Sunday, 18 January 2009

It Ain't Half Hot, Mum!

So I have a question for those of you that have been reading this blog – do you think that I am a bit of a whiner? Do I tend to whinge just a tad? Have you noticed that there is always something that is bugging me – and I am not talking about the six-legged kind of bug here? Well, I cannot deny this facet of my personality and so, I shall start this post with another complaint – the jungle ain’t half hot, Mum.

OK, so on my trip into the Peruvian jungle, I nearly died of hypothermia. Well, things change and this time I am pretty sure that I came close to dying of heat exhaustion. Every afternoon, I would end up lying on my bed, enshrouded by my mosquito net, swimming in my own sweat, drowning in my own perspiration. I could hear the fan whirring monotonously in the background. Oh no, wait. That wasn’t a fan, I didn’t have fan, I didn’t have air conditioning, I didn’t have a fridge that was large enough to accommodate my entire drenched, sodden, overheated body. All I could do was lie there, listening to the humming and droning of the not-a-fan in the background, waiting for the heat to pass. Basically, it was hotter than a snake's ass in a wagon rut (anyone know what movie that quote comes from)? Now, I am not entirely sure exactly how hot that is, but it was hot enough to impel me to do something that I never do – take a cold shower. It was the only thing that could mitigate the effects of the heat, if only for a very short time. Actually, I tell a lie. You could also go swimming in the lake, the one with the three meter long caimans, the piranhas and the god-knows-what in the freshwater parasite department. I took my chances with the shower. Turns out that all was not safe in there either. The screening was non-existent and while I did submit to the cold water shower, I did not embrace it whole heartedly. That left rather large chunks of my anatomy outside the flow of water, open to attack by bitey things unknown. They were very sneaky about the whole attack and I did not even realise the extent of the damage until the itching started in all my nooks and crannies that are not normally exposed to the world. Oh dear, why do I bother?

That is the question really. Why do I bother? Travelling is hard work, especially when you have to leave behind all the little luxuries that you are so used to. No marmite on toast for breakfast, no ice cold skimmed milk or sharp cheddar cheese to eat with a crusty hunk of freshly baked bread. No baked beans on toast or fish and chips with malt vinegar. And then there are the vagaries of the water and sewage systems. Showers that may or may not be hot, that may blast your skin off or just spit and dribble on you, toilets that may or may not have seats or have toilet paper, which you then cannot put into the toilet. And remember, you always have to keep your mouth shut in the shower and never brush your teeth with the tap water. And then there is the wildlife that you might encounter while carrying out your daily ablutions. Not that I have a problem with finding frogs in my bathroom, but I suspect that some people might not be quite so enthused. I could go on, and on, and on..........but I am sure that you have already heard quite enough of my bellyaching for one day. So, I shall now go on to show you just why I travel.........

Beauty. There, that sums it all up. I travel to see the world in all its beauty, from majestic mountains to stunning glaciers, from sunsets over the desert to whales leaping from the depths of the ocean, from the humbling bulk of an elephant, down to the smallest, most endearing of insects. Look at the face of that weevil. Isn’t that just the cutest insect that you have ever seen? Who wouldn’t put up with a few hardships to get the opportunity to witness all the beauty, majesty, splendour, and cuteness that nature has to offer?

Now let’s get back to the Bolivian jungle. Imagine the light as it filters down through the leaves of the towering trees. Every so often, a shaft of light will manage to penetrate this verdant ceiling. Dust motes and butterflies dance in this iridescent sunbeam that pools, shimmering, on the jungle floor. Unlike the sounds of the jungle that assault your auditory organs, the colours of the jungle are understated, modest and muted. Your eyes soon adjust to the subdued light levels and to the myriad shades of green and brown. It therefore comes as a shock to your system as an electric blue butterfly flashes across your vision or a fiery orange butterfly bursts forth from the greenery. It jolts your senses, sends a cascade of electrons flowing down the sensory cells of your retinas. Any sparks of colour draw your eye to them. A splash of red, a flash of yellow and blue. The macaws cackle as they fly overhead and you glimpse their striking plumage through the canopy. You then notice a miniature river of the brightest yellow as it streams along the forest floor and up a nearby tree. As you look closer, the river breaks up into individual petals being carried along by a colony of leaf cutter ants. So, they don’t just cut leaves then? And where are they taking these petals? Back to their nests, where they feed them to their cultivated gardens of fungi. They may not be able to digest the cellulose that make up the bulk of the plant material that they collect, but they can harvest the fruits of their labour and dine upon the fungus that they grow.

