September 30, 2012

Help us figure out how many jaguars live along the Tambopata River!

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Jaguar seen from the canoe on the way up to Tambopata Research Center.
Image by Jeff Cremer.


How can you help us solve this question? 
Post your jaguar photos from your visit to Rainforest Expeditions Lodges at www.facebook.com/Rainforest.ExpeditionsBe sure to include the date, who your guide was, and where along the river or lodge you recall seeing it. Also, try to make sure the head/face is as clear as possible.

The more jaguar pictures we get, the more individual jaguars we can potentially identify by looking at their unique markings (aka spots on their face or side). So keep that in mind when you post photos- if we can't see the face markings clearly, we won't be able to identify the individual!

Why is this important?
By accumulating the photos, we can identify and monitor jaguars that we encounter while out in the field. Any newcomer jaguars to our area will be cordially welcomed by us (from afar!) and will provide insight into what numbers of jaguars are present in our region, and how that number changes.

If you haven’t yet taken a trip with us and would like to photograph a jaguar yourself, you have the best chance of seeing one by visiting the Tambopata Research Center, check it out here.

Check out www.TheRevScience.com for more posts from biologist Phil Torres

Why are some leaves not green?

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While walking around the rainforests of Tambopata you will see some leaves that don’t seem to belong amongst their green brethren- some of these leaves can be blue, purple, red, pink, or even white. 

Leaves are green because they absorb most other colors in their chlorophyll and harvest that light for energy; the unabsorbed green bounces away and is detected by our eyes. So, for a leaf to be of another color, it usually is sacrificing energy absorption for something else. 

Why the color sacrifice? Found out in this video:




This video represents two of the leading theories on why some leaves are of different colors in the rainforest. While these reasons can apply to many leaves, they don’t apply to all, and we’re continually finding out more about interesting plant adaptations in this realm.

Check out www.TheRevScience.com for more posts from biologist Phil Torres
September 26, 2012

Clearwing Butterflies

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A clearwing butterfly feeds on a flower full of pyrrolizidine alkaloid toxins. Photo by Phil Torres.



A common sight in Tambopata- Clearwing butterflies, known as the Ithomiini, are beautiful, deadly, and a bit confusing to scientists. Find out more:

Why are they clear?
  • Most butterflies have scales on their wings which result in their color. If you rubbed off those scales, the wings would look clear.
  • Clearwing butterflies mostly have scales along their wing veins, and lightly throughout the rest. 
  • If you can imagine a clear butterfly flying in the shadowy understory of the Amazon, it makes quite a difficult target to follow, protecting them from predators like birds.

Why are they deadly?
  • Unlike most butterflies that are poisonous, clearwings to not eat a poisonous plant as a caterpillar to incorporate it into the adult stage.
  • Instead, these butterflies actually seek out poisonous flowers with pyrrolizidine alkaloids in them as an adult to obtain this toxin (see above image).
  • Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are known to cause damage to livers, and can cause death in some cases.

What is an Ithomiine Pocket?
  • One of the most interesting thing about these butterflies is that they form ‘pockets’ in the forest in which dozens of clearwings of different species all roost for the night in one distinct area.
  • This can be observed around 4pm, in which clearwings are slowly all flying around each other getting ready to roost, and at night, when the butterflies have all settled on low hanging branches or vines.
  • It is still unknown why they do this, but one theory says it serves as a sort of dry-season ‘jail’ when climactic conditions aren’t favorable. 
  • However, I have observed very large ithomiine pockets in rainforests without dry seasons and with consistent rain, so they is likely another underlying cause as well.

Posada Amazonas Lodge: Home of the Donald Trump Caterpillar

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peru amazon donald trump
I found Donald Trumps Wig in Tambopata Peru
 http://www.cafepress.com/perunature

This caterpillar was found at Posada Amazonas Lodge in Tambopata, Peru. As far as I can tell, is the larva of a moth in the family Megalopygidae. This family is known for having hairy caterpillars with extremely painful stings. So despite its fluffiness, I do not recommend touching it! One of the guides here accidentally stepped on one as a child and said he had an entire leg swollen and a fever for two days.

The venom is a chemical of unknown origins, much research to be done with these guys.

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September 18, 2012

Why is the rainforest so diverse?

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In the 10 short minutes it takes you to step off the canoe and walk up to the lodges, you’ll likely have passed over 300 species of plants and insects and heard the calls of dozens of varieties of birds.

Welcome to the Amazon.

There are more species of butterflies here in Tambopata than all of North America and Europe combined. One tree may contain over a thousand species of insects, many of which are new species to science. And it just takes one look at the “Birds of Peru” book to realize we are in an area with more species of birds than anywhere else in the world. This is one of the most biodiverse places on earth- but scientists are still trying to figure exactly out why.

Several of the 1200+ species of butterflies in Tambopata.

