June 24, 2016

Side Necked Turtles, two hundred years ago


Side necked turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) on the Tambopata River
photo by Jeff Cremer
Our guides spot and point at little side necked turtles (taricayas, Podocnemis unifilis) on the Tambopata River. Sometimes, lines of yellow butterflies flutter above their eyes, trying to lick them. It is an iconic image much like the macaw clay lick or the panoramic of the rain forest canopy.

John Hemming in Tree of Rivers cites Alexander von Humboldt as he floated down the Orinoco River (in Colombia) on this very sight. It was 200 years ago.

Alexander von Humboldt at Chimborazo, Ecuador (CC licence)
Humboldt describes the turtles this way: 8 to 10 rows of turtles, side by side, covering the river banks.

Humboldt is horrified at the Franciscan friars, who plunder every nest for oil-rich eggs used in turn for street lighting. The Jesuit friars did the same, although they at least left half the eggs.

Humboldt copies registers from the lamp oil supply chain: 5000 massive jars of oil a year from 330 thousand turtles and 33 millions eggs.

The Amazon is an extraordinary place as is. And yet, no place deserves the slogan "Lets make America great again", as much as the Amazon.
May 06, 2016

Amazon Rainforest Fragrance Extraction


Fragrance extraction refers to the extraction of aromatic compounds from raw materials, using methods such as distillationsolvent extractionexpression, or enfleurage. The results of the extracts are either essential oilsabsolutesconcretes, or butters, depending on the amount of waxes in the extracted product.

To a certain extent, all of these techniques tend to distort the odour of the aromatic compounds obtained from the raw materials. Heat, chemical solvents, or exposure to oxygen in the extraction process denature the aromatic compounds, either changing their odour character or rendering them odourless.

Ben and Sally of Feral Studio recently had the opportunity to explore fragrance extraction in the amazon rainforest in partnership with Rainforest Expeditions and Trelex Residency via a project titled “TAMBOPATA HYDROSOLS: AN OLFACTORY EXPLORATION OF PLACE.

Summarizing their project they write:  Tambopata Hydrosols is an evolving olfactory exploration of place. Conceived in Madre de Dios, Amazonas, the project connects with local knowledge in temporary locations to gather scent material and associated narratives as we journey through South America.

Working with tropical forest ecologist Dr. Varun Swamy, the pair explored the rainforest to find new sources of fragrances:

“..rubbing, scoring, snapping, pulverizing, peeling any potentially scented material. We followed clues found in a fading photocopy of Gentry’s Field Guide to the Families and Genera of Woody Plants. We immersed in extended conversations with those that had an intimate knowledge of the rainforest through a lifetime of close contact – the chefs, porters, guides, members of the Infierno community – all generous with their wisdom, revealing personal botanical perspectives shared in a gentle vernacular. With our improvised apprenticeship now complete we were ready to fully immerse in the intoxicating neotropical world of aromatic possibility.”
The results of project are quite interesting. Read the full article at http://feralstudio.co/tambopata_hydrosols/index.html
December 30, 2015

Top Jungle Critter Encounters in 2015 - Tamboapta, Peru

I've been fortunate this past year to log so much time in the Amazon rainforest. It can be a tough environment for extended trips; it's hot, you're in a perpetual state of sogginess from the humidity and sporadic downpours, and there are bugs constantly attempting to withdraw your blood. With that being said, the Amazon rainforest is also an unbelievably amazing place, as the jungle hosts some of the most incredible views and creatures I've ever laid eyes upon. Below you'll find a selection of my favorite jungle critter encounters from 2015, hope you enjoy!

First up, my favorite reptile encounter also happens to be the most potentially dangerous encounter. Credit goes to my girlfriend, Bri, who joined me in September and quite literally stumbled upon the Pit Viper, Bothrops atrox.

Commonly known as the lancehead, this snake claims the most lives each year in South America due to its deadly venom. We kept a safe distance while snapping photos until both us and the viper walked (and slithered, respectively) our separate ways.

My favorite rare mammal has to be a toss up between the Tapir and the Tayra. Both are quite elusive animals and are rarely seen, even by the locals. This counts as my second Tapir sighting - we were lucky to be so close as she was crossing the river at around 4:30 in the morning while we were on our way to the Chuncho clay lick in October.

The tayra is an omnivorous animal from the weasel family. We spotted this one in October near the Posada Amazonas jungle lodge while he was sneaking around searching for discarded apples.

While I have yet to spot a big cat in the wild, we have captured many amazing cats on a camera trap that I helped Jeff Cremer set up a few months ago, including Jaguars, Pumas, and Ocelots. (see more of Jeff's camera trap photos here: http://gizmodo.com/how-dslr-camera-traps-are-capturing-stunning-wildlife-p-1730499208)

Up next are my favorite bugs (of course). The Amazon rainforest contains the most species of insects on the planet, so as an entomologist it's really hard to play favorites. My top 3-way tie are surprisingly all caterpillars! I never considered myself to be a butterfly/moth guy, but the Amazon has quickly changed that. There seems to be no end to how strange caterpillars come in shape, size, color, and behavior in the jungle.

