Descending through the Cloud Forest to the most biodiverse place on the planet #the first 2 weeks

The journey down through the cloud forest was exciting, starting early, it took 5 hours to get to our hotel, if you could call it that. The mini bus stopped in the middle of the track and we all got out. b3bda786-2b07-4909-bb35-ae75bfd60e91From the road it didn’t look like there was anything there, however there was a small sign which seemed to lead off the cliff, pointing the way down to the hotel. So we followed, with luggage in hand… we walked for about half an hour winding down through the forest until we reached an incredibly fast flowing river. We thought there was no way across until I noticed a wire stretching across the width of the river with a table like cart on which there were two seats where we were expected to sit at. This contraption didn’t look very inviting, it looked very old and very rickety, however Emma,a staff member, and I climbed aboard and the winch system took us to the other side.

After having some down time and dinner we went for our first night walk, although we didn’t finding much spending time in the jungle again was very settling. After an early night we got up at 5am, which I wasn’t too impressed with as it was my 21st birthday, the flip side of this was that we went to see a bird called the Cock of the Rock, which are very rare and very special sight. Watching the sunrise and seeing these birds was an amazing experience to have they are an impressive red colour and make a very cool sound. After seeing the birds we carried on the rest of our journey to the port of Atalya, where we got the boat to the MLC.

df7b7185-fdb4-4667-836b-5bb1f363708eThe boat ride to the MLC took 45 minutes and gave us plenty of opportunity to see the wildlife that inhabits the banks of the Alto Madre de Dios River. Walking up the steps to the camp, I was overcome by emotions of how my next 6 months would pan out, and whether my experience would be the same as last year. Seeing all the old interns and some other staff members was such a good feeling to have. The rest of the day was spent talking to the volunteers about life at the MLC and what was install for us in the weeks ahead, be it 2 weeks, 4 weeks or, like me, 6 months. The evening was spent getting to know people and catching up with old faces, and eating cake. After dinner everyone sung happy birthday and brought out a beautifully decorated cake, which they proceeded to shove in my face – apparently this is Peruvian tradition, I am not so sure, however it was my 21st, so I embraced the experience.

The next week was spent getting back into the swing of working in the jungle and learning about intern life. I surveyed butterflies and herptiles and had a meetings with Chris Beirne

(Head of Research at Crees) and my mentorMark, and was set goals for the week. One of my first goals was to get 100% in my first identification test. I am sitting here writing this after having done the test and am gutted to say I got 55 out of 56, one mark off! Very frustrated. Hopefully next week I will get them all! My next task is first aid training, which I will be tested on next week.

So the daily work of the MLC is research into the impact of human disturbance to the rainforest. Specifically for me this last week this has meant working on pitfall traps. One days was a half day where we only had to check 6 traps because there was two groups going out, the other time however, there was only one group, and we had to check 16 traps, which took most of the day. Pitfall traps are buckets dug down into the soil at ground level. There are 4 buckets per transect that have a blue tarp pulled tight in-between each bucket, when reptiles reach the tarp they are encouraged into the bucket. Every bucket has a lid that is raised above the bucket at about hand distance. Pitfall traps are a good method for observing reptiles as it allows terrestrial species to be identified that may not otherwise be noticed. Reptiles are useful for research as they are important indicator species having a very permeable skin, which will be affected if factors change in their environment, such as weather or disturbance of the rainforest. Reptiles show how that ecosystem is doing and show changes in the environment quickly; for example, if an area of forest is disturbed by logging or agriculture, the reptiles in that area will decrease or die out. So surveying reptiles can be a very important method of seeing how the rainforest is doing.

Orchid Bees

Another creature surveyed is orchid bees. The day I spent surveying them last week we weren’t technically in the rainforest – we went to Aguanos, which is across the river in the banana plots. Orchid bees again are an indicator species, the research is focused around collecting orchid bees in order to find out more about the different pollinators that are in the rainforest, in a disturbed area and completely cleared such as Auganos. Orchid bees pollinate specific plants, which are hard to find in the jungle. The research is looking at what scents the bees are attracted to, so the day is spent hanging pieces of cotton wool from string in a designated area each 2 meters apart, each with different scents that have the same chemical compounds as some of the orchids found in the jungle. The cotton wool is hung and scents are added, 3 drops of scent on each bait; eucalyptus oil, eugenol, benzyl acetate to name a few. Then it’s a waiting game to see if any orchids bees come to the bait. If they do they are caught with a net and put in alcohol to be preserved. There are several sites at which the research takes place both on the rainforest side and the at the banana plots and each site is surveyed in the morning and afternoon, ensuring there is a large enough area to give representative data. The reason to contrast the banana with the rainforest plots is to understand how the distribution of orchid bees is effected by varying levels of disturbance.

My day at Aguanos was very hot, as it’s an area of completely cleared rainforest, which is now used as banana plots and there is little shade; that day the temperature rose to 39 degrees. This however didn’t dampen our spirits, as Laura (the researcher who set it up) and I, were optimistic about catching lots of orchid bees and having a good day catching up. Although in we caught about maybe 8 bees, a typical number for the banana plots, in the afternoon we caught 1 bee. Sitting in full sun all day it was very difficult to stay focused but it did demonstrate that disturbance has had a big impact on the bees, exactly what Laura is trying to prove.

We have had a busy week with lots of things going on at the MLC including a project called Tree Top Manu, led by Andy Whitworth. The main focus of the project is to get a better understanding of how important the canopy is to a rainforest structure and how the different levels of destruction in this rainforest have affected the mammals. The main way they do this is to set up camera traps that can capture the life in the canopy. This will lead to a new level of understanding about how the vast number of species that we have here act in the canopy, and has the potential to shed light on new species or show behaviours of other species that may not have been witnessed from the ground.

As well as this team of researchers, the founder of the Crees Foundation (which means ‘believe’ in Spanish) Quinn, came to the MLC. Quinn being here was an amazing experience, I hadn’t ever thought that I would have the opportunity to meet someone so influential and hear him talk about the creation of Crees.

On the Tuesday of my first week I walked the two and a half hour jungle path to Salvacion, our nearest settlement. While there I helped with the community bio-gardens but was also lucky enough to go punting Machuwatsi Lake which is known for its diverse water birds  a trip that enabled me to cross off two of my bucket list species; a capybara (basically large guinea pig) and hoatzin birds.

I had wanted to see hoatzin ever since I heard about them last year so was amazed when we saw four chilling by the lake. Hoatzin birds are living proof of  the evolutionary relationship between reptiles and birds having claws on their wings when young. They are also strangely related to cows in the way they digest their food leading them to have the nickname ‘stink bird’ as like other grazing animals the by product of their digestion is a foul smell. It is thought that the disgusting nature of their flesh has kept them alive as nothing wants to eat it!

I’ll end this blog with some of my other photos from my amazing first two weeks in the most biodiverse place in the world.