There’s a chase through the jungle in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” that incorporates the giant, terrifying Siafu ants. It’s over-the-top and kind of silly seeing them essentially devour one of the characters; but watching actual footage of them in a nature documentary, working as a horde to eat an animal, now that’s scary. However, it’s not until you’re actually in the jungle and the forest floor is covered in ants that will bite you to hell that the panic sets into your heart.
But not all the ants here are intimidating. Right now I’m looking at a busy mass of tiny black ants going to town on a dead fly on my cabin floor. The first day that I saw three or four groups like this in my room I freaked and stomped them out like Godzilla, but now I let them be. Observing leafcutter ants on a trail is actually inspiring to see, as creatures so small carry materials so much bigger than them and work together with such efficiency.
But the frightening ants have left a more lasting impression on me. A few days ago as we walked on a trail deep in the jungle, we came across the notorious Bullet Ant, which is longer than a fingernail and has the most painful bite (of any insect here?). Professor Chaboo was bitten by one a previous year and said the pain sears like a bullet wound for 10-15 minutes. We took a few pictures as it sucked sap from a tree, until it began crawling down toward us, and we knew it was time to move.
Shortly thereafter, we entered what we’ve dubbed “The Gauntlet.” Rains from the night before flooded some underground ant nests, so the trail was covered in roving ant colonies. One stretch was so fully lined with ants that we were afraid to simply walk through it, so we each composed ourselves before making a terrified, expletive-heavy dash across it. As far as I can tell, I made it through without ant bites, but my ankles fell victim to the merciless chiggers instead.
This past semester, I took a class with a professor who specializes in mercury in the environment. This exposed me to various research projects about mercury in the Long Island Sound, USA . I learned that there are variations in the natural abundance of mercury in the environment and that humans have increased this level via various industrial practices. Connecticut, where I attend college, is a prime area to study the cycling and effects of anthropomorphic mercury in the environment because of this area’s historical contribution to the hat-making industry. In the 1800s and early 1900s, liquid mercury was used to mat fur pelts that were manufactured into fashionable hats. Due to the neurological effects of mercury, the saying “Mad as a hatter” was born.
A large group of professors and students from Duke University Department of Public Health visited Villa Carmen Station this weekend. Their project in medical entomology and environmental toxicology examines gold mining in this part of Peru to see if there is a correlation between the environmental mercury concentration and the mercury concentration in residents’ blood, hair, nails, and food intake. Historically, mercury is a key component in gold mining. The global increase in the price of gold has resulted in a recent escalation of gold mining in this area, and possibly, an increase in the environmental mercury concentration. With these data, the Duke team will compare incidents of malaria (and other diseases) to see if mercury makes individuals more susceptible to infections. Their project is an example of how environmental mercury research is of interest to many different scientists from different disciplines around the world.
Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians. After taking a herpetology class last semester at KU, I became more interested in these animals. At Villa Carmen I have gotten to see many herps. The station has four tortoises in their small court yard and many frogs are active at night. von May & Catenazzi (2014)* recently showed that Manu National Park has the highest diversity of reptiles and frogs in the world.
One of my first days here, I saw a lizard from my favorite family, Varanidae commonly known as monitors (e.g., the Komodo dragon lizard is the largest in this family). It was walking down the trail but I did not get close enough to determine a genus or species. On Saturday, a small caiman was under a little bridge over a stream near the dining hall. This was amazing as I had never seen a wild caiman before, only in zoos. While beating (a method using a sheet and stick to collect insects living on shrubs), I saw another monitor and two more lizards on the path, but they were still too quick for me to get close.
For someone interested in Herps, Villa Carmen is a great place to observe and study them.
