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2015 Amazon Workshops Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and its impact on their lives!  

Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 


The TSA official pawed through my luggage, sifting around dirty T-shirts and Ziplokced clothing so far beyond smelly it didn’t bear thinking about. I prayed desperately she didn’t break or confiscate the seed bracelets and colorful pottery for which I had traded with the Yagua. It would be too ironic for them to survive the journey only to be taken when we reached America again. It was somewhere around one in the morning. Exhaustion tugged at my shoulders and eyelids, and I struggled to remain alert as the official went through my gear. I had declared my baggage when we went through security because I was carrying an apple and an orange in my backpack, which doesn’t really count as agricultural products. But a traumatizing event at the airport when I was ten that resulted in the confiscation of my favorite second grade scissors has instilled in me a deep fear of customs officials. I declared just to fully ensure they wouldn’t arrest me.

I was regretting it now, though. I was tired, on the ground and missing my parents, and it was time to be home.

The official closed up my bags, removing the fruit from my pack. “These stay with me,” she said, before chucking them into the large trash can next to her checking table. She said I could leave, and as I pulled on my backpack, I looked at the can into which the perfectly good produce had disappeared. “I know some kids who would have liked those,” I murmured to myself, before setting my rolling bag on the ground and continuing my journey.

In Llachapa, back on the Amazon that was now so far away, the schoolchildren with whom we’d painted signs and built gardens would have enjoyed that apple and orange. When we ate a lunch there provided by Explorama, the apples we did not eat were given to the students. I thought about them as I walked toward the airport’s exit where the rest of the Gunston kids were waiting, and realized how different things would feel once we returned to our toilet-flushing, hot water-providing, well-fed first-world lives.

As I write this, it has been almost a week since that last day of travel, since the last day of Spanish voices and wide, wise rivers, and I am once again left to marvel at the passage of time. Already the Peru trip feels like it happened months ago. As the stress of review week, followed by exams, takes the forefront of my daily thought, I can only really go back when inhaling the scent of Guillermo’s orchid extract, and feeling again the stickiness of sweaty skin and the wild, steaming life force of the rainforest. There are parts of it I definitely do not miss–the bugs, the heat, the homesickness. But I close my eyes and remember the parts I do wish for again. The cool breeze that comes with a tropical thunderstorm and rattles the palm fronds. Lucio and Raul, with their endless stories and knowledge of the ways of the jungle. Standing on top of Platform 6 at the canopy walkway and looking over the vastness of the rainforest, surging over every horizon beneath the cathedral clouds. The ancient river and its tributaries, giving life to it all.

The River of Life.  photo credit:  A. Vooris

The River of Life. photo credit: A. Vooris

I have traveled since the age of eight, and have been to many glorious places that I even now long for. Wanderlust is like a fine wine; time just makes it stronger. When we got home at almost four on Sunday morning there was nowhere else on earth I wanted to be. But when I woke up the next morning my first thought was of the Amazon, and the fact that I was no longer there. Of course, the next day or two consisted of me trying to get back into my American high-schooler mindset than that of the bugbitten, eco-reporting, exhausted-but-high-on-life-and-loving-it traveler I had been for almost ten days prior. Homework and exams, when compared with saddle-backed tamarins and rainbow boas and documenting it all, now seemed pretty mundane. But I reminded myself that the work I put into my studies now would send me back there one day.

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I could fill a book with all of what I learned in the Amazon; maybe someday I will. It’s certainly too much for one small blog. But the most important thing I discovered, or maybe remembered, on this trip, is that the fight for the conservation of places like the Amazon rainforest is not just one battle, fought by just one group of professionals. It is a war, fought by thousands of people all over the world who choose to make a difference one way or another. You don’t have to have a degree in botany to care about the jungle, or in anthropology to rally behind indigenous peoples, or in marine biology to love the ocean more than life itself, and recognize that these places and people are threatened and that something needs to be done. I think a lot of people do not believe they can change things because they do not know enough about the state of deforestation in the Amazon basin or the rapid depletion of the fisheries to do something about it. “I’m not a scientist, what can I do about anything,” right? But that’s not true. Buying shade-grown coffee or sustainably grown and harvested fish would make a huge difference if just half of America’s population did it, or even one person. The little changes people make are the atoms that make up the body of conservation. It’s the innovative scientists and teachers that we read the articles about, and surely, where would be without people like Rachel Carson and Sylvia Earle? But it’s the silent masses of people who do care about the environment and change the way they live accordingly that also help ensure there’s a world left to fight for.

