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!

Back with new adventures

Hey all! So I must admit that I have abandoned my blog for quite sometime but I’m back to catch you all up on my adventures. I’ve spent the last couple of months really getting to know the different regions of Ecuador. Now more than ever, I find this country absolutely full of wonders. The coast is a beautiful, under-rated region of Ecuador with some of the most down-to-Earth people and incredible beach sunsets. The cloud forests (Mindo, Baños, etc.), equipped with breath-taking mountain summits and an array of hummingbirds “picaflores,” represent a  stunning and probably my favorite ecosystem. Galapagos Islands are a biologist’s dreams come true as anyone familiar with Darwin’s work will be overwhelmed with face-to-face contact with the flora and fauna that helped shape our understanding of evolution.. plus the blue-footed boobies are really cute! Finally, the Amazon Rainforest is absolutely breathtaking, with creatures lurking all about in the thick jungle fur of plants. Yasuni National Park is home to the most biodiverse place on Earth, and being able to spend a month in this very special place revealed a great deal of surprises and small wonders. Over the next couple of weeks, I will do my best to catch up with photos, stories and more, starting with the Amazon and working my way backwards. I hope you enjoy! ~Dejeanne

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

Sunset over the Tiputini River in Yasuni National Park, eastern Ecuador.

El TelefériQo

Hola y bienvenidos a mi blog! I’ve been in Quito for almost a week now and by far El TelefériQo has been my favorite outing so I though ‘why not make that my first blog?’ El TelefériQo is a multimillion dollar skytram built by the French that takes passengers on a ride 2500 meters up amongst the clouds of Volcán Pichincha. The six-person gondolas overlook the sprawled out and seemingly endless city of Quito and the numerous mountains that surround it.

View from the clouds

We took a $3 taxi to the foot of the skytram where an amusement park, which apparently offers 50 cent rides, was located and where Disney music in Spanish blasted from the speakers… Talk about surreal. The gondola ticket lines were nonexistent and besides us only a few other groups were there on this Friday afternoon. We were definitely the only gringos there.

The ride itself is pretty amazing as the gondola slowly takes you up past the tree line and into the clouds. Once we reached the top of Ruca Pichincha, we were surrounded by clouds and could not see down into the city at all but after a while the gods spoke and said, ‘let there be light’ and BAM patches of sunlight began randomly appearing until the entire city of Quito was visible (yes, I have been told that I should ditch science to become a preacher.) But it really was awesome moment, to say the least, when the clouds parted to open up a spectacular view of everything. At the top, we hiked maybe another 1000 meters, passing a gorgeous little catholic church where mass is held every Sunday and a horse stable where horses are rented out to ride around the trails.

Let me make one thing clear: hiking at an altitude of 4500+ meters is nothing like hiking the mountains of New England or Texas for that matter. The air is significantly thinner and needless to say, I had no shame looking like a hunched over, wheezing jolly old man trying to climb up. To be fair, we had been warned several times not to partake in any strenuous hiking for at least a week after arriving in Quito but as a group of tenacious- some would say stupid but I like the word tenacious- college students, of course we couldn’t listen to such ridiculous advice. The extra 1000 or so meters was well worth the climb until the rain clouds chased us back down.