While you are tracking the colours of the jungle, your eye will also be drawn to any movement. You notice another column of ants marching through the undergrowth. This troop of army ants carries a more sinister cargo – body parts from hapless insects and other small animals that have been unfortunate enough to encounter these voracious predators. One ant on its own may not be able to do much damage, but a whole army of them can dismember animals much larger
than any individual ant. There is danger in numbers in the jungle and I for one would never want to remain in one spot in this hot, humid, oppressive environment for too long. It so happens that it was in this very spot that four young men set out on an adventure of a lifetime, trekking through the jungle. Two of them were never seen again. One of them only just made it. His final hours before being rescued were spent semi-conscious, aware only of small parts of his body being carried away, piece by tiny piece by these miniature terrors. Not that I want to put you off going to the jungle or anything, just don’t go wandering off on your own!

Being an entomologist, I am always on the lookout for any interesting insects and the jungle never disappoints. I found a beautiful black and yellow long-horned beetle sitting on the trunk of a tree and an amusing black beetle scurrying through the undergrowth. Amusing because whenever I gave his body a squeeze, he would emit a high pitched hiss as he forced air through the openings to his breathing system. I think it was supposed to scare me off, but it just made me chuckle and want to squeeze him again.

Do you ever get the feeling that I am in danger of being unable to see the woods for the trees? I believe this saying refers to being "Too beset by petty things to appreciate the greatness or grandeur.” My eyes are always drawn by all creatures, great and small, and so I sometimes have to just stop and gaze upwards to appreciate the trees that actually make up the jungle. One of my favourites is the strangler fig. This wonderfully adapted tree has a very special way of ensuring that it reaches the high canopy to capture its share of light. Why bother starting on the jungle floor, spending years striving upwards, ever upwards, when one can start at the top? That is exactly what the strangler fig does. Its seeds are encased in a tasty fruit upon which many animal species depend. After passing through the digestive tract of whatever animal had a fig for breakfast, the seed may then be deposited high up in the canopy. If it falls into a suitable crevice, the seed will germinate, sending roots down to the forest floor and shoots up into the light. The roots will encircle and eventually envelop the supporting tree, which may, finally, be strangled to death. Please don’t feel too sorry for the host tree. Figs are a cornerstone species in the jungle, since they bear fruit several times a year and are a vital source of food for many of the jungle’s inhabitants.

I loved my time in the jungle, despite the oppressive heat, the unidentified things that go bite in the shower, the lack of a fan and being constantly soaked in a concoction of sweat, sun block and 110% DEET. It was worth every drop of sweat and every uncomfortable itch just to see the colours of the jungle and to hear the beetles hiss.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

It's a Jungle Out There......

Nerd alert.........nerd alert.........

Now, I will be the first to admit that I might have nerd-like tendencies. I admit that I have the floppy hat to keep the sun off my face and that I do tuck my trousers into my boots while in the jungle. Well, any sensible person would, since you never know what creepy crawly might creep and crawl up said trouser leg.......shudder.....I will also admit to getting excited at finding a weevil in my backyard and keeping cockroaches and a praying mantis as pets. I will even admit that I enjoy a spot of train spotting.........OK, OK, I am just kidding on that one. See, I do have my nerdy limits. This limit became clear when I was reading the list of suggested items that you might need in the jungle. There were the obvious ones, such as the 110% DEET and full body suit to protect against bitey things and the sturdy boots that completely envelop your lower leg to protect against bigger bitey things. Then you need your bins and your camera – well, obviously. And last, but not least, we must not forget our tape recorder. There you go, that is where I draw my nerd line. Who on earth travels with a tape recorder!?!

