Jungle exploration in the Ecuadorian Amazon / by Robert Moltmaker

– Part 3: Exploring the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve
BY ROBERT MOLTMAKER IN ECUADOR

 One of two toucans we saw up in a tree.

One of two toucans we saw up in a tree.

As Luis guided us through the Ecuadorian Amazon, we experienced a continuous stream of amazement. We were walking in an unknown world. The jungle was teeming with wildlife. However, some of it dead and alive at the same time. We’re talking real-life Amazon zombies here.

** Note: This is Part 3 of a series. Read: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5 **

While we walked on a trail through the rainforest, from meters away, Luis saw something very small lying on the ground. He picked it up and showed us a dead ant – but not completely dead. The ant was infected by the insect-pathogenising fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, or zombie fungus.

“This fungus is able to alter the behavioral patterns of the ant and direct it to a place where living conditions for the fungus are favorable”, Luis said. After infection, the ant dies within 4 to 10 days, and in the process the fungus’ fruiting bodies will grow from the ant’s head and release new spores.

 A zombie ant, infected by the insect-pathogenising fungus  Ophiocordyceps unilateralis .

A zombie ant, infected by the insect-pathogenising fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.

Humans cannot be infected. Yet.

When I asked Luis why humans cannot be infected, he explained: “This is because humans are protected against the fungus by an enzyme that ants do not have”.

The zombie-ant Luis found was very small and surrounded by plants, mud, leaves and whatnot. Nevertheless, Luis saw something that is practically invisible from far away. During our stay, he pulled this trick over and over again. How on earth was Luis able to spot these small and camouflaged things? We were all astonished. And by the end of our stay, I was convinced that Luis’ brain somehow functions differently, compared to the brains of those of us growing up in cities.

Walking on, Luis showed us caterpillars living on trees, under a kind of self-made cloth that looks exactly like the tree’s bark in order to protect themselves from predators. Some smart caterpillars, huh? But not as smart as our Luis.

 Caterpillars living well protected under self-made cloth looking like tree bark.

Caterpillars living well protected under self-made cloth looking like tree bark.

There are many animals – like the smart caterpillars – that have evolved in such a way that they are extremely hard to detect.

One late afternoon, it was darker than usual. Thick clouds cover the rainforest. After traveling deep into the forest by boat, we were dropped and continued hiking. The forest was calm. The atmosphere is hard to explain, but somehow it felt prehistoric. All of a sudden Luis froze and whispered: “Wait!” while pointing to a low-hanging branch. “It’s a frog!”

It took a while but then we all saw it. The frog was very hard to see because it looks like a leave, especially when you approach it from its back. Luis asked me to take a picture of it, as he thought this frog was not ‘discovered’ yet. Or better said, it was likely not catalogued yet.

Luis had seen the frog twice before and needed a couple of pictures to send to a commission that would analyse and catalogue it. It was rather dark in the forest at that moment, making it difficult to get a sharp picture. This was the best possible result.

 An ‘undiscovered’ – or uncatalogued – frog.

An ‘undiscovered’ – or uncatalogued – frog.

 The frog from its back, looking like a leave.

The frog from its back, looking like a leave.

Although I have tried to find out, I don’t know yet whether the frog was really undiscovered. Isn’t it amazing, that you might be part of a discovery just like that? Supposedly, it’s not that unlikely in a hugely biodiverse place as the Amazon, where many species have remained undiscovered.

You never know when you are surprised by jungle trouble.

During a hike, while walking peacefully in the forest, suddenly we had to get out of the way. A group of trap jaw ants were approaching in a fast pace. We didn’t want to get into a fight with these very aggressive fellows, that can be 1,5 cm large.

Trap jaw ants are true athletes. Their jaws close 2300 times faster than the blink of an eye: which is an acceleration from 0 to 230 kilometres per hour in 0.13 milliseconds. They can use their jaw to catapult themselves away, carrying out an escape jump, over a distance of 40 centimetres. This is a distance of over 20 times their body length! Although their bites are not severe for humans, these hurt badly. And to make things worse, they cause an allergic reaction too. Here we met a team of several trap jaw ant workers carrying termites and returning to their colony.

 One of the trap jaw ants that were causing jungle trouble.

One of the trap jaw ants that were causing jungle trouble.

Exploration by boat

Exploring the Amazon by boat is a different experience because you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. But if you don’t want to miss anything, you have to stay alert just the same. Before you know it, you’ve missed spotting a bird flying over your head that some of your fellow travellers may have tried to find for years and years.

Remember the hanging nests of the oropendola bird? You just have to like them, right? Well, toucans like these too! During one boat trip, we came across two toucans trying to steal the eggs of the hanging nests. While checking the toucans out, it didn’t take long before they flew away. Although the toucans were about 60 meters away from us, I was still able to take two rather goods shots. One is particularly interesting.

 A toucan with an interesting expression: looking up with an open beak.

A toucan with an interesting expression: looking up with an open beak.

