Created in 2006 by science journalist Paola Catapano, MINIDARWIN aims at taking groups of children on scientific expeditions coached by real scientists and science communication professionals.

On the occasion of International Year of Biodiversity 2010, theMiniDarwins are ready to leave on their third expedition, to the Amazon Forest, devoted to biodiversity and its socio-economic spin offs. The MiniDarwins will be coached by biodiversity scientists and an ecological socio-economist specialised in ethno-ecology to experience life with an Indigenous population in the Amazon Forest

During the trip, we will publish on this blog a diary of the expedition and some of the photos, videos, interviews and texts we are producing for later publication on our website, book, reportage and documentary film.

13 August 2010

Garbage Beach and "Paradise" Beach - We can finally swim in the Rio das Amazonas!

Fri 13 August
On our last day in Tefé Bettina and Fernando, the owners of the Multicultura Guesthouse, organized for us a an outing with bbq on a wonderful beach on the bank of the Tefé lake* opposite  the city of Tefé. We embark on the flat metal boat with which we will cross the 8 km width of the Tefé Lake, on the beach just under the terrace of the Multicultura guesthouse. As we get closer to that beach we realize there's more garbage on it than sand grains! 

The people living on the stilt houses right on the beach  just throw anything they do not use from the window, and the result is  layers and layers of all sorts of objects (plastic bottles, havaianas flip flop sandals of all sizes, doll heads and arms, MadeinChina plastic toys, plastic bags, plastic cups and dishes, bike parts ...... yes, the dominant material is of course plastic!) compacted with the mud of the lake beach by the changing levels of the water according to the floods. 

One explanation could be that these river populations, new to the city life, are accustomed to life in the forest, where you use all you find and throw away the very little left you do not use. The big difference is that whatever you find in the forest is bio-degradable and these people seem not to have learned yet that plastic is not. Fernando rather blames the Municipality and the State of Amazonas for not collecting garbage and not cleaning the beach. Maybe he's right.

After the 20 min crossing with warm wind in the hair, garbage beach is instantly forgotten at the sight of a 2 km long desert strip of white sand against a backdrop of palm, mango and other tropical trees. The view gets more and more paradisiac as we put our feet on the soft sand and get ready for a swim.Yes, Fernando says here we can swim safely, "just be careful not to step over manta rays when you walk in the water". The fact that he lets his 2 year old daughter Lilaia go in the water reassures everybody and we all enjoy the reddish lukewarm on the surface and fresh at the bottom waters of the Rio das Amazonas in lake Tefé.
Bbq ing the delicious Tambaqui fish

Maxine and Lilaia

*Lake Tefé ( roughly the size of lake Geneva!) is one of the thousands of lakes in the Amazon river complex formed by a side arm of one of the Amazon's main affluents, the Rio Solimoes.

We are back in Tefe!!

We are safely back in Tefe and (slowly) uploading the blogs of the past incredible week in the jungle..
Keep following!


Friday Aug 13

Polina would like to stay here once she becomes a researcher. But no matter how good the food is at the Uakari-lodge, she is beginning to miss mommy’s cooking. « I will only stay here, if I can make hamburgers. » she says. Well, I guess we all feel we’re missing something or someone every now and then. After all, for some of us it has been three weeks since we have left ‘ our near and dear ones’. Maxine would also like to stay here for a while to do research. « Then I could be close to the dolphins everyday, » she says. The boys are not so sure. They want to become engineers and somehow the simple life in the floating house doesn’t seem very attractive to them. But maybe they could apply new sustainable energy systems to life in the rain forest.
Ab is leaving us already. Today he will travel to Suriname, where he will meet his brother for a short holiday. For us, it is also our last day. For the rest of the afternoon we will go fishing once more. Then we have to get packed and ready.
We have got used to the rhythm that life takes here : get up early (6.00), breakfast at 6.30, in the boats at 7.00 for a program in the forest or on the river that takes until 11.00, lunch at 12.00. After lunch we have a ‘ siesta’, just like the local people do here. Simply because it usually  is to hot to be active. Program starts again at 15.30 and lasts until 18.00 with sunset. We have dinner at 19.00 and sometimes a presentation or video screening at 20.00. As you will understand we go to bed early, to feel fit in the morning.
Computer games are banned during the Minidarwin expedition. Protests of the children when their Nintendo DS systems were unpacked before we even left home, could not change this. So they had to find other ways to spend their free time. During ‘siestas’ we have been playing card games. That was fun, although some cards dropped off the table just in between the wood of the boardwalk to the water below, where the caimans are living.  We come from several European countries, so we could teach each other some typical games.
Alberto and Kai learned how to play ‘pesten’ (teasing),  a Dutch game which they call ‘ pest card’ now. One afternoon they have invented their own version of it.