Having said all of that, I wish I had one while I was in the jungle.........

Yes, Mr. DBM and I were heading back to the jungle, this time to the Bolivian jungle and Madidi National Park. And no, I couldn’t possibly write a post about a place that I have been without letting you in on the details of how we got there. This time, the journey really wasn’t too bad. Only two modes of transport, a plane and a boat, and the weather was quite lovely, so no hypothermia this time. However, if you are even a little bit nervous about flying, the flight from La Paz to the jungle may not be the one for you. If you are a very nervous flyer, may I suggest the bus? Now, I don’t like flying, mainly due to the boredom factor, but I am also one of those flyers that think that the plane is going into an uncontrolled nosedive and that we are all about to die very horribly every time I hear a noise that doesn’t sound quite right. I try to keep these feelings in check, but you may just notice me peering out the window periodically, checking to see that there are no flames streaming from the engine and that the wing is still there. On this particular flight, the plane takes off and immediately heads straight for the mountains. Within minutes, you are passing between (not ever) some very large mountain peaks and you figure that any good snowball thrower could hit the plane if they were standing on one of these peaks. As I gazed out, fixated by the view, several thoughts flitted through my mind. One thought was just how beautiful the mountains were, then I started to wonder just how far away said mountains were, then I noticed how white the knuckles of the passenger in front of me were as they gripped the chair’s armrest. I then started thinking of the film “Alive” and I started to peruse the passengers to see which might be tastiest. At about this time, the plane passed the last mountain and began its descent.........phew!

If, when you are travelling, you ever fancy a bit of peace and quiet, a break from all the honking horns, the all-night parties right outside your window, the whistles and shouts from the apparently never-ending protest marches that seem to start and end at your hotel, then the jungle is not the place to go. Peace and quiet? As far as I can tell, the only time that there is any quiet in the jungle is at about 2:15pm every afternoon and it lasts all of 9 minutes. I am not sure why the animals of the jungle have chosen this to be their quiet time, but that is it. The rest of the time, your ears will be assaulted by a cacophony of noise. The jungle is a feast for the ears. You will suffer from an overindulgence of sound and your tympanic membranes will soon be a quivering mess, begging for a moment of stillness. The variety of sounds is astounding. There are the high pitched peeps and squeaks, sneeps and snippets, breeks and eeks. Then you have variations on trills and shrills, moving up or down scales in all different keys. There are single, clear notes, short and sharp, or long and unwavering. There are clicks and whirrs, brrs and grrrs, yapping and yipping, clicks and clacks, coughs and caws, squawks and squeals. Then there are the more ominous low growls and purrs and grunts and grumbles. Along with all of this, you hear all the “man-made” sounds that aren’t made by man at all. There is the high pitched screech that must come from some kind of electrical equipment, there are the telephones ringing and all those car alarms that keep going off. And who keeps trying to start a car out there?

The most frequent question in the jungle must be “What on earth is making that sound?” And the most likely answer is “I have no idea!” But, as you spend time in the jungle, you do start to isolate and identify some of the sounds. The easiest sounds to identify are those made by animals that want to be seen as well as heard. The most obvious of all noisy animals is the stinky bird. If you want to know more about this bird, just go read one of my previous posts, and you will find out that this bird is noisy, both vocally and physically as it crashes around in the jungle. The sounds this bird makes are remarkable due to their variability, ranging from raucous laughter to deep growling and purring (so, when you think you are being stalked by a jaguar, it is much more likely that it just a couple of arguing stinky birds). The other animals that make a lot of noise and don’t care who knows it are the monkeys. There are the capuchins and the spider monkeys that travel in large groups and rampage through the treetops, throwing things, breaking branches and not caring who knows that they are on their way.

