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Sloths have been making headlines this week –  They even got a feature in the New York Times!

Maybe you thought all you really needed to know about sloths is that they are sloowwww, like to hang out in trees, are kind of a greenish brown, and are just about the cutest things that live in a rainforest.  Or maybe you are a sloth aficionado and you regularly amaze your friends with your humorous stories about sloth defecation and the moths that love it.  Oh wait?  You haven’t heard that one?

Ok, before I reveal the newest, MIND BENDING, HEADLINE MAKING DISCOVERY about sloths, let’s go over the basics.

1. Two of the most common sloths in Neotropical rainforests are the 2-toed sloth and the 3-toed sloth.

2. Both types of sloths like to hang out in trees.

3. Three-toed sloths tend to have a lot of “things” that live in their hair.  Things like cockroaches, round worms, and moths, to name a few.  (It’s ok to be thinking EEWWWW right now!)

4. The 3-toed sloth also has an, umm, well, “unusual” bathroom habit.  (Probably not a shocker based on what you just learned).  In order to “take care of business,” 3-toed sloths actually climb down from the top of the tree to the forest floor to defecate.   As you can image, that is a really long and slow trip back and forth to the bathroom.  Plus this can be risky if there happens to be a jaguar down there waiting for you!

5. While the sloth is down on the ground, the pregnant moths that live in its hair scurry out and lay their eggs in the feces – a fancy term for poop – because apparently sloth moth larva do best on a strict diet of sloth dung.  (Yes, another EEEWWW is a perfectly normal response)

6. The sloth moth larva munch happily away in their sloth dung play pen until they transform into adult moths.  Now that they are all grown up, the dung pile just doesn’t cut it anymore.  The adult moths fly up into the canopy in search of a new home on the back of a sloth.  If they are lucky a mate awaits, cozily protected by the sloth’s course hair – and the cycle starts all over again.

If you are happily humming the Circle of Life song, wait just one minute!  We are NOT done yet!  

7. Turns out that as the moths go about their daily lives in the hair of a sloth, they leave behind a lot of nitrogen.  Guess what likes nitrogen?  Come on …guess!  Yes, algae likes nitrogen, especially green algae.

8. Ah ha!  The algae gives the sloth its green color and this helps the sloth blend into its environment – kind of a grow your own camouflage with moths providing the fertilizer deal. 

Up until now this is where the story ended.  BUT WAIT…There is more! 

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9. New research has revealed evidence that sloths might actually eat the algae that grows in their hair.  Algae is actually quite nutritious and would help to supplement the sloth’s less than stellar diet of leaves.   Researchers have found that the more moths a sloth has, the more nitrogen is held in its coat. More nitrogen = more algae to eat! (Preliminary research found algae in sloth stomachs, so the researchers are definitely on to something!)  Hmmmm, maybe running the risk of being eaten by a jaguar is worth guaranteeing a steady supply algae in your hair?

AND NOW for the really MIND BLOWING PART.  Are you ready?

10. You will never guess what else is growing alongside the algae.  Really, you never will, but go ahead and try if you want.  Can’t guess?  Ok – are you ready…FUNGI, freakin’ fungi.   But not your average, run of the mill fungi – fungi with super powers.  Researchers have discovered that the fungi that live on sloth hair have potent ANTI-CANCER, ANTI-BACTERIAL, and ANTI-PARASITIC properties!  Is it possible that the sloth is cultivating its very own pharmacy??

I don’t know about you, but that just leaves me flabbergasted and awestruck.   Some curious person made observations, asked WHY, and opened their mind to possibilities!   They not only uncovered another piece of an already crazy natural history story….they might possibly have discovered a new source of medicines that have the potential to treat nasty things like malaria, Chagas disease, and even certain forms of breast cancer.

This is why cultivating a curious mind matters – it is the foundation of scientific thinking.  This is why rainforests and the creatures that live there matter.  This is why science in the rainforest matters!  Discoveries like this put rainforests back in the spotlight as an untapped resource for inspiration, knowledge, medicines, and more – a natural resource far more valuable as an intact and healthy ecosystem. 

One final note:  Researchers don’t know yet if there is a relationship between the algae and the fungi, but I for one wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was!

For more detail on these latest discoveries go to:
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/28/science/the-sloths-busy-inner-life.html?_r=1
http://blogs.plos.org/everyone/2014/01/18/rainforest-fungi-find-home-sloth-hair/

For you uber science heads, here’s the journal article about the fungi discovery:
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0084549

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croppped tarantualLet’s be honest…looking for tarantulas on the ceiling before sitting down to dinner is not considered normal. Nor is checking for frogs in the shower before you shampoo.  But as many of our Amazon travelers will attest, there is an undeniable sense of pride and accomplishment when you can actually say you’ve done this!  There are definite benefits to traveling to places in the world that take you to the edge of your comfort zone.