There are a multitude of effects that have interacted for millions of years to create the Amazon as it is today and we are just beginning to understand them. One of these that you’ll be quick to notice: the weather. It is hot, and it is humid. Warmth and ample access to water allow organisms to spend less time acquiring resources (i.e. looking for water or warmth), and more time reproducing and interacting with each other. These complex interactions are part of what can cause new species to specialize and form over time. 

Additionally, studies have shown that the higher average temperature here causes a slightly higher rate in genetic mutations. These mutations are fundamental to creating variety within a species, which, over time and with a little help from geology or natural selection, can result in one species having two forms that are so unalike that they have become two. In one study, tropical plants were found to evolve twice as fast as colder weather plants, meaning they had twice the opportunities for evolving into new species.

Recent studies have also shown that fungi and plants in the Amazon actually contribute to creating more rainfall via a nighttime release of certain salts into the air. Meaning, the diversity of organisms that benefit from rainfall are actually causing more rainfall. This rain helps as not only a supply of one of life’s essential ingredients but also helps erode the fertile, volcanic Andes Mountains, sending a steady supply of fertilizing minerals into the Amazon basin by way of rivers.

Five different species of parrots and macaws at this claylick.
Another concept that scientists think plays a role in high biodiversity is that rainforests are known to be ‘harborers,’ not just creators, of biodiversity: they have remained relatively unchanged as hot, humid incubators of diversity for millions of years. Other environments that could go through large historical changes in climate may wipe out species that can’t adapt well, but rainforests tend to keep many species around for the long-haul. 

Within this blanket of forests lie differences in the soil composition, the altitude, the seasonal flooding, and other factors that allow one area of the Amazon to be quite different to another, increasing diversity again. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that within these broad scale habitats there are seemingly endless microhabitats. From a pool of water in a bromeliad, to the a hole in the side of a palm tree, to even the fur on the back of a sloth, high rates of evolution have allowed species to become extremely specialized in where, and how, they live. This again is a major factor in the high biodiversity: where one tree in North America may have dozens of species living on it, high rates of evolution and specialization allow on tree in the tropics to potentially have thousands.

This specialization of species is one of the major factors that makes the Amazon so impressive on one hand, and vulnerable on the other. Wiping out a unique area of forest may potentially cause several entire species to go extinct. Human-created changes in the forest may cause specialized species to be exposed to conditions that are starkly different than what they have experienced over the last several million years, leaving them in a non-ideal environment that would give them a lower likelihood of survival. 

So, while we enjoy the biodiversity that surrounds us, better understanding the causes that have interacted over millions of years will allow us to respect it, and hopefully protect it, too.

September 14, 2012

The Turtle and the Jaguar

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The Turtle and the Jaguar

Bey, a good Huaroni friend, and better hunter, told me one his grandpa´s stories. 

A tortoise (Geochelone denticulata) comes across a jaguar. The tortoise collapses into its shell.
The jaguar aks the tortoise: “Can I see your head?”
The tortoise responds: “Only if you let me see your tongue.”
The suspicious jaguar insists: “Nooooo…first I want to see you head”.
And so forth.
Finally, a weary jaguar opens its mouth and sticks out its tongue. “After all, what can I lose?” the jaguar thinks.
The tortoise urges the jaguar: “I can’t see it very well, open it wider.” The jaguar obliges, until its mouth is wide open, and its eyes are closed shut.
At that point, the tortoise nimbly walks into the mouth, down the throat, and into the belly (“ la tripa” in Spanish, literally, the innards).
The jaguar, choking, tries to spit the tortoise out. The tortoise safely installed in the “tripa” patiently begins biting his way out. The jaguar rolls and roars in pain. He claws at his own belly, to no avail.
After a long and tortuous agony, the little tortoise calmly walks out of the jaguar´s bloody carcass.

Come listen to the story from Bey in person: a wise, quiet hunter of almost sixty. Visit www.huaorani.com. For a 5-10% chance of spotting jaguar visit www.perunature.com.

Smarter Every Day in the Amazon

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The Team

We’ve had the pleasure of working with Destin from the educational (and incredibly entertaining) YouTube channel Smarter Every Day here at Rainforest Expeditions. He spent a week with Jeff Cremer (photo tour guide) and me (Phil Torres) filming all the best animals the Amazon has to offer. His youtube channel has over 25 million views and has short educational videos that are typically physical science based. We were happy to show him the wonders of the plant and animal world that surround the Rainforest Expeditions lodges to see how his experience with engineering science translates into the natural world.

The equipment.
Destin was equipped with a portable, not yet on the market Phantom Miro high speed camera that can film at thousands of frames per second. Thus, we were able to get some incredible footage of birds, butterflies, and bugs in ways that have never been captured before. This includes footage of a ‘flash’ of macaws from the Tambopata Research Center claylick as well as butterfly flight patterns that, with the ultra-slow motion footage captured, were about as incredible as any wildlife footage we’ve ever seen.


