Sensory. Overload. Sights and Sounds from Ecuador

UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT REFLECTIONS FROM THE 2018 VT ECUADOR STUDY ABROAD TRIP

Sounds from the low land rainforest, recorded by Taryn Smith


Being in the jungle gives you a whole new appreciation for your senses. The sights, smells, sounds and feel of the jungle is an all encompassing experience. In the Shiripuno when we were on our hikes I quickly learned the importance of paying attention to everything you’re doing.

Being a keen observer is a hard thing to master. Our guides are absolutely amazing the way they can spot birds in trees that look like leaves or frogs that blend into the understory completely except for a single stripe of yellow down it’s back. The past week I have had to try and keep up. Learning how to scan the tree line as we go down the river for any of the plethora of bird species that could be perched and waiting.

The smells of the jungle can range from the sweet smell of fruits to the stink of a monkey pack above. One day one of our Huaorani guides was looking at some leaves on the ground and with out looking up, he alerted us to a troop of monkeys. After asking how he knew they were there – he told us that he could smell them.

One of the most important senses in the jungle is hearing. Our guide Rudy described it as “if you rely on sight alone to find animals in the jungle you’re lost”. The animals are evolved to the point where they are next to impossible to spot. Over the course of the trip I’ve learned 4 or 5 bird calls so that when I hear them I know what they are. This is not even a scratch in the list of species that live in Yasuni. Often as we are walking down the trails we will stop abruptly and listen to the sounds of the forest. Sounds of rain on leaves, bugs chirping in the distance, several bird songs, or even a monkey troop in the distance. Being in Shiripuno has given me time to let my ears take a break from the noise pollution of civilization which has improved my hearing greatly.

Lastly, touch is an important sense of the jungle. The trails are often very muddy and slippery. Being able to feel if your footing is stable is very important if you don’t want to take a spill. The jungle floor is not an ideal place to land when slipping in the mud. Other than walking, touch can be important in identifying plants. The feel of the different parts of the plants can be key. The guides often hand us leaves to feel when they talk about classification. We feel for the waxyness of the cuticle or how flimsy or flexible it is.

To be successful in the jungle using your senses to their full capacity it essential. The Huaorani are a great example of this they walk around the jungle with great ease and comfort because they have adapted their senses. From a young age the Huaorani are taught how to use their senses to best navigate the jungle.

– Taryn Smith, Biological Sciences

We were walking through the lowland rainforest of Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park. Our guide, Ramon, wielded his machete, and was constantly clearing the brush in front of us. By that time I had already realized how keen his eye was because of the things he had shown us. Ramon, a Huaorani native, is very experienced in the forest. For some reference, Huaorani children are expected to be able to survive alone in the Rainforest by age 10. Suddenly he stopped. I was wondering, “What could this guy be up to?” He looked at the ground beside the trail intently. He then proceeded to kneel down and slowly pick leaves away from an area about the size of my open hand. He looked up and me and said, “sapo.” I am slowly learning more Spanish during this trip, but at that time I had no idea what sapo meant! He repeated himself pointing at the small area, “sapo.” I gazed intently at the small area. I could see nothing! I was trying to figure out what he was showing me. I then knelt down and sqinted my eyes. I saw a small leaf with a white petiole. I looked at this area for 20 or more seconds, and then all of the sudden I realized that it was a frog! It was spectacularly camouflaged! Dark brown with black spots adorned its back, along with the white stripe right down the middle. I couldn’t believe it. It was quite impressive, but what’s more was that Ramon had even spotted this motionless camouflaged frog. After I finally realized what he meant by “sapo” Ramon laughed and laughed until he was out of breath! I now know that frogs in the rainforest are incredibly hard to see, and that sapo means frog in Spanish.

– Dominic Latona, Biological Sciences

What strikes me the most about the Amazon basin is the diversity of life that surrounds you wherever you go. Each tree can differ from the one next to it, hosting species unlike the other. On a single tree, you can find hundreds of species covering it from the base of the roots to the ends of the branches. From epiphytes, orchids, lianas, and mosses, to crazy looking orange beetles and lines of leaf cutter ants hauling their cargo across the roots. If you look closely at night you can find a poison dart frog on a leaf, a salamander on a twig, or a vine snake wrapped around a branch. Although there is no equilibrium of diversity, everything fits together. It really makes me realize how much of a difference one tree can make in the biodiversity of the forest.

Annelis Stunes, Biological Sciences

Coming into Ecuador, I figured the green would be overwhelming, but I was unprepared for the sounds and heat. After two days of serious travel, we were told the night would be spent in Coca, a city just a bit smaller than Ecuador’s capital, Quito. Fernando and Rudy, the guides for our initial travel to the lowlands of the jungle, were introduced, dinner was had, and deep restful sleep was achieved.

The next morning, I woke up to a small cat like call and a few croaks. I realized this was the first time in years that I didn’t recognize any of the sounds around me, other than generalizations such as a crow like squawk or pigeon like coo. Nothing was familiar and everything was exciting. Grabbing my camera I wandered out to see if coffee was ready and ran into our guides on the patio. Currently 6:20 in the morning, no one looked fully awake yet except the birds singing their hearts out. Periodically one or the other would point in a direction and say a name, and after everyone had some caffeine in their system they told me they were trying to see how many bird species they could identify using only their calls.

All together, the point count at the Hotel Auca came out to be roughly 10 or 12 species, all in one courtyard. I could only spot one or two before they flew and still had trouble detangling the various sounds coming from the garden. By breakfast of day 3, I was in complete hearing sensory overload and still had a full day of birdwatching left.

These mornings continued the whole time our group was in the lowland jungle, Fernando would point out a monkey or bird because he said he heard a leaf fall in a strange pattern or Rudy would help us pin point an owl because he was able to mimic its call to keep it talking. Pictures only show a single part of how overwhelming and awe inspiring the jungle was, the cacophony of sounds completed the scene.

Catherine Hucul, Biological Sciences

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