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.

31 July 2010

Sea turtles and the TAMAR project

Sat July 31st –Marine Turtles

From the diary of Maxine

Today is one of the best day of my entire life!  We spent the day with Noronha’s marine turtles. We first went to TAMAR, a centre here on the island that works with turtles and we visited their super nice exhibition (not only on turtles but on all the marine animals they find here). We played a turtle game, where I learned a lot of things on turtles that I did not know. Since I am really interested in marine turtles, I already knew a few things. One thing I knew is that these turtles never see their mother! The mother drops her eggs on the beach and the only care she has for her babies (future babies) is that she hides the eggs in a protected part of the beach, under the sand so that they are not eaten by predators or worse, crushed by humans who go to the beach.  But I did not know that each female turtle lays so many eggs ! And I did not know that only one or two every one thousand hatchlings survive and become actually teenagers first (the scientists say juvenile)  and then grow adults. I thought at least fifty. I also did not know that the eggs that are in warm sand give girl turtles and the eggs which stay in colder places give boy turtles, and that you can only say if they are boys or girls when they are adults, not before. Not only I learned a lot of these facts with the game, but I also had a lot of fun because my turtle, the coloured one (which I think is the most beautiful) actually became adult safely, whereas the turtles of Alberto and Andres, a nice biologist from the Tamar project, always got eaten by a predator and had to go back to the starting point three times!

After the game, we went to the Praia do Porto to see how Fernando, an engineer specialized in fisheries and Lily, a marine biologist, catch the turtles and tag them. They have to do this because sea turtles are a threatened species and it is important to keep track of how many turtles there are, how much they grow up and how long they live. If they are lucky, they can live longer than us! There were so many turtles at the Praia do Porto that Fernando got exhausted catching so many, especially the last on, which was so big he could hardly carry it! All of us children were a bit afraid that the turtles would suffer from the tagging, but Lily explained to us that it’s like when we get our ears pierced to put earrings. But the turtles were not that happy to get tagged, they were constantly flapping their fins! I was so happy Lily let me carry one of them and she also asked me to measure it, it was 40 cm long, not the biggest catch of the day. I also helped Lily release the turtle once we finished the tagging, measuring and noting all these data on a waterproof pad. I was also surprised some of the turtles they caught were already tagged and even some of them had been tagged elsewhere than Noronha! If I could, I would help Lily ever day with her job!

BIRTH  ON THE BEACH - But the best part of the day came at sunset. Armando, the coordinator of the Tamar project, invited us on the Praia do Leao at 5 pm to see how baby turtles go to the sea for the first time. This was a  big emotion for all of us ! It is actually the birth of the turtles, since it is the first time in their life they see the light and go in the sea.  So we met Armando, Andreas, Carole and a few other biologists near a red stick on the beach. This is the sign that there is a turtle nest and people should pay attention, but there are so few people on the beaches of Noronha that really here there is no danger for these turtles. Armando told us that in the sand under the stick there were more than 100 baby turtles that had come out of their eggs only 3 days before and they were still under the sand because they were like an embryo, all crunched and not able to walk. During these three days, they did a lot of stretching under the sand and they were now able to come out!  None of us believed that there would be so many turtles under that small hole in the sand… and it was amazing to see them coming out when Armando started digging gently under the sand. They were so fast coming out  (who said turtles were slow?) and they were running to the sea, over passing all sorts of obstacles they found on their way. I helped my father filming them, and the most difficult part was not to be on their way, being very careful not to crush them, so many and so fast they were!  Armando told us they know instinctively where to go because they are attracted by the light of the sea. It is very important not to distract the turtles with artificial lights on the beach, otherwise they get confused and instead of going to the sea they can get lost. Another obstacle they have to overcome is the waves. They are so small that they are continuously pushed back to the beach by the waves. But then they make it! I waited to see that all 105 of these hatchlings were far in the sea and would not be pushed back on the beach. In this nest, there were 106 eggs, only one did not open, all the others had small turtles that all made it to the sea. While Armando was burying the unopened egg on the beach, we children were all hoping that the 105 hatchlings we saw being born would all make it at least to their teen-age stage and if possible to adult.
I hope that all of these small turtles who will turn girls when adult will make it back to this beach to lay their own eggs.