*von May R and A Catenazzi. 2014. Biota Neotropica
Yesterday I learned to collect beetles with a method called beating. This involves a sheet (fabric or nylon) on a wooden or PVC frame and a stick (e.g., a broom handle) to collect insects from trees and bushes. You hold the sheet under the branches with one hand and hit the vegetation with the stick with the other hand. The insects fall from the plants unto the sheet, and you can then quickly collect them by hand or using an aspirator. It sounds pretty simple, but for a first timer it is not so easy. Being 5’1” tall, it was a little difficult for me to reach some of the overhanging tree branches. Having a long beating stick made for some awkward moves. You also need to be quick to catch the insects before they recover from shock and fly away. Beating needs a lot of practice. Overall, it is an interesting to way to collect insects and also get some personal aggression out at the same time.
One of the biggest surprises for me on this trip was how different Wayqecha, the first field station, was from my expectations of the rainforest. That’s because Wayqecha is in a cloud forest: high in elevation (3000m), cool, and relatively dry. However, we still got soaked on our first hike when the area received its first rain in three weeks.
When we left Wayqecha, we travelled down the Kosñipata valley from the clouds to the tropics, spotting waterfalls along the road and dense vegetation that grew more vivid in its green color. At Villa Carmen, the second field station, I really felt like I was walking into the jungle, as this area fit my expectations of the rainforest.
While I had prepared for the heavy humidity and higher temperature here, I wasn’t ready for it after living in the comfort of Wayqecha. It took me several days to adjust. But the much greater density and diversity of beautiful plants, flowers, and insects make it worth it.
The almost daily rains required a change in routine as well. Sometimes they come late morning or early afternoon, giving us a siesta period to rest after lunch before returning to fieldwork around 2-3 p.m. Other days a downpour begins in the middle of the night and continues until late morning, which limits us from hiking the trails until the afternoon. We wake up too early here for my taste, so I’m not too upset about the extra rest the morning rain provides.
It is now my tenth day in Peru. The rest of the group arrived after I’d been here, alone, for four days. We spent the first couple of days in Lima touring archeological sites and gaining an overview of Peru’s rich history and ancient cultures.
Of course, there was a bit of a snafu at the Lima airport with one of our colleague’s ticket, but thankfully, it was sorted out. I flew a different airline from the rest, since it was a bit cheaper and by the time I was able to purchase my ticket, it was outrageously priced with their airline. So, I arrived in Cusco a few minutes before them and was inundated by organizations trying to sell me everything from a taxi to a hotel to Macchu Picchu entrance tickets. My Spanish has been improving, so I felt fairly safe in communicating with the vendors that no, I did not need anything, I was waiting on my group to arrive. They seemed to get it, or I frightened them.
Wayqecha, our first field station, is in the Andean cloud forest. I may now live in Lawrence, KS, the coldest place on earth, but I still am no fan of cold. One night at Wayqecha was so cold I slept under 4 heavy wool blankets wearing my long underwear, sweatshirt, and an alpaca shawl I had purchased in Lima. The next day I was in shorts.
We discovered that the forests are constantly trying to reclaim trails (trochas) as things grow so fast. We had a little difficulty locating the trail that our professor had previously surveyed. A small building had been built in front of it, that will eventually allow ACA to charge admission to enter this trail to the canopy platform which is supposed to be breathtaking. The vista at Wayqecha is breathtaking, so I have my doubts as to how spectacular this other view must be.
Today, we learned how to select a site for a Malaise Trap, and setting it up for capturing insects in an unattended sampling period. Our location wasn’t ideal for the trap itself as we installed it on a steep slope but it was in an ideal cloud forest, which we wanted to survey. In a week we’ll see if we made the right decision.
From Lima, to Wayqecha, to Villa Carmen, spots of bright color have caught my attention. Looking out my plane window from Lima to Cusco, bright blue vernal pools popped out from the muted tan Andean mountains. This same pattern of bright/muted contrasts was also apparent in the bright blue doors on the brown adobe homes that we passed en route to the Wayquecha Biological Field Station. Even during our hikes at Wayqecha, the forest exhibited numerous shades of green, accented by super-bright floras – light pink Protea flowers, red Bromeliad plants, and yellow, purple, or blue Orchids. These splashes of rich color seemed unreal. We even found a flower on our walks that perfectly matched my fuchsia Nike field shirt. These incredible colors reminded me of the woven alpaca goods we saw in the markets and the communities we passed through. Peruvian architecture and products use indigenous materials and also seem inspired by the natural aesthetics of their uniquely colored environment.
