Travel E-Logs: Amazon Rain Forest

Travel E-Logs #7: Rain Forest Animals

Dear Students,

Lilia, Teresa and I are incommunicado till we get back from Cuyabeno, so I’ve prepared a special report for you – all about bugs. Enjoy!

Bugs, Bugs and More Bugs

When you picture the Amazon Rain Forest in your brain, most likely the scene has lots of animals in it, like those posters about the rain forest in your classroom. But those posters are a little bit deceiving. Oh, the animals in them are all here, but it's not all that common to actually see most of them. Between the two of us, Lilia and I have been to the Amazon rain forest eleven times in the past nine years (including for a whole year at a time once each) and neither of us has ever seen a jaguar (though we've probably walked past a few), a sloth (though we've probably walked under lots), an anaconda (though we've probably canoed and swum past several), or a manatee (though they live in the Napo and Aguarico Rivers). We are much more likely to see other animals, especially the floor dwellers like agoutis, peccaries and armadillos, on our plates than in the wild. Local hunters may know how to find and catch them, but we've only caught glimpses of them when walking in the forest, since the second they hear us coming, they bolt. Some animals, like capybaras, pygmy marmosets, anteaters and ocelots, we've only seen because our students' families have kept them as pets. And there are many animals, like the translucent-headed frog with black sunglasses-like eyes that hopped on my shoulder one day; or the large blue, yellow, green, grey and red jay-like bird that perched on a vine right next me and screeched at me in the forest one day; or the brilliant yellow butterfly with rounded wings edged with black dots that fluttered past me just a few days ago, I've only seen once.

The point is that many animals are very difficult to see since they are well camouflaged, have a natural instinct to avoid being seen or, in some cases, only wander about at night. The animals you see most, by far (with birds taking a distant second), are bugs.

In one of my earlier reports, I included a poem about the animals and bugs I shared my house with when I first lived in the rain forest. A 1st/2nd grade student from the Montessori Magnet School in Albany, NY, responded to the poem with the following question: ‘How can you live with all those bugs?’ The fact is most of the bugs don't really bug you. They just do their thing and pretty much stay out of the way.

There are a few, though, who live up to their name, namely sand flies, mosquitoes, chiggers and cockroaches. Between the four of them, I would say they do 95 percent of the bugging. The sand flies, which are thicker when the rivers are low, in the season when the river turtles lay their eggs, can be very annoying and, while they don't carry diseases, can keep you scratching most every waking hour. Mosquitoes aren't as omnipresent, but the fact that they can carry deadly diseases, like malaria, yellow fever and dengue, makes them a more formidable threat. Chiggers, tiny red mites that live in the grass, are ever-ready to burrow into your skin if you happen to expose any of it to them. While, like sand flies, they fall under the annoying-but-not-dangerous category, unlike sand flies, whose itch lasts from two to twelve hours, they don't bite and run: they stay right in you -- and itch until you get them out. Cockroaches don't really do anything to you, except for give you the willies -- and weigh on your mind if you consider that, while you sleep, those ugly, dirty, creepy things are raiding your food.

Ants raid your food too, but somehow, to me at least, they don't seem so malevolent -- and I respect their work ethic. I guess I've learned to tolerate them without a second thought. And I guess that's the answer to the question: you simply learn to tolerate the bugs. (People who live here year round are very good at it! I'm getting better, and Lilia still has a ways to go.) But, if you like science, and more specifically, biology, and more specifically, entomology, the rain forest is like paradise. The variety, the colors, the forms, the strategies for survival, to me, are just fascinating. Back when I was teaching English at the high school in Limoncocha, before Limoncocha had electricity, I used to set up three candles on my kitchen table at night and prepare for the next day's classes. When I first started teaching, I would take a break from my work by taking notes on the various insects that were attracted to my candles -- but I had to give up the practice because so many different insects came that I didn't have time to finish my schoolwork. And that was just in my house! If you go outside and try to categorize insects, you'll quickly find out why scientists have still not discovered, named and described many, many rain forest insects. Hey, maybe one of you will discover one of them. 8-)

Resident Tarantulas

Several years ago, a fifth grade student from Utica, NY, who read my Inside a Rain Forest House poem asked me, "Did you REALLY have tarantulas crawling through your house in the rain forest?"

Here is how I responsed:

"Yes. In fact, the line in the poem was inspired by an actual event. One morning shortly after I moved to the rain forest, I woke up and went to go to the bathroom. I lifted up the toilet cover and there on the seat was a big black hairy tarantula. I'm glad I looked before I sat down!"

