Me posing with some lovely shiny shit-eating beetles
I donated my poo to science today. Not something I thought I’d ever say but I’m helping a Peruvian entomologist further her dung beetle studies and she needed volunteers.
Apparently it’s not easy to find people prepared to crap for conservation. The sad thing is, my act of charity only enticed a paltry half dozen nondescript brown beetles whereas Sarah, the entomologist, has ensnared a healthy sampling of the hundred or so species that inhabit the Amazon basin, including some rather splendid metallic blue ones the size of a conker. We suspect my coffee addiction is to blame for rendering my personal refuse repulsive to the resident beetles, so I am going to have to forgo my morning ritual for the next day and repeat the experiment all over again. Science can be brutal.
My involvement with dung beetle studies is a new path for me. Until recently I had a different kind of shit job. The regular kind; where you work too hard to pay your mortgage and dream of doing something different. Then came the credit crunch and I decided to escape the second winter of discontent by leaving my job with a nest egg just big enough to live a modest life in South America, without having to rob a bank.
For the next six months I’m following my passion as oppose to my pay cheque. I’ve always been interested in conservation and I love frogs so I’ve been travelling around Latin America investigating the current catastrophic amphibian extinction crisis and writing a blog about my findings. I’ve been on an expedition to look for a super rare pregnant male frog in Patagonia, visited fungus infested frog farms in Uruguay, licked poison dart frogs in Colombia and tasted endangered frog juice in Peru.
The latest leg of my journey has led me to the Los Amigos scientific research centre deep in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, where, as a filmmaker, I’ve taken up the position of artist in residence. This tropical rainforest lays claim to being the most bio-diverse on the planet and the remote field station I now call home attracts biologists from all around the world to come and study the exceptional flora and fauna. It’s my job to study them with my camera and document their work. In my spare time I can indulge my amphibian obsession by combing the forest for freaky frogs.
The research station is a strange place – a remote academic island in a vast green sea. With no phone and an antique internet connection, we’re divorced from conventional reality. We live in a bubble, which gets more than a bit Big Brother-like at times. Today is Sunday and I’m doing a dung beetle experiment but it could be any of day of the week. There is no such thing as a weekend – just sunny (work) days and rainy (rest) days. But the best thing is that, unlike my life in London, no two days are ever the same.
Monday morning starts with my alarm going off at 4.30am to join the tamarin team, tracking monkeys for the day. Like most people here I have surrendered to the rhythm of the jungle, waking before dawn and falling asleep not long after the sun goes down. I pull on a pair of wet socks (nothing dries in the rainy season and dry socks are a well worn fantasy) and my uniform of functional field clothes and Wellington boots. There is something very democratic about our jungle existence. We all wear the same dowdy clothes and we all smell of the same heady cocktail of mould and bug spray.
Silently we trek through the jungle pre-dawn to get to the tamarin’s sleeping tree before they wake up and disappear into the jungle. Through the gloom, we peer into the canopy waiting for the first signs of life. Tamarin monkey’s morning routine is not so different from ours - a bathroom break followed by food. We watch with great interest where these morning bowel movements land and scramble through the undergrowth to collect them. No, it’s not for another dung beetle experiment, its for the tamarin team’s research. This isn’t just poo, it’s important data which reveals a wealth of genetic and behavioural information about these monkeys.
Collecting crap is actually the easy part of the job. The hard bit is following the monkeys as they travel at speed along their treetop superhighway. This involves us, lumbering ground level apes, battling though seemingly impenetrable bamboo thickets and racing up and down steep ravines to keep up with their lofty antics. It’s a serious workout made harder still by having to keep one eye on the canopy at all times so as not to lose the group of tiny brown acrobats, 40 feet in the air and each no bigger than one of Paris Hilton’s pet dogs. They don’t seem to mind being followed. At times they venture down to eye level, to stare you out before disappearing up a massive tree to gorge themselves on yet more exotic Amazonian fruits and presumably laugh about how stupid we look trying to follow them.
For the tamarin team, with all that staring up, chronic neck ache is an occupational hazard. Along with insect bites. The worst of which is the legendary bullet ant, so called because its sting is said to be as painful as being shot. These inch long monsters hang out on the undergrowth ready to bite unsuspecting field researchers as the blindly push their way through the thicket. Getting stung by one is inevitable and something of a right of passage. My first one came from an ant that fell out of a tree and into my shirt, which led to a severely swollen right breast and 24 hours of nausea and a migraine-like headache. Much like losing your virginity, you never forget your first bullet ant.
