After the first night, I thought that the friaje was a nice vacation from the usual warm and buggy climate of the rainforest. After the second night, vacation ended and I was just patiently biding time until life returned to the jungle. After the third night, the friaje was no longer funny “haha” and more like funny “oh crap.” Now it is day 4 of this cold air onslaught and every minute is a fight for survival. The question of survival is not really for me per se, but definitely for every other unsheltered animal in the jungle.
On Tuesday night, 7/13, we were eating dinner when our friend Megan says, “you know guys I heard that there is going to be a friaje arriving on Sunday.”
I said, “this is funny because the last time someone forecasted a friaje it happened to be on a Tuesday night, and as it turned out, the friaje arrived about 30 minutes later. Sounds like déjà vu.”
At that moment a strong gust of wind blew through the dining hall, and we all looked at each other with a funny feeling inside. In 5 more minutes another strong gust of wind came through, and this time they didn’t stop. With each gust of wind the temperature dropped by a few degrees and soon there were no doubts in our mind. Once again the friaje had arrived way ahead of schedule.
A friaje is a common occurrence in the rainforest during the months of June and July. Caused by polar winds that enter the Amazon from southern mountain ranges, friajes consist of 3 or 4 days when the temperature drops to as low as 8 °C (46 °F) and are usually accompanied with buckets of rain. Though a meager 46 °F seems like nothing in comparison to the harsh winters of temperate zones, relatively speaking, a friaje is C-C-C-COLD and, arguably, much more threatening for organisms that are adapted to warmer climates.
When we woke up on Wednesday, the morning after the friaje landed, things had changed dramatically. For one, it had been raining cold and hard all night and now into the morning. This morning we did not wake up because of screaming oro pendulas or titi monkeys, but by the sound of our own teeth chattering. We had spent the entire night with only one thin blanket. As we walked to the dining hall the entire jungle was devoid of sound, save the heavy raindrops beating down to the forest floor. We broke out from underneath the canopy and suddenly the grass muffled the sound of the rain. It was quiet beyond belief for the most bio-diverse place in the world.
During times like these there is not much our field team can do. There is no point following troupes of monkeys, because they don’t want to move in the cold and wet jungle any more than we do. There is no sunlight and therefore no solar power to run our laptops. Most importantly, there is simply very little motivation to do anything other than try and keep warm. Bear in mind that there are no warm places on the field site – no fire, no closed rooms, no hot showers – and no matter how many layers you wear your 98.6 degrees of heat will escape little by little. In fact, the only safe thing to do is exactly what every other mammal in the jungle is trying to do, stay dry and share body heat.
So all of Wednesday the entire field team simply hung out, read a book, played board games, and caught up on calories missed during recent field sessions – everyone except one, that is. Chiky Basterd, being a lone saddleback, is in a less ideal predicament than ourselves. Though better off than the other neighboring saddlebacks groups who are freezing and starving, Chiky is a 300 gram monkey in 50 °F weather with no one to keep him warm. Since we can’t permit him to curl up under our sweatshirts like your average household pet, we keep ready loads of plastic water bottles filled with boiling water. Each time a bottle cools down, we wrap a new one in cloth and pop it into Chiky’s bed. Thanks to this system he is staying warm around the clock but even still he is not the chirpy, playful, voraciously hungry monkey that he usually is. Sometimes I’d like to offer Chiky a small gulp of warm rum, but then he’d have to go to alcohol rehab before being reintroduced to the wild.
On Thursday morning we woke up to more or less the exact same scenario – cold, wet, and lifeless jungle. We were slightly less enthused by the forced vacation but at least we had saved enough computer battery to watch two episodes of Planet Earth and Charlie Wilson’s War. Gearing up for another slow day, we arrived at the laboratory and discovered an unexpected surprise.
I said, “Mini there is bat clinging to the plastic bag that is covering all our bananas! It is right-side up. I’m touching it and it hardly moves.”
Mini came over to inspect the bat (Esturnira lilium), and we determined that the poor thing was struggling with hyperthermia. We ever so carefully maneuvered the 16-gram bat into a small bag and surrounded it with lots of warm water bottles. Far from the fierce creatures depicted on Halloween and in scary movies, bats are actually quite cute. They have adorable pug faces that put all those fancy dog breeds to shame, soft fur, and gorgeous wings. This particular fruit bat was so gentle and tame that after warming up on the hot water bottles he climbed into and up a researchers shirt before flying away.
After this initial excitement the day crawled onwards and didn’t pick up again until the evening. In the afternoon, we heard sounds of our monkey troupe nearby but we were to cold to do anything about it. This day was also our last day with our field assistant Holly, who was trying to entertain visits by her father and her boyfriend at the same time. Needless to say, they didn’t do much sight seeing and spent most of the day wrapped up in blankets with the rest of us. Darkness descended around 6pm and so began a night we’ll never forget.
