By Daniel Grossman
Tiputini Biodiversity Station, Ecuador–Do the world’s tribes enjoy any pastimes in common? Probably not. But one lazy afternoon, four guys raised far from one another delighted in a mutual passion in the forest of the Amazon basin of eastern Ecuador, giving renewed hope of cross cultural harmony.
Two visitors to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador’s rain forest proposed the diversion over a hearty lunch of steak and potatoes. They yelled an invitation across the open-air dining hall to two staff members who had cut the meat and cooked the fries, and in a moment they had a plan.
The four would meet 20 minutes after the meal, at the dock where boatmen tie up dugout canoes piled with the camp’s supplies.
Diego Savard, one of the visitors, speaks English with a rare accent—he’s the son of a Canadian mother and Spanish father. Ryan Gillard, a lanky native of New Hampshire, studies biology at Saint Lawrence University far upstate from New York City.
Like most guests, these young men—the first 26 and the other 21—came to Tiputini to do scientific grunt work—like painting new trail markers—and tread the springy soil of one of Earth’s natural wonders.
Tiputini is one of a few of research camps where scientists from the United States visit to study rain forest flora and fauna.
Kelly Swing, Tiputini’s founder and co-director, carved the site from pristine jungle on a bank of the Tiputini River in 1994. He intended it to be out beyond human influence. Oil exploration and drilling have brought bring civilization closer. But it is still 14 miles from the nearest road
Kelly Swing, founder and co-director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, says the Yasuni Park is “nature’s cathedral.”
Photo by Daniel Grossman
Swing calls Yasuni National Park, within which the station is located, a “cathedral of nature.” Intensive research in Yasuni justifies the praise.
A recent article in the online journal Public Library of Science (co-authored by, among many scientists, Swing) asserts that Yasuni harbors more forms of life—or, as scientists say, more diversity—than any other place on Earth.
For example, a typical hectare (the size of two football fields) of Yasuni contains about 655 different kinds of trees, more than the number of trees native to all of the contiguous United States and Canada.
So many different trees fill Yasuni’s leafy canopy that in many parts wandering through the dim light of the forest’s trunks one rarely sees the same variety more than once in a hectare.
One hundred species of bats streak across Yasini’s night skies, double the number of bats in North America.
The list of superlatives tires even an enthusiastic science writer. Very briefly, it includes frogs and toads (141 species) birds (596 species) and many other classifications of life.
Numbers are abstract products of the mind; a distilled essence of reality. To comprehend a rainforest like Yasuni, you must also know some specifics, like examples of what creeps and crawls on the forest floor.
For instance, one of Yasuni’s spiders (a group of animals that is generally soft and easy for prey to eat) is camouflaged to look like an ant (an insect with an external shell and, thus, avoided by many prey).
A fungus in Yasuni infects the brain of a cricket-like bug, which promptly climbs a tree trunk and dies glued to the bark in a statuesque pose. The fungus keeps growing inside the insect’s hijacked head and explodes from the tips of the antennae in a brilliant yellow bloom.
This insect was infected with a fungus and literally lost its mind. It climbed a tree before dying, stuck to the bark. The fungus grew in its head and sprouted out the tips of its antenae.
Photo by Daniel Grossman
Some of Yasuni’s ants and trees live together so harmoniously they could never live apart. In one case a tree gives the ant a home—a hollow at the base of a leaf stem—while the ant provides the tree protection with its stinging bite.
Twenty minutes later, the four friends met and marched single file down a narrow path paved with small overturned logs.
Tomás Alvarado, third in line, is a Kichwa Indian. He grew up in Añango, a village of only about 30 inhabitants—all related—about 100 miles from Tiputini Station.
He stopped at a clearing and slashed open the trunk of a fallen palm tree. With a couple of blows of his machete, Tomás exposed a tunnel in the pale white wood. He plunged a finger into the hole and pulled out a beige grub the size of his thumb. He handed it to Diego on a plate-size leaf.
Tomás plunged his finger in the hole again and withdrew another, smaller, grub. More chopping. More grubs. Soon Diego’s leaf was a mass of writhing white flesh. Tomás supplied more leaves and Diego wrapped the treasure into a tight bundle.
Tomás Alvarado shows his friends a bird he has spotted. The Kichwa Indian likes fish, but he also confesses a fondness for grubs, raw or fried, meat of the paca–a rodent the size of a beagle–and chicha, a homemade corn beer.
Photo by Daniel Grossman
Tomás, of average height for a Kichwa, would seem short in the United States. His white shorts hang down to the tops of his rubber fisherman’s boots. He has shoulder-length wavy black hair and a full, round face with high cheek bones.
Tomás announced that the light had changed; it was going to rain. The four continued anyway. Soon, though, Tomás stopped, rigid. He moaned. “Curassow,” he whispered, one of the many flightless birds in Yasuni. The moan was his imitation, for the benefit of his guests, who had not yet heard the faint cry.
Ovidio Godoy is the station’s cook, white t-shirt stretched taught around his rotund belly. His hair is short and curly, most likely a sign of his African descent. He is from Ecuador’s northwest coast. The Spanish shipped African slaves to Ecuador when they conquered the Incas in the 16th century.
Ovidio knows Tiputini’s trails as well as Tomás and they sometimes disagree which is best. Once Tomás fell behind. His friends called for him but heard no reply. They kept walking, sure that he’d catch up. But, rounding a bend, Tomás waited, grinning broadly.
Finally, with Tomás in the lead, the four men reached their destination: a muddy bank where a meandering tributary empties into the broad Tiputini. They sank almost to their thighs in deep gooey mud. It made a vulgar sucking sound each time they stepped forward or back.
They settled at the water’s edge. Each uncoiled a nylon line from a flat slab of wood. Each skewered a grub onto a steel hook; and each tossed the bait into the calm water.
It would become tedious to recount every event of that afternoon—who caught which fish, what jokes and stories the men exchanged and how they huddled under trees during a downpour. It would be ungenerous to detail the staff’s scurry into the obscurity of a thicket while Tiputini’s manager floated past after a day of errands elsewhere.
They returned to camp carrying a stick skewered like shish kebab. And they dined on a meal of sweet, white fine-grained flesh. Ovidio had fried it delicately until the meat had the hue of honey and a surface with the texture of a fine brittle.
Daniel Grossman has been a print journalist and radio and web producer for 20 years. He has produced radio stories and documentaries on science and the environment for National Public Radio’s show Weekend Edition; Public Radio International’s show on the environment, Living on Earth, and news magazine, The World. He has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Discover, Audubon and Scientific American. Read more posts by Daniel Grossman.