Fortunately monkeys go to bed quite early and generally like to be back in their sleep tree around 4.30pm. This means that after almost twelve hours being led a merry dance around the jungle by a pack of cheeky monkeys, our fieldwork is also finally over. We head back to the lab exhausted, bearing our battle scars of cuts, bruises, bites and stings to put the day’s monkey poo booty on ice.
More often than not someone will have brought something curious back from the field, to be categorised and photographed - a crazy looking caterpillar, anonymous lizard or sci-fi beetle. This is one of the joys of living amongst a bunch of zoology geeks. Everyone here is as obsessed with nature as I am and happy to share their encyclopaedic knowledge of the jungle – it’s like living in an Attenborough documentary. Only itchier.
We eat dinner early, just as the sun has gone down. This is the one meal of the day where all the field researchers get together to discuss the events of the day. Conversational hors d’Oeuvres generally centre around comparison of the day’s chigger bites – tiny blood sucking mites that embed themselves in your skin and itch like crazy for days - before the main course of the days triumphs and frustrations. It’s a tough life being a field scientist, and I have a newfound admiration for them. Uncovering the smallest titbit of information about an animal’s behaviour is fraught with trial and error. The jungle rarely behaves itself and does not give up its secrets easily.
In England my evening routine generally involved getting drunk with my mates in various different dingy London locations. The only bar around here is 30 minutes downriver at the nearby mining settlement of Boca Amigos, and it’s not a place you want to hang out at night. There is gold in the Madre de Dios river, which is mined, largely illegally, by small time prospectors who come down from the Andes. There are tiny ephemeral mining communities dotted all along the river, although Boca, with five permanent families is one of the more established. With more bars than houses, it has a distinctly wild west feel. The one shop on the muddy high street sells a motley selection of necessities including canned foods, rubber boots, bug spray and pregnancy tests.
The mercury the miners use has become a pressing environmental issue. The trouble with this heavy metal is that its concentration increases up the food chain. One of the scientists at the station has been studying mercury levels in raptors and discovered levels high enough to impair reproduction. The forest here may look pristine but the blood and feathers of the birds of prey here reveal a more worrying story.
After dinner there is generally another team heading out to study the jungle at night. Tonight I’m joining a group to trap bats. It’s also the first outing into the field for the baby owl monkey that arrived at the station a few nights back. It was found half dead, by one of the station’s staff and immediately brought to the lab. Strictly speaking it should have been left there, it is strict policy here not to interfere with nature. But you would have to have a heart of stone to send this wide-eyed and whimpering baby back to the jungle to die alone in the dark. After an emergency operation to patch up his lacerated leg he now lives on one of the field researchers heads. The monkey is getting better by the day whilst the field researcher gets to grips with the trials of this unexpected motherhood – sleepless nights, potty training (essential for a baby that inhabits your hair) and loss of identity (she is now a platform for this much coo-ed over and unbearably cute newcomer).
The jungle at night showcases an alternate cast of animal life. The beam of your head torch reveals the sparkling eyes of giant spiders, crooning frogs and predatory snakes. We’re catching the bats using large mist nets which we check every half an hour, in between telling ghost stories and swatting the thick mist of mosquitoes. There are dozens of species of bat here and over the course of the night we trap six of them from a tiny insectivorous one to a giant fruit eating false vampire. But the prize of the night, which makes Adrian, the station’s resident batman, quiver with excitement is a medium sized leaf-nosed bat.
I have never been particularly enamoured by bats but Adrian’s enthusiasm, like that of all the field scientists, is infectious. This specimen it turns out is the Dirk Diggler of bats, endowed with an oversized appendage in order to ensure his sperm’s success in impregnating the highly promiscuous females of the species. He carefully places the bat in a cloth bag in the hope that it will deliver that all-important faecal gift that will help Adrian unravel some of its secrets.
We are lucky, the bat delivers and triumphant we head back to the research station for bed. Tomorrow will be round two of the dung beetle experiment and a totally different and equally unpredictable set of scatological adventures. I can’t wait.
I know this isn't just about frogs but...I wrote this article for the Telegraph newspaper recently and you can find it online if you are lurking in that area. However it occurred to me that if you aren't a Tory voting expat you may never get to read it. So here it is, my poo-y adventure with bonus extra photos not seen in the Telegraph edition. And swear words too. The Telegraph doesn't mind poo but won't tolerate shit. Apparently.
By the way if you like this kind of crap humour then you should check out my friend Marcus's very funny blog - The Lavatory Reader