Armando’s Turtle Game -  From the diary of Alberto:
This morning we went to TAMAR, the special centre for the protection of Marine Turtles here on the island (Ta Mar is in Portuguese Tartarguga Marinha) and we made a game invented by the coordinator, Armando. This game was his thesis work and is really cool. Each participant is a small marine turtle just born, of a different species. I chose to be the Careta careta, since I am Italian and this turtle can also be found in Sardinia. You have to place your small turtle on a map showing the Atlantic ocean and the African and South American coasts, exactly where your turtle was born. That’s the starting point of the life cycle of your turtle. The  itinerary of each species is already marked on the map, you just have to launch the dice and go to the corresponding number. At each number something happens, and the instructions are marked on the cards (each species has its own cards).
You can:
o   get an information about your turtle’ s species
o   be caught by a fisherman’s net and stop for one shift
o   get eaten by a shark and have to start all over again because you die (which happens more often than I imagined to the poor young turtles, only one or two per thousand ! manage to get to adult age).
Andres, the biologist playing with us, and myself, were the less lucky since we both got eaten by sharks more than once. My mother and Maxine were the luckiest since they managed to get to juvenile and adult stages (and get the corresponding turtle pawns) without being eaten !

30 July 2010

Baia dos Golfinhos : Dolphins !

Fri July 30, 2010
This morning we woke up at 5 am to climb up a muddy trail in the dark and reach Baia dos Golfinhos, to observe the dolphins from a 50 m high cliff with the marine biologists.  One might wonder why making this effort, in Noronha where there's no tourist who took a boat tour that has not seen dolphins spinning above the surface (these are spinning dolphins, Stenella longirostris a species that jumps a lot out of the water, making wonderful pirouettes, not only to breathe but probably also to communicate better among each other through the formation of air bubbles in the water). So for the first hour and a half, when no dolphin was in sight in the bay just below our observation point, everybody was a bit nervous looking at the horizon. The young biologists from the Golfinho Rodeador project were ready with their binoculars, note sheets and counters, wondering why the dolphins were late. Kai, who had already been impatient since the first lights of the morning, was just getting more nervous as he realized that the tele-objective of his camera was not the right one for this distance; at 7h00 sharp, one of the biologists screamed "there!" and pointed his binoculars towards the left of the bay. And then "tick, tick, tick" … went the biologists' counters at each jump and "click, click, click.."  the cameras of the lucky watchers. The dolphins' dance has started in the bay  50 m below our feet, and we could all watch it breathless, with or without binoculars. 

"It was worth coming here then! ", exclaimed Kai.  "Everyday, we observe an average of 360 dolphins in this bay, between 5h00 and 9h00 in the morning" said one of the biologists, and he asked " Why do you think there's such a high concentration, actually the highest in the world, right here, in Baia dos Golfinhos? ". The MiniDarwins start submitting hypotheses: "Because they find good food", says Alberto. "Because it's a wonderful place to rest" suggests Maxine. "Because the waters are so clear that they can see the predators better" says Kai. Their answers are all correct. Fernando de Noronha is the only place in the Atlantic where the dolphins can find clear, deep and calm waters to take a rest during their crossing. In the Pacific, there are many places with the right conditions, while in the Atlantic, this is the only one, so that's why they all concentrate here and you can see over 300 of them every morning, charging their batteries before they continue the crossing. The waters of the Baia dos Golfinhos are deep and calm, ideal for resting, feeding and reproduction, and they're very clear (the visibility is 50 m) for the dolphins to be able to see predators in time to escape (dolphins have a very good eye sight). "What is the dolpin's worst ennemy? asks Maxine. "The shark, says the biologist, they love dolphin meat, it's their preferred food". "But how can you count them with your tool and the binoculars and be sure you're not counting the same dolphin twice?" asks Alberto, who is very sensitive to accuracy. "We point the binoculars to one specific area where we see dophins jumping out of the water, and we count each jump we see. Since on avreage dolphins can continue underwater without breathing for 13 minutes, we're pretty sure we're not double counting by recording the jumps we see in a specific area of the bay."
It was definitely worth the early wake up, we all think walking back along the path and getting excited about the rest of our dolphin day. Today we planned a boat tour, and we're now sure that what the Noronha marine park guides say is true: there's not a single tourist who's taken a boat tour around the island and has not seen dolphins!