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I am immensely grateful I was able to go on this trip and learn about so much, from the awareness of the state of the rainforest to the lives of the people there, who struggle to survive as their world develops around them. For my entire life I thought I would be a marine scientist, focusing on improving the health of the ocean I love. On this trip I realized and accepted the fact that wars are not fought with a single weapon, and switching arms is not abandoning a cause. I can fight for change by raising awareness, by learning about peoples in threatened areas and how they live in and view their local ecosystem, and through my words and my writing and my stories. I can spread the word about the value of the rainforest and its people through tales of multicolored birds lighting up against the sky, the dances of the Yagua that seemed to reverberate to the very core of being, and the lessons learned on the shores of a goddess river, the greatest on earth, that will inspire me to teach others about the importance of our home, this colorful, wild, miraculous planet Earth.

There is nowhere in the universe I would rather be.

a. vooris 2015 IMG_9404

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2015 Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and it’s impact on their lives!  

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Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 

I still can’t get over its name. The “Andean Cock-of-the-Rock?” Seriously?

I’ve been perusing the ID guide to Peruvian birds I bought for a little pre-departure studying, and I have to say I’m a bit awed. Besides the sheer volume of Amazonian winged fauna–Peru holds over 1,800 avian species–their common names are as unique and at times amusing as the birds themselves. Along with the bright orange Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru is home to the Amazonian Umbrellabird (its huge feathery crest reminds me of an overenthusiastic flapper girl), the prehistoric-looking Hoatzin (you can really see how birds evolved from dinosaurs), the jewel-like Little Sunbeam (the hummingbird names are especially fantastic), and hundreds of others.

Me looking in the Peru bird guide at the extravagant Cock-of-the-Rock

Me looking in the Peru bird guide at the extravagant Cock-of-the-Rock

Needless to say, we’re lucky we’ll have a guide well acquainted with the non-human inhabitants of the Amazon. There’s no way each of us could memorize all of the names and faces we’ll be seeing down there, not with the little time we have left to study. For those of us going on the Peru trip, research and planning have become much more immediate parts of our lives. We have less than two weeks until we fly out, and it’s crunch time to get all the loose ends tied and make sure we’re completely ready.

The biggest assignment that we need to complete individually is to plan and prep our research projects. This trip is possible because it is part of the Bay Studies program at our school, a week taken from the school year each spring for the student body to split up and research different parts of the Chesapeake Bay, or in our case, the Amazon River. To take advantage of this, we’ll all be doing individual research projects. One of our teachers, Mrs. Vooris, has downloaded a sound recording software from the Cornell ornithology site onto her computer so several of us can work with the calls of the jungle. One of us will be listening to frog calls, and I’ll be experimenting with the pitch and volume of birdsong in different levels of the canopy and at different times of day and night, along with just general observation and field journaling. Other research projects include soil analyzing, butterfly observation, medicinal plants, and studying the light gaps in the rainforest. My brother will be experimenting with leaf-cutter ants’ reaction to certain stimuli, such as created obstacles or a shifted food source, and one student will be studying the bioluminescence produced on some of the trees. We each need to figure out what we’ll need to bring with us to complete our projects, as we’ll obviously not be able to dash out to the nearest store for something missing. We have been meeting through the last several weeks to pin down what still needs doing.

The group of Gunston students going, minus two

The group of Gunston students going, minus two

The other big objective is gear. We each have a packing list, but many of us are not fully kitted out with waterproof pants and hiking boots. The mosquitoes will be vicious, so long sleeves and lightweight pants are imperative. One of the moms has recommended Permethrin to spray on our clothes and sheets to help keep the bloodsuckers off. It’s less toxic than Deet, which is a relief because they taught me on Hog Island that Deet eats your binoculars, and I’ll be glued to mine. Mrs. Vooris is taking her computer for communication, sound and blog recording, and other functions that require a keyboard and Internet, provided they have strong connection so far from Iquitos. I rather doubt it. The rest of us have been warned to keep any electronics in a Ziploc when not in use. Thinking back to my time in Guatemala when we were still living on our boat, I understand why. It’s called “rainforest” for a reason. We’ll also be there in the high-water season, so max humidity and river levels. As useful as my iPod would be on the long plane rides we’ll be taking, it’s staying home.

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Some of our gear and research material

And there will be lots of flying. Lots of moving in general, actually. We leave on May 15, which just so happens to be the day the seniors of our school Disembark, a traditional transition ceremony where the graduating class leaves campus by boat, just as they had arrived on their first day of school four years before. Normally, they go downriver to the nearby Camp Pecometh for a barbeque and celebration, but the Peru trip seniors will be picked up by Mrs. Vooris, Ms. Beck (our other teacher) and the juniors as soon as they reach the camp. From there we’ll drive to the airport, fly to Fort Lauderdale, drive to and spend the night in Miami, fly to Iquitos the next day and take a several-hour boat ride downriver to one of handful of Explorama lodges where we’ll be staying and studying.

