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Tropical botany researcher

2 Posts tagged with the amazon tag

One of the great things about doing fieldwork is that in addition to the focus of your visit you get to learn and see many new things. Currently I have been in Bolivia as part of a Darwin Initiative project to promote sustainable Inga based agroforest techniques with local farmers, so being in the Amazon forest, this is probably more so.


While introducing ourselves to one of collaborating community, Motucusal, in a cleared area of forest that serves as their meeting room we noticed a really strange phenomenon that none of us, including our hosts, had seen before. It was a small swarm of ants swirling around a small group of their own in a clockwise direction at speed (see the film below).


At first we thought that they could be protecting an entrance hole to their nest, or invading somebody else's nest, but on disturbing them there was no hole and they returned to what they were doing straight away. So, as far this botanist goes, it's still a complete mystery.




Swirling ants


Completely by chance the next day, visiting the community of Palacios we several swarms of tadpoles in a large lake by their village. Again it is not really clear what they are doing but it looked as if they were skimming the surface, maybe for food?


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A swarm of tadpoles in a lake at Palacios


And below is another phenomenon well known for the Amazon, white and black water rivers. Black water rivers are those where all of the water is derived from the Amazon basin itself, the water aquiring a dark tea-like colouration as a consequence of the tannins it absorbs as it filters through the leaf-litter. In a way the Amazon is a bit like am enormous tea-making facility! White water is rich in sediment derived from the weathering of the Andes and is an opaque white-coffee to orange-brown colour. This phenomenon means that wherever you are you can tell whether a river derives solely from the Amazon basin or whether it also includes water from the Andes, an incredibly powerful but simple tool for any biogeographer (which I am not). Below you can see what happens where the two mix, over several hundred metres to kilometres you get two parallel streams of dark and white water which mix very slowly. The slowness in mixing is in part because each water is at a different temperature: white water reflects more energy from the sun whilst black water absorbs it.


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Mixing of white and black water rivers at the head of the Orthon river


Terry Pennington and I, together with Bolivian botanist Alejandro Araujo and Herencia Director, Juan-Fernando Reyes have spent the last few days visiting the communities that we would like to work with to guage their interest and support as part of our Darwin Initiative project. It was also an opportunity to see what species of Inga trees they have growing in the vicinity of their villages. We went to the communities of Motacusal and Palacios - about 150 km of dirt-track east of Cobija - all of which is bordered by cattle ranches. Their giant fields punctuated by the beautiful and eery, still-upright-remains of what once must have been canopy trees.


image 1 copy.jpgCattle pasture on Cobija-Puerto Rico road


In the Pando, rural communities comprising several families are granted 500 ha each communally, most of which is Brazil nut and rubber forest and some of which they clear for agriculture by slash-and-burn. This requires constant clearing as soil fertility drops rapidly. Our aim is to reduce slash-and-burn by converting exhausted pastures and cultivated land into Inga agroforest. For this to work we need to have the trust of the communities, also they have to see this as a sensible approach for them. For this reason we are working with Herencia and specifically their 'Bosque de Ninos' (Children's Forests) project. This provides us with a site that has already been set aside by communties for communal use. It means that we can work with the future generation to develop and run our demonstration plots, providing educational and project opportunties for the children, and it also places our agroforest at the heart of the community.


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Left: Alex introducing the Inga agroforest system. Right: Small boy with pet Agouti


Our presentation of the project and how we saw it integrating with their development plan was well received and we got plenty of questions. As everywhere the future of their children is paramount to them and so they were very keen for us to involve them and their teachers as much as possible. The children themselves attended the presentation and seemed very confident and happy, many brought their pets too. Including a little boy with his pet Agouti (above) and a little girl with a small pet parrot. These communities currently live from Brazil nuts which they collect in the new year. Brazil nut trees can produce 500 to 1000 capsules each a season. Wild rubber trees (Hevea brasilensis) are tapped for about six months of the year and sold as blocks of about 3 kg for about £1.40 a kilo. Finding a market for this rubber abroad that they can connect with should greatly increase their income from these trees and so the economic value of this forest.


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Left: Block of raw coagulated rubber. Right: Boots made from smoked rubber.