Here Comes the Sun
We are an intrinsically heat-loving species. This is far from unusual for primates in general, although there are a few exceptions. For the most part, we are a hairy, arboreal, fruit-loving lot and we just don’t do so well in the cold. In Asia, however, exist a few incredible examples of primates that survive the cold without any of the complexities we have invented to live in uninhabitable places.
Well known are the Japanese macaques, or Macaca fuscata, that make it through the year by congregating around the hot water springs of (northern?) Japan. In China and Vietnam, however, live the snub-nosed monkeys of the genus Rhinopithecus that do it even without the hot water. Their adaptations to the cold are intensively studied as evidence for our deep-rooted respect for those that survive the cold.
In the rainforest, however, evolution has assisted in developing traits in primates that allow them to climb the tallest trees, and scramble out on limbs to pick the choicest fruit or insects but it has left them sorely tested when temperatures drop. One has only to live nearer to the hundreds of other species we share the planet with to realise that there could be no divine design involved in the creation of life, and definitely no kind designer.
While it is easy to write off friajes, or the cold-fronts that drop in from the Andes, as by-products of climate change, the reality is a little more complex. These winds have been a regular feature of the winter months of May through July and the animals are no strangers to the occasional cold. Having experienced four friajes this winter, with another on it’s way, I can attest to the particular harshness of the last cold-front. Temperatures dropped further than they have in over eight years, and while the humans huddled together on couches under blankets, layers of clothing and hot water bottles, the remaining wildlife was struggling to survive.
During the friaje, we noticed behavioural changes in pretty much all the animals we commonly see. There were almost no insects to be found anywhere, to Chiky’s acute dismay. Our focal group spent days in the same burrow, waiting it out. When they surfaced to scavenge a few rotting fruits they huddled close, their instincts telling them that their body heat was precious. Birds began to behave most strangely. The tall Pourouma cecropifolia, with it’s delicious fruit and 15 or so oropendola nests, usually the heady meeting place for dozens of energetic oropendolas, fell acutely silent. We stared up at them and discerned not a single movement from within the pendulous nests. At the end of the friaje, when the local brown capuchun group came through camp and raided the nests for eggs, a solitary oropendola watched silently from a neighbouring tree and then, noiselessly left its young to face their certain deaths.
On the boardwalks around camp you could spot small birds, their heads tucked under their wings, feathers ruffled in vain against the cold, asleep from fatigue. I walked right up to one and it stayed quite still. After a few minutes, during which I debated bringing it in for a bit of warmth, it lifted its head and gave me a blank stare before mustering the strength to fly a few feet more on the boardwalk. Under normal circumstances I’d have worried about it being easy bait but the skies were empty of all the bigger falcons and vultures. No one was moving. No one had the energy left to eat.
We broke all the rules and rescued everything we could. Alison brought in a really tiny lizard and placed him next to a hot cup of tea till he revived himself enough to run off. But to what end? Falling asleep a few feet away unable to control its temperature? We tried to save some of the bats and they did their best to roost in empty cupboards and under desks in the laboratory. We gave up trying to prevent them eating our fruit and just left it out. We rescued Chiky from getting into fights with the bats over pieces of banana left out for him and took him to bed with us every single night. But we couldn’t be everywhere at once.
As dawn rose on the sixth day of the friaje, we felt a small shift in the steadily decreasing temperature. It remained steady for a few hours and then blissfully, the sun came out. People peered wonderingly up at the sky, disbelief clouding their faces. We risked standing outdoors with our sweaters off, just to feel the warmth of the sun on our dry skins. The monkeys ventured a little further that day and even found a couple of fruiting trees to raid. Still, they were eating a fraction of their normal dietary intake.
The team decided to go out and get back to work. They split up, one group focusing on the saddlebacks and the other going to get feeding ecology data. Around 2 pm, the researchers who put in long-hours and eat late lunches began to traipse back into camp. And with them they brought one startling find – a young toucan in perfect condition, quite dead from the cold.
We gathered around the bird, as it lay unmoving on the ground by the comedor. I don’t think I’d seen anything quite so beautiful. Its fur was soft, with down still evident under its feathers. Its oversized beak, blue and yellow, lay clenched shut. Its iridescent blue feet sparkled against the grass. An acute sadness came over me, at a life so quickly extinguished. If only it could have held on for one more day, the sun would have set it free once more.
My despondency over the death of the toucan was soon overshadowed by reports brought back by other researchers of the animals they found dead on the trails.
“Incredible!” I thought to myself, “but it can’t be true. They must have all seen the same birds, by taking the same trails and different times.”
I was sadly mistaken. Three dead birds on one trail, two on another, three eaten by Oso, the short-eared dog that lives on site, the reports poured in. Some researchers brought the animals back for identification. We heard from the field station up river that they had even seen a monkey dead on the trail.
I walked some of the trails to recover a few birds before the heat revived the usual scavengers, ants and butterflies, and saw small animals defeated by the cold everywhere. The finds kept rolling in for two more days. In the back of my mind I couldn’t get rid of the surreal feeling that this was so wrong for the rainforest. With its perfect system for reducing all waste or dead matter to mere molecules in the matter of a few hours, finding a dead animal that is recognisable is next to impossible. And yet, here were animals that had been dead for days, perfectly preserved by the cold.
Yesterday, we climbed out of bed to see the first warm day in almost a week. Breakfast was accompanied by warm oatmeal, kindly provided by the cook who managed to keep all our food as hot as possible until it was served. The sky was remarkably clear, and the dull gray cloud cover had magically disappeared. We were eating and laughing, our spirits raised when we heard a loud call from Gideon. Running outside, we saw him frantically gesturing towards the lookout, a big smile on his face.
Holding my breath I sped towards the edge of the embankment, overlooking the lazy Madre de Dios River, a chocolate serpent in a sea of green. And above the canopy, was a sight I’d waited three years to see, a sight that was only visible a few days each year. Beyond the river, startlingly close to us, towered the magnificent Andean mountain range. Impossibly high, snow-packed peaks glistened in the sharp sunlight of the morning. As I gazed around me I realised that the entire range was visible, the clouds resting well below the mountaintops, all along the horizon as far as the eye could see.
A squirrel cuckoo preened itself on the top of a bush of canary yellow flowers that had bloomed overnight. The white-throated jacamars swooped towards their favourite perches. A group of noisy chachalacas left the top of the nearest cabin and dove out of sight over the embankment. In the distance, for the first time in a week, the titi monkeys sang duets to each other, for the sheer joy of being alive.
I sighed a happy primate sigh to myself. All was well in the world once more.