June 18th, 2014 – Tiputini Biological Reserve
Sights and Sounds of the Morning
Yet another day of pre-sunrise activities. Today our break-of-dawn activities featured the canopy towers of Tiputini Biological Station. About 50 m about the ground, luscious organic life forms and nutrient rich topsoil gave way to the awesome powers of modern architecture and metallurgic welding that produced the construction of scaffolding and suspension bridges I saw before me. Centered around the base of the sacred Ceiba, this human construct allowed us to lay our eyes upon the emergent layer of the rainforest. We possessed the divine power of the Ceiba, able to cast our vision over the landscape.
Our sacrificed sleep was not wasted, for a parade of rainforest residents marched into the scope of our site. These creatures were eliciting feelings of sheer excitement in our group of inexperienced Madisonians. Our serendipitous encounter began with storms of vibrant feathers flocking to our stationed perch at the base of the expansive Ceiba branches. The rainbow of colors all around us caused a synesthesia of our senses as the birds began a musical symphony, aggregating into a larger and single entity. They arrived to partake in the advertised product dangling from the ends of the branches, hopping from limb to limb and never lingering long enough for the untrained eye to focus on their magnificence.
Down in the mid-story lays troops upon troops of monkeys of all different species, carrying on with their daily activities in lieu of the ape-like creature gawking down at them from the treetops. The consumption of the leaves and fruits was their main objective, with social interaction and grooming playing less frequent roles in any observable monkey behaviors. When finished with their performance, the monkeys would exit stage tree in the nearest direction available.
At the top of the canopy, you can see it all.
These members of the delectable Newton snack family conduct a curious habit of domestic violence, a practice frowned upon in modern society. It is this singular characteristic of crushing asphyxiation in strangler figs that make them easily identifiable. The interfamily attacking plants will begin on the branches of fellow fig trees, and then proceed to grow roots downward and stem upward to obtain a greater vantage point in the forest (more light) from the unfortunate family member. And what is even more disturbing is that the structural parasite does not stop there. It will begin its fatalistic tendency of wrapping around the base of the tree and – quite literally – strangling the trunk of the sacrificial subject until it cannot expand its base any longer. This causes an interruption in the transport of sugar and water. With inoperable xylem and phloem transport systems, the photosynthetic process is terminated. Without the life-bearing chemical process in progress, the tree will inevitably perish and leave behind its dying carcass. This is exactly what the “strangler” wants as it now can use the left overs to prosper. The sacrifices that are made for family…
The Roots of All Evil
The mystery surrounding the barren patch of forest may prove to be an intriguing case to the serious field biologist. To observe a clear area of topsoil in the wet tropical forest is practically unheard of, as each and every plant in this ecosystem is in competition for light, water, nutrients, and space – the latter of which is in odd abundance here. To approach this from a scientific viewpoint, the answer should lie in the species of plant that does remain.
The Devil’s Ant Garden is traditionally characteristic of such infertile features, sporting the species Daruia hirsuta as its primary successor. This maniacal plant achieves this feat through a mutualistic relationship with the lemon ant. The ants take on a role similar to that of Alexander the Great in their conquest and expansion of territory. They are able to accomplish this through the use of formic acid, injecting a not-so-healthy dose of this lethal chemical into the flesh of the surrounding plants. In return, this tree provides domacia – or a hollowed living space – for the ants to inhabit, a sanctuary safe from mammalian predators.
On a slightly off topic note, I have discovered that these lemon ants have been rightly named as they exhibit a faintly zesty taste upon placement on the tongue. Other than their “flavorful” properties, they are responsible for the radius of death present around these trees. The absence of life surrounding these plants provides a compelling case for the appropriation of its name.
The Ant Bully
There are several methods an ecologist can employ to obtain estimated population data of whatever species they wish to study, but the one we will discuss today is the classic mark-recapture test. In this sampling survey, individuals are marked and counted in a population, then are collected a second time to compare the ratio of marked individuals to the total number of specimens caught. This provides an idea of what the total population of a group of individuals may be.
Here in Ecuador, under the tutelage of Ceiba program instructors, every lab portion thus far has been conducted out in the field. It will continue to operate as such. The subject of interest for this lab: Paraponera clavata – otherwise known as the bullet ant. The bullet ant (or “bola”) is a commonly recognized ant in this region infamous for its proportionately large size compared to other ant species and its paralyzing stings than can potentially numb limbs for a number of days.
The plan here was to grab a stick to agitate the dormant danger within the ant colony. With a prodding stick and irritating exhalations of CO2 into the top of the nest, we accomplished just that. This happens all the while as a partner poised with a marking tool (the “pol-ish of na’il” in our case) attempts to place an identifier on the ants while simultaneously avoiding the terrifying sting of the not-to-be-trifled-with bullet ant.
You could say that the risk was worth the reward. The danger factor of this lab neglected to affect our group, allowing us to complete the first half of our mark recapture lab without injury. Round 2 will decide the true winner.
May the odds be ever in our favor.