Caiman, Monkeys, and Jaguars – Oh my!

*Post adapted from a short essay I had written in June 2018 within one week of arriving home from Peru.

Red Howler Monkey. Photo taken by Tropical Biology Class of 2019.

When people talk about experiential learning, I don’t think they picture a student standing in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest with Spider Monkeys bombarding them with sticks and feces. But, as I stood there watching through my binoculars, a large, black primate ripped a stick off of its branch and threw it in my direction. I dodged out of the way, trying to keep my eyes locked on that monkey as my lab partner yelled, “Time!” and I had to tell him the monkey’s behavior. “Mobbing!” I yelled back, still dodging the falling objects. At the end of the two minutes, it felt and looked like we had gone to war with a troop of monkeys. We couldn’t help but laugh at how that whole encounter had gone. 

When I listened to my professor, Dr. Alex Trillo (tropical biologist and entomologist) lecture in McKnight Hall classroom 10, my head was filled with tons of knowledge. The Distance and Density Hypothesis concerning the growth of plants, theories about the “cradle” of the tropics that suggested many species were “born” in the tropics – hence the immense biodiversity, and how to walk in the jungle without stepping on a snake or being eaten by a large cat All of this was really cool, but I wasn’t sure how to apply it. As a math major, I like seeing how things work and I like knowing how things can be applied to real life. A classroom just didn’t do that for me. I was really looking forward to going to Peru to see all of this come to life.

Playa Bonita

Our trip to Peru included a long night in an airport, a visit to a research station in a cloud forest, a couple stays at hotels, four days on a boat, and a week and a half at a research station in the deep Amazon at Cocha Cashu Biological Station. As I prepared for this trip, I had to pack all of my belongings into a 40L backpack. I brought clothes and medicine and toiletries, as well as some snacks my mom snuck into my bag.

I drank more water than I ever thought possible in the days leading up to my flight. I made a quick pit stop in Arizona for a brief family reunion for about 18 hours, then hopped on a three-leg flight to Lima. When I arrived, Alex and her husband Michael (also a professor of tropical biology and herpetology) greeted us. Eleven of us students and Michael and Alex slept on the airport floor until our sunrise flight to Cusco.

Our flight to Cusco flew over the Andes, and it was honestly one of the coolest flights I’ve been on! The snow-capped mountains peeked through the clouds. As we landed in the 2-mile-high city, we adjusted to the cool weather and altitude. We collected our bags and met our bus driver, Brandon, then drove into the mountains.

If you get carsick, you might want to skip this part! Alex warned us that the drive was a little rough, and most of us loaded up on Dramamine to preemptively protect from carsickness. Luckily, Brandon was a pro. But, nonetheless, the mountain roads were narrow and harrowing. The number of times we looked out the window to no longer be able to see the road beneath us. When we ran into an oncoming car, Brandon would have to back up all the way to the previous turn to make room for the passing vehicle. We arrived at Wayqecha Biological Station.

Suspension bridges in the cloud forest. Pictured: Olivia.

In Wayqecha, we were in a cloud forest. It was surprisingly chilly, even during the day. Every morning we drank our tea while watching the clouds rise from the mountains below and the hummingbirds sip nectar from the flowers outside the window. We took hikes to see orchids and tree ferns (shout out to Olivia if she ever reads this) and birds (so many birds, OMG). One morning, we took a drive to the highest mountain in Manu National Park to a point called Tres Cruces where we watched the sunrise over the Amazon.

We stayed at Wayqecha for the first few days, then headed down towards Atalaya where we picked up the boat to Cocha Cashu.  A day later, we made it to the lowlands and got on our boat to set off into the rainforest. The river was low and there were fallen trees everywhere. The land next to the river was eroded away, leaving the pastures and the forest edge far above our heads. As we sputtered along in the boat, we saw lots of degraded forests and edge species inhabiting the river’s perimeter. We didn’t see much wildlife, save for terns and herons who are common river-dwellers. There were other boats passing in the opposite direction carrying lumber. A little later, the boat stopped and Alex pointed out the large road that had been built for logging. I remember Alex had tears in her eyes, but at the time I didn’t feel much. Yes, it’s terrible that people are cutting down the forest, but I didn’t have a personal connection to it yet.

On the hunt for a sloth. Photo by Tiffany Lam.

As we continued on through to Boca Manu, where we got our check-ups, and Luminal Ranger Station along the Manu River, we saw more and more come to life. We saw turtles. 330 of them to be exact (yes, my classmate, Tiffany, and I spent the entire ride counting them). We even saw the Orinoco Geese, an increasingly rare species with less than 60 left in the entire world. They are migratory, so it was just short of a miracle to see them here. Parrots and Macaws flew alongside the boat and monkeys swung in the trees along the river. What was weird was that we hadn’t yet seen any caiman. I did my Natural History Report about the Black Caiman, and although I was pretty scared of being eaten by one (in fact, it was my biggest fear about the trip), I was really hoping we would see them in the river. Alex even made mention that we should have seen them all along the Manu River, and that it was strange that there weren’t any. Within one hour of the station, we finally started seeing some caiman. We got out at Cashu and had to walk across a small beach and up some stairs to get to the path to the actual station. I didn’t know it then, but the 9 ½ days at Cocha Cashu Biological Station would be some of the most significant days of my life. 