I also had a pet tarantula. I called it my pet, anyway. It lived under a broken board on the side of my house. I discovered it one day when I was walking down my steps on the way to school (like most rain forest dwelling places, my house was built on stilts). After that, I checked for it each day - and started calling it George. But when George started weaving a nest, apparently in preparation to lay eggs, I had to change her name - to Georgette. Sadly (sniffle, sniffle) Georgette disappeared shortly after she made the nest. I'm not sure if she relocated or got eaten.

I really like tarantulas, but some of my guests didn't appreciate them quite so much. You've heard of 'ants in your pants?' Well, one morning while getting dressed, a visiting friend put on pants with a tarantula in them! He jumped around the house a bit - but didn't get bitten. Another time one of my visiting friends, unbeknownst to her, slept with a tarantula - and smushed it to death in the process! After she left, when dismantling my guest bed, I found the poor flattened thing under the foam mattress. The next time I saw her, three months later, I told my friend who committed the crushing crime what happened - and she was shocked even then!

I was never bitten by a tarantula the whole time I lived in the rain forest - maybe because I was kind to Georgette.

Top Ten Bites/Stings

Several students have been sending E-mails with questions about getting bitten by insects or rain forest animals. Last year in one of my reports, I addressed the topic, listing the rain forests top ten bites/stings. Here's the selection:

Last night, I had some bad luck. I was walking barefoot in my house and stepped on a conga. A conga is a large rain forest ant, about an inch and a half long. Sometimes it has wings and sometimes it doesn't, but it always has a stinger on its tail end. Of course, the conga stung me and, boy, did it ever hurt. At first it felt like a bee sting, but then the pain got more and more intense, until it felt just like I had a nail stuck deep in my foot. The pain lasted for several hours, but eventually I was able to sleep. This morning, I didn't feel any pain when I woke up, but as soon as I started to walk, the pain returned, only a little less severe than last night. By midday though, I could walk without feeling any pain.

I was telling some people in Limoncocha about being stung and several people recounted times when they had been stung or bitten by rain forest insects or animals. They also told me that conga bites are very painful, but not as bad as other bites; and they ranked insect/animal bites by their severity.

Here are the TOP TEN results of my informal rain forest bite/sting survey, listed in order from least severe to most severe:

10. (Tie) A.) Aranillas (sand flies) and B.) Anyangu -- A.) Hardly visible little flies with mosquito-like sting; hurts a little when stinging; swells and itches for a while, then goes away. Annoying but not dangerous. Can be unbearable in large numbers, especially at river beaches since they like the sand, forcing you to change plans or relocate. B.) Tiny little red ants that pack a sharp pinch of pain in each sting. The pain is intense, but very localized and short-lived -- and therefore not severe. The problem is, where there is one, there are hundreds and you never get stung just once. Once on you, they cling and are hard to brush off. Water does the trick.
9. Coloradillas -- Tiny red mites that live in grass. No pain, but LOTS of itch. Many get on your clothes as you walk through the grass, then make their way to your skin. They burrow in and can stay in your skin for weeks, continuously causing a strong urge to SCRATCH, SCRATCH, SCRATCH!
8. Conga -- Very painful sting; intense pain can last up to twenty-four hours. Some people get a fever when bitten. The sting should be treated carefully so infection doesn't set in; otherwise a painful sting can become a dangerous health problem.
7. Scorpions -- Often found in rotting logs; their sting is stronger and more painful than the congas, also causing dizziness and sometimes vomiting.
6. Piranha -- Rarely ever bite people in the water, but snap their powerful jaws incessantly after being removed from a fish hook. Razor sharp teeth can easily remove a chunk of flesh (I should know, it has happened to me). Quick and clean surgery results in no immediate pain, but that sets in after the bleeding stops and, depending on the severity, healing can take up to a month. Usually stitches are not an option, since clean bites leave no connected flesh left to stitch. Best prevention is a machete to the piranha's head shortly after catching. (They taste very good fried, but not if you're in too much pain to enjoy the flavor!)
5. Tarantulas -- Stronger and more painful sting than scorpion's, though some tarantulas have more poison that others. Stronger ones can make a person sick, with fever, dizziness and vomiting. Rain forest people say that some tarantulas have enough poison to kill a small child or someone who was already sick or weak.
4. Black caiman -- Although incidents are very rare, these monsters are easily capable of amputation.
3. Sting rays -- Spear you with a poisonous lance -- double ouch! Incidents are rare, but more common than caiman bites. If it happens to you, you'll have the scar and the painful memory for the rest of your life.
2. Mosquitoes -- Cause swelling and itch, but can also carry malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever, all of which cause high fever, chills, headache, muscle pain and severe weakness. Malaria and yellow fever can, in some cases, cause death if not treated. With treatment, the symptoms normally stop right away.
1. Poisonous snakes -- The most poisonous rain forest snakes, like bushmasters, coral snakes and fer de lances, besides having extremely painful bites, can cause paralysis and death if bites are not treated. With immediate treatment, chances for survival are good in most cases. Many other kinds of snakes are poisonous but not deadly.

