Adventures into the Amazon basin

If you’ve ever contemplated any kind of science career, you should participate in field research in the forests of Peru in the Biodiversity, Conservation and Sustainability study abroad program in early fall with Dr. Ursula Valdez. My experience in this program this August through September reinforced my passion for field work and ignited a curiosity within me for wildlife biology. Some of my classmates went into this trip thinking they wanted to pursue the medical biological field yet completed the program with a desire to conduct field research instead. One main reason I chose this particular program over the other one I was accepted to in Rome was that I could never recreate the experience offered in Peru. We ventured through treacherous winding roads for a day and spent two days traveling by canoe to the Cocha Cashu biological station in Manu National Park. Tourists are not permitted to travel this deep into the park so this experience was truly an exceptional one. When else in my life would I be able to study monkeys in the Amazonian rainforest in South America? As an individual who loves animals, conservation and nature, this trip was spiritually and educationally stimulating at all times. Following is a snapshot of my journal entries for travel to and time spent in Cocha Cashu.

The beginning of our adventure started at 3,399 m from Cusco, Peru over the Andes

The Madre de Dios river in southeastern Peru

28 August 2018

Our adventure on the river begins! I awoke to the sounds of more birds and bugs than I have ever heard in my life! The forest dominates the land. A massive stretch of natural beauty. Here, we go into the unknown, down the Madre de Dios river. This is heaven compared to our sixteen hour bus ride from Cusco. Grasses taller than I’ve ever witnessed upwards of twenty feet tall!! They resemble palm trees at first until you see the gigantic spikelets shooting from the top that must have been half my height! Sweeping valleys enveloped in all levels of succession catch my eye. I wonder what secrets this forest holds. This immaculate treasure tucked away from society. You need not worry about the world beyond your own two feet and the community you have built. We have a hunger, a curiosity for the adventure ahead. I am blessed to literally be with those who like to stop and smell the orchids, poke the slimy ferns and ponder over fuzzy caterpillars.

Motorized dugout canoes took us to our destination–Cocha Cashu

This is a great start to the journey ahead. We ease our way down the river, flowing with gravity and venturing deep into the heart of darkness (Conrad 1899). The rich copper tones drape down into the river, kissing the pale water. I am alive!! More than I’ve ever been. Each sense awakens and becomes more tuned with our Mother Earth. Through all the pain and suffering in the world (socially, spiritually and environmentally), I feel a sense of relief in the presence of a vast expanse of rainforest.

Canoe views

29 August 2018

We have started our excursion on the river with a vertebrate survey. Most of the species observed have been birds with the exception of a few reptiles such as Caiman or the yellow spotted river turtle. I witnessed a biodiversity hotspot right along the Manu river. We saw well over 50 species in a few hours, including at least three to four monkey species!!

Having arrived at Cocha Cashu, I am overwhelmed by the richness of species within the region. There are many researchers partaking in fascinating work. From bird banding to those aiming to research the family of ten giant river otters.I look forward to working in this place over the next ten days. Seeing all the monkeys along the river has me extremely excited to start our primate behavior and ecology research project! The class is split into six different research groups: bird ecology, primate ecology, mammal and camera traps, insect ecology, plant/fungus ecology (ended up pertaining to butterflies instead) and a qualitative project (the group chose sustainability as a focus). I also got stung by a wasp square in the forehead during introductions. Awkward turtle! This is definitely part of the experience and I am sure I will be stung by many other creatures.

Cocha Cashu biological station

03 September 2018

Day one of Black spider monkey (Ateles chamek) research

Lizzy, Katerina, Nico and I left the station around 6:00 four minutes after leaving, we spotted one individual leaping through the canopy. It seemed we were off to a good start. The trails we ventured down made a big loop, all the way past Cocha Tortura and back around to Cocha Cashu. Along the way, we encountered two groups of primates on separate occasions; squirrel monkeys (Saimieri sciurius) and Saddleback Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis). We took note and observed the troops for a bit but did not record all data because our research is focused on Spider monkeys. The total distance we ventured was around 3.5 miles. Our plan is to go out again in the afternoon but we are definitely exhausted. However, I loved seeing all the different primates. The most interesting troop was that of the Saddleback Tamarin because of how stealthily they moved through the canopy. If you did not spot them you would never know they were there. This extremely contrasts with the Spider monkeys who crash wildly through the palms, not making an effort to be inconspicuous. I really hope I have time to do some observations of the Pygmy Marmoset (Cebuella pygmaea).

Forest canopy where primates are                                    observed

Nico and I went on a canoe adventure after lunch to see if we could spot “monkeys zappa” from the vantage of the lake but this resulted in no success other than paddling in circles, literally. The researchers make canoeing look much easier but it takes time to warm up. I was about to give up on collecting data for the day when, after I utilized the compost toilet I spotted a single Spider monkey slowly climbing through the canopy within a few hundred meters of the biological station. I ran to wash my hands and get my research team. Lizzy and I followed the adult female and one juvenile for over an hour. The female appeared to be pregnant. After awhile of feeding, ‘Preggo’ rested 25-30 meters up in an unidentified tree. When it comes to chasing primates through the Peruvian rainforest, there is never a dull moment.

Spider monkeys curious about human observers


Brown capuchin (Cebus apella) observed near Cocha Cashu

This snapshot of my time at Cocha Cashu reflects the mindfulness and presence one embodies when in the rainforest. The adventures of collecting research are never predictable but the process of creating a proposal and being flexible with your approach to data collection is a great educational experience that will provide one with a sense of accomplishment. This amazing experience can give one insight into the type of career to put energy into–work indoors or work outdoors. The value of experiencing biodiversity firsthand is priceless and I hope every aspiring environmentalist has the opportunity to extend their education into the field.

Early morning fog rolling off Cocha Cashu


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