Cocha Cashu – named for the lake’s resemblance to a cashew nut. Image from Google Maps

When we arrived, it was sunny and dry for the first few days (well, as dry as a rainforest can be). Alex told us that even though it was the beginning of the dry season, everything looked a month ahead of schedule. The river should not have been that low, the forest should not have been that dry. Even though it was dry, we saw tons of monkeys: Spider Monkeys, Red Howlers, Squirrel Monkeys, Brown Capuchins, White-Fronted Capuchins, Saddleback Tamarins, Emperor Tamarins, and Pygmy Marmosets. We also got to see the Giant River Otters that live in the cocha (the ox bow lake that the research station was named after). They make really loud squeaking and clicking noises to communicate and they only come out if they aren’t being disturbed, which indicated that they were comfortable enough with us around to swim about freely. We got to take canoes out on the cocha and we got really close to the otters! I happened to be in a canoe with a leak. In a lake with caiman and piranhas. I was freaking out! Luckily, we didn’t sink and I didn’t see any caiman, but it still felt like a harrowing experience. After that, I felt like I could do anything! I had conquered my biggest fear! In addition to all of those things, we also saw bats, birds, and bugs. We even saw a giant land snail that we put on our heads like a hat!

Land Snail

One of the days, we found a Tangarana Tree. This tree is really unique because there is always a big ring of clean dirt around the tree. The tree itself houses a species of ants (Tangarana ants) that protect the tree by removing any plants or debris from within a certain distance from the tree. They also sting anybody or anything within the circle. My classmate, Rachel, and I stuck our fingers on the tree and let the ants sting us! (When we got home to Gettysburg, Rachel and I decided to get matching tattoos dedicated to Cocha Cashu and Michael and Alex).

Tattoos done by Modern Vintage in Gettysburg, PA

Suddenly, it was like somebody flipped a switch. Every night for at least four nights and even sometimes during the days there were crazy, intense thunderstorms that brought in rain like the wet season. The water in the cocha was elevated and many of the trails were flooded. We had even heard that small beach we had walked across was under water. The rain brought out a whole new set of animals. We didn’t see many monkeys after that, but we heard the caiman and frogs at night, we saw more lizards, snakes, and of course, insects. We got to go out and catch frogs, geckos, and anolis lizards. It was really cool to see the change, but we also had a hard time conducting our independent study. My lab partners, Mike and Laura, and I were looking at the anti-predator behavior of monkey’s in response to familiar predator sounds (ocelots) and unfamiliar predator sounds (dogs) to see if they had the same response or a different response. With all of the rain, we were unable to find any monkeys. Finally, with just 24 hours before our presentations, the rain broke and we ran out to find some primates. We had no luck on the trails, but right when we got back to the station there was a mixed troop of Brown Capuchins and Spider Monkeys. Perfect! This was when we got mobbed. The only other group of monkeys we found was on the other side of the station, a troop of Brown and White-Fronted Capuchins. The results of our study were interesting and they showed that the monkeys didn’t have the same anti-predator responses to the dog as they did to the ocelot. It would be fascinating to study further and compare the results from a place like Cocha Cashu where there is no hunting or human contact to a place where there is human contact and monkeys may have encountered dogs before. We had our presentations in the attic at the station and some of the administration came to watch. 

Hike to the Palm Swamp and Playa Bonita on the trails around Cocha Cashu.

After our presentations, we only had one night left at Cashu. I sat on the balcony overlooking the cocha watching the sun set and listening to the sounds of the birds going to sleep and the frogs just waking up. The caiman grunted, insects hummed, and if you listened closely, you could hear some howling in the distance from the monkeys across the lake. I knew that this would be the last time I heard all of these sounds, at least for a little while, so I wanted to take it all in. 

Migratory moth found at Luminol Ranger Station

I later talked with some of the administrators and researchers and we exchanged contact information so they could send me pictures after I left. The next morning, we all took photos together near the cocha and near the sign at the entrance to the station. The walk back to the boat was slow and quiet. We were all hopeful that Alex would let us turn around and stay, but no such luck. Roxanna, Lou, Karla, and Mario (some of the administrators) walked us to our boat. We all hugged and cried as we said good-bye to new friends and this new place that we had found so magical. I honestly didn’t realize how big of an impact Cocha Cashu had on me until I found myself crying walking down the stairs to leave.

The canoes in the cocha on a sunny afternoon.

The boat ride leaving the station had much more meaning. I was absolutely dreading the transition from the Manu to the Madre de Dios River. As I had told Tiffany on the way in, “the trees look happier” on the Manu than they do on the Madre de Dios. The mature forest that we had all loved was slowly disappearing behind us. What’s worse is that that same forest is disappearing all over the world. Laws and governments are not protecting these tropical rainforests and it’s only a matter of time before we don’t have any left. I watched as the forest edge changed from happy, large, mature trees to muddy slopes and pastures. I’m not usually emotional about things like this, but I cried when I saw the road that they had built for logging. And, I cried even harder when I found out that there was a road being built all the way to Boca Manu at the edge of the Manu River. They are encroaching on the station, our station. 

The sounds of monkeys and caiman and frogs have been replaced with cows and cars and people. I got an email a couple weeks after I returned stateside from Lou, one of the friends I made at Cocha Cashu. He told me about some of the things he had seen since I left and he sent me some photos. It made me miss it even more. It never struck me that I would develop such a bond with people in just a few short days, let alone a station in the middle of the Amazon. 

As I recollected on my time there, I realized that I couldn’t have asked for better classmates or better professors to have had this experience with. I mean, who else would have put giant land snails on their head or run around the forest while monkeys lob poop in your direction?

Tree Huggers!

         If you’ve made it through this crazy story, I can guarantee that all of that is true. We have lots of crazy stories from our time in Peru, and now I realize: that’s why they call us Cashu Nuts.

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