Fear and loathing in Peru. Me and the super psychedelic Phyllomedusa bicolor, who’s skin contains more mind-altering substances than the late Hunter S Thompson’s bathroom cabinet. I love this frog but resisted kissing him for fear of losing what's left of my marbles.
Welcome to the wild west. My fellow passengers on the river bus are miners, mostly illegal, who come down from the Andes to pan for gold.
My last gasp of civilisation is the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado near the border with Bolivia. From here it’s a 10-hour boat ride up the Madre de Dios river to my final destination, the CICRA Los Amigos biological research station deep in the heart of the Amazon basin. A remote academic island in a vast green sea, that just happens to be the most bio-diverse jungle on the planet. For the next month I’m going to live with a dozen or so field scientists exploring this rainforest and documenting their work as CICRA’s artist in residence. I can’t believe my luck.
CICRA is the Hilton of field stations with 5 star facilities - my own solar powered hut comes complete with its very own gecko family to keep the mossies at bay.
There is also the distinct possibility that a month in the jungle with a limited cast, no phone and an antique internet connection will send me completely mad. I arrive at dinnertime and am almost immediately warned of how intense it can get here. It feels a bit like being dropped into a reality TV show - Big Brother crossed with I’m a Celebrity featuring a cast of zoologists. And millions of biting insects. Here’s hoping I don’t get voted out in the first week or forced to eat witchety grubs to save my career.
CICRA = frog geek heaven, the ID chart for the local amphibians lists almost 100 species
But the frogs will keep me sane…as long as I don’t start licking them. The jungle here harbours an amphibian pharmacopoeia stocked with a kaleidoscope of candy coloured frogs whose skins secrete a heady cocktail of chemicals. Amphibian’s skin is their Achilles heal – exceedingly delicate, it has to be permeable enough for them to use as a second lung, and therefore prone to infection (just look at the havoc caused by the skin fungus Chytrid). The toxins it produces are the product of millions of years of evolution and a never-ending chemical war waged against a battery of wannabe parasites.
As a result my first Peruvian frog-hunt uncovers enough drugs to get me arrested in Kansas (as this video shows).
Amongst the top frogs in the chemical war stakes are the fantastic Phyllomedusa family, also known as Monkey frogs. This is because they live high up in the trees and not because they are the product of some warped hybridisation experiment (for those that were disturbed the first time, I do apologise for including that link again but I couldn’t resist it).
The biggest of the bunch, Phyllomedusa bicolor synthesises an arsenal of chemicals capable of knocking out Pete Docherty, which are secreted in a milky fluid to protect the frog from snakes. These include a long list of peptides such as dermorphin - a painkiller over 30 times stronger than morphine at the cerebral level but bioactive and therefore non-addictive.
The Matses equivalent of popping to the chemist is to subject the monkey frog to a form of medieval torture in order to get it to produce its toxic sweat
The local Matses Indians have long used the giant monkey frog’s sweat in various rituals and cures. Now pharmaceutical companies have cottoned on and are investigating the use of these peptides as treatments for a range of illnesses from Alzheimer's to brain cancer. When these drugs go on sale I think the pharma companies should donate a proportion of sales to saving the frogs that invented the chemicals (and also to the Amazonian tribal people who discovered their uses first). They could consider it as an investment to protect this biomedical treasure trove that’s still largely waiting to be discovered, before it’s wiped out.
I have always wanted to see a monkey frog in the wild and am ecstatic to discover three different species on my first foray into the forest. They are even more spectacular in the flesh – totally otherworldly creatures that advertise their trippy nature with even trippier looks. If William Burrough's designed frogs they would look like these guys with their lurid green waxy skins, go-faster stripes down their side and super puddy fingers. These frogs really blow my mind, without even having to lick them.