29 July 2010

Beaches & Species

Praia do Sueste
Fregates, our friends from Galapagos
Praia do Leao

Praia do Sancho

Cachoeiro (waterfall) with mammal

28 July 2010

Fernando de Noronha – arrival

Wed 28 July
“Paradise is here” were the first words of navigator Amerigo Vespucci when he discovered Fernando de Noronha on August 10, 1503, during the second expedition to discover the Brazilian coasts, sponsored by the Portuguese “fidalgo” (aristocrat) Fernao Loronha. When landing on the archipelago aboard the GOL flight (one of the very few daily landings taking an allowed  maximum of 200 visitors on the island), we did get the impression of a Paradise island, amidst the unexpectedly cloudy sky. But by the time we got off the plane, filled in the forms to pay the environmental tax and found Lau, a sweet local girl working at the Pousada where we booked our stay, waiting to load us on the pick up jeep, Paradise turned into just a remote illusion around the magnificent green “Morros and Picos” (stunning volcanic peaks) all around the airstrip, littered as it became by tons of mud and greyed by endless rain and stormy winds. To make things worse, once at the Pousada, we found out that our accommodation would vanish the next day, due to an agency’s overbooking, but we shouldn’t worry because Lau would find a solution for us. Solutions there were indeed, but minimum budget for a simple pousada (bed & breakfast equivalent) were no less than 200€ per day per person! No wonder this is the place where you find the most expensive guesthouse in Brazil, the Pousada Maravilha (honestly deserving the name), at 1000€ per person per day!
Mud, rain, overbooking, overpricing… this is definitely not what we expected from a place like Noronha on our first day!

Thanks to the miraculous encounter with Cristiano, a young Italian who came here on holidays for a week 8 years ago and never left since, we finally managed to settle in a small spick and span family pousada in Vila do Trinta, one of the dozen small settlements spread around the 26 km2 of the island. We moved to the new Pousada squeezed in a pile of luggage in the dunebuggy we rented at a reasonable price (again, thanks to Cristiano), amidst muddy dirt roads, stunning tropical vegetation and rows of modest, old-fashioned but charming  constructions where the bars, shops, supermarkets and even the pharmacies and the hospital all look like slightly “improvised”. The sharp blue and yellow paint of the fence surrounding the veranda of our pousada, overlooking the Morro do Frances and especially the big smile of Etilene, the “dona” (owner)  welcoming the kids, make us all feel better.

The afternoon ride on the buggy to the Buraco da Raquel and our first encounter with the sea at the Praia do Cachorro finally make us feel in paradise. Yes, now we can say it, “Paradise is here!” The rain has gone and the promises all fulfilled: crystalline waters, gorgeous scenery and harmony between man and nature are all appropriate definitions for this sanctuary of marine (and not only) biodiversity. Just a simple unguided walk and a first dive in the sea have been enough to spot frigates, boobies, the endemic vireo, small coloured and biting (yes! gently biting) aquarium-like fishes,  our first manta ray and two sea turtles!
The kids have already taken their notebooks out to start the Hit Parade of the Species, one of the activities we planned for them. I know there’s much more to come and that it’s going to be tough to elect the species of the week, at the end of our stay in Paradise.

27 July 2010

Towards Noronha

Recife 27 July

Today we went to Recife Antigo (old town), but I am now writing from the plane to Fernando de Noronha. All I know about this island is that not only it is very beautiful, but that it also has a time zone of its own, that it does not share with any other place in the world (- 2 hrs compared to Greenwich), and that Darwin stopped there during
his voyage.
I now remember, when I went to Galàpagos I did not find it so beautiful because you are forced to stay on the paths, you cannot collect any stone, and a million other rules; in Noronha you can go wherever you want and there are no such strict rules. My mother told me on the island there's even a beach with waves for surfing; I am not a real surfer, but I love to be carried away by the waves, as if I was a surf board myself. On that island there are many beautiful beaches and I can't wait to get there !
PS: I am angry with my mother who forbid me to take the Nintendo DS with me on this trip. I hope she will let me watch Naruto sometimes, at least.

PS2 (a few hours later): we just arrived on Noronha, and …. it is raining on Paradise island! Apparently this weather is not normal, according to Cristiano, who has just opened his second Trattoria on this island and has lived here for the last eight years. This is the weather for April, not end July. My mother says it's because of climate change, Mike does not agree, he says there's no proof. I just feel guilty as a human to the idea that the cause for this climate chaos might be us. Let's hope it' s sunny tomorrow!

                                                                                                                                                                        from Alberto's diary

26 July 2010


Maxine in the taxi

We have arrived in Brazil! in Recife, our gateway to Fernando de Noronha.

Hotel views

22 July 2010

What is biodiversity..

Thu July 22,  Gland (Geneva)
The answers of Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Head of the Species Programme at IUCN

As the departure date approaches at a faster and faster pace (… it’s Monday, July 26!), the MiniDarwin are just starting realising about the unique expedition and wondering about its main theme, Biodoversity. This is not a friendly word for kids, it’s a rather technical term, but its meaning is very familiar to any child: biodiversity is ....  NATURE … in its grandiose variety! This is Jean Christoph Vié’s word and we can trust him. Jean Chrisophe is an expert on Species (that is all the animals and plants on our planet) working at IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
 Created sixty years ago, IUCN is the world’s first global environmental organization. It’s main objective is to keep Nature alive, through scientific research on species and ecosystems, field projects to better manage natural environments, and advice to governments all around the world to develop better environmental policies and legislation. One of the most important instruments dvelopped by IUCN to fight biodiversity loss is the RED LIST OF THREATENED SPECIES, measuring the risk of extinction of mammals, birds, amphibians, sharks, reef-building corals, conifers, reptiles, fishes, plants, invertebrates … you name it! This amazing compilation gives us an indication of how life on Earth is going, how little is actually known and how urgent it is to assess more species. The IUCN RED LIST is a real Barometer of Life.

