The Amazon rainforest is full of mysteries. Given the fact that it's the most biologically diverse region on the planet, this should come as no surprise. Naturalists and scientists have journeyed into the depths of this never-ending sea of green for hundreds of years, and yet researchers still uncover new species all the time.
The view from the plane flying into Puerto Maldonado in the Amazon rainforest
Traditionally, researchers in the Peruvian Amazon venture out by themselves, or with small teams for brief expeditions to collect and catalogue as many specimens as possible. Then, they transport them back to universities or museums in their countries to perform additional analyses. This may involve detailed studies of the specimen’s physical characteristics, chemicals, or DNA to better understand their identity and evolutionary history. Scientists can then write up their results and publish them in a scientific journal.
The problem with this model is that it can take a very long time to conduct these studies on biodiversity, and while we live in technologically advanced times, we're currently losing species and habitats faster than ever – especially in the Amazon Rainforest! Another issue is that this process limits scientific research to academics, failing to involve or engage the public much.
Fortunately, you can help!
While some aspects of scientific research can require years of training, anyone can actively contribute to science – and make discoveries of their own! I was able to experience this myself when I ventured out to the Tambopata Research Center for the first time a few years ago. Since then, I've watched and helped to uncover creatures that are amazing, strange, and likely new to science.
During Science Season, guests can now visit Rainforest Expeditions lodges to "make science happen."
In Spring 2018, I joined forces with ecologist Dr. Varun Swamy, The Wired Amazon team, science communicator Cara Santa Maria, and Science Season guests. While we had a diverse range of interests, from plants to primates to pseudoscorpions (which are tiny relatives of scorpions and spiders), we were united in our desire to become real-life naturalists conducting research in the rainforest.
In particular, I was thrilled to spend time with Andy, a Science Season guest, young up-and-coming entomologist, and incredible photographer. We wandered for hours documenting all the insects and arachnids we could find, including an amazingly bizarre millipede that I had never seen before. Andy even spotted several pseudoscorpions that may well be undiscovered species!
A very strange millipede in the family Siphonophoridae. Photo by Andy Better.
Unidentified species of Pseudorscopions in a log. Photo by Andy Better.
Andy documenting insects in the field with his macro-photography setup.
As part of my work with the National Geographic Society, I brought my "lab in a backpack," a collection of newly developed portable scientific tools, so I could perform DNA sequencing right there at the Refugio Amazonas lodge. As Science Season guests collected specimens, we were able to perform real-time DNA analyses to identify species in the rainforest. Results from this initiative were recently published, and we're now writing a new scientific paper based on our collaboration with guests at Science Season!
My lab in the field setup. With the help of guests, we successfully decoded DNA of plants and insects without ever leaving the rainforest.
Holding up some of the portable science tools, including a handheld DNA sequencer.
On our last day at the Refugio Amazonas lodge, Varun took us up to the canopy tower at sunset to show us his ‘Aerobotany’ project with guests. This incredible project involves flying a drone to take high resolution images of the rainforest for ecology research. Varun believes that citizen scientists can make valuable contributions to science — to improving our understanding of the biological rhythms and life cycles of rainforest trees, and to monitoring and protecting these invaluable rainforest ecosystems in the long term.
Take a look at some Aerobotany Images Here!
So, what does it take to become a citizen scientist?
All you really need is curiosity. What drives all of us is a desire to better understand the natural world around us, and when you’re in the Peruvian Amazon, there are discoveries around every corner. That’s what we do at Science Season!
If you think science in the jungle is hyper-cool too, consider planning a trip to Tambopata and taking advantage of these incredible activities in the most biodiverse rainforest in the world. You too can explore, observe, and make discoveries in the Amazon!
Wrapping up an incredible Science Season Expedition with the team – looking forward to next time!