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Rainforest Research: The Bigger Picture

Paul Bertner

I'm an explorer, biologist and wildlife photographer specializing in macrophotography and integrated systems ecology. I travel the world's Equatorial rainforests to document and share the earth´s most diverse ecosystems to highlight the tremendous adaptations and diversity of the microfauna.

 At this moment – I find myself thrust back into the humid night air, alive with drill of cicadas, the chorus of frogs and the ominous hum of mosquitoes; camera traps, drone and DSLRs strapped to my back, ready for adventure. I'm visiting the Tambopata Research Center (TRC), almost eight hours upriver from the nearest town in the Peruvian Amazon, observing, photographing and attempting to shed light on some seldom seen behaviors.


Paul Bertner_Peru3316.jpg                   Tambopata Research Center - lodge and research facilities surrounded by pristine forests.


The forests around TRC are pristine – and these types of rainforests are essential not just to the animals, which call it home, but also to the researchers that use it as a control group and barometer to greater understand human impacts and aid in restoration efforts. Inasmuch as the rainforest functions as a complex, integrated system, the TRC functions as a kind of hub, where scientists and investigators, the experts in their respective fields can come from all over the world, meet, and collaborate to better understand this web of interactions which no one discipline can tackle alone. This sharing of information, the facilities and the inclusive, participatory stemming from ecotourism is truly what distinguishes this unique lodge-research center.

And that's where I come in: the small stuff…

An ecosystem is defined as the community of biological organisms, their interactions with one another and with the environment. This refers to millions of species. It is mind-boggling. It’s easy to focus on the ‘famous’ species – like the jaguars and harpy eagles, however, most of what constitutes the biomass of the rainforest are the organisms which pass unnoticed, and underfoot, each one with a rich and complicated history, full of intrigue. From the entomopathogenic fungi which germinate on their oblivious hosts, infecting them and ultimately taking control of their very brains in order to redirect their behaviors, to the mutualistic relationships between the sap-sucking homopterans and their ant care-takers to the caterpillars arrayed in aposematic coloration and defensive armature locked in an evolutionary arms race with both its plant hosts and its would-be predators. The ants literally shape the environment.


entomopathogenic fungus

A very rare and potentially new species of entomopathogenic fungus (Sporodiniella umbellata) which has parasitized an ichneumon wasp (which ironically is a parasitoid itself). These fungi will invade the brains of their hosts and even modify their behavior so as to facilitate spore dispersal.


Interaction between ants and sap sucking bugsOn my rainforest research, I saw the interaction between ants and sap-sucking bugs (homopterans) is a fascinating case of mutualism and opportunism. Ants protect and essentially farm the treehoppers seen here in exchange for a sugary exudate, honeydew, which is carbohydrate rich and produced in copious quantities. When a treehopper´s production wanes, the ant will actually pull the treehopper nymph from the branch and displace it to another area of the plant so as to maximize productivity.


Saturniid CaterpillarThe bright colors used to display toxicity in this saturniid caterpillar (Automeris sp.) is called aposematism. Colors plus large defensive spines = a very strong don’t touch me message! Few predators will risk the pain and future potential for infection resulting from an encounter with such a heavily armed caterpillar.


In a world where a fungus affects an ant which shapes the environment, which affects the jaguars, isn't that worth knowing about?

Tropical rainforests are the most complicated ecosystems on the planet, and the Amazon, being the largest tract of unbroken rainforest in the world, has come to epitomize this. Studying the myriad of interactions which make up this ecosystem is a technical, and logistical challenge. Though we have come a long way since our Victorian predecessors who often appeared to wage war on the very nature they studied, modern-day study still requires herculean efforts from researchers who spend months in the field often in remote and grueling conditions, exposed to disease, parasites, and wild animals, not to mention isolation. However, through technological innovations, and an increasing array of both field (UAVs, camera traps, remote sensing technologies, thermal imagery,) and laboratory tools (genetic sequencing) we are able to both acquire the raw data and analyze it in an unprecedented manner.

Visiting the Amazon gives us a rare view into this psychedelic world of mind-bending adaptations, strategies to astonish and inspire and perhaps lessons to be learned. Adventure awaits - keep your binoculars handy, your magnifying glass at the ready, and let's delve into diversity...

In the coming weeks I'll be exploring three additional natural history stories that will amaze, impress, and renew one's appreciation for the rainforests and its inhabitants which hopefully everyone will have the opportunity to visit, either in person, or through the Wired Amazon project.

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