And then there are the howler monkeys. The males make the most incredible noise, a cross between a steam train, a raging river and a gale force 10 wind, every morning and afternoon, just to make sure that everyone knows where he is. The rest of the time, the howlers are a pretty quiet bunch. I spent some time watching a family group as they lounged around in the treetops. There were three young howlers, all playing and chasing each other, fighting for the best spot in the branches and generally monkeying around. One of them seemed to take great delight in hanging from the branches using just his tail, so freeing up his paws to punch his sibling. I can just imagine what his mother was saying to him:

“Howard! How many times do I have to tell you to hold on with at least one paw!”
“Don’t you aw Mum me. And stop hitting your sister like that.”
“But she started it!”
“I don’t care who started it.”
“But Mum........”
“Don’t make me come over there..............didn’t I just tell you to hold on with at least one paw? Do you know what happen to Nigel the night monkey when he didn’t listen to his mother? The last anyone saw of him was in the jaws of a caiman.”

And so the conversation goes on, while the other howlers continue with their mid afternoon doze, busy doing nothing.

Many jungle animals use sound to communicate with each other. Since it is hard to see through the dense undergrowth, it is an excellent way for various animals to locate each other. Now, I am not entirely sure how this works for them. I have no problem in hearing the animals, but, in most cases, I cannot locate the noise emitter. Take the cicada. This has to be one of the noisiest insects in the jungle, if not the world. The noise that these animals produce can be almost unbearable. It is a cross between a high pitched buzz and a more electrical hum that you might associate with high voltage electrical lines. They make the sound by vibrating membranes in the base of their abdomens and this sound is then amplified by a hollow space inside their abdomens. When you get several of these creatures buzzing at once, you are engulfed by the sound and it is next to impossible to tell what direction the noise is coming from. Still, the females seem to be able to locate the vibrating males, even if I can’t. The one cicada that I did manage to find was not making any sound and I only found it because I was investigating the aerial roots of the tree that it was on.

Another animal whose call I soon learnt to recognise was that of a poison dart frog. The males of these gorgeous little creatures emit loud, clear peeps at five second intervals. Very distinctive, easily recognisable and even though you know that you must be standing within feet of the little guy, he is still very hard to find. This is why you need a guide in the forest, since ours always seemed to be able to find the little chaps. I was very proud when I did actually find one all by my little self. Now, if you look at the photo of this exquisite creature, you will see that he is not doing his best camouflage act, like many of the frogs of the forest that like to pretend to be leaves, dead or living. No, this particular frog advertises his presence with bright splashes of colour. Given his name, I am sure that you have worked out what his advertisement is saying – “Whatever you do, do NOT eat me. I taste horrible, will not stay down long and will possibly result in your death.” Such frogs have very potent toxins that they can exude from their skins to deter predators. A few species have even been used by indigenous people to coat the tips of the darts they use when hunting, hence the name. And, just in case any of you are wondering, no, these are not the type of frogs or toads that you might want to try licking! You have been warned.

Of course, there are many animals in the forest that like to remain silent and unobserved. These are the ones that you have to worry about. The jaguar is not going to announce his presence just before he leaps onto your back and clamps his jaw down on your jugular. The caiman takes great delight in gliding silently along at the lake surface, looking for all the world like a log. The tarantula creeps silently along on his eight furry legs, just waiting for an unsuspecting insect to hop or scuttle by. Or perhaps a leg to crawl up or a shoe to hide in? You may be lucky enough to get a glimpse of them, (or unlucky if you have a spider phobia, and trust me, this spider was huge, no, really huge, I kid you not) but you can be fairly sure that they will always see you first!

As night falls on the forest and the howler monkeys finish their booming calls for the day, you sigh with relief, thinking that you will finally get some quiet time to relax and consider the day that you have just spent trying to track down cicadas, frogs, macaws and toucans. But no, as the day shift signs off, so the night shift begins, and so the sounds of the jungle continue.

One last photo for you to peruse and Bugs' Biological Brainteaser for you to ponder. What is it? Any guesses anyone?