Scarlet Starsong on Peru’s Tambopata River

Scarlet Starsong on Peru's Tambopata River

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Rivers of Ants and the Antbirds who Follow Them

Soon after arriving at the small lodge, Saay and I boot up and head out.

One of the first things you see when you walk into the neotropic forests are the leafcutter ants, scurrying across logs and vines, carrying chewed leaves off to the deepest interiors of their underground nests, where the material is processed into a substrate for cultivated fungus.

The ants survive off this staple crop, but in order to keep their fungus healthy, the leafcutter ants have developed another strange symbiosis; the ants actually grow a bacteria on their bodies which secretes chemicals that keep the fungus healthy and free of various pathogens and molds. These strains of bacteria, which the ants have utilized in their farming techniques for 50 million years, are the same we use for over two-thirds of our antibiotics and cancer-fighting compounds. Scientists believe the future of antibiotic medicines lies in the biology of this symbiotic relationship.

Scientists also believe that the compounds of the future; the materials of industry, technology and medicine, lie in the secrets of unknown or unstudied species. In the Latin American jungles, some random ant, some fungus, some bacteria, or arachnid will contain answers to the advancements of our future.

As we walk deeper into the forest, the mud gets thick, to the point where we’re walking through pools of brown water and tugging at our boots to pull free with each step.

Around the rims of these pools of mud are lines of ants, moving quickly. And it is easy to see an individual line of these ants as being like the lines of leafcutters – a column of organized industry. But if you look farther into the forest, you’ll see that these columns are actually everywhere, and they are all headed in the same direction. This is an ant that is not headed home. No nests to crawl into, no cavities to rest in. The army ants are in constant motion, perpetually moving, raiding, destroying everything in their path.

This is all good for Saay and I, because we had agreed to spend the better part of the day antbirding. Wherever you find army ants, you will find birds, many of which are often those related antbirds, anthrushes, antwrens, antshrikes, antvireos and antpittas. These hundreds of birds tend to be drab, adorned in the dark hues appropriate for the dense, dark understories of Latin American forests.

As army ants storm an area, they leave the carcasses of their prey behind, creating constant opportunism, and a niche, for a mad diversity of birds, and so, mixed-species foraging flocks are in constant pursuit of these columns.

The flocks are often there, not far from you, but you can’t see them. They are often nearly invisible, and sometimes even silent. Because of this, antbirding can be immensely frustrating, and, as Saay explains, “lonely, and even boring, when you’re out there by yourself, but when there are two of us, it’s exciting again.”

The pursuit of antbirds is to isolate something out of the chaos of the environment; a visual puzzle wrapped in the sweat and effort of jungle hiking. It’s chaos and confusion into order, clarity and beauty. There are few views of Earth as spidery and three-dimensional as the view from the understory of a jungle. For a synesthete, all this structure of vines and buttresses, patches of light and vast swaths of dark comes with some extra inputs, because our senses are cross-talking through the experience.

Non-synesthetes wonder about the noise of synesthesia; how can you concentrate with all that background noise? But this is like a person who sees in black-and-white saying the same to someone who sees in color. Since we were born with these crossing paths, we know nothing else.

I guess now, I understand enough about it to know that we synesthetes were meant to use it as if it were a gift.

Antbirding is particularly difficult for people from North America. We’re used to the visual cues hidden among oaks, maples and pines. Saay has lived his whole life in the Amazon, and his eyes are going to work with him on that observation.

Saay grew up in both countries, and worked in each as a logger.

His job was to carry freshly cut timber along a trail. With a group of loggers, he would lift and carry the wood a small distance, handing it off to another crew, forming a long transport chain through the jungle. One day, logging wrecked his back, and he had to find a new career.

As an English and Spanish wilderness guide, Saay moves between guiding in the Tambopata and in the Brazilian Pantanaal. When he returns home to Puerto Maldonado, he races enduro motorbikes through jungle tracks, sometimes traveling throughout Peru with his friends, following the route of enduro competitions.

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