In March 2015, I accidentally stumbled upon a caterpillar that would become one of my most popular critter stories. We called it the "tentacled caterpillar", as it had four tentacle-like structures on its back that would "pop out" when alarmed by the sound of our voices (no, seriously).

You can watch the video: Crazy Tentacled Caterpillar in Tambopata, Peru


Next up, in my opinion, is one of the coolest discoveries I've come across in the rainforest. Several months ago, I found a tree with bizarre yellow outgrowths. Upon closer inspection, I realized there were caterpillars munching on these yellow "bulbs" and ants were taking care of the caterpillars.

Immediately, I knew this had to be an unusual observation and indeed, it turned out to be a never-before-seen relationship and life history for a rare butterfly.

You can watch the full video: Mystery of the Yellow Bulbs: Caterpillars, Ants & Parasitic Plants

Finally, we have the slug moth caterpillar. Not a very attractive name for a beautiful insect larva. Spotted in May near the Posada Amazonas lodge, I can only imagine what purpose the groovy color pattern serves.

My favorite tiny critters have been viewed through a handheld origami-style microscope that I was fortunate to test out in the Amazon rainforest starting in March 2015. Known as the Foldscope, we've observed all sorts of strange and interesting animals and structures belonging to the microcosmos including butterfly wing scales and unknown mite species.

A compilation of butterfly wing scales I’ve sampled with the Foldscope

You can watch the full video: Foldscope in the Amazon Rainforest

My favorite bird encounter has to go to the Harpy Eagle. These amazing apex predators are rare to spot in the wild, let alone view one of their nests. In May, Jeff and I climbed 100 feet up into the canopy to photograph and film the chick before it left the nest.

You can watch the video: Journey to a Rare Harpy Eagle Nest


I would be remiss if I didn't include a photo of the incredible gathering of macaws and parrots at the clay licks. No other place in the world like this!


My favorite fungus award goes to none other than the weird Clathrus ruber, which looks like something a 3-D printer messed up.

Finally, my favorite strange animal interaction has to be butterflies drinking turtle tears. They mob the unsuspecting turtles likely to gain extra nutrients such as sodium.

Overall, it has been a busy and incredible year to say the least. I owe a huge thanks to Rainforest Expeditions and the ecotourism that makes all of this work possible. While this post was about my favorite critter encounters, the people who joined me make these trips truly special. I've been joined by friends, family, researchers, science writers, photographers, and more, making every trip unique.

So last but not least, here's a quick shout out to my favorite human critters of 2015.

Filming the Harpy Eagle nest with Jeff and Frank in May
On the way to the Tamboapta Research Center in May with my parents
Waiting patiently at the clay lick in July with Jason, Jeff, Fernando, and Cat
Hopping on the boat with Bri, Lucas, and Hayley in September
Exploring abandoned biological stations with Jeff, Nadia, Elizabeth, Cintia, George, and Zoltan in October
Last but not least, closing out December with Christina and Derek
 Thanks for reading! You can follow me for more updates on Twitter @AaronPomerantz
November 29, 2015

Mystery of the Yellow Bulbs: Discovery of a New Caterpillar-Ant-Parasitic Plant Relationship


“Huh, that’s weird”, I muttered as I trudged through the mud in the rainforest. Even though the sun was setting, it was still hot and steamy, and sweat was dripping into my eyes as I stared at a tree with bizarre yellow outgrowths...

Some sort of fungus? That was my first thought. After all, I've seen tons of strange looking fungi in the Amazon by now. But something about these yellow bulby-looking things piqued my curiosity, so I walked up to take a closer look.

A tree covered with strange yellow bulbs in the jungle
Inspecting them closer only made things more confusing. They didn't really look like fungi, at least not like any I had ever seen before. Was it a fruit produced by the tree? Plant lenticels? I started to take some pictures.

A closer look at the mysterious yellow "bulbs"
That's when I noticed something really interesting. As I scanned the tree's alien protuberances, my eyes locked on to something I wasn't quite anticipating: caterpillars! I had definitely never seen, or heard of, anything like this before. They appeared to be munching away on the yellow bulbs.

An unknown caterpillar eating one of the yellow bulbs
I quickly noticed there were also ants surrounding these caterpillars. The ants were not attacking the delicate butterfly larvae, so this had to be some sort of symbiotic relationship between the caterpillars and ants. While I had little idea at the time what I was looking at, my background in entomology was telling me one thing: this was something cool.
An ant, Ectatomma tuberculatum, guarding a caterpillar
Always gotta show a finger for scale
By this point I had returned to the tree with my colleague, wildlife photographer Jeff Cremer. We took several shots of the caterpillars, ants, and yellow bulbs. This kind of mutualistic caterpillar-ant relationship is known as myrmecophily, and has interested scientists for a long time. Caterpillars belonging to the family lycaenidae have a special structure known as the dorsal nectary organ, which secretes sugars and amino acids. This sweet, nutritious reward is what keeps the ants around and in return, the ants protect the caterpillars by driving off hungry predators and parasitoids.

