Published: December 10, 2018

What It's Like to Live in the Jungle for a Month

Lesley de Souza, Lead Conservation Ecologist, Keller Science Action Center


Sipping fresh cocoa, sleeping in a hammock, and a visit from an’s all part of life in the field.

A wooden building with pointed thatched roof at nighttime. The warm, orange glow of candlelight is visible inside the building, through its wide-open front doors. There are palm trees behind the building.

Life in the field is full of surprises, but we also develop routines at camp just as we would at home. The places we stay range from small communities where local people have welcomed us into malocas—central gathering spaces for the community—to rainforest miles away from the nearest town. When we’re extremely remote, we navigate in the jungle by creating trail systems and using a GPS. One of our recent sites was right at the equator, giving us the coolest coordinates ever (all zeros for north and south)!  

A group of people in a narrow, wooden boat on a wide river with trees lining both sides. The sun is very bright in the upper left corner.

Álvaro del Campo

A team of Field Museum scientists—experts on fish, plants, amphibians, mammals, and more—traveled to Colombia to join regional and national scientists for a month, with the goal of going deep into the rainforest and documenting as much wildlife as possible. We’ve done several trips like this, called rapid inventories, in the Amazon basin, but this one felt especially important. We were exploring an area that no scientists had entered for over sixty years, as the Colombian government and guerrillas were locked in war.

Now that they’ve signed a peace agreement, we’re able to venture into this region, but it is also exposed to threats. Deforestation is moving into this area at an alarming rate. With a focused mission, we explore the beautiful landscape and its many diverse critters while working and learning from the people who live there.

But getting into the rainforest—it’s no easy feat! After taking a commercial airliner from Chicago, we make our way into the jungle by bush plane, upriver by boat, and lastly, our own two feet. To get to one campsite, we hiked for a mile in a flooded creek, balancing on floating logs.

Jorge Enrique García Melo

Lesley de Souza

Each campsite is a little different, but it’s always important to set up a kitchen and dining area! Typical meals include fish, rice, beans, plantains, and oatmeal—repeat, repeat, repeat. A definite bonus of fieldwork life? Brewing fresh hot chocolate from local cacao in the jungle. Plus, lots of coffee keeps us going for long days (and late nights) of collecting and recording data.

It’s so cool to be in the field with other women scientists—local, national, and international! Here I am with Colombian geologist Jennifer Angel (left) and Field herpetologist Michelle Thompson (right).

A covered hammock, or my home for a month in the field.

Lesley de Souza

You realize what a force nature is—especially during rainy season in the Amazon. That’s why I prefer sleeping off the ground in a hammock. At one particular site, I woke up with water below me. The river had risen so much that it flooded the forest. But I also love the breeze being suspended in the air. I’m convinced you sleep better with the swaying...

Of course, we’re here to work. That means finding, measuring, photographing, identifying, and in some cases, collecting specimens. I focus on Neotropical fish species, and I learn A LOT from talking to local people about fishes. It is an important part of their diet and the economy. Because they’re fishermen themselves, they have firsthand knowledge of things like fish behavior, where and when to find them, and how to catch them. It’s such important information when trying to understand the landscape, people, and fishes for conservation.

At the end of each day, we have seen, collected and photographed so many specimens. But there is still more work to do at night—which means working by candlelight or putting on our headlamps. Some groups stay up until one in the morning, like the botany team pressing plants. The reptile & amphibian and fish teams go out for their night survey, and the mammal team sets up mist nets to catch bats! It’s activity around the clock for a rapid inventory team.

At the end of the day, we may be exhausted, but it really is a privilege to set foot in these natural areas and learn from the local people and scientists. On this trip alone, we documented 750 species of plants and 686 species of vertebrates! And we estimate there are more than double these numbers in the area. The more we know about what lives in rich natural areas like the Amazon rainforest, the easier it is for us to work together to protect the landscapes where they live and the people who depend on them.

Lesley de Souza
Lead Conservation Ecologist, Keller Science Action Center

Lesley is a conservationist with a special interest in Neotropical fishes. Her research focuses on understanding fish diversity in the Amazon basin and utilizing this scientific research for community-based conservation efforts.