Yes, Dallas native Elizabeth Hoover saw the lethal black caiman crocodile, though only from a distance. No, there were no piranha attacks.
Yes, there were a few anacondas, though of the captured variety. But her biggest fear while doing research with a team of King’s College students in the Amazon was ants.
“We had to read a book about the rain forest before we went, and one of the things they talked about was bullet ants,” the biology junior said.
The ants have a painful, paralyzing bite that can cause hallucinations, with the effects lasting up to 24 hours. “I was more afraid of ants than of caimans or jaguars.”
Hoover and seven other students flew first to Texas, then to Peru. After that it’s “about a one-hour van ride, then a five-hour boat ride” to the Los Amigos Biological Station, King’s biology chair Garrett Barr said.
“The boats they use down there are really big canoes that are made in the jungle, with a motor in the back,” Barr said. “It’s sort of a slowish ride, it gets us to a pretty remote place.”
Caimans could be spotted with binoculars.
A Discovery TV crew happened to be in the area trapping anacondas. Some fresh jaguar droppings were discovered once, and Hoover recounted a startling encounter with monkeys.
“Going into it I was kind of freaked out by monkeys,” she said with a laugh.
Outside a dorm where the students stayed was tree full of monkeys. “We stood right under them and could watch them eat, go after each other, and they were completely unbothered by us. I’m not afraid of monkeys now,” she chuckled.
The wide range of potential threats required some precautions, Barr said, mainly traveling in groups and sticking to well-marked trails. But bio-diversity was the reason they were there.
“They are all biology and environmental studies majors,” Barr said. “They get seven nights and six days, so for the first couple of days we do what I call show and tell walks.” They hike through different areas to familiarize themselves with the place.
Students then draw up simple hypotheses that can be tested in the next several days. With all the varieties of plants, vines, trees and bugs interacting in unusual ways, it’s not hard to come up with something to research.
It wasn’t all work. Barr said he tries to incorporate visits to historic sites, most notably the landmark Incan city of Machu Picchu on an Andean hilltop at an altitude of 7,000.
“That was amazing,” Hoover said, particularly since the visit came after a week in the lowland rain forest. “It was completely inspiring and breathtaking.”
After all that, was she glad to get back home?
“Part of me was happy to be home and to take a hot shower and see my family and friends,” Hoover said.
But South America had powerful allure. “I could see myself spending more time there.”