An attendant ant tapping the caterpillar and receiving a nectar droplet. Filmed thanks to the help of Chris Johns
As I was inspecting this bizarre caterpillar-ant interaction, I noticed something flutter just above my head. A butterfly! Not just any butterfly, I could immediately identify it as a lycaenid and it had a distinct yellow spot on its hind wing that looked remarkably like the yellow bulbs. Was this the adult of the caterpillars!?

A butterfly with a yellow wing spot lands on the tree

Ok, Homework Time

I wrapped up my field work and headed back to the states, but I was dying to figure out what was going on here. To recap, we observed:
  • Mysterious yellow bulbs growing on a tree
  • Caterpillars eating the yellow bulbs
  • Ants taking care of the caterpillars
  • Butterfly with yellow wing spot lands on tree with yellow bulbs

I assembled the photos from the trip and starting emailing the top butterfly experts as well as botanists. The responses I received were mostly along the lines of "I've never seen anything like this before" and "there's nothing published on the life history of the butterfly". Ok, so it seemed like we were on to something new here.

An ant protecting two young caterpillars

With the help of some experts, we were able to identify the butterfly as Terenthina terentia, which belongs to family Lycaenidae. While this family contains around 6,000 species, the Neotropical lycaenids are still only partially known and poorly studied (Pierce 2002). Many species of lycaenids are known to engage in relationships with ants (aka myrmecophily) so our caterpillars definitely fit this criteria.

Filming this strange caterpillar-ant-parasitic plant relationship
Several botanists emailed my pictures around to their colleagues until we were finally able to ID the yellow bulbs as a "very unusual and rarely seen" parasitic plant belonging to the family Apodanthaceae. Ever heard of that? Yeah, me either.

Apodanthaceae is a small family of parasitic plants that live inside other plants and they only become visible once the flowers burst through the bark (Bellot 2014). The species we found is possibly Apodanthes caseariae and there is little known about their ecology, what pollinates them, or how they infect their host plants. Our observations appear to be the first record of an insect utilizing Apodanthes as a host plant. The strange yellow bulbs of this plant appear to emerge once a year around October through January and then fall off.

The yellow bulbs later identified as a rare flowering parasitic plant

In January, my colleague Phil Torres visited this site and checked out the caterpillars. You can see the yellow bulb flowers are more developed at this point.

What's the Take-Home?

Although this species of butterfly, Terenthina terentia, was described over one hundred years ago, we knew essentially nothing about how it lived its life until now. In other words, we helped to described its life history by documenting the larval stages, host plant, and ant-associated behavior. By observing and studying this complex relationship, we can gain more insight into the diverse array of biological interactions in the Amazon rainforest.
Compilation shots of a potential Terenthina terentia caterpillar showing its morphology
However, our work is far from over and many questions still remain. Is this the butterfly's only host plant? How does it know when the parasitic plant is emerging and how does it find the yellow bulbs? What purpose does the butterfly's yellow wing spot serve?

Perhaps the yellow wing marking helps the butterfly blend in with the yellow parasitic plant and reduces predation by birds. While this hypothesis needs further attention, the similar wing pattern and observed host plant could lend support to the idea of a long-term co-evolutionary relationship between the flowering endoparasitic herb and the Terenthina terentia butterfly. In any case, we'll attempt to continue to pick apart this fascinating Amazon mystery which will undoubtedly result in even more questions!

-Aaron Pomerantz, Entomologist

You can follow Aaron for updates & get in touch on Twitter @AaronPomerantz

Special thanks to colleagues in and out of the field who assisted with this project, especially Jeff Cremer, Frank Pichardo, Chris A. Johns, Phil Torres, Christie Wilcox, Jason Goldman, Trevor Caskey, and Alex Gardels. Thanks to Andrew Warren, Alex Wild, Naomi Pierce, Adrian Hoskins, Sidonie Bellot and Robert Robbins for help with insect/plant identifications and expert input.


Bellot S, Renner SS (2014) The systematics of the worldwide endoparasite family Apodanthaceae (Cucerbitales), with a key, a map, and color photos of most species. PhytoKeys 36: 41-57

Pierce NE, Braby MF, Heath A, Lohman DJ, Methew J, Rand DB, Travassos MA (2002) The ecology and evolution of ant association in the Lycaenidae (Lepidoptera). Annual Review of Entomology 47: 733-771
© 2013 Peru Nature Blog
powered by Blogger