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A Citizen Scientist’s Amazon Experience

Nancy Barrickman

A tropical rainforest inspires wonder no matter who you are. It is teeming with the bizarre and beautiful, and anyone who has the privilege of visiting these places comes away overwhelmed with amazement. Those feelings are heightened by engaging with the production of scientific knowledge. How do scientists delve into the mysteries of the forest? Can anyone become a scientist of the forest? How does participation in scientific inquiry deepen our appreciation of this place? 

I knew from experience working in other rainforests across the planet that every place has its own magic. I have taught a course in primate behavior and ecology in the rainforests of Costa Rica for several years. I was planning a vacation to Peru, and naturally, I wanted to see the Amazon rainforest. Through Wired Amazon, a citizen science initiative powered by Rainforest Expeditions, I had the perfect opportunity to combine a vacation with the wonder of scientific discovery.

I participated in the AmazonCam Tambopata project and earned Travel Credits by identifying animals caught on camera traps spread across 200 square kilometers of lowland Amazonian rainforest in the Tambopata River basin. At first, this task was daunting, even for a biologist like me who has visited other rainforests – many of these were species that I had never seen before. But the website was easy to navigate and provided plenty of information to guide my work. As I completed my identifications, my excitement kept growing – these were species that I had a good chance of seeing in person very soon!

A citizen scientist’s Amazon experience
Is that a new species of tiger moth I just collected??

During my stay, I participated in the Discover A New Species project run by the Wired Amazon scientific team at Refugio Amazonas lodge. I can vividly recall how a white sheet and halogen lamp transformed at night into a living canvas of insects, and marveling at the diversity of forms, colors and sizes. Another lasting memory from my Tambopata visit is the canopy tower at Refugio Amazonas. I climbed a seemingly endless set of stairs and arrived at a platform that afforded a view across an ocean of trees that stretched across the horizon in all directions. I had previously visited rainforests in Central America and Africa that were heavily fragmented by deforestation, so this continuous canopy was truly exceptional.

Brown capuchin monkey in TambopataSpotting a capuchin monkey in the canopy at Tambopata Research Center

On the surface, rainforests across the planet may appear the same – lush green landscape filled with birds with colorful plumage, monkeys squealing and hooting, intricate spider webs stretching across your path, leaf cutter ants marching along their carefully groomed paths, and much more. But, I observed closer and differences emerged in my Amazon experience: the unmistakable vocals of the red howler monkeys, the unbelievably huge capybaras that I spotted along river banks, the astounding numbers and diversity of macaws and parrots I saw at the Colorado clay lick... 

stranger fig tree at Tambopata Research Center
Standing by an enormous stranger fig tree at Tambopata Research Center

Five days in the rainforests of Tambopata left me in no doubt about one of the principles of biogeography: the larger the ecosystem, greater the diversity. I was familiar with this fundamental concept through books and articles I had read during my training as a biologist. But as a citizen scientist via Wired Amazon, I finally got the opportunity to experience it firsthand!



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