Among mammals, I come back to felines
because according to me, they represent esthetic perfection as far as carnivores
are concerned. Besides the jaguar and the puma that I spoke about above, there
are 4 other species, too small to represent a danger for man.
The jaguarondi (herpailurus
yagouroundi) is long and has short legs, its colour is variable,
often a nice shiny black. It is a great predator of the hen-roost!
The ocelot (felis pardalis)
and the margay (felis wiedii) are both nocturnal. They are unfortunately
hunted for their splendid spotted fur.
Among birds, the colibris or humming birds are true flying jewel,
often much smaller than the pepsis wasps that I mentioned above. There
are 319 species, all American. You will really enjoy watching them sucking
the flower's nectar : their wings flap like a stern-bar so rapidly that
they make an astonishing humming sound, which explains their English
Their metabolism is extraordinary high, up to 80 heartbeats per second
and 1260 wing flappings per minute! They are relatively aggressive and
do not hesitate to defend their territory against birds that are much
Much higher up, the harpy eagle, the biggest and most beautiful
of all eagles, flies over the rainforest. Its head has a magnificent
feather tuft, its claws are enormous. It feeds on monkeys, sloths and
birds like macaws (ara) as I have witnessed it myself.
I have already spoken of the dendrobates and coral snakes, but there exists
many other brilliantly coloured species.
Finally, and I will even say especially,
there are innumerable insects :
The large morpho butterflies are
true flashes of metallic blue lightening in the forest's undergrowth.
us pursue with insects
|Among the hundreds of
thousands of beetle species, some have the most hallucinating combination
Others will fascinate you by :
Their strange shapes and behaviour
Other ''dynastes'' are enormous,
there are, first of all, the true
giants such as "titanus giganteus", the largest known
which can measure nearly 17cm long
the most spectacular being certainly the ''macrodontia cervicornis''.
||Other insects do not reach
such sizes but have most surprising shapes, like the "membracides".
Some even give rise to curious stories : the "machaca" (fulgora
lanternaria) or "lantern insect" is a large cicada
whose head has a protuberance like the head of a lizard.
In Venezuela, the Creole villagers are sure that this insect's bite is deadly
and that the only way to survive after being bitten is to have sexual relations
as soon as possible! This type of belief is so deeply anchored that it is
impossible to abandon it. I once took one of these inoffensive creatures in
my hand to show my Creole dug-out canoe driver that it did not present any
danger (I can nearly say unfortunately, seeing its reputation
) As a
result, he said to everyone afterwards that I did not die because I was immune.
L'iguane (iguana iguana)
looks like a prehistoric monster. But it is harmless and feeds principally
on fruits and leaves.
It is often found basking in the sun on trees, on river edges. At the
first threat, it lets itself fall in the river. It is an excellent swimmer
and can stay underwater a long time. I have often wondered how Indians
can detect these green animals 50 meter up in trees from their dug-out
canoe. Until I saw one myself. You have to see it once to realize how
they look on trees. Indians have a photographic memory. They know their
surrounding environment so well that they immediately detect any unusual
element. That is why, in the rainforest, they see things you have not
La tortue matamata (chelis fimbriata
) is a strange creature : covered with bumps and humps, its camouflage
is perfect. It has a long snake-like neck and spends its time tracking
small fish that it gulps down in its huge mouth.
You will perhaps see a particularly
curious bird : the hoazin ( opisthocomus hoatzin). It is a
real living fossil! These strange birds feed exclusively on leaves
which they ruminate like cows, but it is the characteristics of the
young which are extraordinary : they have claws on their wings like
the archeopterix, the first known bird, contemporary of the dinosaurs
In case of danger, they plunge in water and use their claws to cling
to branches under the water's surface. The claws disappear once they
Les agamis or trumpet birds
(psophia crepitans) are also astonishing creatures, looking vaguely
like a guinea fowl. Beautifully coloured with pastel grey and metallic
blue, they go about the rainforest's ground looking for insects and
other small animals. They can easily be attracted by imitating their
cry, it is therefore not a very glorious game! In captivity, they become
very tame and will follow you everywhere like a small dog. They offer
also good protection against snakes.
Here again the rainforest offers you
a very strange bestiary!
Giant rodents: the capybara,
meaning "grass master" (hydrochoerus hydrochaeris)
looks like a giant 50kg hamster. The diurnal agoutis (dasyprocta
sp), and the nocturnal pacas (agouti paca) are among the
favourite prey of the rainforest's carnivores, including man. Another
specie, the coendou (coendou prehensilis) is tree-dwelling and
covered with prickles.
