Sendero Culebra, Boquete, June 2013
“What’s this?” – was the call from behind me on the trail. I turn to see one of the group peering at something on the ground. A thick, 2½ inch, millipede. It was moving as millipedes do in that effortless flowing motion that comes from having an excess of legs. It started to move beneath a leaf so I carefully lifted the leaf away, but that was enough to cause it to stop and tuck its antennae and head out of sight.
Unlike their more active predatory cousins the centipedes, which have pincers to inject poison into their prey or to defend themselves, scavenging millipedes have so-called repugnatorial glands for protection that release hydrogen cyanide (!) – a potent metabolic poison (but at the quantity produced by the millipede not really of great concern to an inquisitive naturalist). And, believe it or not, hydrogen cyanide has a very pleasant smell of almonds.
It had been a while since I’d seen one of these millipedes so I thought it might be neat to pick it up and see if we could all detect the almond odor. Ever so gently, I edged it from the leaf litter into the palm of my hand. It rolled its body around itself. I lowered my nose towards it. Nothing. So I moved a little closer. Now, about half an inch away, I felt a cold spritz against my lower lip. I wasn’t sure whether it was actually colder – or whether that was just what a spritz of a metabolic poison felt like on your lip. And now, no problem at all: 12 inches away – the rich, sweet, smell of almonds.
I returned it to the ground, and within a minute it had unfurled and was on its way. Everyone had hesitantly complied with getting close enough to smell the odor but then gave it plenty of space. And I, I depleted most of my water supply rinsing my mouth and hands.
Velvet worms and foam nests
Near Parintins, Amazonas State, Brazil, February 2011
No electricity, no running water, living off the land. A chicken that was minding its own business in the yard was a moment later in the hand (mouth still full of corn kernels) and a moment after that, in the pot. Meat dishes were at times capybara (the world’s largest rodent). In times past it had been monkey. Meat with every meal. I had eggs.
We were visiting the family of a childhood friend of a guide at Ceiba Expeditions. Washing-up and getting drinking water at their simple dwelling involved going down a steep hill to an incredible, 20 foot deep, hand-dug well. The walls were of bright white clay and it was full of crystal clear water that became bluish with depth. That was until it rained all day, and most of the next – and the well became flooded with surface water.
The pool that overtook the well now floated several large, bright white, frog “foam nests” that had been resting in damp depressions in the area, looking like foam scooped from a bubble bath and dolloped here and there. They now floated like fluffy pancakes. Producing foam nests give some frog species a way to lay eggs out of water (avoiding, for example, fish predators), and the foam has a number of remarkable properties associated with protecting and sustaining the thousands of developing eggs held inside.
The day prior I’d spotted one or two bright yellow frogs (probably Dendropsophus) in the short trees in this area, at the edge of the forest – but I’d failed to get good views as they’d headed higher as I approached. The rains changed all that. Down they came by the dozens to occupy the lower branches, calling like crazy. If I slowly waded-in to the growing pool their calling would falter, but soon they couldn’t help themselves and were back to calling their hearts out. I managed to edge closer and closer until I was thigh-deep in the pool among them. I could feel their calls physically against my ear drums.
After a while I looked down into the water around me and noticed some frogs floating near the surface with their bodies oddly contorted. A closer look showed that they had succumbed to large belostomatid bugs (giant water bugs) – almost as large as the frogs themselves. These scary aquatic predators are known to capture everything from other insects to small fish, and then literally suck the life out of them with their hypodermic mouth parts, which deliver a cocktail of digestive enzymes. And with frogs everywhere, channeling all of their attention the mating mission at hand, the giant water bugs were having a field day. I counted four frogs in my immediate vicinity floating motionless with these underwater Draculas attached.
I also noticed something else. As I was a veritable island in this expanding pool, some land creatures found themselves desperately paddling towards land: me. These included a large black scorpion and a small reddish velvet worm. The scorpion I ferried with a twig to higher ground but the velvet worm and I spent a short time getting acquainted. Mostly tropical, I’d read about these fascinating caterpillar-like creatures (though distinct enough to form their own evolutionary group, the Onychophora) and this was the first one I’d met. They’re able to squirt a sticky and stretchy slime, from glands on the side of their head, up to about 1½ inches away to immobilize prey (from insects to snails) or to defend themselves (reportedly they can gum-up the fangs of spiders, for example). But we got on just fine and after it had made a few circuits of my fingers I headed out of the pool, and the velvet worm joined the scorpion on higher ground.
Near Parintins, Amazonas State, Brazil, February 2011
Gonads and bats. Never two words you want to see in close association – if the gonads are not those of the bat itself. The hosts for our visit to the place above with the yellow frogs had an outhouse. Basically a small wooden shed over a deep and deeply odiferous pit in the ground. The pit had a concrete slab ceiling with a single hole in its center that you perched over. The pit also contained bats. It may seem a little odd to think of bats flying into a hole in the ground, but they’d in fact found a great site that provided protection and a temperature controlled environment – using it as others of their kind use caves and mines and crevices in rocks for reliable roost sites. And I assume that the stench in the pit, if not unimportant, was at least acceptable. I could barely tolerate the duration of one visit.
Bats of course are typically active at night and the hole in the concrete slab was then bestowed with competing functions. Suffice to say that a night visit to the outhouse was disconcerting. Pitch dark if your flashlight faltered, slapping away mosquitos that now found a whole new world of flesh to exploit – all with the squeaks and flapping from the bowels of the pit. Whether you saw the bat or not, you’d know that one had either entered or left the pit by a more frantic flapping with the now human-obstructed hole. But worse was the gentle breeze against your nether regions created by wings that had to be just an inch away.
Aripuanã Basin, Amazonas State, Brazil, June 2011
“That’s probably a new species of Lecythis” intones Marc van Roosmalen, as if it were to be expected and I shouldn’t get too excited. “I know the fruits of this area and haven’t seen that one before”. In fact, Marc discovered a large and distinctive new species of Lecythis (a member of the Brazil nut family, or Lecythidaceae) a few years before by finding its fruit.
The group was gathered in one spot on this indistinct Amazon forest trail to hear a few words from Marc. I took a couple of steps to the side and picked up a hard woody fruit about the size and shape of a baseball – the purported new Lecythis. I’d recently read a monograph Marc wrote on the fruits of the Lecythidaceae and this one struck me as something that might be interesting, but I wasn’t expecting that it might be this interesting.
The Lecythidaceae have a fascinating set of strategies for dispersing their seeds, including its most famous member, the Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa), which is one of the most fascinating. Part of the story is that Brazil nut trees wouldn’t exist if it were not for an association with one or two unassuming forest rodents, but primarily with species of agouti (Dasyprocta). Agoutis are among the very few rainforest denizens that can gnaw their way into the very hard woody shell of the fruit, leaving a tell-tale gnawed perimeter to the opened husk. They eat their fill of the seeds (the Brazil nuts) and then cache the remainder for later. The ones they forget about, or don’t return to until they’re sprouting, are the next generation of the magnificent Brazil nut tree.