It is on this un-comfortable edge where:

1.  perspectives are changed

2.  passions are discovered

3.  adventurous souls are awakened

4.  routines are broken

5.  true callings are revealed

6.  futures are redefined

7.  independence takes root

8.  the most surprising people become friends

9.  life altering experiences occur

10. real growth and learning happen!

Take for example, the tarantula on the ceiling.  When it fell from the rafters onto the dinner table, naturally a collective gasp (and a few shrieks)  erupted around the room.  But after the initial shock, these were replaced with awe and wonder.  The student closest to the airborne arachnid overcame her phobia and calmly held her ground, much to the awe of her peers!  This in turn inspired others to take a closer look as researcher, Steve Madigosky, gently collected it and explained it was a pink-toed  tarantula (Avicularia sp.).

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Sure enough it looked as if each of the eight toes had been dipped in pink nail polish, prompting oohs and ahhs instead of squeals and shrieks from the audience. Someone then asked the obvious question, “What was it doing on the ceiling?”  Much to everyone’s surprise, Steve explained that there are arboreal (tree dwelling) tarantulas in the Amazon, uniquely adapted to life in the treetops.  The beauty that landed on the dinner table had simply lost her footing but because she was built for tree top living, she survived the fall just fine.

When Steve asked if anyone would like to hold it, the response was overwhelmingly positive and students patiently waited for their turn to feel the delicate touch of 8 pink toes on their skin.   In this unscripted travel experience, perspectives were changed, fears were overcome, routines were broken, and new passions discovered…

When was the last time you checked for tarantulas on the ceiling?  If you haven’t, maybe it’s about time!

Have you ever been awe-struck by nature’s engineering prowess and thought to yourself, “how in the world is that possible?” or “wouldn’t it be great if humans could do that?” Did it ever occur to you to think of nature as a big research and development firm with over 3 million consultants and over 3.8 billion years of experience? Welcome to the world of biomimicry – a world where creative and thoughtful people are looking to nature for inspiration.

bi-o-mim-ic-ry:  

Learning from and then emulating natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable designs.

According to Janine Benyus, of the Biomimicry Institute, “…nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with; energy, food production, climate control, benign chemistry, transportation, and more.” Designers, engineers, architects and other innovators are asking the question “What would nature do here?” and are finding not just one new idea but myriad time tested, environmentally appropriate, solutions.

What better place to explore the idea of biomimicry than the Amazonnature’s hotbed of innovation and inspiration?

morpho - croppedTake for example this lovely blue morpho butterfly.  The new “glare-free” e-reader screens were inspired by blue morphos and “mimic” how the wings absorb and reflect different wavelengths of light!

Taking a walk down a rainforest trail takes on a whole new meaning if you thinking like a biomimic.  Each plant and animal you encounter is uniquely adapted to survive and thrive using a minimal amount of resources, creating a minimal amount of waste, and leaving behind a minimal impact on the environment. Every organism a source of inspiration, a blueprint of design, a model of sustainability.

Now imagine using biomimicry as a focus for STEM education – asking your students to study a leaf to learn how to make solar cells or a spider to make resilient fibers.  Imagine them learning how to adhere like a gecko, create color like a butterfly, sequester carbon like a mollusk, and air condition like a leaf cutter ant.

This summer students and teachers will put on their biomimicry hats and prowl the Amazon rainforest in search of inspiration – learning from nature, not just about nature.

If you’d like to learn more about biomimicry and find K-12 teaching resources visit Biomimicry 3.8

For the last twenty years, the educators and students who participated in our Amazon Workshops have snapped amazing photos of rainforest biodiversity. Unfortunately, most of these photos have only been seen by a handful of friends and family – or worse they are in a shoebox under the bed!

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One has to wonder…what could we learn about rainforest biodiversity if we had access to all the photos taken over the last two decades? What if we could take all those photos and sort them by location and date and species? Would we be able to see patterns of distribution? Discern subtle changes in populations? Stumble upon something new and undiscovered?

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What if we could share these photos with the world and inspire wonder and curiosity and knowledge in the next generation of explorers who sit in our classrooms?

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Project Noah "Deep Roots" patch commemorating our 1 year anniversary

Project Noah “Deep Roots” patch commemorating our 1 year anniversary

Exactly one year ago we stumbled upon Project Noah; a tool that harnesses the power of digital photography, GPS, and mobile technology, and we immediately knew we had an answer. Finally the multitudes of photos that are taken each year in the Amazon could have a larger purpose!

Last summer, we launched a pilot of Project Noah during our Educator Workshop. The images in this post are from that expedition. Our initial goal was to shine a light on Amazon biodiversity and begin to construct a virtual field guide to the region we visit each summer. We created a “mission” on Project Noah and called it Species Spotlight: Peruvian Amazon.

Many of our participants uploaded their photos to our mission and created field notes for their observations. Experts from around the world took notice and helped with some of the species identification. Even today these photos are viewed and commented on as we continue to fill in the details for each spotting.

