Bungle in the Jungle: What Not to Do

We all make mistakes.

Most mistakes are small, and sometimes we forget and don't learn from them. But sometimes we make some mistakes that we learn from, that we will never forget and never make again, at least, not knowingly.

Like leaning on a tree. If you carelessly place your hand on a tree trunk in Panama, and lean there for a short time, you run the risk of being "boarded" by some tiny passengers who will hitch a ride for awhile. And during their ride, they will try to have a little snack at your expense. These are newly- hatched baby ticks. They are laid in a clump of perhaps a few hundred newborn ticks, which is called a tick "bomb." They hatch, often in January, to take advantage of the dry season. They hope that a warm-blooded creature will pass closely enough so that they can reach out their legs and hang on. Like trying to grab the brass ring on a carousel.

These tiny babies are perfectly adapted to feeding on mammals. Their front pair of legs is long and they have heat sensors. They are only the size of a dot, and they will crawl as quickly as they can to enter your clothing through the sleeves and pants cuffs, and then they will drill a hole in your skin with their little drill for a proboscis. And then they suck your blood.

Afterwards they drop off to find a safe place to digest the blood and grow. Then they need a new source of a blood meal. I tend to remember an experience like finding my hand and arm covered in a brown dust of tiny ticks, all walking to a good spot to feed on my skin. That's when you want a piece of masking tape to pick them off your body. If you don't have tape, it's hard to pick them off or brush them away. Then some of them start drilling in the tender skin between your fingers and around fingernails.

It's sort of like when I found a bird nest and wanted to keep track of the chicks until they fledged. After they fledged, I handled the nest to see how it was built. It was shaped like a football and twigs and vines were carefully wrapped to form a roof and make an opening at one end. I touched the soft inside lining of the nest, wondering what it was like to live inside. When I pulled my hand away, it was covered in moving dust-- thousands of hungry tiny bird lice who had been left behind by the baby birds.

In a similar manner, there are other reasons for not leaning against trees or laying a hand on a rock. Bullet ants, what we call "Paraponera," often climb up and down trees and rocks, hunting insects. They have powerful jaws, and will clamp down hard on skin. Then they can brace their body to give a jolting sting-- it is a powerful venom that causes great pain and has lasting effects. Not quite so bad is standing in an army ant column while looking up at treetops. In a few minutes of carelessness you will have hundreds of ants on and inside your clothing. So it's a good idea to have high boots and tuck pants legs inside. At least army ants don't sting unless provoked, and the sting is nothing like the bullet ant's sting.

And then there are the Azteca ants that build their nests on the trunks or branches of trees. If you are carrying a radio-tracking receiver to locate collared animals, you have to wave around the antenna to detect a signal. Waving an antenna shaped like a tree a few feet wide may mean that you accidentally hit an ant nest and disturb the ants. They pour out and jump off, and start stinging. Their numbers make this most annoying. Or you could hit a bees' nest, and now the honeybees in Panama are all the aggressive africanized bees! Likewise, you want to be careful about brushing against a bull's horn acacia. The resident ants go on the alert and attack. They seem to head straight into sleeves. People have been known to tear off their clothing to get at the ants.

In fact, standing and staring up at squirrels or birds or other fascinating creatures can lead to all sorts of problems. Like the time I stood still timing how long it took a squirrel to eat a palm nut (about 12 minutes) and thought I felt something against my boot and looked down to see a coral snake snuggling up. I looked carefully at it, hoping it would be a harmless mimic and not the venomous coral snake. But it was a true coral, which I could tell by the color pattern. It wasn't interested in me, so when I cautiously moved my feet, it slid away from me and went down a hole under a rock.

Generally, walking along a trail and not ducking low under branches, is also a bad idea. Sooner or later you will brush the underside of an inhabited branch and get a bunch of irate termites down your collar. They don't produce a venom, but instead an acid, which stings. Or you will disturb a small wasp colony, and they give a potent sting that will definitely get your attention.

Also, on a muddy trail, you might just twist an ankle and tear a ligament like I did last year. Could mean no walking trails for awhile, and a difficult journey back to the laboratory. But then, grabbing a tree trunk upon slipping may be worse than falling. The trunks of some trees have spines. The Black Palm, for example, has sharp, long brittle spines that break off in skin. They are almost impossible to remove, so you have to leave them there until they eventually work their way out of your skin. I remember a Japanese biologist visiting Panama for the first time to catch lizards. He slapped his down hard on a tree trunk to grab a lizard, but it was sitting on a smooth part of a Black Palm trunk. The lizard jumped away and the biologist got a bunch of spines in the palm of his hand, and was in pain. When he couldn't pull them out with tweezers, he went to town to the emergency room of a hospital. The doctors looked at his hand and told him it was their experience that they wouldn't be able to remove the spines, that they would eventually work their way out.

Tired? Well, sitting down on grass will get you chiggers, small mites that bite to suck blood and cause major itches. And sitting on a log should be done cautiously because snakes of all sorts like to hide under logs. Most are not poisonous at all, but fer-de-lance are very dangerous. And using bare hands to pick through leaf litter to gather fruits or study fallen seeds can be dangerous because many snakes are well-camouflaged in leaves.

And if you intend to stand a long time under a Dipteryx tree, you'd better wear a hard-hat. The fruits dropped by monkeys 120 feet above fall with great velocity and can injure your head! And standing under a monkey troop to take a photo is not a good idea at all, because you are likely to be pooped-upon.

Or, you could be wearing a headlamp at night, and before you know it, some big moths fly into your face and keep flopping around, bumping against your nose. They have a flaky surface on their wings and the flakes fall off with every dive they take at your face. The flakes are like dust and make you sneeze and cough and get in your eyes and irritate them. Or maybe a giant cockroach is drawn to your headlamp and dives right into your face! Yuck!

It goes on and on, but we will end here with the mistake of putting gel or a fruity-smelling mousse in your hair. You are likely to be awakened from a sound sleep by a pain on your scalp or forehead. This would be a 3-inch-long bristly cockroach trying to chew all the gel from your hair!