12 August 2010

River dolphin spotting

Thu Aug 12
This is a day we have all been looking forward to. Virginia, the researcher of the Boto (pink dolphin) project has asked the help of the children to observe the dolphins. This is one of the ways they are trying to learn about the dolphins and take care of the population in the Mamiraua reserve. A boat takes us to one of the lakes of the Solimões river (the name of the Amazon river before it reaches Manaus), that the researchers call ‘the shopping centre’. A suitable term because dolphins meet here in groups to find food. As soon as the sound of the motor has stopped, the pink dolphins begin to show up everywhere around us.
They surface in gracious bows above the water. « Just keep looking patiently in one direction, » Virginia advises the young dolphin spotters. « If you move around at every sound of an animal surfacing around you, it will be gone before you get a good look. » She’s asking the children to spot the brands on the back of the dolphins, each made of two characters. These observations are helpful to count the population and to learn about the travelling patterns of the dolphins. « One of our dolphins has once been spotted in Colombia, » says Virginia. « So we know now that they can travel over great distances. » « How do you brand the dolphins ? », Alberto wants to know.
 « Two times a year we catch a great number of dolphins with nets, » explains Virginia. « We bring them to our research centre to weigh them, take blood samples, see if they are healthy and make ultrasound to the females to see if they’re pregnant. Then we also brand them. We are using the method of freeze branding. This means we use freezing cold (almost -200˚ C.) liquid nitrogen to put the brand on their skin.  « Does that hurt the dolphins ? », asks Maxine. « It hurts them a bit, » says Virginia. « But we’re doing this for the preservation of the species. »
Ab has been listening to the reports on the pink dolphins by the researchers during the last few days. He thinks more should be done to preserve this species. « On the basis of their observations, the researchers think there are several tens of thousands of them left. This number does not put them on the list of threatened species yet. However the researchers have also told us that during the last fifteen years the number of pink dolphins have dropped by 50%.
If this trend continues in the next fifteen years, the situation will become critical. That’s why I think measures have to be taken now. First of all the deliberate killing of the animals by fishermen, who use them as bait for fishing cat fish, should be stopped. Our experience in Greece teaches that  this can be done, if there is an incentive for the fishermen to do so. »
« K.A. » shouts Kai, not to spell his own name, but because he just spotted the dolphin branded KA. He is using his photo camera to spot the animals and then enlarges the pictures on the lcd screen on the back to read the brands. A system that gives him an advantage, because for an untrained eye it is not easy to read the brands on the back of a moving dolphin. « JO or JU, » is the next one we see. « If you’ve spotted JO, this would be the first time we are seeing this dolphin back since a very long time »  Virginia tells us. It appears to be JU, who is the mother of a juvenile calf.
Dolphin calves stay with their mother until they’re 3 to 4 years old. That is why you can often spot two of them together. Sometimes an older calf stays with the mother, when a new calf is born. That’s when there are three of them. « There are no larger groups, » says Virginia. « But they come together at places like this « shopping centre ». » We spot a lot more dolphins before we go home,  happy with the idea that we have helped a little to learn more about the pink dolphins and convinced that more should be done to preserve this wonderful species.

The morning’s adventure made us even more curious about the pink dolphin, so we have accepted Virginia’s invitation to visit the Boto Vermelho headquarters, not far from the Uakari lodge. ‘Boto Vermelho’ means ‘red dolphin’ in Portuguese ; that is how they call it here. The centre is a floating house, just like our cabins at the Uakari-lodge, a little further up -river.
Four to five researchers live and work here for a couple of months, thus making a contribution to a research project that has started in 1994.  It is a cosy place, where they have everything they need, including a rudimentary fitness area near the floating vegetable garden. But they do not have a fridge (too energy consuming for solar power, they have ice boxes instead) and Internet ( HF radio instead). Here they bring in the dolphins they have caught in their nets, do their research on them, enter the data of their observations in the computer. But they also sleep and cook in the house.