Watch your step!

A Shocking Shower

Speaking of bugs... The following is taken from The Culture Connection Newsletter which I wrote when I first lived and taught in the Amazon rain forest.

Have you ever taken an ant shower? I have. Just the other morning, I was walking up the hill from the spring where I bathe when, all of a sudden, I got a case of the willies. I stopped and noticed that there were some ants crawling around on my feet. Then I felt some ants on my neck and on my arms. Then I felt some crawling down my shirt and on my back. Soon, there were ants in my hair, and, you guessed it, I even had ants in my pants! I started to pick them off, but looked up and realized that I was standing right in the middle of a shower of ants and ant-nest flakes. There was a beautiful cream-colored woodpecker drilling away at a huge ants' nest attached to a tree limb about thirty feet directly overhead. Little did the cream-colored woodpecker know that, while it picnicked with the ants, it was raining on my parade. Now that's a rain forest shower!

A Costly Meal

The woodpecker enjoyed its meal, but paid a considerable price. As it attacked the ants' nest, the soldier ants of the colony counterattacked. Every fifteen seconds or so the cream-colored woodpecker would fly to another branch and try to scratch, peck and shake off the counterattacking soldier ants. After a while, the woodpecker flew wobbly to the ground and walked around as if intoxicated, apparently unable to fly. Finally, it seemed to regain its senses and flew off. I theorized that the soldiers were using chemical warfare. Was I correct?

Guess Who

Here are a couple of guess who animal poems. The first one is a riddle that you might be able to figure out just from the title. If not, you'll find more clues in the poem.

House in a House in a House

I'm a single unit
houseboat protected by my hull/
I'd invite you in for tea, but I'm afraid my
house is full/ For inside my house are forty more which
I'll deposit in the shore/ From those houses will emerge, with a waddle and a surge/ Mini-houseboats just like me, to paddle the river as wide as a sea.


The star of the next poem has a very odd eating style, depicted in the second part.


Reduced to Mush

I'm segmented as a robot
Furry as a lemming
Agile as an acrobat
Clinging to the ceiling

I'm bristled as a thistle
Tough as any tank
Aiming to deposit my venom
Inside your exoskele-bank

Caustic as a chemist's brew
Strong as gastric acid
I'll inject my juices into you
And turn you into liquid plastic

Refreshing as a milkshake
Scrumptious as a berry pie
I'll slurp you up like ice cream cake
And lick my pedipalps as you slosh by.

Sluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurp. Mmmmmmm!

In my last report, I included two poems about animals you wouldn't want to encounter while hiking through the forest. I should know, I've encountered them both while hiking through the forest. The first is the bushmaster, a kind of pit viper that is one of the deadliest of the rain forest snakes. One day while walking in the forest, I moved some bushes in front of me and, right there behind the bushes, was a fat, seven foot, bushmaster, black on gold, all coilded up. I didn't know what kind of snake it was at the time and took a couple of pictures before backing away. I figured it wouldn't bite because it was molting (shedding its skin). Later, I checked in a book and realized how dangerous it was. Luckily, I'm still around to write about it.

The second are army ants. Another day while walking in the forest, I suddenly felt some sharp bites on my leg. I looked down and saw several ants crawling on my shoes and pantlegs. As I bent down to take them off, I realized that I was standing in the middle of a massive swarm of army ants. I walked quickly for maybe a hundred yards or so till I came to the end of the swarm and to safety. The same thing has happened to Lilia a couple of times too while she was living in the rain forest. As long as you can walk, army ants don't really pose a threat to people, or large animals for that matter. But, for any smaller animals that can't walk quickly, it's generally lights out when an army ant swarm marches in your direction!