All the miles are a fine price to pay for this experience, though, as is the bug factor. I remember the insects of the tropical Americas, and though I’m not as jumpy around them as I was when I was ten, the mosquitoes are still going to be a pain. Immunizations and vaccinations have been a major focus, especially for parents. My brother and I were recently immunized against yellow fever, and two days before our trip we will start taking anti-malarial pills, which we will need to keep taking during our stay in Peru. Hopefully the bug spray, mosquito netting and covered bodies will be enough to keep the worst of the little buggers off.

Trade with the local Yagua people is also on the horizon. I love bartering, and the artwork and tools the Peruvians craft for trading are truly beautiful, so I’m especially excited for this aspect of the trip. It’s also a great opportunity for me to give a bunch of the shirts I’ve grown out of to people who can use them more. I wish I’d had more time to brush up on my Spanish before leaving, as it is the lingua franca between travelers and the local peoples. I haven’t spoken it to someone who can’t speak English in more than three years, so hopefully my brother, a Spanish student as opposed to my Latin, will be able to converse when I cannot. I’m not too worried about it, though. I have been with many people who do not require a language to strike up a friendship.

I imagine the Peru group will be closer after this adventure as well. Experiences such as walking dozens of feet above the rainforest floor, sharing hours-long plane rides, and seeing spiders larger than your hand–which I anticipate if not necessarily hope for–tend to bring people together. My excitement is building as the push-off date draws near. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the body-hug of rainforest humidity or been have woken by the shrieks of the tropical dawn chorus, and it begins to call to me again as the days tick down till takeoff.

2015 Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and it’s impact on their lives!  

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Reporter: Sophie P.  (middle school student, Sidwell Friends School)

Location:  Sidwell Friends School classroom, Washington D.C.

“Wow, our trip to the Amazon leaves in 9 days,” and the whole room seems to radiate.  Everyone is so excited for the journey and the adventure ahead!

Sidwell Friends Middle School students are ready to escape winter and head to the Amazon!

Sidwell Friends Middle School students are ready to escape winter and head to the Amazon!

“I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path and I will leave a trail” – Muriel Strode

For the past two months we have had several Amazon trip meetings, with the enthusiasm building up as the journey nears.

A pink-toe tarantula (Avicularia avicularia)

A pink-toe tarantula (Avicularia avicularia)

At our first meeting, all of my peers shared a rose and a thorn, or something that we are excited for, and something thatwe are nervous about. The majority of the answers revolved around being excited for the canopy walk in the trees, but many of my friends were nervous about bugs, snakes, and especially tarantulas

So, my teachers spent the meeting discussing the various harmful creatures in the Amazon, and the chances of getting hurt by one of them: slim to none!

At our next meeting, we watched a video on the rainforest wildlife, mainly about parasitism with cowbirds, which are birds that take the eggs out of other birds’ nests and replace them with their own, so that the other birds raise their young.  We also learned about toucans and aracaris, which are very colorful birds that I am very excited to see.

A many-banded aracari  in the ACTSPeru Canopy Walkway (photo credit:  Phil Kahler)

A many-banded aracari in the ACTSPeru Canopy Walkway (photo credit: Phil Kahler)

Most of our other meetings covered helpful information about our trip, like not to drink any water that you do not know the source of, and, obviously, listen to the guides when you are on the trails!

We’ve been given loads of hand-outs with background information including a very long list of the cool birds that we will see, and by long, I mean more than 100 types.

Last week I went shopping for the expedition.  I bought lots of bug spray, sunscreen, and a pair of hiking boots.  My group was told to make sure that we have shoes that we can get muddy, to stay covered in lightweight clothing, and to wear an ample amount of bug spray to avoid getting bitten.

Today was one of our last trip meetings.  As the student field reporter for the expedition, I interviewed my friends and asked them what they were most excited about and why.

Trading day with the Yagua

Trading day with the Yagua

Many friends are excited to spend time on the rainforest canopy walk at ACTSPeru, and view the beautiful scenery.  Another friend is very enthusiastic about going stargazing at night.

Personally, I am ecstatic to meet and trade with the Yagua people.

Overall, I’m so thrilled to be going to the Amazon River in Peru for this trip of a lifetime, and I can’t believe that I will have the opportunity to personally see the wildlife that I only thought I could view in nature videos. 🙂

Submitted by Sophie P. Sidwell Friends School, ’19                                              2015 Student Field Reporter 

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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! 

2013 Academy 490

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