Jean-Christophe Vié answers Kai’s question: What is the origin of your interest in animals?

Since I was a child I’ve always had a passion for nature. I grew up in the countryside and this is the reason why I was not spending my time in front of Playstations or the Nintendo. I spent most of my time in the fields, outside, observing animals. Where did this interest come from? It came from the books I received as a kid, which were not as nice as the books you can find today. I also received a pair of binoculars and then I was fascinated by an American TV series, called Daktari, that I adored. It’s now old fashioned, but it played a big role in triggering my interest for Nature.

Jean-Christophe Vié answers Maxine’s question: Can you tell me more about the bald Uakari (cacajo calvus calvus) that we are going to meet in the Mamirauà reserve ?

Although I never met this animal, I did my PhD thesis on a very close cousin of the Uakari; the Saki monkey, in French Guyana. The bald Uakari is very special, as you can see from the photo of his face on the cover of this book, the Red Book on Threatened Species. English people say he looks like a gin drinker, because he’s bald like me but much redder than me. The Uakaris live in groups, their colour is white and they exploit the flooded areas bordering the Amazon basin. The level of the Amazon river changes a lot according to the season, whether it is rainy or dry, and the Uakari exploit these areas as they eat fruit. 

You can follow Jean-Christophe's own blog here:

10 July 2010

How does a vaccine work?

"Viruses, Bacteria and Immunity"

Sat July 10,  Rotterdam

We’ve reached Ab Osterhaus in Rotterdam, where he works when he is not travelling, to submit to him the MiniDarwin’s questions about the need for a vaccination. Ab is one of the reference scientists of the MiniDarwin project and he will join us in the central part of the trip, the Mamirauà reserve in the heart of the Amazon forest. Ab is specialised in viruses that ordinarily affect only animals but that can cross the species barrier, and is able to identify dangerous and elusive new viruses with speed and precision. With the same precision and clarity he has answered the MiniDarwin’s questions on viruses and vaccines.

Ab answers Alberto’s question: How does a vaccine work?

1 July 2010

Preparing for the trip..

Mon June 28 Geneva, HUG

Our trip starts here, at the Geneva University Hospital. We’re just on time to get vaccinations, four weeks before departure. The MiniDarwins from Geneva, Maxine, Kai and Alberto, have certainly given proof of more courage in the past: they swam with sharks on the Galapagos Islands (see Minidarwin Expedition I), they climbed up on the Stromboli, a 900 m high active volcano, and witnessed its explosive eruptions from a mere 300 m distance every 15’, and then climbed down, with ashes up to their knees after midnight, tired, hungry … ,(see Minidarwin Expedition II). But at the prospect of getting an injection, there’s no more courage, they’re as scared as small cats in a water basin!
Maxine spent the morning pinching her left arm, to “train” before the injection, Kai tried in all possible ways to avoid getting to the hospital, hiding in every corner on the way. The angriest of all is Alberto “I do not understand why we need a vaccine” he repeats showing very little collaboration while we queue at the Tropical Diseases Department of the Geneva Hospital, after filling in the forms with all the details of our trip.
“Alberto, The vaccination you’re getting – I explain- is nothing but a harmless version of the yellow fever virus, a sort of “mutant” that does not give you the disease. It just makes itself known to your immune system. If you’ll get to meet the real virus in Brazil, your immune system would already know it and will be able to fight it without you getting sick,. In a way, with the vaccination, you’re training your immune system to defend itself from the virus”.
This explanation is satisfactory enough for Alberto’s logical mind.
“Ok,  I accept the vaccination, says Alberto still angry, but if we end up not going to Brazil in four weeks, I’ll hate you for life !” Why is this yellow virus based in Amazonia?” asks Maxine “ and how can the Amazonians
not get sick? ”
Kai gets his shot
“And what if I preferred to get sick in a month’s time instead of accepting the injection today??” adds Kai. Questions flock in. I invite the kids to keep them for professor Albert Osterhaus, one of the scientists we will meet during this trip. Albert, nicknamed Ab,  is a very important virologist, who contributed to develop many vaccinations, including the swine flu’s. He’s a real expert, the right person to convince the kids to accept a passing pain in the arm.
Paola, the science journalist