If you want to see pictures of army ants and a bushmaster and read facts about them, visit the project Web site.

Math Puzzler Answer

Here is the answer to the math puzzler in the last report:

There are a number of different armadillo species, the smallest, the dwarf armadillo, weighing less than one pound, and the largest, the giant armadillo, tipping the scale at around the same weight as a young adult human. How many fourteen ounce dwarfs would it take to equal the weight of a 131 and 1/4 pound giant?"

131.25 pounds = 2100 ounces (X16) divided by 14 = 150

Questions and Answers

Here are more answers to your questions:

Do you grow any plants for food in a garden? Yes, mostly cassava, plantains, chonta and fruit trees.

What kinds of plants do you get your food from that grows wild in the rain forest? What food do these plants produce? Nowadays, we mostly grow our own food or buy it. But, there are some trees that we collect fruit from when the fruit is in season. These include huava (meter-long pods with lots of two-inch oval seeds that are covered with a very sweet, fluffy coating that is good to eat), huavanilla (similar to huava but smaller, uva (like grapes, but they grow in a tree) and zapote (that has a large top-shaped fruit that must be cooked and has a squash-like flavor). We also collect nuts from some palm trees, like the tagua tree, and other trees like the frutipan which has a nut that must be cooked and tastes like potatoes. There are many, many others that our parents and grandparents used to use; but mostly we don’t use them anymore.

What types of dangerous or poisonous plants grow in the rain forest near your scool? We have a plant called barbasco that has a poison some people use for fishing. They mix the barbasco with water and dump it into the water. The barbasco paralyzes the fish and they float to the surface – but the poison doesn’t affect the people. Other plants can cause you to itch. Others have thorns. Others always have insects on them – like certain plants have small ants called tinli that have a very painful bite.

What types of plants or trees do you use to make your houses and your school? We use the wood from chonta and cananbo palm trees for building the frames, walls and floors of houses. We use the giant leaves of the chambira palm tree for the thatch roof and we use a vine called tanshi to tie the wood and the palm fronds together. (Traditionally, we do not use nails, though nowadays many people do.)

Besides food or shelter, what do you use plants for? There are many uses. We use the leaf of a plant that is related to the banana for cooking. We wrap fish or meat or mayon (chambira palm tree grubs) in the leaf and cook it over an open fire. We also use the same leaf for a plate sometimes. We also use plantain leaves for umbrellas. There is another kind of leaf from another tree that we use as sandpaper. Another tree has a fruit which you can use as a natural stamp (the fruit has a star-like shape and a natural black dye, so you can decorate your clothes with it.) We also make crafts from seeds, fiber and wood (balsa, chonta and other hard woods like cedro). We use the fruit of a calabash tree to make bowls. We also make canoes and chicha basins and canoe oars and many other things from wood. We also use many plants for medicinal purposes, including some that are used by shamans to wave in front of a sick person to chase away mala viento (the bad wind) that caused the sickness.

What are the biggest plants and trees near your village? Ceibo trees are the tallest and biggest trees in our village. They have giant curved buttress roots. Plantain and banana and chambira trees have the biggest leaves. Mandi and balsa and uva trees also have giant leaves.

What kinds of plants are used to make medicine? Tobacco and ortiga are used mostly by shamans to get rid of mala viento and to restore general health. The sap from the sangre de drago tree is used for healing cuts and many other things. We have many other medicinal plants, but we don’t know the names of them all. We know them by sight or our parents and grandparents know their names.

That’s All for Now

Bueno, that's it for this report. Till next time, learn lots!

Paul, Lilia and Teresa

Resource: For an excellent and very thorough Web site on insects, try The Wonderful World of Insects at: << >>. Links to many other great insect sites can be found on these pages, too.


E-Travel Log #1: Introduction to the Project and the Adventure Team
E-Travel Log #2: Quito, Banos and Flashbacks of Christmas Celebrations in Limoncocha
E-Travel Log #3: Banos - Where the Rain Forest Begins
E-Travel Log #4: Limoncocha - A Quichua Community
E-Travel Log #5: Limoncocha and Communities Around - Traditions and Cultures
E-Travel Log #6: Getting Ready to Leave for Cuyabeno
E-Travel Log #7: Rain Forest Animals
E-Travel Log #8: Rain Forest Stories and the Mysterious Black Lake
E-Travel Log #9: Trip to Playas de Cuyabeno
E-Travel Log #10: Trip to San Pablo - a Secoya Community


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