11 August 2010

Hike with monkeys

Wed Aug 11

Today we’ve been hiking for two hours through the forest near the lodge. It was a heavy track, but it was worth it. We have seen several monkeys, like the howler and the black faced squirrel monkey, some beautiful and enormous black-white-red-yellow caterpillars, and today’s trophies: the Uakari monkey, which is the symbol of the lodge, and the footprints of a jaguar in the mud, which were the size of Maxine’s hand. You don’t believe it ? Look, we’ve got a photo..
But not of the real animal..
After dinner two researchers, Virginia and Natalie, came to the lodge to tell us about the Boto, the pink dolphin of the Amazon, and about the Mamirauá based program to protect the dolphins of the Amazon. It was a very clear presentation about these wonderful mammals, and also an introduction to biodiversity, evolution theory, and geological formation of the continents and oceans. Because all these factors play a role in the amazing story of the pink dolphins.

They descend from dolphins from the Pacific ocean, which where separated from their family 20 million ( !) years ago, when the Andes mountains have risen up, thus disconnecting the Amazon from the Pacific and turning it into a large lake. The dolphins have adapted to the circumstances in the rain forest, by developing a long nose, which they can use to catch fish in little holes between the roots of trees, and fins which they can use as paddles to swim backward, which is necessary for a big creature living in the forest. It was much later that the Amazon reversed its flow and found its way into the Atlantic ocean. This very ancient mammal has no equals left on our planet and is threatened because local fishermen use it as an easy bait (due to its very stinky meat when dead) to catch other fish very fashionable on Colombian markets.
Especially Alberto showed his concern about the Boto  and impatiently asked the possibilities of setting up nurseries with breeding programs of pink dolphins which later can be reintroduced in nature. Unfortunately, Virginia had to answer that pink dolphins do not do very well in captivity. She also told us that there is so much more to investigate in the lives of these beautiful animals. For those of you who think the days of the great discoveries in the world of animals and plants are over: THEY ARE NOT! You can still become a discoverer, just like Charles Darwin.
Do they really exist??

10 August 2010

The silence of a canoe

Tue Aug 10

We get up early for another canoe trip. Compared to the motor canoes we have been in until know, the canoes are very silent. They are also smaller, so there are only two of us in one boat together with a guide.

This makes it possible to get very close to the birds and animals.
The guides have very well trained eyes and spot an animal from far away. Quietly we go near, while the guides point their finger in the direction of the animal. Practically every part of the river shore appears to be the home of a bird or animal.

The little capuchin monkeys (well known as the house mate of Pippi Longstocking) are hanging in the thin branches of the trees above the water, bigger monkeys, like the howler monkey and squirrel monkey, are just a bit further in the forest. Birds of all colours and sizes, all adapted to the forest and its floods : all of them can swim, most can eat fruit, seeds and leaves. Our guide also shows us the floating leaves of the mimosa, which close themselves as soon as you touch them.

An  interpretative trail is on the programme includes.  This is a forest walk with explanations by the local guides, which is translated to us by Bianca. Again we are stunned by this fantastic place. The first thing our guides show us, is a nest that the giant pirarucu fish builds on the bottom of the forest when it is flooded. We’re still flabbergasted by the idea of fish nesting in the forest, because this trail is not flooded now, although it was until less than two weeks ago !

Then we see a high tree which gives fruits that are food for a specific kind of fish. We admire another enourmous fig tree. Our guide explains that this is a strangler. It all starts when a bird eats a fig and sits on the branch on a tree. Its poo contains the seed of the fig, which lands on the branch of the tree. Then a new fig plant starts growing in two ways : towards the fertile bottom of the forest, and towards the energy of the sunlight above. Soon the plant has become a tree of its own which slowly starts to strangle its host tree. Now, many years later, what is left is an impressive tree with a hole in the middle where once was another tree.
« What is this, » Polina asks attentively. We stop at what looks like a pile of clay. « That is exactly what it is, »  says the guide. « When a big tree falls down, its roots leave a hole in the bottom, which lets the underlying clay be pressed up. This clay is a sediment which comes with the river water from the Andes mountains. Local people use this fine clay to make pottery, by adding the burned scorch of a tree . Although nowadays they can buy their kitchen stuff at a shop, they are still using it. »
Our next stop is the açacu tree, which has a story of its own. The bark of the tree is poisonous. Fishermen collect the poison by making a hole in the tree which they close with a cork.
After a while they take out the cork to collect the poisonous juice. This they can use to throw in a little lake. It makes the fishes blind and easy to catch. « Doesn’t the poison from the hole affect the fishes when the forest is flooded, » asks Kai. « It does, but not so much, » is the answer. Now the story : Once upon a time a fisherman went to the tree to produce poison. When he had made a hole, he felt like going to the toilet. He stepped in his boat, but he could not make it to the village in time. So he pooed in the water not far from the tree and then used the water to clean his bottom. He better had not done this. The poison had already spread, making the water burn on his bottom like red pepper. He went back to tree and called it ‘açacu: aça = burning, cu= ass.
What a fantastic place, indeed. Fish building their nests in the forest and eating fruits from the tree tops, trees strangling each other, giant caterpillars, birds and monkeys in unbelievable colours. And on top of it all, a poisonous tree called ‘ burning ass.’

