Exceptionally Beautiful

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 name.
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 larger.

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.

Among Batrachians & Reptiles
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.

Among the hundreds of thousands of beetle species, some have the most hallucinating combination of colours…Others will fascinate you by :

Their strange shapes and behaviour

Let us pursue with insects

there are, first of all, the true giants such as "titanus giganteus", the largest known which can measure nearly 17cm long

The ''megasoma''
Other ''dynastes'' are enormous,

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.

Strange animals

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 seen.

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 reach adulthood.

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 and termites.

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 site.

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 manoeuvre!

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… Sloths come 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.



Some advices

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 tarantulas.

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…