I just wanted to write an update from Tiputini, the research station I am working at in Ecuador. All is very well here and after a week in Ecuador I’m starting to get into a pretty good rhythm. We’re collecting data 6 days a week with Wednesday’s off and alternating between days out in the field and in lab. I am really enjoying the research and the rainforest. The other researchers I’ve been working with are really fun to work with. Everyone is similarly enthusiastic about biology and we’ve had a blast around the dinner table trading stories about field work or chatting about biology. It’s fun to be surrounded by such a focused, knowledgeable and passionate crowd.
Traveling to Tiputini was a bit of an adventure. My flight through Miami was very smooth and easy. Once I landed I scrambled to find a free hotel as for some reason the reservation I had made didn’t go through. I got lucky in the end and had a very nice, quiet stay at a little hotel. The manager was very friendly though he didn’t know any spanish. I got up super early the next morning and went to the airport. Navigated it just fine and found myself on the plane. The flight was only about 25 minutes – really easy, but in that time we dropped from the 9000 ft in Quito down to the rainforest basin. It was astounding walking out of the plane in Coca. In Quito I was a bit chilly with a light jacket on. In Coca it felt like the hottest, most humid greenhouse/botanical garden you’ve ever been in. It was such a drastic shock after the thin air in Quito, I felt like I was breathing water.
I met up with the head of Tiputini who was on vacation and he shepherded me through the airport and in getting a taxi to the docks. We waited on the docks for an hour and a half (everything happens here at it’s own pace) and then headed downriver on a nice big boat. It was extremely thin and long. We went down stream for almost 2 hours past a few very small huts on the river. Most of the banks though were just rainforest. It was beautiful. Then we got out, went through a passport check and got on a truck (after another hour wait). We were on the truck on dirt oil company roads for an hour and a half. It was really hot and humid which was a bit tough. Finally we made it to the Tiputini river where we got on another boat and headed downriver for about 2 hours.
I’ve never been in a place so remote. Now that we’ve arrived, walking around, you hear nothing but the cacophony of the rainforest. There is no hint of a distant car (because there aren’t any) no planes flying overhead. It’s an amazing feeling.
I have a very nice double room in the research section of camp. It’s very comfortable with running water and electricity a few hours in the morning and evening. Every night I write in my field journal by candle light – it feels very rustic and authentically low-tech.
Getting to know the rainforest has been quite a challenge. It is so different from anything I’m familiar with in North America. The amount of plants – trees, bushes, flowering plants, mosses, bromeliads, vines – is just staggering. Walking down the trails frequently feels like walking through a lush green tunnel. There are more species of trees in an area here slightly larger than twice our property on Trafton Rd than there are in all of North America combined. We have more frog species just in camp than there are species of reptiles and amphibians in North America. The diversity is just staggeringly different than anything I’ve seen before. It’s actually uncommon to see two trees of the same species within the same field of view. For all of this glorious diversity though it’s difficult to see any wildlife. I have been taking my binoculars and camera out with me on every trip into the field but the flora is just so dense that though we can hear birds and monkeys in the canopy we can’t see them. Large mammals can and do hide successfully just 2 m off the trail on either side and it’s extremely easy, in fact, it’s likely that we’ll walk 10 times as many mammals as we see. We have been finding quite a few frogs and snakes though which is a blast. They are again, completely different from anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s a blast to walk down the trail and know that you’ll be seeing completely new species every day.
The research is going well. Shawn has climbed one tree since I’ve been here. Because we are nearing the end of his field season most of the trees have been climbed and I’m busy cataloguing everything we’ve collected in lab and finishing kilometer long transects searching for bromeliads. Shawn’s promised though that I’ll be able to climb a tree before I leave. It should be quite an adventure, these trees that we’re climbing are over 120 or 130 feet tall. Most of the fieldwork I’ve been doing though has been walking these long transects through the forest. The transects are quite a challenge climbing over fallen logs, up and down ravines, jumping across all of the streams all over the place, trying to avoid all of the many species of plants that will sting or poison you, looking out for the stinging wasps and ants, and trying not to get mired in the mud sometimes 10 or 12 inches deep. It’s a pretty challenging terrain to navigate.
Based upon our dinner conversations I’m becoming convinced that humans really aren’t meant to be in the rainforest. We just aren’t well adapted at all to the many different (micro)organisms that prey on us here. Perhaps the favorite table conversation is discussion of the many different types of parasites, fungi, worms, amoebas, larvae or other unpleasant interlopers all too prepared to make humans really quite unhappy. It seems like almost everyone here is nourishing their own little ecosystems with head fungus eating away at their scalps or worms sharing in their meals. I’ve been frantically trying to stave off all of these maladies… I wonder what the final score will be when I return to the states in December.
We’ve had quite a bit of excitement here at the station this weekend. Last week there were about a dozen researchers all doing work but this weekend about 40 students arrived for a few days from the university in Quito. They are all Americans on exchange programs. It’s been fun to talk with them but it’s odd to see so many people around. A film crew is also here filming an “adventure herpetologist” Austin Stevens the “snake master.” It’s been really funny to watch them around the camp. They set up all sorts of shots right next to paths and boardwalks and you can hear him talking about how he’s alone in the jungle looking for snakes. It’s a pretty ridiculous program – you can watch youtube clips, they’re pretty funny.
We will be in Tiputini for another week and a bit before heading to another research station called Catolica where we’ll be working until December 1. On the first I’ll be returning to Tiputini to help Shawn and his wife Bejat pack up all of the equipment and then I’ll be heading to Quito on the 5th to meet up with my mother who’ll be traveling with me for two weeks. I can’t wait!
I hope all is well back home. I’ll try to send more update as I can and certainly another before I leave for Catolica.