Alpaca wool blankets in Cusco
Bracelets of seeds, beads and shells, Lima market
Backstrap weaving with alpaca wool
One of the clearest indicators of change in the environment from the Wayquecha cloud forest to the Villa Carmen rainforest is the abundance of fruit dotting the mass of green vegetation. Upon our arrival, we were guided down pathways lined with pineapple plants (imagine a ripe pineapple encircled by a fan of thick, large, green leaves). The garden, from which all the fruits and vegetables we eat at Villa Carmen come from, is full of papaya. Las trochas, or trails, are intermittently bordered with berries. Yesterday, we began training with various types of insect nets. During this session, Caroline pointed out a guava tree with many green fruit blooms. A little farther down the trail we finally spotted a ripe guava fruit begging to be picked. Having never picked a fruit of this size myself, I went for it! However, I immediately thought of those cartoons I watched as a child where the eager character bites into a fresh apple and meets an unwelcome worm, and I resisted my excitement to bite into the guava. Eventually I overcame my reluctance, took out my pocket knife, sliced up the guava, and dispersed it among the group members. It tasted incredibly fresh, slightly sweet, and had a relatively thick consistency. Needless to say, it was well worth the risk of a worm.
Today we took a trail through the cloud forest at Wayqecha. I have never taken a class on plant diversity, so I was amazed by the diversity of plants here. I felt lucky to learn so much on a walk. First, we examined many different species of ferns. I learned that ferns have their reproductive organs (sori) on the underside of the leaf-like frond. As we kept walking down the trail we saw Selaginella, which are considered to be more primitive than ferns. My favorite plants are the Orchids. There are so many kinds here. Since it is winter now in the Amazon, only a few are in flower. Without the flowers, the main way you can tell if a plant is an orchid is by the pseudo-bulb at the base of the leaves. Orchids get their moisture out of the air, so they love humid places like cloud forest. I must think how to keep them in a pot, with bark instead of soil. Next, we found a wispy bromeliad. This one is an epiphyte, which creates a mat on the tree and builds up soil to get its nutrients, but it is not a parasite on the supporting tree. Near the end of the trail, my second favorite plant appeared. It is called Protea and it has pretty pink tube-like flowers. I found this plant particularly noteworthy because it is only found in South America and southern Africa, which shows evidence that a long time ago the two continents were attached, forming Pangaea. Wayqecha is one of the most beautiful places I have visited.
On our third day at Wayquecha Biological Station, we began our adventure walking along the main road in search for a “secret garden gate” that Professor Chaboo described. At first, we were unable to find the gate, until we realized that a clay and bamboo house inscribed with the words “Casa Interpretativa del Manu” now camouflages the path. We walked down the hidden trail and were immediately greeted with an assortment of leaf beetles and grasshoppers. Each one of us on the trip collected some sort of insect or two. After the brief scare of Paige scaling the side of a relatively steep drop off in search of her water bottle, we continued our way down the trail to find a site to set up our first insect trap. Past the “secret garden gate”, we were immersed in a landscape full of new and exciting flora. A bit farther down, we crossed a small, wooden bridge suspended above a waterfall. Then, we continued on an open trail that scaled the side of a mountain overlooking the spectacular cloud forest.
We finally came upon the perfect spot to set up the Malaise trap. This consists of netting that catches insects flying in two directions. A roof of the same material meets the wall of netting and takes advantage of the insect’s instinct to climb upwards. The insect is channeled into a container filled with ethanol. We began by tying the tops of the 6×6 foot net trap to trees with rope and then secured it into the ground with stakes. Meanwhile, Alex circulated around us, filming the entire process. The incline and moistness of the ground made the set up a bit tricky, but we eventually completed the process with success. Afterwards, we took 20 or so minutes to ourselves to explore the beautiful moss-covered rainforest and observe the many other traps set up by other researchers. I think it is safe to say that there is no better location or circumstance in which to learn a field method!