Killer Fungi, Zombie Ants and Life and Death in the Rainforest

If a killer fungi that latches on to ant’s heads, releasing chemicals into their brains that make them go crazy and eventually killing them sounds like something out of a horror film, you’re in for a surprise. This seemingly harmless little fungi, known as Cordyceps, is probably an ant’s worst nightmare. It works by distributing its spores near carpenter ant colonies until until lands on the the head of an ant. Once it starts sprouting, its roots travel into the ant’s brain, releasing some interesting neurotoxic chemicals that alter the ant’s behavior, making them go somewhat insane. Eventually, the fungi makes the ant clamp its mandibles on a vein of a leaf, utterly immobilizing the ant until it dies. The most interesting phenomenon about this all is that when other ants realize that one of their men have been affected, they send a lonesome guy to kill the infected ant and carry him far away from the colony. Obviously, these ants know what this fungi means for them. It’s like something that comes out of a science-fiction book but one guide called it “cancer-like.” No one knows for sure how this fungi works but scientists say its related to LSD.

The 'killer' fungi that causes a sort of brain disease within ants, making them crazy and eventually killing them.

Fungi are probably one of the most important organisms in any ecosystem, yet they are constantly underestimated and understudied by scientists. Most people relate fungi with death and decaying, and their role does involve breaking apart dead, organic matter. However, I like to think of them as givers of life. In an awesome book about fungi called Demystifying Mushrooms (indeed by a hippy-looking fellow that just fell in love with these organisms), the author talks about how fungi are the natural recyclers of nature. They speed up the process by which other plants- trees, shrubs, and everything else that serves as the foundation of life-  can use this dead organic matter as nutrients to start new life. In this way, fungi is really at the beginning of the life cycle rather than at the end as most people see them. Even the above “ant-killers” of the rainforest are mearly transforming energy from ants back into the forest. So next time you eat a mushroom or see fungus growing somewhere, celebrate its role as a transformer and giver of life.. or just eat your damn mushroom, either way.

A Bridesmaid's Candle. This beautiful fungi lives for only 12 hours before returning back to the ground. It's really a treat getting to see one of these.

More cool fungi doing its job.

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Foundations of the Forest: an introduction to what makes the rainforest go ’round

The Amazon rainforest encompasses more than a billion acres of land throughout Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Columbia. The rainforest represents the most biodiverse place on the planet, with more species per hectare than anywhere else.

Unsurprisingly, it is rain that characterizes this ecosystem and the immense amount of rain that falls within the tropics can partly explain the incredible amount of life here. When I asked my assistant professor- who has spent his entire life in Ecuador and the majority of his adulthood in the rainforest- what his favorite part of the forest is, he responded without hesitation, “The rain. Without it, nothing would survive here. It’s the life of the forest.” The life of the forest really is the best way to describe the rain and when it rains here, it pours. Almost every night, the downfall of rain and its accompanying thunder and lightning woke me up with its intense power. One night, the rain caused a treefall right behind my cabin, which needless to say scared the living crap out of me. Spending a month in the rainforest during rainy season (now that’s saying something) in April, I learned to both love and hate the rain.

The dense jungle forest floor after a rainfall. Dejeanne Doublet

Water availability is important not only to species diversity but to the way plants function and structure themselves. Although, water is a blessing to these plants, it also poses an extreme challenge. With lots of rainfall comes runoff, meaning that nutrients are washed away from the soil, making rainforest soil some of most nutrient-poor in the world. Amazonian trees are no wimps, though, and they’ve evolved some really incredible ways to deal with this; the most apparent being their root systems. I never thought I would use the term “cool” to describe tree roots, but that’s exactly what I’m doing here. Trees such as Ceiba and Ficus trees use a buttress root system, basically meaning that they have immense and shallow roots that form wall-like structures. Locals call the structures that Ceiba tree roots form, “Casa de los Diablos” or “House of the Devil” and many indigenous groups consider these areas to carry strong and evil spirits. For me, they represent something totally different and I like to think of them as the strong and wise grandfathers of the forest (excuse me getting all Pocahontasy.)

