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.

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 ! »

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