Using Jeff’s knack for photography and finding good lighting, our guide Gerson’s incredible ability to find us animals, the sound producer Gordon’s innovative recording techniques, my science input, and Destin’s curiosity and high speed video recording magic; we managed to capture some incredible video and gain detailed insights into some of the Amazon’s most impressive creatures.

Needless to say, we’re looking forward to sharing those videos with you once they are fully edited in the coming weeks. For now, check out Destin’s youtube channel and learn something new: www.youtube.com/SmarterEveryDay

A still from a high-speed video of dragonfly wings flapping.


September 07, 2012

The Black-fronted Nunbird (Monasa nigrifrons), master of bluff

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The Black-fronted Nunbird, master of bluff


Black Fronted Nunbird
Black Fronted Nunbird

The Black fronted Nunbird (Monasa nigrifrons) is a six inch nondescript black bird with a red bill from the puffbird family (Bucconidae).   It is common in the floodplains and secondary forests of the Amazon, where it forages below the mid story. You find it sitting vertically in small groups, often erupting into a noisy chorus.
It’s claim to fame? It is one of the forest’s sentinels. It accompanies mixed species flocks of birds, often teaming with dozens of species of other birds to forage together. Every now and then it will produce a resonant alarm. Instantly, the rest of the flock will stop and quiet down. They will hide under leaves or branches, wary of nearby birds of prey the nunbird has spotted. Sometimes I have also seen squirrel monkeys and brown capuchins react to the call. Quite a service.
But who pays for this service? Remember there is no free lunch. So once in a while, the nunbird bills the flock. When it sights a juicy grasshopper, the nunbird will also call the alarm, even if there is no bird of prey. And with the rest of the flock looking above for the bird of prey, the nunbird easily swoops in for the kill. It lies.
The amazing story does not end there. I came across the nunbird in the most unexpected of places: Murray Gell Mann’s The Quark and theJaguar, his magnum opus on complexity theory and adaptive systems. The nunbird is cited in a chapter on how certain numbers appear in completely unrelated places across the world. Fifteen percent, for example, is the optimal amount of times a poker player bluffs. Bluff any more, and no one will believe you. Bluff any less, and you’re missing out on chances to win. It turns out fifteen percent is the exact amount of times a Black fronted nunbird calls out false alarms when confronted with juicy prey!  

See nunbirds in action at www.perunature.com.
September 05, 2012

A Day at the Chacra (Farm)

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Yesterday afternoon, the guides took us just across the river from Refugio Amazonas Lodge to an organic farm that supplies some of the food to the lodges. Farmers in the area have learned to do farming organically and sustainably, check out some of the highlights:


A Multi-Crop System

Star fruit, one of the two dozen crops grown on the farm.


Many studies have shown that having multiple types of crops at once significantly reduces the amount of damage that pests do to the crops, thus lessening the need to ever use pesticides. Why? Because having varying plots reduces the chance of disease and provides better habitat for the natural prey of insect pests, including birds and other insects.


A Nitrogen-Fixing Legume


Kudzu covers the ground around the bananas, providing essential Nitrogen to the ground.

One of the main problems with slash-and-burn farming is that burning old, dry crops does not return all of the nutrients back into the ground for the next year’s crops. Meaning, after several years, the nutrients have been depleted little by little and the earth is no longer very fertile. One of the main ingredients that gets lost over the years is nitrogen, essential for plant photosynthesis and metabolism. Many local farmers are now using Kudzu, a fast growing, nitrogen-fixing vine. These plants take nitrogen gas from the air, and bring it into the plant. Thus, when cut and decomposed, the plant brings that nitrogen into the ground for the surrounding crops.

Trees

A young mahogany tree reaches for the sky.
Each farm I have seen has one or two large trees right near the center. This provides habitat for the weaver birds (Oropendolas) and caciques that swoop amongst the crops, eating the insects. Free pest control. Additionally, this farmer has planted a few Mahogany trees, greatly increasing the price of the land. If new trees are planted every decade, the farmer can cyclicly harvest the trees and avoid a need to cut down these beautiful trees deeper in the forest.

The Swim

To top it off, we all jumped in the perfectly cool river afterwards for a swim, so don’t forget your bathing suit! A perfect way to cool off on a hot Amazon dry-season day.
The beach!

September 02, 2012

Amazon Wildlife Videos - Tayra

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I was lucky enough to catch three tayras on video while at the macaw claylick hide at Posada Amazonas.  Tayras, relatives of the weasel and the otter, are typically seen very briefly on a trail or up in a tree before running away. Getting a video of three of them was something special, and pretty unusual for the claylick.

 
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