A Ceiba tree aka "La Casa de Los Diablos." Dejeanne Doublet

The buttress roots of a Ficus tree. Dejeanne Doublet

Other trees like palms use stilt roots, which is a series of small, branch like structures originating from the bark outside of the soil and forming leg-like structures to keep the tree stable. My favorite example of this kind of tree is the Walking Palm, named after exactly what it does. Well, the Walking Palm doesn’t exactly walk, although indigenous tribes have all sorts of stories involving these trees uprooting and walking around the forest. They have a unique system of stilt roots that allow them to grow towards a desired direction. They simply begin growing more stilt roots on the side that they wish to travel and have been recorded to travel more than a meter within months.

Stilt roots. When a Walking Palm "decides" to move it simply grows roots on the side that it wants to travel. Dejeanne Doublet

Anyways, I talk about these trees and their roots because in reality they are the foundation of all other life in the rainforest. Most animals and insects live up in the canopies of trees and man of them never even step foot on soil. When walking through the rainforest, I was surprised by the lack of life other than trees. I admit, at first I was disappointed and eager to see wildlife. Over the course of the month, though, I realized it would take some tactic seeing this wildlife and eventually I did, making each siting so much more special. First of all, if you’re a walker and a talker, you’re probably not going to see much. Almost everything here is skittish and will scurry away as soon as they hear or see you. Secondly, there are two times of the day that animals are most active and that’s at dawn and at sunset. In between, you’re going to be looking for animals during nap-time and when they are eagerly looking for hiding places. With a little bit of luck and a lot of determination, you’ll see your fair share of wildlife. I was able to see a three-toed sloth, an agouti, capybaras, river dolphins (twice and once while swimming!), sea otters, nine species of monkeys, tortoises, snakes and other reptiles, and over a hundred species of birds while testing my hand in bird watching for the first time. While I wish I saw I jaguar or another cat, I only saw their prints. But to me, the secretiveness of these animals only adds to the mystery and adventure of the rainforest.

A squirrel monkey we spotted coming down to the salt lake. Dejeanne Doublet

A agouti taking a swim in the river. This is literally an extremely large rodent of the forest. Dejeanne Doublet

Fresh jaguar tracks in one of trails surrounding camp. It's estimated that a single jaguar takes up 10 acres of space but camera-traps around camp have caught up to a dozen jaguars in less than 10 acres of forest throughout the last 5 years. Dejeanne Doublet

 

The Smaller Wonders of the Rainforest

The first lesson of the rainforest I learned the hard way is to never touch anything that you can’t see. Creatures, especially insects, linger in dark crevices, under leaves, or blend in with the bark of a tree. If you’re about to fall, your first instinct is to reach out and grab anything that could possibly break your fall. However, in a place where there are more living things in a square meter than you’d like to know, that is probably the worst thing you can do. One day, while I was out on a trail inspecting a strange bug, I reached down to pick off a leaf to poke the bug with (some hardcore science going on over here). I immediately felt a stinging, burning sensation on my finger. Oh crap, I thought, a fire ant got me… again! When I turned the leaf over, though, I was surprised to see a vibrant and beautiful caterpillar.

A surprising fact about the rainforest is that it is actually hard to see wildlife. Animals are there, but in the most complex and mature ecosystem in the world, they have learned to be very conspicuous with most only coming out of hiding at nighttime. However, one group of organisms you will always see here are insects. They’re just everywhere! For this reason, I’m dedicating my first blog post about the Amazon on the insects of the forest. Their colors, shapes, sizes and abilities will really amaze those who never even thought of themselves as bug-people.

