t imagine mountaintops teeming with exotic fauna. The region’s wildlife is largely confined to the tepuis’s lower slopes or in the rainforests that skirt their base — areas better-suited to support wildlife than the summits’ low-nutrient soils. Birds reign supreme here and outnumber mammals by a long shot — compare 628 species with 186. Some 41 bird species are endemic to the tepuis; only one mammalian species can claim that title (the rodent Podoxymys roraimae). Still, examination of tepuis wildlife is relatively limited compared to its vegetation.
BLACK FROG (Oreophrynella quelchii)
Of the tepuis’ natives, this tiny black frog is the superstar. It’s been clinging to the mountains’ rocks since before the dinosaur age and has changed little, if at all. Unable to swim or hop, it clings to rocks and will roll itself up into a ball if threatened. Its black color keeps it comfortable when temperatures on the tepuis’s highest summits drop below the freezing point.
Half of all migratory birds en route to South America come to the Canaima National Park, according to The Nature Conservancy. And, to judge by the photos that adorn park-related Web sites, bird tourists should be set for a true avian adventure. The tepuis region boasts Venezuela’s highest number of endemic birds — an estimated 41 species with such tantalizing names as tepui tinamous (Crypturellus ptaritepui), fiery-shouldered parakeet (Pyrrhura egregia), roraiman nightjars (Caprimulgus whitelyi), red-banded fruiteaters (Pipreola whitelyi), and velvet-browed brilliants (Heliodoxa xanthogonys). Most of these birds are on the hunt for seeds or nectar and many can be seen as you drive along the Canaima National Park’s lone paved road.
GIANT ANTEATER (Myrmecophaga tridactyla)
Happiest when snuffling along the Lost World’s Gran Sabana, giant anteaters scarf down some 30,000 ants per day. The feeding frenzy is understandable — these are hefty mammals. Giant anteaters can weigh up to 86 pounds and measure up to 9.5 feet long from head to tail. And that’s without counting a tongue that stretches up to 2 feet to zap ants or termites on the run from homes destroyed by the anteater’s powerful claws. But this is no ferocious mammal. A loner who works day and night, the anteater is slow to put up a fight when its territory is challenged (it is capable of running away at speeds of up to 31 miles per hour) and defines its roaming range broadly — up to 22 acres or more. Despite its innocuous existence, the giant anteater is an at-risk species — its meat and skin are valued items and its highly flammable fur makes it a frequent victim of brush fires periodically set by local Pemón Indians.
GIANT OTTER (Pteronura brasiliensis)
Some scientists venture that the giant otter is so large that it should not be called an otter at all. The largest of all otters, these mammals can be up to 6 feet long and weigh over 70 pounds. Giant otters’ days are spent hunting for fish — alone or in groups — on the Gran Sabana’s rivers and dealing decisively with unwanted guests (snakes, beware!).
Family is important. Each group of otters (known as a holt) has its own territory, complete with communal latrines. When parents are away hunting catfish or perch, older children babysit the younger offspring. Water pollution from mining and hunting by local humans makes the giant otter another of the Gran Sabana’s at-risk species.
RED HOWLER MONKEY (Alouatta seniculus)
Who needs a rooster when howler monkeys are on hand? These self-appointed alarm clocks choose daybreak for a chorus of deafening howls audible up to 3 miles away. Male monkeys start the cry, soon echoed by the males of neighboring groups. The goal
is to define territory and, with it, food resources. (An approaching rainstorm can also prompt a performance.) Not known for their live-and-let-live tendencies, male howler monkeys are expelled from their native group upon becoming sexually mature at 7 years old. (Females are sexually mature at 5.) Finding a new home requires these monkeys to invade another group and kill the babies. Though mothers usually put up a fight, it’s a losing battle. Male howlers stand a mere 2 feet long and weigh up to 13 pounds, but will not tolerate any offspring other than their own. After establishing their primacy, triumphant male monkeys usually number no more than 2 in a group of 10 females. But they shouldn’t celebrate too soon — it’s up to the females to make the first move. If bitten by this invertibrate, you will suffer a fever — potentially fatal if accompanied by an allergic reaction — that lasts 24 hours. The perpetrator is a/an:
It’s not just anteaters who find the Lost World’s insect life tasty. Pemón cuisine features beetle-based sauces for bread-dipping, a hot chili and termite spritzer known as “kumache” to add zing to your noonday meal, and, for those who like variety in their bugs, a guacamole of sorts made from both termites and carpenter ants, described on the Web site of one tepuis traveler as “piquant.”