Investigating the Trees of Amazonia

Investigating the Trees of Amazonia

– Tree #83. I don’t know… – Other…
– This one?
– The other. – Cut.
[laughs] – So try to smell. – Oh, it smells spicy! – Yeah.
– Yeah. – Yeah, so the nutmeg family, mace. – It smells really good.
– Yeah, no, this is a good one. And it’s also in a group that people commonly call “chicken blood” because the latex is red on this one. So this is a group that’s super diverse. It’s sort of their version of oaks. – Oh, okay. So it’s one of the more common things to see around here? – Yeah, that family and this genus. You run into it a lot. – The chicken blood tree. – Yeah, you can see a little bit of the red latex showing up there. – When you’re locating these trees and they have all these different odors and things like that, is that just an indicative way to identify different species or does that tell you anything about the quality of the forest itself? – It’s just one of the characteristics you use to identify species. So most of the trees on this transect don’t smell like anything. We could cut and cut and try, and it would just smell sort of like wood, right? But there are a few, the ones that we’re showing you— —the ones that do give you a clue through your nose— —and those are a small proportion of the whole tree floor. And the other ones you have to use bark or roots or latex: the other things that we always look at. – So we were just using our smell skills to identify those. – Right, right.
– Cool. – Smells like a new car. If you had a key lime pie in a leather Porsche. That’s what this one smells like. Nigel, what do you think it smells like? – I’m gonna go with turpentine. – Corine, what’s the verdict? – I gotta make sure. – You gotta make sure? – Like carrots… dipped in turpentine. – Carrots dipped in turpentine. – That’s how you’re gonna get this family, the Burseraceae. – How would I have ever come to that conclusion? – You gotta work. You gotta train.
– Oh, wow. I don’t get the carrots, though. – Oh yeah. Totally.
– Really? Let me see. – Think about it. – So key lime pie in a Porsche wasn’t really close?
– No, but it’s perfect. That’s how you’re gonna remember it. You’re gonna come up to one of these and you’re gonna cut it, and you’re gonna be like, “Key lime pie. Porsche. Burseraceae.” – The key to becoming a great botanist. – Totally. You have to make up your own smell associations, because it’s totally gonna work. – That’s awesome.
– Yeah.
– Cool. – What’s incredible here is that we’re actually finding rocks. In the place just north of here, where the Matsés live, it turns out the Matsés don’t even have a word for rock in their language. So to be finding these little pebbles, these are probably sandstone or quartzite. And these are creating these really sandy, rocky, pebbly substrates. This tells us something about what these trees are growing on. It’s very nutrient poor soils. Even though it’s extremely nutrient poor, there’s still thousands of species that are making a living on this. Meanwhile, in the nutrient poor jungle – One of the interesting things in tropical forests on really poor soils is that it’s expensive for trees to make leaves and fruits and flowers. So unlike in the temperate zone— where you make a leaf for the season and then it does its job and it’s done— in the tropics, trees build leaves to last. So some leaves have been monitored: Same leaf, on the same tree, doing its job for decades. – Really?
– Yeah. One thing that leaves need to have in order to last a long time is defense against insects. So that one, it’s one strategy, right? – Yeah, it’s really thick. It’s like leather.
– Yeah, it’s like a credit card. Imagine trying to take a bit out of that one. Here’s another strategy that’s really neat: So these are young leaves. They’re gonna get this big, but they’re just emerging now. And right when they emerge, there’s this blob of resin right there. So as they emerge, they get coated with this resin. And feel that. – Ooh.
– Isn’t that neat? – That’s strange, yeah. It’s like it’s been crystallized in honey or something. – Yeah, it’s like it’s covered with bug spray. So they’re really young. If they didn’t have that, they’d be super delicate and soft and perfect for… – And tasty?
– Uh huh. – That’s… insane. Wow, it looks plastic. Like, it doesn’t even look like a real leaf. – (Tom) Okey-dokey. – Ready?
– (Tom) Mhmm. – Alright, Nigel. What are we doing with these poles? – When things are too tall to cut with the clippers, or to climb a little bit and grab a branch, we put these extendable tubes together and they get us to maybe 8 meters. – Wow. – So we have this cutting mechanism up here. Same thing as tree pruners you use in the States. – Wow. – Are you going for that branch?
– Yeah. – Woah. Woah! Heyyy, I saved you, Tom. Well that’s your branch. So what is this tree? – So, hmm. – He’s the plant whisperer. – So they’re alternate. The leaflets are opposite, but the leaves are alternate. So that narrows us down to… maybe 10 families. This one… I don’t know. – You don’t know what it is?
– I’m not sure what it is. I think it’s a Sapindaceae. We’ve been getting a lot of weird stuff. And we’re wondering how to say that in the report. “We found lots of weird stuff!” – Yeah! That’s the scientific conclusion that you came to. – I guess any forest you go to that’s incredibly diverse, you find lots of these unusual species that are really rare. – It’s so incredible to me how you can have so many different species, like such an incredible, wide variety, that are all existing in the same area. It just seems like there’d be too much competition. – Right, so that’s one of the big mysteries that gets a lot of people interested in tropical ecology in the first place. – Why isn’t there a winner? These guys who are better at being Amazonian trees, how come they don’t take up 50% of the forest and knock off the species that aren’t so good at being trees? So there are lots and lots of ideas about that, but we’re not really sure what the answer is. – Wow.