The caterpillar I found under a leaf. One Ecuadorian eco-guide told me that when he got scraped by a large caterpillar when he was a kid, his mom found the caterpillar, killed it and used its insides as the remedy for his burn. Needless to say, I didn't do that.

An Assassin bug. This insect's colors are just screaming, "look at me." Notice the tiny ant under it.

A web-weaver waiting for its next prey.

This spider remains highly unknown to science but is thought to be relatively common in the Amazon. I found  this tiger spider when workers at the research station were clearing a spot for emergency helicopters. Roaming around in the cut trees, I found more bugs during this hour than my entire month in the Amazon. Although bugs are alot more common than animals, they are still hard to find as they live high up in the canopies where they have protection and food sources.

Tiger spider.

One remarkable symbiotic relationship that is apparent in the rainforest is that between some trees and ants. Several species of trees provide nectar to ants in exchange for permanent protection from other threats to the tree. An example is the lemon tree, which- because it does not have to invest in protection- can produce chemicals that makes its surrounding soil highly acidic and therefore causes a clearing around it.

Ants sucking nectar on an Inga tree.

A supposed stress-therapy of indigenous Amazonian people is to stick their hand in an ant hole and allow these ants to bite them for a good 10 minutes. We tried this and to our surprise, it actually causes a soothing sensation in the hand… not sure about the stress-relieving part.

Stress reliever?

We hope that, when the insects take over the world, they will remember with gratitude how we took them along on all our picnics.

Descent Into the Amazon

There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it.

The Amazon rainforest is one of the most isolated places on Earth, making it no easy trip to get there. Leaving from Quito, we spent a well-worth 12 hours of travelling to make it to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in eastern Ecuador. It took a plane ride, two bus rides and two boat rides to make it to our final destination. From Quito, we flew into Coca, also known as Puerto Francisco de Orellana after the Spanish “founder” of the Amazon. Here we were greeted by some friendly squirrel monkeys and a blue-and-yellow parrot that made sure we noticed her at a water-front hotel we were waiting at for our boat ride down the Napo River (which by the way, is, indeed, highly illegal for these animals to be here but in a country like Ecuador, it’s just one of those things that people constantly get away with). We had a chance to visit the weekly town market where we found an array of animal mantecas and medicinal plants (keep an eye out for a later blog I will post on this.)

A blue-and-yellow parrot greeted us in Coca with a "Que ricaaaa" call.

A squirrel monkey hanging out on a tree outside a hotel in Coca. Capturing these animals for pet use is illegal but obviously still done successfully in Ecuador.

One thing is for sure: this squirrel monkey is completely accustomed to people and in my opinion is the cutest and most friendly monkey out there.

A marmoset monkey also at the hotel.

Om nom nom nom...

Golden-mantled tamarin. This fluffy little monkey is common in edge-effected areas of the Amazon and is identified by its prehensile tail and frown-like facial hair.

From Coca, it was off to the Napo River for us. Once we got to the end of the river, we exited off the boat onto oil territory. One thing about the Amazon, at least in Ecuador, is that the only roads present were built by your’s truly, the oil companies. In order to continue to our destination, we had to pass through oil security. Once that was settled, we bused it to the Tiputini River.

Our definition of a "bus."

A girl in front of her house that I caught while on our bus ride to the Tiputini River. This is a typical house in the Orient and although, oil companies have promised economic advantages to locals, not much "progress" has been seen in these areas.

An oil company's sign on the road shows there absolute presence in this area.

The oil companies of Ecuador own all the roads in the Amazon. In order to get to our research station, we had to pass through oil security to be able to use the roads and their boat down the Napo River.

The Tiputini River is a tributary of the Napo River and forms the northern border of Yasuni National Park. This beautiful river wound its way down for miles of untouched Amazon rainforest, leading us to the Tiputini Biodiversity Research Station, which served as my home for the next month.

Riding down the Tiputini River.

We finally reached our destination: the beautiful Tiputini research station. Let the next month of adventures begin!