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Listen Closely

May 29, 2022

Several years ago I moved to Chile from the United States. Before I went I took an intensive 9-week Spanish training course so that I would be able to communicate when I arrived. On the plane to Chile I remember feeling confident and excited about my language capabilities. By the end of my first day in the country, I was convinced that either the Chileans were not speaking Spanish or that they taught me the wrong language in my class, because I could not understand anything anybody said to me. Pretty soon I began to be able to pick out words here and there, over time I started to follow the general idea of conversations, and finally after several months I could understand and speak about complex and varied topics. I fell in love with the Spanish language. I was blown away by the idea that I could now connect with millions more people than before. One of the things I most enjoyed about learning a second language is that it taught me a whole new way of thinking about and understanding the world. 

When we made the decision to come work at Reserva las Tangaras, there was a new language we were surprised we had to learn: the language of the cloud forest. Just as learning Spanish opened up a hidden world to me linguistically, learning to understand the way the forest communicates opens up a fountain of information and connection. From birdsong to buzzing insects, and from the warning colors of a poisonous caterpillar to the beautiful advertisement of an orchid blossom, each organism has a message it wants to convey.

The form of communication we are probably most familiar with as humans is acoustic communication, since our languages fall under that category. Many animals rely on sound to carry their messages through the fog and foliage. The air here is constantly full of the sounds of birds, insects, and frogs. Most of these animals are sending sexual advertisements or establishing territory. One of the most interesting bird songs we have here is that of the Club-winged Manakin (Machaeropterus deliciosus). This bird is only found in a small range of cloud forests on the western slope of the Andes in Ecuador and Colombia. Instead of vocalizing like most songbirds, this bird rapidly flicks its wings together over its back, which makes a beeping sound due to a series of modified feathers that vibrate about 107 times per second. This way of generating sound is very similar to how crickets and grasshoppers make noise. They are the only birds in the world known to make a mating call in this manner. 

Reserva las Tangaras is home to two virtually identical species of toucan in appearance, The Yellow-throated Toucan (Ramphastos ambiguus) and the Choco Toucan (Ramphastos brevis). They are closely related and theoretically could interbreed and have viable offspring. However, these two species appear to have maintained distinct genetic lineages because they have very unique voices. While they forage and go about their daily routines, it is not uncommon to see these species mix, but when they call for a mate they only select other members of their own species.

Fireflies fill the bushes around the cabin with flashing lights at night. Most emit sequences of flashing yellow light. Others emit a constant orange light, which Liat? describes as looking like a flying cigarette butt. Each species has a unique flashing pattern to draw in other members of its own species. The females generally pick a prominent leaf in the  understory and sit and flash while the males fly around looking for the females. There are some predatory fireflies which mimic the flash pattern of other species, and when the males draw near expecting an interested female, they are then overpowered and devoured. 

Most animals in the cloud forest try to blend in and camouflage to avoid being eaten. Some species of invertebrates and frogs are highly toxic and are brightly colored as a warning sign to would-be predators. Poison dart frogs eat toxic ants and store the compounds in their own tissues. Bright red millipedes emit cyanide gas when provoked. Caterpillars with venomous spines come in every color imaginable. Lots of animals here are sending the message “You had better leave me alone.”

The cloud forest is filled with flowers of all shapes and sizes. There are roughly 4000 species of orchids in Ecuador alone! The different colors and fragrances emitted draw in different species of pollinators, each adapted to carry the pollen of different varieties of flowers. Long, red or orange flowers tend to be trying to attract hummingbirds. Bats tend to visit big white flowers. Bees pollinate flowers of all colors but are especially drawn to blues. Yellow flowers are most attractive to flies. There are even some flowers which emit putrid smells akin to rotting meat that draw in scavenging insects. 

This is just barely scratching the surface of the diverse and fascinating methods of communication exhibited by the cloud forests’s inhabitants. The longer we are here the more in tune we become to the messages of the forest, spoken and unspoken. As a species we are still not fluent in the languages of nature. We are at the point of merely understanding the general themes of its conversations. Continued scientific exploration and caring for the natural world will surely unveil new and exciting messages for us to learn from.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 29, 2022 1:44 pm

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful reflections and photos as you are more and more immersed in the biological wonderland of Reserva las Tangaras.


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