« 2011 will be the International Year of Forests ! »

9 August 2010

Back to school

Monday Aug 9
The children of Caburini have invited us to join a class in the village school this morning. The school bell is a rusty cylinder of metal, that the teacher, Roni Von, hits with a stick and as he does it, rings and from almost all houses in the village children come walking towards the school. The age ranges from 6 to 12. They are clearly very interested in the visitors. Alberto, Kai, Maxine and Polina introduce themselves and explain the aims of the Minidarwin expedition in the Year of Biodiversity. Then it is the turn of the children from the village. The Minidarwins make a lot of new friends and also see some of their old friends back, like Tatjana, but this time without Tufi. Before we go, we promise them a copy of our book, when it’s published (hopefully also in Portuguese !) and we exchange the addresses.

Roni Von, the school teacher, is also the turtle expert of the village, he’s been trained by the Mamirauá scientists and he is in charge of the turtle management programme of the Caburini village. It’s one of their ways to contribute to the reserve. In exchange, they get some money, or something useful for the village, like diesel for their generator, but especially the assurance that turtles will not be extinct any more.

We have told Ab about the preservation program of the fresh water turtles in which the local people have this important role. So he is joined us on our visit to the Caburini community. Roni Von says they started the turtle protection programme in 2005 and that they have two species of turtles, Acas and Tracajas, whose numbers were decreasing fast before the start of the programme. They take the eggs from the beach as they’re laid by the turtles and take them to a special fenced sandy area in the village, where they wait 40 to 70 days until they hatch. Ab says this kind of action is crucial for the protection of species.
Ab has been involved in establishing a successful protection program for monk seals in the Mediterranean sea, near Greece. « We have started with an enthusiastic group of Greek biologists twenty years ago, when there were only about 600 monk seals left in that area, » he recollects. « Their main threat were local fishermen, who saw a competitor in the seal. The challenge was to convince them that the big fishing trawlers which came to the Mediterranean sea were the real competitors. So a deal was made with the Greek government to install a protected area for the Mediterranean monk seals where access for the trawlers was prohibited.
Kai learning to blow bubbles with a local plant!
The local fishermen realized the protection of the seals was directly beneficial to them. They saw their own catches increase when the trawlers stopped coming. Then they were prepared to cooperate with the protection program. Presently, the population indeed seems to recover: the numbers of animals have been increasing continuously. And the local people feel proud. Moreover, about twenty professionals and a large group of volunteers are working in the preservation and research centre. This is why I believe, that involvement of local people in preservation programs is a crucial factor for success. »
In the afternoon , we leave the Caburini village, and we all hope to come back meet these wonderful people again one day.

Monday Aug 9 afternoon
Our destination is the Mamirauá lake, which gives its name to the entire reserve. Mamirauà actually means « children of the manatee » in one of the original indigenous languages.   But we cannot see any manatees this time of the year, since the water level is lowering 14 cm a day and they’ve already left for deeper waters.
On our way there, Ab and Bianca find out they have their interest in birds in common. Sometimes it seems hard for Ab to choose between his binoculars and his camera, to have a closer look on a bird in the trees or in the reeds along the river shore.
Instead of the manatees, we spot a sloth, the very slowly moving animal, hanging on a tree. This is another animal that still puzzles biologists. Because of its slowness, it is very vulnerable when it is on the ground.
Yet it goes pooping always on exactly the same place on the ground near a tree, once a week and scientists still do not know whether they take such a huge risk and use up so much energy to mark their territory or because they like the tree and decide to compost it.
The caimans let us get nearer in the dark, their eyes lighting up like red led’s when our boat with the spotlight approaches.  The river water is clean but not clear. At day time you see only the top of the head of the caiman, its eyes, back and tail.
Now we see the whole animal in its prehistoric appearance swimming in the water. Just when we get so near that we can almost touch it (and vice versa), it makes an unpredictable fast move, turns around or lets itself sink into the dark water. This is the move that makes the difference between what seems a floating tree log and a dangerous predator.

