A Journey to the Edge of the Amazon The jungle and rain forest surrounding the Tiputini Biodiversity Station is still incredibly wild, even by the standards of the Amazon. There are tantalizing hints that it also may be full of insects that talk to each other.
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A Journey to the Edge of the Amazon

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A Journey to the Edge of the Amazon

A Journey to the Edge of the Amazon

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From NPR News, it's MORNING EDITION. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

A scientist that Radio Expeditions once followed through a Virginia meadow looking for bugs recently set off to explore what may be the buggiest place in the world in eastern Ecuador.

National Geographic Radio Expeditions went along, found plenty of bugs, and this bonus; what NPR's Alex Chadwick calls a forest that sounds like paradise.

(Soundbite of insects in forest)

ALEX CHADWICK reporting:

This is difficult to reach, this place. Probably why it's still here.

(Soundbite of plane engines)

CHADWICK: Here are directions: Start with a flight from the U.S. to South America, in Quito, that's the capital of Ecuador, up in the Andes. Then a day or so later, take an early morning plane ride, like an airborne sled, down the eastern slope of the Andes and into the jungle basin of the Amazon and the town of Coca that's on the Napo River.

A long, steel-hulled, version of a dugout canoe, a couple of hours downstream to find a road south. And a truck with bad springs but a good radio. Hours pass. A mix of forest and fields that belong to the local Guarani Indians, the ones who've come out of the woods for a generation or two.

It starts to rain. And another river: the Tiputini. This looks like a much smaller river than the Napo, like I could throw a stone across it. Unload the truck. Steep, mud-slicked track from the road down to another boat.

Wow, okay. The last bag I carried down was 50 kilograms of potatoes.

From here, you're on the river or on foot. No more roads.

So we've actually had good luck. It stopped raining while we were unloading the truck and carrying stuff down the slippery riverbank to where we could load it on the boat. And now we're headed down river on the Tiputini. It started raining again. It's raining really hard.

It's nearly dark when the boat pulls to shore. Wooden steps lead up to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station. It's an eco-research site run by the University of San Francisco, back in Quito. There's a large, open-sided central lodge with a tall peat thatched roof and clusters of sleeping cabins out in the woods.

The director is an American zoologist, Kelly Swing.

Dr. KELLY SWING (Director, Tiputini Biodiversity Station, Ecuador): The diversity of life that's concentrated here is much greater than any other place. There's no place on the planet that has so many species packed into so little space.

CHADWICK: This part of the Amazon hasn't been cut down probably ever. No one's hunted it in living memory. There are jaguars here; lots of them. There are bands of wild monkey, forest deer, tapirs, and spectacular birds.

This is recorded at about six o'clock in the morning.

(Soundbite of the birds crying)

That is an Oropendola nesting in the tree outside my cabin. It may be the most glorious thing I've ever heard. I'd like to just stay here. But Rex Cocroft is going for a hike.

Professor REX COCROFT (Researcher, Professor of Biological Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia): When you come to a tropical rainforest, most people would think that your very first priority is, above all, avoid any contact with insects.

CHADWICK: He's a researcher at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He's drawn by the eco-riches of Tiputini. Rex is looking for his creatures - bugs.

Prof. COCROFT: This is a particular group of insects that are very engaging. Even people that don't like insects say, oh, well, that's kind of cute. They're harmless to people, fascinating behavior, and well worth going out of your way to see.

CHADWICK: Or to hear. Rex studies tree hoppers, insects often mistaken for thorns, if people notice them at all. There are thousands of varieties, all of them small.

It's hard to see their often elegant forms and bold color. They spend brief lives, a few months, on plant stems; simple, quiet looking bugs - only not so quiet.

Like a lot of insects, treehoppers vibrate the stems of the plants where they live. Sound is vibration. They're signaling each other. You can hear them, or Rex can anyway.

He's found a place off the trail where a recent tree fall opened a space for light. The treehoppers like that.

(Soundbite of treehoppers croaking)

Now, we have to be quiet. We don't want to startle the bugs. Rex has just put a hairclip that's attached to a phonograph cartridge on - and there's wire running out of the back of the cartridge to his recorder, and he's carefully, very carefully placed it on the stem. And now, he's listening.

(Soundbite of treehoppers croaking)

Those are treehoppers.

Prof. COCROFT: Yes.

CHADWICK: He's studying treehoppers because he's interested in the evolution of social communication. And as Rex has demonstrated, these creatures are far more social than we knew. They're talking to each other most of the time.

Prof. COCROFT: One of the functions of this communication might be a kind of group decision-making process in which one individual says, well, I think it's not looking so good right here. Alex Chadwick has come over and is taking pictures of us. Somebody else says, yes, I see the same thing. And if all of them agree, then that may induce them to disperse sooner. But the signaling is clearly increasing when they were disturbed.

CHADWICK: I have been taking pictures. I brought a lens just so you can see these things. Now, Rex is listening again.

(Soundbite of treehoppers croaking)

Prof. COCROFT: What I'm trying to do by coming to a place like Tiputini is very much a process of discovery, to look at this diversity of species with different kinds of social behavior and see what kinds of signaling they're doing, and ultimately to try to get some clues about what they're signaling about, and to put this together and be able to see how the ecology of these species relates to their form of social behavior and to the kind of communication signals that they evolve in. In a sense, when, under what circumstances, do you evolve; I mean, the signal, it functions in a new context.

CHADWICK: These are social insects; a world more complex than we had realized. And consider this: because forest leaves tremble with the sounds that we make, even when we speak, treehoppers have always heard us. We have just begun listening to them.

Prof. COCROFT: Once we come through here with the ability to tap into the vibrational soundscape within these plants, the next time you walk through you're really going to be quite frustrated. You're not going to be satisfied and you're always going to want to carry a phono-cartridge and an amplifier and a set of headphones next time you take a walk in the woods. Because you realize that you're missing 99 percent of the communication that's going on.

CHADWICK: A rain forest.

(Soundbite of rain and thunder)

Later, above where I sleep, I find a tarantula the size of my splayed hand. The only small parts are at the end of his impossibly hairy, dark-blonde legs, a cleft nail on each one, like a hoof. Spiders with hooves? I can scarcely wait for tomorrow!

For Radio Expeditions at the Tiputini Bio-Diversity Station in eastern Ecuador, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society.

The Ecuadorian adventures continue online. You can see photos and check out the brand new Radio Expeditions podcast at npr.org/radioexepeditions.

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