I step off a boat and set foot onto a beach, my feet sinking slightly into the soft, fine sand. I pause for a second and contemplate the smooth, featureless terrain in front of me...and then I look further beyond and notice the almost solid green wall of lush vegetation, reminding me that I'm far from the coast and the ocean, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.
(Borrowing from a J&B whisky commercial from the 1990s…)
Tradition says: "A tree must begin its life from the forest floor".
Tradition says: "A tree shall form a relatively cylindrical trunk".
Tradition says: "A tree shalt not kill another tree".
Well, strangler fig trees clearly did not receive these edicts...or perhaps they did, and decided "To Hell with tradition!" - much to the delight of aficionados of bizarre, spectacular tropical nature of the floral kind.
I distinctly remember the first time I accidentally stabbed my hand on the spine of an Astrocaryum palm, and thinking to myself, "Why on Earth does this plant possess such horrendously vicious spines?!" Surely it can’t be for protection – even the largest Amazonian rainforest animal, the tapir, is nowhere near large or strong enough to knock over a tree, as African elephants are known to do. The leaf bases of young Astrocaryum palms resemble a medieval torture instrument, covered in shiny black dagger-like protrusions often more than a foot in length, with wide bases terminating in an exceedingly sharp tip – so sharp that you may not even realize that you’ve been stabbed by one until you notice the blood dripping from the puncture wound…or, to add insult to injury, when you notice the spine dangling hideously from your arm.
Mention the words "Amazon rainforest" to the layperson, and it is likely that the first creatures that spring to their minds are jaguars, caimans, giant river otters, spider monkeys or scarlet macaws….large, colorful, striking animals, some easily sighted and others far more elusive. Other folk might associate the rainforest with the ubiquitous "bugs" that it teems with – hundreds of thousands of species of myriad forms and adaptations, with a sizeable fraction still unknown to science and waiting to be discovered.
But to me (and others of a more botanically inclined ilk), the Amazon rainforest is defined by its charismatic megaflora: the trees that form its canopy and the very basis of the ecosystem, allowing for the existence of the staggering diversity of other life forms.
With gusting winds and a sharp plunge in temperature, the first friaje of 2017 arrived earlier this week in Puerto Maldonado, signaling the official transition from wet to dry weather in Tambopata and across the Madre de Dios basin. Rainforest denizens definitely took note, for the wet-to-dry season transition also signals a pronounced shift in their day-to-day lives – a switch from "boom" to "bust" times.
What a difference a year makes! In February last year, a group of us got together at Refugio Amazonas to envision and create a pioneering collaboration between science and ecotourism, that blended field research with cutting-edge technology and crowd-sourced data collection via “citizen” scientists. It was during the initial brainstorming sessions that terms such as Wired Amazon, Aerobotany and Big Grid were cooked up, fueled by our collective imaginations and an ample measure of day-dreaming as well. A year later, Wired Amazon is a vibrant reality: we have successfully taken botany to the skies, opened more than 200 kilometers of trails and installed over a 100 remotely-triggered cameras on the ground and up in the canopy, and – with the enthusiastic collaboration of visitors from all over the world – discovered 8 new species of insects.