Immediately following dinner I walked back into the laboratory and low and behold there are two more bats flying all over and especially underneath Chiky’s cage. I quickly grabbed our butterfly net and slowly approached them. The bats were flying in an erratic pattern and my first few swipes hit only air. I re-focused my sights on just one of the bats, and followed it everywhere. Eventually it rounded a corner and was gliding right at me. Holding the mosquito net from underneath, I swiped it upwards and felt the resistance of the bat but then it was gone. The other bat was still flying in the vicinity, so I readied myself once more, lifted the net, and suddenly realized that a bat was inside. The first bat must have been momentarily shocked but was now alive and struggling like crazy. Clutching the net tightly, I grabbed a glove, reached inside, and pulled out the bat. It was a different species of bat from the morning (Carollia perspicillata) and much more lively. We took a few pictures and released the little guy outside.
Five minutes later, and with a few more air swipes, I bagged the second bat that was flying around Chiky’s cage. It was the same species as what we had just caught, but much more calm. In fact, the bat hardly moved at all and instead shivered incessantly from the cold. At this moment a few insect researchers came over to see the bat and inspect it for parasites. By the time they finished collecting the parasites, the bat was practically motionless and breathing very faintly. A fellow researcher quickly thrust the bat into her sweatshirt to warm him up but it was too late. In ten more minutes the bat had died.
Feeling terribly sorry about what just happened we decided to leave all the other bats alone. They were obviously freezing cold and roosting in the laboratory for lack of any other dry place in the jungle. On top of this, there were scraps of banana lying around that they could eat. We started to clean up and transfer our best bananas into a safe place when we found a third specimen. This bat looked just like the one from the morning and it was buried deep in our banana bucket, seemingly unable to move. It appears that the bat had wiggled its way inside and then was too cold and weak to get out. Immediately, we pulled out the bat and put it once more into the sweatshirt of our friend Lina. Amazingly, this time the trick worked and we watched as the bat flew to safety only 30 minutes after finding it partially submerged in cold banana juice.
Upon this encounter with the 4 bats, 1 of which died and 2 that needed emergency care, it dawned on us just how threatening friajes are. Only the strongest and healthiest animals would survive 4 days of freezing rain without food. Old, young and sick animals are at severe risk of predation, starvation, disease, or hyperthermia.
Day 3 of the friaje we decided to go and find our FC saddleback group regardless of the weather. As expected, we awoke to the same cold and wet world of the past two days. Oddly enough, it appeared as though FC was as determined to come find us as we were to find them. No sooner did we start searching than FC showed up right outside the dining hall. We were incredibly happy to see that everyone was alive and seemingly well, albeit extremely cold and uncomfortable. Actually, far outside their typical behavior it appeared as though FC was searching for food in desperation and taking a great risk by coming so close to the dining hall. We followed them across the dining hall, around the laundry basin, and over to an anona tree directly outside our laboratory. The group had found a rotten anona fruit on the ground and everyone was eating from it. The site of this anona made me want to gag.
As they sat eating together it started to rain slightly and this caused considerable concern among the group. To my relief, they stopped eating the putrefied anona and climbed to the highest reaches of the tree. Why they chose to sit above the leaves and endure all the rain we do not know, yet there they sat huddled together for the better part of an hour.
Eventually the rain subsided and the first one to climb down was GPG. She descended all the way to the ground and darted across the grass toward our laboratory. Close behind her followed GBR, then RC, then Twin1 and finally Twin2. At this point we were all shocked and bewildered by this daring act, and then they systematically launched themselves up onto our plastic bucket that contained the old bat-eaten bananas from the previous night. The bucket was literally right outside our laboratory door, and had it been opened at that exact moment the group would have taken a tumble. We watched as the adults gorged from the top of the bucket while the twins dived deep inside, swimming in banana mush. At that moment, you can imagine all the thoughts running through our head…
“Should we allow them to eat this banana from a bucket right outside our lab? Would it be better if we interfere and make them find proper food in the jungle? What if this is there only meal in the past two days?”
…Ultimately, we decided not to interfere with their behavior, however, we did remove the banana bucket from future pillaging.
Having observed that everyone in FC was alive and healthy (and now well fed) we left them resting in a tree hollow that we could not see into. We returned to the dining hall and tried in vein to warm up. By the end of the night we were all so cold that we replaced having showers with a big communal bonfire. The fire led to warmth, the warmth led to happiness, the happiness led to booze, and the booze led to a deep sound sleep.
It is now the forth day of this friaje, and we are all starting to loose are marbles. Some of the station residents are sleeping all day, others are awake and restless, some attempt to do field work, but no one is getting what they want. We are all taking bets on who will resist cold showers the longest. The station personnel are all saying that this is one of the coldest friajes ever – it is 5 degrees Celcius they say! We went out once in the morning and once in the evening to check on our FC group and they are still absconding in that same impenetrable tree hollow. Supposedly the temperature should start climbing tomorrow but if it isn’t going to climb fast then we will have at least one more day of forced vacation.
I’m not so worried about us because we have lots more movies to watch, but this is a damn terrible time to be a saddleback. When this is all said and done, I think I’ll step back in a give a big bow to all the animals that are 500-grams or less and still managed to survive. Deep down, I don’t think that I could have done the same.