The armadillos have an articulated shell and can roll into a
ball. They live in burrows and feed mostly on small animals. They have
very poor eyesight. One day, one of them came up to my feet without
seeing me and reacted only when I put my hand on its back! The giant
among them, priodontes maximus, that weighs up to 60kg, feeds on ants
The real anteaters, related to the armadillo, are represented
by 3 species, two of them being tree-dwellers. The most spectacular
specie is the great anteater (myrmecophaga tridactyla). It is
indeed an amazing animal: it has an extraordinarily narrow elongated
skull and a large thick tail. When it is disturbed, it stands on its
hind legs and brandishes its enormous claws. Stories about anteaters
having smothered jaguars by their "embrace" are told throughout
Amazonia. There again I am waiting to see it
Anteaters tear apart anthills with their claws and suck the insects
with their sticky tongue which can be as much as 60cm long. They need
a large territory for they do not feed for long on the same ant or termite
hill. As soon as the insects organize their defense, they abandon the
The smallest of the three species,
(Cyclopes didactylus), is a lovely tree-dwelling animal whose
fur is fluffy. I recently caught one: I brought it back on a stick to
which he clung with its hind legs and prehensile tail. He stayed in
this position a fair amount of time, eyes closed, then finally fell
backwards, apparently asleep in the middle of its terrifying intimidation
Sloths are also related
to anteaters and armadillos. There are two kinds of sloths: the three-fingered
sloth (bradypus sp) or Ai and the two-fingered sloth (chloepus
sp) or Unau. The nocturnal Unau is more rarely seen than the Ai.
The sloth is somewhat the antithesis of the hummingbird in terms of
metabolism. They look as if they are moving in slow motion. They are
so slow that algae grow on their rough hair. They spend their time in
trees, eating and digesting leaves. They are totally harmless but their
clawed hands are quite strong. If you catch one, take it like a kitten
by the skin of its neck and keep it at arm's length or else you might
loose your shirt
One day, I picked one up on a road
in French Guyana, where the poor animal was lamentably dragging itself
(it was really a pity to see it on the ground, and it surely would have
been run over). I wanted to let it loose farther along but when I opened
the trunk of my car to put it into, the stupid thing hung on so firmly
to the rubber trimmings that I had to cut them up with the machete to
liberate it! That is the reward for being charitable
down from their tree once a week to defecate at his foot. Scientists
have explained this curious behaviour saying that by so doing the animal
brings nutrients to the tree which then produces more leaves on which
to feed. Why not, it is possible to extrapolate at will on the interaction
phenomena, but in this case, is it really interdependence? Isn't the
following explanation more realistic: The eventual predators of the
sloth being tree-dwellers, the animal acts in such a way so as not to
leave spoors on its territory. Very clumsy on the ground, it is logical
that it does not go far and defecates near its tree.
The Tapir (tapirus sp) is
another strange animal. This nocturnal hoofed herbivore, far cousin
of the horse and rhinoceros, has a short trunk and lives near rivers.
It is hunted because its flesh is delicious. I personally have tender
memories of a tapir fondue bourguignonne in Saul, French Guyana. The
tapir defecates in water so as to trick the large felines' sense of
smell, its natural predators. A jaguar or puma rarely wins against an
adult tapir. Its skull is very hard and a fat protuberance over the
neck offers an efficient protection. If a feline jumps on its back,
it starts to run at full speed under low branches and the predator is
forced to let go of it. A tame tapir which I had in a camp often came
back from its nocturnal expeditions with deep claw marks on its back.
Monkeys are always an expected
spectacle on the part of visitors of the rainforest. Among the 66 species
of South America, there is one you will never see by daylight: it is
the douroucouli (aotes). It is the only nocturnal monkey specie
on earth. It is a lovely small animal with a thick grey velvety coat
and immense round eyes..
The nocturnal character of the douroucouli gives me an excuse to speak
about night excursions and what you have to do so that they are successful,
offering you the maximum opportunity to see nocturnal fauna.
First of all, you must carry an adapted
equipment: a forehead lamp, waterproof or at least protected from humidity,
is indispensable. If you are alone, always carry TWO lamps. Otherwise, if
the bulb burns down, you will not be able to go any further, even for a distance
of 20 meters from your camp and you will simply have to wait for dawn in the
dark, in the kind of nice condition that you can imagine, especially in rainy
weather (it already happened to me
As a general rule, if you leave on an expedition or a relatively long hike,
take TWO of the essential equipment (machete, knife, lighter, lamp). It is
easy to loose things between trees. Don't rely on technique: a new lamp that
proved faithful when you could easily have replaced it will systematically
fail you just when you need it most! Murphy's law
A forehead lamp is indispensable because by directing its beam along
the same axis as your eyes, it will allow you to locate certain species
whose eyes reflect light: nearly all mammals, caymans, certain tree-dwelling
boas, night butterflies and spiders with the unfortunate exception of
Leave on moonless nights. The moon
plays an important role in the life of nocturnal animals. They are by
definition lucifugous, that is they shun the light. Strong moonlight
will frighten them
You will see more things on the edges of "criques" (small
rivers in Guyana). That is where you will be able to catch sight of
the dwarf cayman (paleosuchus sp), among others.
You will have noted that many poisonous animals are nocturnal. Be vigilant.
Don't put your hands on trees. Besides the eventual scorpion or "Bullet"
ants, certain palm trees have long sharp thorns