Bungle in the Jungle: What Not to Do Part Two

tarantula on a leaf

When I found out I was going to the rainforest in Panama, I carefully read and re-read (and then repeated this procedure several times) the journal entry called Bungle in the Jungle: What Not to Do ( RFC #11) dated March 25, 2002. So, I will not touch anything, will not sit anywhere, no matter how tired my legs are, I know not to feel the wonderfully soft lining of a bird's nest, know not to reach and grab at a tree trunk, even if it means I might slip and fall instead. Those spines on the Black Palm look mighty intimidating [spines] [looking up trunk] and to have them embedded in my skin as a permanent memento is not at all the type of souvenir I want to return from the rainforest in Panama with (although, knowing my students, it would probably be the most interesting part of my rainforest story for them). Teenagers seem to enjoy the misfortune of others, especially if it is their teacher! I was going to avoid the Acacia plant, even though I was not sure what it looked like, but I did not want to anger any mutualistic ants that live in the Acacia and protect it ferociously. I have wrapped wide masking tape around my water bottle so I have the tape in the field to remove any ticks that I pick up on my clothes. I have sprayed all of my field clothes-- pants, shirts, socks, and hiking boots with Permethrin spray to deter chigger attacks [fran by bat tree]. I will be careful not to look up when I think monkeys may be in the trees above so a large nut does not "accidentally" drop onto my head. My deodorant, hair gel, shampoo, and hand lotion all have the least amount of floral scent I could find. So off to the rainforest in Panama I go, hoping to see, but not feel (the bite of) exotic tropical animals [tarantula].

My first hike in the rainforest was even more incredible than I had anticipated. I didn't know which way to look first. I could find animals starting on the forest floor and going up to all levels including way up in the tree leaves (canopy). Look at the length of the "snout" on that anteater in the photo! [anteater] The other photo is a 3-toed sloth. [sloth] Sloths are difficult to see high up in the tree branches because they move very slowly, if at all.

After that first day of hiking, my field clothes were very wet and quite muddy (all the way up to my knees) so I decided that I would throw them all into the washing machine since it would be 10 days before I would go back home and they would probably create their own habitat sitting in a ziploc bag "fermenting" for the next 10 days. I set the washing machine on HOT and the same for the dryer and that seems to have been an effective method for killing chiggers that I picked up on my field clothes during my first day of hiking. It seems likely that re-wearing field clothes a second day can allow some of the chiggers who may have hitch-hiked on the outside of your field pants to work their way inside the cuffs while you're putting your pants back on the next day. How else could you explain a localized circle of chigger bites around the ankle of a friend who tried to conserve and re-wear her field pants a second day? The lesson is clear to me; only wear your field clothes one day and be sure to wash them in HOT water and use a HOT dryer. Elizabeth Royte was right when she wrote in her book, Tapir's Morning Bath, that "A washer and dryer ... was the greatest advance in the research station's history." I can't imagine having to take the ferry over to the mainland every second or third day carrying a bag of soggy, muddy field clothes probably infested with insects and returning on the afternoon ferry with dry, clean clothes, but having missed a whole day of research opportunities.

Here are some more good words of advice regarding your field clothes. Do not sit on your bed after being out in the field. For that matter, do not sit on your chair, either. You do not want the chiggers to jump off of your field clothes and end up somewhere like your bed or chair where you will sit later after you have showered. And, while we're talking about chairs, you know that people come directly in from a hike to eat lunch or dinner and they sit in the dining hall chairs with their field clothes on (including ticks and chiggers). It is not a good idea to sit in any chairs with shorts on. You could invite the chiggers that the person before you left for you as a little rainforest "gift". So, do not "fear" mosquitoes in the rainforest, it seems mosquitoes are difficult to find. Watch out for chiggers. You will know you have chigger bites because they itch quite a bit and you will not remember seeing anything biting you. You will not be surprised to discover that 125 chiggers (also called red bugs) would all fit lined up on this one inch line ___________ so that will help explain why you do not see anything biting you. The good news is that chigger larvae probably do not burrow under your skin as I had always heard and the other good news is that they do not suck your blood. However, the bad news is, when they bite you, they inject powerful digestive enzymes that cause your skin cells to liquefy, then they "drink" you for as long as a few days. This explains why it is important, after being out in the field, to thoroughly scrub your skin with a soapy washcloth to interrupt their feeding. The other good news is that chiggers in the U.S. probably do not carry any diseases. But, the bad news is, I was in Panama, not the U.S.! If you get chigger bites, you will be glad to know that you have helped the animal mature to its next 8-legged nymph stage. If you put on topical ointment such as hydrocortisone, benadryl(, or benzocaine, you can decrease the itching and decrease the likelihood of a secondary infection caused by your scratching. For more chigger information, click on http://www.chiggaway.com . I was worried about biting insects in the rainforest, but frankly, I would get more bites if I sat out on my porch in New Jersey during a summer evening.

Another word of advice: watch out for suddenly falling branches if you hike under a troop of monkeys. I'm not sure whether the falling branches are accidental breaks of dead branches as the monkeys are jumping and climbing or if it's a polite message to us that they see us and we are intruding in their domain.

Night hikes bring a new set of issues. Bats [bat on wall] fly pretty close to your head and cicadas and moths often fly right into your face. Although these are not harmful and they are probably more scared than you are, it is still surprising to have an insect fluttering against your cheeks. Standard procedure is to walk as quietly as possible through the rainforest, but it's impossible not to laugh when someone gets an insect dive-bombing her nose.

So, after 10 sensational days in the rainforest, our most common complaint was, "Gee, I itch". Not a horrible price to pay...

Written by:
Fran Zak
Science Teacher
Pascack Valley HS
Hillsdale, NJ
fzak@pascack.k12.nj.us

Edited by:
J. Willis