Bianca has warned us. The spotlight also attracts other fish which jump into the boat. Still it is totally unexpected that something flickering flies to the air and hits one of us on the chest. One moment later, a small, beautiful silver fish has landed at the bottom of the boat.

8 August 2010

A different week-end

Sat 7 – Sun 8 August  -  (by Maxine and Polina)

Flat  thin boats like canoes took us to Caburini, one of the four indigenous communities located within the borders of the Mamirauá Reserve. The people of the communities are involved in the preservation programs and in the ecotourism of Uakari-lodge. As we’re walking towards the village from the river shore where our boat has landed, Raimundo, the head of the community, comes walking towards us. He tells us his grandparents founded the community fifty-one years ago, when he was thirteen.

The people in the communities (the ribeirinhos as they are called here) descend from indigenous tribes, who inhabited the area along the river as early as 11,000 years ago, in isolated groups, and Brazilians from the North-East of the country, who were brought here by the government in the beginning of the twentieth century to work on the rubber plantations (as «seringueiros », ie rubber extractors).

After the decline of this industry, the people had nowhere and no money to go back to (they were almost enslavened). The catholic church organized them in communities. Caburini is home to 16 families which total 103 people. They live quite differently from us ! Their houses are on stilts, an adjustment to the seasonal flooding of the river and remarkable change in the water depth. Even the vegetable garden and chicken cages are in canoes suspended on the terrace of the houses, so that they can float on the water. Our guide shows us how the people of the community help to preserve the threatened turtles, by digging up the nests with eggs in unprotected areas and bringing them to sand beds near their house to incubate and hatch.

During the rainy season, which lasts from April to June, the water rises so high (the difference between high and low water can be 12 meters !), that people have to swim if they want to visit each other. The children of the village like this very much because they have their own big swimming pool just outside the house. But their parents don’t like it at all.  Indeed, working becomes practically impossible and anacondas (the big water snakes) come to the houses to steal the chickens. But they do not harm the children, and nor do the piranhas ! Actually, piranhas have a much worse reputation than they deserve. Although their teeth are impressively strong, they never attack humans.
We have met with some girls of our age and soon get absorbed by the village life. Tatiana, one of them, taught us how to feed the chickens with corn. She lets us pet her puppy dog, Tufi. And it doesn’t take long before we got real friends and chattered on the front porch of her house. Polina and I would like to live here, but not all the time.

Meanwhile Kai and Alberto have discovered another universal language: football. They’re giving it all they can in a match with the boys of the community. « They’re really good, » says Kai (who is Dutch…) later. « I can understand why Brazil got so far in the World Championship competition. »

Fishing Piranhas ! (from Kai’s diary)
I like week-ends at the Caburini village, they’re cool. Alberto and I spent the morning playing football and now in the afternoon, we’re joining the oldest boys and men of the village to go fishing for dinner, while the girls are playing with chickens and little dogs and the women are washing the clothes in the river. Moraes, our canoe driver, who is sitting in the back, makes the gesture of pulling a fish out of the water with his rod and smiles broadly. He is confident we will have a good catch. As bait we are using pieces of chicken meat. The six of us throw out our lines at the same time. Only a few seconds later one of us pulls the first silver-red piranha out of the water. But is has not bitten on the hook and falls back before it reaches the boat. They’re impressively fast !

Just one minute later, I am more lucky and catch the first one. All the kids on the boat are shouting with excitement, even if for the Caburini this is almost a daily activity and for us, well twice a year if we’re lucky ! Moraes hurries to take the fish from the hook and shows us the razor sharp teeth. The next hour we catch about ten piranhas which are big enough to eat. Smaller fish are being thrown back in the water.

 « Hey, why are you throwing back that one, » Alberto shouts upset, when quite a big, dangerously looking piranha is released. « Moraes explains to us that only the red-silver ones are good for consumption. The silver ones do not taste very well. Another funny looking fish we catch is the Carataki. It looks like the funny character from an animation movie, like little Nemo. But Moraes handles is very carefully. He shows us that the fish has sharp needles on both sides and explains that its stings are poisonous and painful. Proud of our catch we go back to the Caburini village, curious to taste our first piranha dinner.