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A Journey to the Edge of the Amazon

Dressed for the jungle: Rex Cocroft. left, and his chief collaborator in the Ecuador research project, Dr. Chung Ping Lin, an assistant professor at Tunghai University in Taiwan.
Flawn Williams, NPR
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Dressed for the jungle: Rex Cocroft. left, and his chief collaborator in the Ecuador research project, Dr. Chung Ping Lin, an assistant professor at Tunghai University in Taiwan.

The jungle and rain forest surrounding the Tiputini Biodiversity Station is still incredibly wild, even by the standards of the Amazon. And now there are tantalizing hints that it may be more complex than humans have ever imagined.

The eco-research site is run by the University of San Francisco in Quito in eastern Ecuador. At the northwestern edge of the Amazon, the site is far removed from any city and accessible only by boat — a long, eye-opening ride down the Napo and Tiputini rivers.

The trees in this part of the Amazon have most likely never been harvested by man. No one has hunted in the area in living memory. There are jaguars here — a lot of them, encircled by a world where their species is endangered. There are bands of wild monkeys, forest deer, tapirs and spectacular birds.

Surrounded by this incredible biodiversity, Rex Cocroft — a researcher at the University of Missouri-Columbia — is focused on a thorn-like insect so small and usually so well-camouflaged that the bugs often go ignored.

Cocroft studies treehoppers, a diverse group of plant-feeding insects that spend their brief lives (a few months) living on plant stems. But as Cocroft has discovered, these are anything but simple bugs. They use sound to communicate with one another.

Using a fairly crude device — a hairclip attached to a phonograph cartridge, with a wire leading to a recorder — Cocroft has captured the vibrating signals between treehoppers that may indicate some kind of social behavior.

"One of the functions of this communication would be a kind of group decision-making process," Cocroft says.

Cocroft is interested in the evolution of social communication, and he thinks the simple treehopper is far more social than previously believed — in fact, he believes the insects are "talking" to each other most of the time.

The idea of "social insects" immediately puts the jungle in a completely new light — there may be conversations and interactions that science has been oblivious to, until now.

"Once we [have] the ability to tap into the vibrational soundscape within these plants, the next time you walk through you're going to be quite frustrated," Cocroft says. "You're always going to want to carry a phono-cartridge, and an amplifier, and a set of headphones... because you're missing 99 percent of the communication that's going on."

Rex Cocroft's research is supported by National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, which in more than a century has provided nearly 8,000 research grants worldwide. The committee funds everything from primate research to Mayan archaeology to assessing the biological diversity of the deep ocean. The field recording engineer for this series of stories was NPR's Flawn Williams, and the series was produced by Carolyn Jensen.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.
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