In an earlier blog post I discussed the fact that explorers and scientists are still making major new discoveries on our mysterious planet. If any still place holds many surprises it must be the Amazon. In 2009 I was staying in a lodge on the Rio Negro near Manaus, in the midst of the worst flooding that the Amazon had seen in sixty years. My wife and I took our two daughters down to the bank of the river. Swarms of small insects were attracted to the lights on the river bank. Fish would rise to the surface and surge up to catch the insects. And as we watched, a bat flew past and captured a fish, which hung twisting and flopping in its clutches. It happened so fast that I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. I think that I began my sentence, “that almost looked as if that bat just. . . ” But a minute later it happened again, and there was no question. There really are fish-eating bats in the Amazon. But now scientists have found something not only amazing but also unknown- at least to outsiders.
Scientists have recently identified a new species of tapir that lives at least in the Colombian and Brazilian region of Amazonia, and which may also be present in other Amazonian nations such as French Guyana. What strikes me is that this species is not only found over a broad area, but also that it’s large, as it usually weighs over 200 pounds. How could something this size be missed for so long? It’s been a 150 years since the last tapir species was found. Look at some pictures of Tapirus kabomani here. They travel in groups, which would seem to make it hard for them to hide. Of course, the tapir’s existence was no secret to the Paumiri people, or other indigenous inhabitants of the region, who hunt them regularly.
In 1990 I was traveling by steam ship up the Amazon. Some of my companions had told me that there were pink dolphins in the Amazon, but I had thought that they were pulling my leg. Then I saw a neon-pink dolphin cresting out of the waters. The dolphin was so close that I could study its color, and think how closely it resembled that of flamingos. In later years, I learned the folklore of the dolphin, which Amazonian peoples believe to be a shape-shifter, which comes out of the water at night in the form of an attractive man or woman. It generally appears at river-side parties, where it is always the best dancer, and tries to seduce people. In its male form, people said that it wore a hat over its head to hide its blow-hole. While these stories were amusing, the example of this new tapir species does make me wonder what else may be yet hiding in Amazonia, known only to the local peoples.
In my “Introduction to International Studies” class I have a lecture on the “Sixth Extinction,” which is the idea that the earth has passed through five major extinction events in the past. What is distinct about the current one is that it is caused by people. In my “Foundations of Global Theory” class, we read and discuss Dipesh Chakrabarty’s article, “Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change.” In this essay, Chakrabarty argues that the old division between natural history and human history is breaking down, as we enter a new geological era shaped by humanity, the anthropocene. My students were intrigued with the idea that in sufficient numbers people could become a geological force, and what that means for the theories we use to describe global affairs. Yet one of the challenges in teaching a class on Global Studies is to cover major global problems without the class becoming too bleak. I think that one way to do this is to remind people that the world still has much that is unknown, which is one of the reasons it is so important to preserve our last wildernesses.
On my last trip to the Amazon, my family went with me on a walk through the forest. I was worried that our youngest daughter -who kept finding and catching poison frogs- might put one in her mouth. I like to think that when she’s an adult, scientists will have found many equally surprising new species in the region. If you want to see another post about the Amazon, click here. And let’s hope for more discoveries in the Amazon and beyond. My fingers are still crossed for the future of the Eskimo curlew.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University