Expectations vs. Reality: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Cameron RuttField Work, Research, ScienceLeave a Comment

Most of us probably have some preconceived notions about what fieldwork in the Amazon rainforest entails. I certainly did. Who knows where these ideas originate or even if they were once rooted in fact at all. Oftentimes, I don’t even think we’re aware of these assumptions until we see something first-hand (like when we catch our first glimpse of a radio personality, for instance). But reality is often blind (and apathetic) to these expectations of ours, quickly casting them aside, usually over the course of a few short hours or days. But if I had to reach back – prior to my June arrival in Manaus – and sum up my stereotypical views of this place, it probably would have sounded something like this: a dense, epiphyte-laden forest – shrouded in mist and with water drops hanging from every leaf – choked with twisting lianas, the cries of exotic bird calls, and teaming with visible animal life. After all, this is the Amazon. Now, granted, this may exist somewhere in South America, but it certainly does not describe terra firme forest during the dry season in the heart of central Amazonia.

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I thought I was prepared to encounter a large river, but what I saw from the plane as we descended into Manaus was staggering: TWO truly massive bodies of water. Arguably, here, the Rio Negro is much more impressive than the Amazon (as wide as 5-10 miles near its mouth at Manaus). The Ponte Rio Negro (Rio Negro Bridge) is 2.25 miles long itself! Who knew? Indeed, I was simply surprised to observe that there was a bridge crossing the river…

If, however, I close my eyes – and well, and for that matter, my ears – the forest doesn’t seem that foreign at all. But seriously, now on the downward slippery slope of the dry season, I was and still am amazed at just how hot and dry it can actually get. In fact, I didn’t witness a substantial rainfall (steady rain for more than 10 min) here in over a month’s time! The noisy crunch of dry leaves underfoot is awfully reminiscent of my old Pennsyvlania stomping grounds at this time of year. Mature terra firme forest is actually rather open – not overly complicated by lianas and epiphytes – and the understory contains a strong component of spiny palms. There are certainly some strange bird sounds, but after a brief spell of activity on both sides of dawn, the forest is suspiciously quiet. In the nearly three months that I’ve now spent in the forest, the large mammals that I’ve encountered are quite limited: a single sloth, one deer, Collared Peccaries (three times), and a band of South American Coatis (once). I have, however, seen nine species of monkeys, so I haven’t done too shabby in the primate department. But seeing charismatic reptiles, amphibians, and mammals is a genuine rarity.

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One of nine species of monkeys I’ve seen thus far, this Spix’s Night Monkey (Aotus vociferans) takes a peek from its daytime roost. The arboreal activity of monkeys – which, at times, generate loud crashing noises and swaying trees – certainly makes them more amenable to being noticed by a birder like me.

Not that the bursting of all expectation bubbles is necessarily a bad thing, however. Although I had received ample warning that the number of biting insects were surprisingly slim, it was still justifiably difficult for me to actually imagine this. (The joke goes that LSU’s tradition of tropical bird research is based in part on the necessity to escape the heat and humidity of summers in Baton Rouge, but the same could certainly apply to mosquitoes as well!) Indeed, there are shockingly few six-legged pests here. In fact, the situation is such that most of the researchers – and all of the local field assistants – sleep in open-air hammocks with absolutely zero protection from flying insects. And due to the intense heat and lack of cooling breezes (forests!), the men spend almost the entirety of their time at camp shirt-less (even still, you’re liable to break into a sweat with little to no physical activity…). The reason for this dearth of mosquitoes is largely thanks to the regional impact of black water rivers – which do not actually appear black, but instead tea-like thanks to their abundance of tannins – whose high acidity inhibits breeding mosquitoes as well as other insect larvae.

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Now that’s more like it. Needless to say, the earthworms here are impressive, measuring up to about two feet in length. I don’t have particularly dainty feet either; this here is a “normal” size 10ish boot.

Surprisingly, ticks and chiggers, are much more of a nuisance and I routinely wind up with a souvenir “belt” of itchy red bumps upon every emergence from the field. Ticks (carrapatos in Portuguese) I believe deserve special mention here as they force us to regularly regress into grooming primates around camp, although thankfully most of this grooming is self-inflicted and I’ve never noticed anyone consuming anything post-plucking! But even ticks and chiggers are fairly easy to overlook…at least on most days. One day in particular, however, I planted myself on a fallen tree for a brief lunch and rest. Man, was this a poor choice of rest stops. This special log must have been close to a tick “nest” – or the location of a recently hatched egg mass of ticks – as to my horror, I soon realized that my arms and especially my pants were literally crawling with minuscule arachnids. As no one in my current state of affairs could calmly count, I have no idea just how many I dispatched, but the number must be well over 200 over the course of the afternoon, which was largely ruined as the only thing I could possibly concentrate on was trying to remove as many ticks as possible before they latched onto me. Once back in camp, I had to swallow my pride and inquire if my mateira (a female Brazilian field assistant) could inspect my backside (north of the equator, of course!) for any additional ticks. I figured I had got most of them, but still she kindly observed that “(Eu) parece como um cachorro abandonado” (I look like an abandoned dog). Great…thanks for that.

But even these “informed” expectations may soon be in for some serious recalibration once the rainy season begins (January). Only time will tell…

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You hear about rainy and dry seasons in the tropics, but one of the things that was shocking to me was just how hot and dry it can become in a “rainforest.” Although it is pouring outside right now (!), the duration of September was almost completely dry in this part of the Amazon. This image even depicts visibly thirsty plants!