‘South America is the home of some of the strangest, some of the loveliest and some of the most horrifying animals in the world’.
So reads the first sentence of David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest books, which I would highly recommend you try and get your hands on (they’ve been out of print for a good while, but I’ve seen a few second hand copies floating around). I agree with him wholeheartedly after almost 13 months spent living in the Amazonian jungle, but would offer this one tip- if you really want to understand what he was on about, you have to go on a night walk. Lots of people expect to be immediately surrounded by a plethora of animals as soon as they step into a tropical rainforest- but the fact is most things are awfully good at hiding and there’s a whole world of canopy above your head where the cool stuff can be sitting while you lumber around on the forest floor. The one time of day where this doesn’t hold true is night- whenever we went out in Payamino, the night walks were so productive that you would wonder how on earth all the animals managed to find enough crevices to hide in during the day. I’ve put together my favourite encounters from a number of jungle night walks, so without further ado, here they are:
1. TAILLESS WHIP SCORPION
Summarised in a single emoji: 😍. I first saw a specimen of this in the museum of Scotland a few years ago. It was the most nightmarish thing I’d ever seen- and consequently went straight onto my list of ‘cool animals it would be awesome to see’ list. I’ve since found out they’re completely harmless to humans-you can pick them up and gently put them on your shoulder for the ultimate parrot replacement (their legs feel like tiny little pins). Teddy bears, really.
2. WANDERING SPIDER
In an emoji: 😱. OK. Unlike the whip-scorpion this was clearly an ‘approach with caution’. I’m relatively sure this is a Phoneutria wandering spider, one of the largest spiders venomous spiders in the world. Wandering spiders have a terrible reputation, mainly because the only time we tend to hear about them is when they rock up on bananas in Waitrose and scare people. But they will also politely tell you when it is time to back off, meaning that you have to be extremely unlucky to get bitten. This one didn’t mind us getting close enough to marvel at those beautiful patterns on her legs or the dusky pink hairs on her chelicerae. It’s common to see large spiders out and about hunting at night, but she was one of the largest, being about the size of a generously proportioned saucer. I’ve always hoped to see another one this large, but have not had any luck so far. More reasons to go back.
3. CAUGHT IN A WEB
Speaking of hunting, I’ve only ever seen this happen three times, and on the two ocassions previous to the one in this photo it was teeny tiny wrens that got stuck in the masses of Nephila (orb-weaver) webs in the ceiling of the research station buildings (on those occasions, we helped them down with a long stick and let them go). This was the first time I’d seen it happen in the forest. I’m still not sure what species of bird it is (but I’ve been hunting around for a Birds of Ecuador to tell me- watch this space) but he/she was stuck fast and having shed a lot of feathers his/her feet were covered in a sticky feathery goo.
There was a good chance that we’d flushed the bird with our torches and it had flown into the web in a panic, which gave us enough justification to save it from its fate. The two of us that had handled passerines before carefully held it and cut it free from the tangle of web and feathers, then watched it flutter back into some scrub on the riverbank. Though we looked for the web-maker, we couldn’t find it- I would love to see the spider that’s able to weave single strands of web that are strong enough to do this sort of thing (the bird was around the size of a reed warbler). If anyone has any ideas as to what it could have been, I’m all ears.
Katydids katydids katydids. The things are bleedin’ everywhere at night. Once I got home from a few days out of the jungle to find one nibbling on some underwear I’d hung out to dry, which didn’t do their group standing in my estimations any favours. Still, their camouflage is pretty jaw-dropping, and on my most recent walk we saw this individual mid-moult. If you look closely, you can see that the wings haven’t unfurled yet, as well as the astonishing length of the antennae. It was so cool that maybe I can forgive the pants incident.
5. OH DEAR
Poor auld katydid. If seeing predation is rare in the daytime, night is the complete opposite (must have something to do with all those large spiders). I can’t even guess what type of spider this is but it was very nice of it to let me see it hunt.
So, my top five night time encounters. Hopefully it hasn’t been to arachnid heavy for anyone but I think they are truly amazing. To balance it out I promise the next post will be of a nice harmless vertebrate. Maybe 😉.