A visit to the heart of the lungs of the world

Katharine and David Lowrie

toucanette 300x283  A visit to the heart of the lungs of the worldA trickle of sweat runs down my chest. Distant rumbles of thunder trigger an Amazon orchestra. Crickets, cicadas and grasshoppers whine in desperate anticipation. A pair of white-throated toucans yelp in their lofty perches above the canopy. Three screaming piha birds join the crescendo from their skulking perches in the green latticework. The forest is at fever pitch.

Welcome to the heart of the Amazon, Camp 41, one of the oldest tropical research projects on earth. Conceived by world renowned Ecologist, Thomas LoveJoy, famous for coining the term, “biodiversity”. The project seeks to identify a minimum size of tropical forest habitat that can maintain the animal and plant diversity of an intact forest.

During the 34 years since its inception, Camp 41 has not just succeeded in revealing answers, but has also unleashed a torrent of crucial and fascinating clues to how tropical rainforests function. This has in turn attracted the intrigue of eminents such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Tom Cruise, all who have padded its leafy paths.

For us it was simple. David and I are running the length of South America for its wildlands and wildlife. We figured that such an expedition wouldn’t be complete without crossing the mighty Amazon and meeting up with some of the biologists who are studying this incredible forest’s dynamics and the plants and animals who stalk its stage.

Some 5,200 miles and one year into the run, we hit the steaming metropolis of Manaus and caught up with Jose Luis Camargo, the Camp’s Manager. A charming, badgery-looking Brazilian he chuckles at our unusual mode of arrival and explains how the project started, “Cattle ranchers were opening up thousands of hectares of primary lowland rainforest for grazing. Brazilian forest law stipulated that 50 per cent (now 80 per cent) of primary forest should be maintained within the ranches. We worked with the ranchers to ensure that the patches of forest they were obliged to keep could provide the focus of our studies. A series of 1, 10, 100 and 1000 hectare rainforest plots were demarcated and preserved within the pasture, allowing comparison of plants and animals between the plots, as well as comparisons with the standing pristine rainforest within our study areas.”

So over the decades, an army of scientists have been listening, measuring and recording the extraordinary lives of the inhabitants of the plots and their lucky neighbours in the continuous pristine forest. From leaf-cutter and army ants, to tree frogs, social spiders, capuchin monkeys and towering trees related to peas; very little has remained uncovered.

Of course, these are no ordinary plant and animal communities. Together they form the most diverse and complex of terrestrial ecosystems on earth; the tropical rainforest, where more than half of the world’s species live, on less than seven per cent of the planet’s surface.

We crane our necks to search the forest canopy pricking the sunlight some 35 metres above the forest trail. Somewhere up there lives one of the largest eagles on earth, the mighty harpy eagle that snacks on monkeys for breakfast. And what better place to dine than the Amazon, with the most varied monkey menu in the world!

But even birds, the most well-known and studied of animal groups are not as they seem in this emmense greenhouse. Mario Cohn-Haft, a leading ornithologist who has misnetted hundreds of birds in his research projects at the Camp, described with expanding eyes how new species are being discovered and classifications redefined. “Genetic studies are revealing that each inter-fluvial (areas between the hundreds of rivers in the Amazon basin) support unique species“. Columbia, believed to be the most bird-diverse country in the world, will soon it seems, have to bow to Brazil’s feathered superiority. Not that belonging to Brazil or Columbia is of any relevance to the birds, of course, who wonder freely over national boundaries!

In the meantime, troops of scientists have been asking a rolecall of questions of the forest fragments and their inhabitants. How have they responded to being cast adrift in a sea of grassland, on a “boat” that is a pin-prick of the size of their original forest home? How have they coped with being roasted each day in the tropical sun that spears through the edges of their habitat? How have they faired from increased predators and competition from invaders, to reduced community sizes leading to genetic inbreeding, to changes in prey items?

And the answers? Often as complex, surprising and varied as one might expect from one of the most rich, extraordinary and diverse ecosystems on earth. That army ants disappear because the fragments are too small for them to march upon their prey. That when they fall, so do all their right-hand-men; the insectivorous birds that pick the fallen prey they miss as they flush through the forest in their devastating lines. Would you have imagined that a peccary abandoning a forest fragment for lack of territory size, would result in his wallows drying up and with them the unique species of frogs who crooned to their mates and spawned the next generation in the pig’s muddy holes?

Thomas Lovejoy, Jose Luis Camargo, Mario Cohn-Haft, their colleagues and students at Camp 41,  have illuminated so much about tropical forests and how they function both when intact and in pieces.

As our footsteps carry us north to the Grand Savanna of Venezuela and away from this extraordinary hothouse of biodiveristy, it is to the peccary and frogs that my mind wonders and to that secondary school concept of food chains and food webs; the basis of the connections between the inhabitants of Camp 41. That all living things (including ourselves) in whatever ecosystems they live are connected, often in the most unlikely of relationships. That even the species we most hate play a role and that the species we most love may well be dependent on those that we loath.

To find out more about David & Katharine Lowrie’s world first running expedition or on Twitter or Facebook

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