Archive | August 29, 2012

Danger, in black and white

Nothing spells danger better than the pattern on this caterpillar. This larva of a hawk moth Pseudosphinx tetrio from Guyana feeds on toxic plants of the family Apocynceae, and its body is loaded with toxic alkaloids. [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 180mm, speedlight Canon 580EX]

Many  years ago I read a book by Raymond Maufrais, a colorful French character, whose writing about South American exploits remains virtually unknown outside of France (and, for some reason, Poland.) The book, “Aventures en Guyane”, was published posthumously, and was based on his diary found in a remote village in the interior of French Guiana, close to the Brazilian border, where he mysteriously disappeared in early 1950 during his quest to find a mythical tribe of tall, blond Amerindians that were rumored to live there. It is a fascinating read, if not for reasons other than to marvel at his complete and utter lack of preparation, augmented by a deep dislike of the tropics. He also appeared to be bipolar, or at least deeply depressive. Clearly, not the best combination of traits to embark on a solitary trek across unexplored forests of South America.

In general, don’t eat anything that wants to be seen, like these caterpillars of a geometrid moth from Ghana. They feed on toxic lichens, and consequently their body is equally inedible to us. [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 180mm, speedlight Canon 580EX]

Sure enough, he quickly finds himself so hungry that he first eats a mummified monkey head that he carried as a talisman (he describes it as crawling with maggots, which probably were the most nutritious part of the meal), then the leather straps of his backpack, and finally he shoots and eats his only companion, a dog named Bobby. (This last detail still makes me cringe.) Eventually, on the verge of starvation, he comes up with a brilliant idea to abandon his rifle and, rather than hack his way through the forest, he decides to swim 44 miles (!) to the nearest village with nothing but a knife. This, of course, was the last entry in his journal, and he was never seen again.

Even as child who had never been to a tropical rainforest I found it puzzling and counterintuitive that anybody could starve in the richest terrestrial ecosystem on Earth. And now, after having spent many months in Neotropical forests, I am even more amazed. Sure, big mammals and birds, which Maufrais clearly counted on being his main source of food, are scarce and usually seen only as fleeting shadows in the canopy. But these forests are bursting with edible animals, as long as you know how to tell them apart from those that will kill you if consumed.

And so, for future reference, remember a simple rule of thumb: if something is pretty then it is probably toxic. Bright, gaudy colors, and contrasting patterns, especially if combined with slow movements, usually spell trouble. If you ever find yourself lost somewhere in a remote wilderness, be it the Brazilian rainforest or Siberian taiga, and you are so hungry that you are ready to chew the straps of your backpack, always go first for the least appealing of creatures: earthworms, grubs, cryptically colored grasshoppers and praying mantids, green caterpillars (without any spines or hairs), geckos, or centipedes (but avoid millipedes; it is a good idea to learn the difference.) Stay away from anything that tries to be seen or smells funny (especially if the smell seems nice; this usually indicates some pretty awful-tasting quinones and other toxins.) Eat the ugly stuff, and you are more likely to survive.

I have never been lost for days without food in a remote place, and hope I will never find myself in a similar quagmire. But if I do I am pretty sure that I will try other things first before eating my leather shoes or my dog.

I have no idea if this flatworm Bipalium rauchi from Cambodia is toxic, but I am not going to test it (in laboratory trials terrestrial flatworms were rejected as prey by salamanders, and even a casual contact with flatworms caused adverse reactions in these amphibians.) [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon MP-E 65mm, 2 speedlights Canon 580EX]

These termites may not look appealing, but they are perfectly safe to eat, even when alive. They are not particularly tasty (believe me, I tried), but remarkably nutritious and easy to find in almost any tropical habitat. But learn how to distinguish them from ants, which don’t make a very good meal. [Canon 7D, Canon MP-E 65mm, Canon MT-24EX twin light]