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.

2 August 2010

INPA visit and baby Manatees

2 Aug 2010

 “Close your eyes, imagine this tree with half of its size, when it was only 50 years old; all around many other similar trees, animals, small and big,  turtles, ants, caimans, jaguars, pumas,  many birds singing, and with all these animals, live the Indios. Seven-hundred, eight-hundred ,  until eleven thousand years ago. This Tanimbuca here has known the Indios for seven hundred years. Imagine how many things happened that this tree has seen, animals and Indios getting married and creating a family, according to a natural cycle that science tries to explain today. For this reason, this tree is for us here at INPA a sort of living memory of Amazonia”. 
With these words Hugo Mesquita, extension coordinator at INPA (the Brazilian Institute for Amazon Research), introduces research in Amazonia to the MiniDarwins.  This biologist who speaks like a poet has a broad view of science, encompassing everything from botanics to ethnology, molecular biology to mythology and the history of science … in a word, culture. “I was lucky to be able to work with the Indios but also to be sick for fifteen years, a long enough break to get out of the strictly scientific paradigms I was imprisoned in”.  Then he continues addressing the kids. “Did you like the story? What I would like you to remember is that here many more people passed before us, who lived more harmoniously with nature than us. ”
The children have retained every words Dr Mesquita said and their very precise questions get us into a scientific discussion. Maxine starts:
“How do you know this tree is 700 years old?”
“The age is measured counting the rings in the trunk” answers Hugo Mesquita.
“By cutting the tree and looking inside?”
“Yes, but we do not need to cut each tree, we can compare the size to other tree trunks that are already cut. Each ring is one year. But here, at these latitudes, it is more difficult to count the rings because the difference between rings is less clear, due to the very little difference in temperature between seasons. In Europe the different rings are much easier to count”.
“Is this the oldest tree you have?” asks Kai.
“It’s the oldest in the Bosque da Ciencia, but not the oldest of the forest! Yet,  it’s older than Brazil itself, which was discovered 500 years ago!”
Alberto has kept his question for a while, he could not let an apparent contradictions in Hugo’s numbers go unexplained. “How is it possible that this Tanimbuca, now 700 years old, had half of its size at just 50 ?” 
“At 50 this tree had half of its height, but its trunk was much thinner. Look at this other Tanimbuca, how thin it is. Trees in the Amazon forest are all very thin and very long. They first grow in height, because they’re looking for light. The forest is so full of trees and so dark that a young tree must grow fast in height to get some light in all this shadow.  It’s competition for light . Only when they get enough light they start getting thicker.”
 “Darwinian competition,” I comment.
 “Let’s say evolutionary competition”, Hugo corrects me while taking us towards a plate in the memory of Alfred Russell Wallace. I know I touched a sensitive chord.  Hugo continues “Darwin has most of the credit for the evolution theory, but actually Darwin and Wallace published at the same time two important papers on natural selection on the same issue of the most important scientific magazine of the time, the Royal Geographic Society’s review”. 
Wallace is a reference for Brazilian biologists much more than Darwin. I must admit his story is definitely more passionate and adventurous. 
“Wallace came for a poor family and he started working at 15 as a land measurer. When he travelled to Amazonia, he became a map drawer and a naturalist. He kept collecting plants and animals in all circumstances, even when he had high fever from malaria. But when he left Amazonia in 1850, the ship he was on sank and his entire collection of plants and animals was lost”.
In front of Wallace ‘s quote describing the ship Helen’s wreck and his pain losing his precious collection, we almost cry.
 “Did he drown?” asks Maxine. “No, the people on the Helen survived the wreck, but the entire cargo was lost, including the five ton material collected by Wallace.
“But we can still dive there and recover it?”
“Unfortunately not” says Hugo.
Alberto, who has listened to the story of Wallace, is still not satisfied on the size of trees, and breaks into the sadness of this moment with another question.
“If we put a nail in the tree trunk, does it sink into the bark or does the tree grow in thickness from inside?”
“I am not a tree expert, but yes the nail would stays outside. Let’s now go to visit the Casa da Ciencia”.
“Wait – says Kai – we forgot the most important question, even if you are not a forest expert you must know! Last night when we arrived we were wondering what’s the difference between forest and jungle and we could not agree!”
“It depends on what you want to underline. Usually jungle is used to stress the wild and slightly “dangerous” aspects of the Amazon forest. Forest is the more neutral term. But technically is the same”,  explains Hugo as we proceed to the rest of this visit at the INPA headquarters, while the kids are already running around spotting monkeys jumping in the trees, sloths, capybaras and baby turtles in the ponds. This is definitely a unique research institute!

Tanimbuca tree

Dr. Hugo Mesquita

Map made by A.Wallace

Paola with Dr. Ilse Walker, senior INPA biologist

Galia Ely de Matos, biologist from INPA's manatees research program (Peixe-boi)

(can you tell which photo's are made by Kai and which by Mike??...)

1 comment:

  1. Ciao Paola, Marianna here. what a trip! fantastic pictures from what seems to be another world. and no, I could not figure out which pictures are taken by Kai or Mike! bravo Kai!!!