Ever since I was a child, my imagination has populated dark places with threatening creatures and monsters. Of course, most of the time the creatures in the dark only existed in my imagination. In the jungles of Ecuador, however, a vast menagerie of creatures really do exist beyond the meager light of my headlamp, and my imagination is not powerful enough to comprehend how diverse and macabre they all are.
It is about seven o’clock at night, and the other LC students and I are searching for live specimens of frogs, lizards, beetles and arachnids to capture, study and then release back into the wild. Our biology professor, Ernesto Arbeláez, is particularly eager to document the jungle’s frog population, because new species of frog are discovered so frequently in Ecuador that some of them don’t even have scientific names yet.
I poke through the foliage, searching in vain for at least one amphibian to bring back to the research station. The frogs we’re after are hard to find, tucked away like tiny croutons in the tossed salad of green plants and rotting leaves that make up the jungle floor. Insects, however, are in abundance. The distinctive, high pitched whine of a mosquito’s wings makes me glad for my thick head net, and moths and other flying pests occasionally dive towards the light given off by my headlamp.
The Ecuadorian jungle is a brutal place, and nowhere is that brutality more apparent than in the insect world. On one of our hikes, I had encountered the disembodied head and legs of a dead rhinoceros beetle that were still kicking and writhing. The poor beetle’s torso had been torn off, but the neurons in its severed head were still firing and fighting to protect a life that had long since been lost.
I try to keep that image out of my head as my group and I march through the undergrowth. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a deep hole underneath a tree that probably hides a lizard or a toad. Well, I think to myself, this seems like a pretty good place to find a—
— The tarantula sees me well before I see him. He’s outside of his hole, and his beady eyes shine white in the reflection of my headlamp. I tell my group that there’s a tarantula nearby, not masking my fear as well as I had hoped. The hairy arachnid scurries back into its den before any of us can try to capture it (and to be fair, we weren’t exactly eager to try). A few days later, however, Ernesto successfully captures another specimen, this one even larger than the last. One of our guides holds it upside down in its hand, giving us a good look at its long fangs, already dripping with venom.
Ernesto eagerly informs us that this tarantula is only a small specimen.
“This is a male,” he says, “The females are 30 to 40 percent bigger.” Considering that this “small” male is about the size of my hand, I’m glad we didn’t encounter any of his sisters.
“They eat mice, they eat snakes, they eat young fer-de-lances,” Ernesto adds. Fer-de-lances are some of the most venomous snakes in the Amazon, but this tarantula eats their babies for breakfast.
Our group finds a few frogs — my friend Charlotte Hurst has the most success after Ernesto — but the arachnids are inescapable. They exist in countless variations: hairy ones that look frightening but are mostly harmless, ancient ones that retain their ancestral crab claws, and tiny ones that create communal webs that I have to take care not to walk into.
“We’re in el reino de las arañas,” Ernesto tells us later. “The kingdom of spiders.”