What is interesting about this image?
Being intrigued by the image, I discussed it with Luis. “I think the toucan looks rather happy”, I said.
“Actually, the toucan is frustrated”, Luis surprised me. “It wasn’t having any success trying to steal eggs from the nest. That is what the look on the toucans face means.”

Intelligent trees

In the Amazon there is a special type of tree: the macrolobium tree. It has evolved to become flood tolerant. Part of the year the trees stand in the water, which is quite an unusual sight. It’s a water-forest and thus you need a boat to enter it. Other parts of the year, the trees are able to survive conditions of drought.

You remember who love the macrolobium trees? It are the anacondas, using it to sunbathe, as we’ve seen.

During another boat trip, we found a different anaconda. This time, we could easily see its head too. We came so close we could almost touch the animal.

 Another anaconda, this time, we could see its head.

Another anaconda, this time, we could see its head.

In macrolobium trees you also find many Hoatzins, or also locally called Stinkbirds, because of their smell. They are a special type of bird: the last surviving member of a bird line that branched off in its own direction 64 million years ago, only 2 million years after the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct. Supposedly, this extinction led to an explosion of dinosaur diversity, in the form of birds. So what I learned is that birds evolved from dinosaurs and the Stinkbird is one of a special kind.

 The hoatzin, or also called the stinkbird.

The hoatzin, or also called the stinkbird.

Along the riverside

One moment, we spotted a porcupine, sitting silently on a branch. In the picture below it looks as if it is sleeping. Isn’t it an adorable little fellow?

 A porcupine, which was not very easy to spot.

A porcupine, which was not very easy to spot.

As we moved further, there was some movement above us. High up in a tree, a chestnut-fronted macaw was checking out what was going on. His house looks like a fortress, doesn’t it?

 A chestnut-fronted macaw holding the fortress.

A chestnut-fronted macaw holding the fortress.

While navigating along the river, we often passed branches sticking above the water surface. One moment, a specific branch caught Luis’ attention, and he signalled the driver to turn off the engine and slow down. As we floated silently towards the branch, it became clear: there were bats sitting on the branch. One of them carried a baby bat.

 Many well camouflaged bats on a branch.

Many well camouflaged bats on a branch.

 Mother and baby bat (on the left).

Mother and baby bat (on the left).

The Amazon by sunrise

One morning we woke up while it was still dark to experience the amazon on the water during sunrise. Mist covered the water. Animals were waking up.

 A couple of other boats were on the water early in the morning.

A couple of other boats were on the water early in the morning.

 Another boat in the mist.

Another boat in the mist.

 An Amazon morning just after sunrise at 5 a.m.

An Amazon morning just after sunrise at 5 a.m.

 An Amazon morning just after sunrise at 5 a.m. The morning fog, visible in the forest on the background, gives away the time of the day as the nocturnal creatures give way to wildlife active during the daytime.

An Amazon morning just after sunrise at 5 a.m. The morning fog, visible in the forest on the background, gives away the time of the day as the nocturnal creatures give way to wildlife active during the daytime.

Pink dolphins

We have ‘seen’ the famous pink Amazon dolphin a couple of times, if you can say such a thing. If you are able to properly see these animals, you are either lucky or patient – or both – as they usually show very little of themselves. We have only seen their backs. That is why I cannot show you a good image of a pink dolphin here.

 Luis searching for pink dolphins on our early morning boat trip.

Luis searching for pink dolphins on our early morning boat trip.

The story of the pink dolphin is interesting. They have evolved from oceanic dolphins about 15 million years ago. During that time, sea levels were higher and the Amazon Basin was probably flooded with brackish water. When sea levels dropped, very likely dolphins remained in the basin as they were trapped. From there, they went on their own evolutionary path.

The Amazon dolphin is considered sacred and surrounded by myths. Luis told us several legends. One of these tells the story of pink dolphins that transform themselves into attractive young men who seduce young girls and impregnate them. A second version is that the dolphins transform themselves into attractive young women to attract men and drown them.

For your information: we haven’t experienced any attractive mysterious dolphins.

As you can imagine, like anywhere, the Amazon people are protective of their young girls. Thus, for centuries many local people have been thinking these animals cause bad luck. Although they are now endangered, these beliefs have helped the species to survive in the past, as they were left alone.

 We have seen pink dolphins, but hardly more than their backs.

We have seen pink dolphins, but hardly more than their backs.

Like pink dolphins, there are other creatures that you do not get to see easily. We humans have the ability to see very well during the day, but at night the rainforest is full of interesting life too. This means we were planning to get out there.

Prepare for the crawlers.

** Note: This is Part 3 of a series. Read: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5 **

What wildlife adventures have you experienced?

Have you been in the Amazon? Have you ever seen ‘out-of-this-world’ creatures during any of your adventures? Do you have any questions about my story? Please leave a comment below and let me know!

Tags: Ecuador | South America | Amazon | Wildlife |


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