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For 2013, we are incorporating Project Noah more fully into our Educator Academy in the Amazon and are already working with educators across the country to connect our Amazon images to their classrooms. This year, in addition to simply capturing images of what we see, we will also use our Project Noah spottings to explore the themes of plant and animal adaptations, biomimicry, and climate change in the Amazon.

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Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but the curiosity they incite is priceless. 

JOIN THE CONVERSATION!  How can you use these photos to incite curiosity?  What questions do they raise? What research might they prompt? Please respond in the comment box below.

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Charles Darwin goes 21st century

Back in the day, science was often relegated to wealthy, self-funded explorers and “gentlemen scientists” the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, and Isaac Newton.  One could argue that they were the original “citizen scientists” but back then you had to have money and time to explore the world and formulate big thoughts. For the average citizen, science was an expensive endeavor accessible to the privileged – and certainly not something in which you were encouraged to participate.

Flash forward 200 years… and imagine that Carlos Darwin, an inquisitive and smart kid from a not-so-wealthy family is able to use a smartphone to document the finches on each of the Galapagos Islands where he lives?  And his cousin Josefina Darwin, is able to send him pictures of finches she is seeing in her backyard in New Jersey?  And they are able to share their photos and contribute their observations of the natural world with people around the globe – including researchers who were looking for changes in species distribution due to climate change.  Now we’re talkin’ citizen science!

What if all those budding “Darwins” in OUR classes and communities used their cell phones for more than Facebook and Snapchat?  What if they spent time outdoors, exploring their backyards, parks, woodlands, and swamps using their mobile phones to document all the biodiversity they can find?  What if there was an app for THAT?

Welcome to the world of Project Noah –Networked Organisms And Habitats.logotype

Backed by National Geographic, Project Noah is mobilizing a new generation of nature explorers and average citizens around the world to capture information on biodiversity.  Now instead of roaming the neighborhood with a butterfly net, collecting jars, and a bulky field guide you can simply take your smart phone and snap pictures using the Project Noah app.  With a few key strokes you can add gps coordinates and field notes and send them whizzing through cyberspace to the Project Noah portal where people from around the world can check out what’s going on in your backyard.  Unsure of what the organism is?  Project Noah “rangers” are on call to help with species identification and natural history notes.

Here at Amazon Workshops, we are thrilled to be partnering with Project Noah to create a virtual field guide to our study sites in the Amazon and are working with educators across the country to bring our Amazon images into their classrooms!

Project Noah’s co-founder, Yasser Ansari, believes that “not only is there an educational need and an environmental need but a deep, deep human need for all of us to reconnect with our planet.”  His goal is to “to bring back that wonderment… to reignite that curiosity for the natural world that we had when we were younger.”

Don’t you think Charles Darwin would agree?  It’s no secret that Mr. Darwin loved poking around the natural world more than the dry academics of the university.

“…no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles… I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas!  It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.”   — Charles Darwin

Betcha Mr. Darwin would have appreciated a smartphone with the Project Noah app at this moment!

JOIN THE DISCUSSION!  Are you a citizen scientist?  Do you use Project Noah?  Tell us your thoughts about the power and promise of citizen science!

What, you might ask, could possibly render a lively group of teachers speechless? It would have to be something pretty spectacular, right? You might be suprised to learn that it was a chance encounter with a frog in the Amazon. No bigger than a quarter, this tiny creature held the group captive, rendering everyone speechless (at least momentarily!) as they admired its uncanny resemblance to a dead leaf.

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photo used with permssion of Dr. Steve Madigosky

Excitement grew as the biologists conferred with the local guides. In hushed voices they whispered that it might be a species new to science. Minds reeled with the implications. It is still possible, in this era of satellite mapping and DNA sequencing, to stumble upon a new species by simply taking a slow walk down a rainforest trail.The Amazon is home to a disproportionate amount of global biodiversity with new species being discovered at the rate of one every three days over the last decade. A single expedition into Suriname found as many as 46 new species. A survey of Bahuaja Sonene National Park in Peru found 365 species that had never been documented in the park – effectively elevating the region into the biodiversity hall of fame.

Does it really matter how many undiscovered species of beetles, frogs, or bromeliads live in the Amazon? Does it matter if we give them names and write papers on their natural history?

Biodiversity collage - session 4Yes, it does! The biodiversity of the Amazon sustains us all, giving us food, medicine, and potential solutions for our most pressing environmental problems. Just recently an Amazon fungi was discovered that actually digests plastic! In spite of the record rates of discovery, as a planet we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. We are losing species at rates 100 to 1000 times faster than the natural extinction rate. With each loss of each unnamed and unknown species, we are losing the very keys to our future.

Stay Tuned!  Next week will share our new citizen science project in the Amazon – You’ll want to be involved.

Dig Deeper! Want to know more?  Amazon Alive:  A Decade of Discovery – Download the full report.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION!  Leave a reply below and tell us about your encounters with biodiversity.  What encounters have left you speechless and why?