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100 thoughts on “Investigating the Trees of Amazonia

  1. I think there are so much diversity because each of them can contribute chemical, nutrition, protection, and other things that allow the ecosystem to function healthily. 

  2. No, dear friends, chopping off some bark at the base of the tree will NOT kill the tree. You would need to "girdle" the tree, or completely remove an entire ring of bark around it to kill the tree.

    However, what they are doing does harm the tree, and I am sure Brain Scoop would not endorse unnecessarily hacking away at your neighborhood trees to smell them, but rest assured that what these scientists are doing will not kill those trees.

  3. I really enjoyed this episode. Beautiful shots of the forest, lots of info presented in an enjoyable way, and you gotta love tree sniffing. i kind of want to try it now, but I should probably do some research before I go chipping and sniffing away.  Awesome job Emily and Tom!

  4. Thanks Emily and crew, I really enjoyed this episode. I love seeing more stuff about plants (I'm a plant science student) and seeing a (I assume, with the name and the orange ING shirt) Dutch woman being with you to explain stuff was inspiring for me as well!

  5. I would love to see a video about the organization of an expedition like this. Who picks what scientists come along? How do they plan an itinerary so that everybody gets to cover the things they are researching? What happens to the various reports made about things?

    The supply planning must be a nightmare.

  6. I could believe that Nigel is a plant whisperer. Just listen to his voice, it's quiet and relaxed like the forest itself. I'm not entirely convinced that he isn't actually a tree.

  7. I was wondering why you were getting so much sunlight at ground level in a rainforest – so it is a low nutrient zone? That´s the first thing I learned today 🙂

  8. Maybe a reason for such a high diversity there: There are almost no exclusion factors. Stuff like frost or high differences in temperatures that you get almost everywhere, are almost not present there. This allows even badly adapted species to survive. 

  9. i am sort of in love with the idea that there are trees that are better at being trees than other trees. is there professional jealousy among trees? this just opens up a whole new lens into ent society.

  10. I really like these amazon videos, it makes the amazon feel like a mysterious wonderland of nature and more like what it actually is, a cool place that is similar yet different to other forests.

  11. For those concerned about potential damage to the trees, here's a note from Nigel: 

    "We do worry about [the damage of scratching the tree], and none of us like cutting into trees. We do it because it provides so much information, and because studies suggest it doesn’t increase mortality. For example, here’s a study done on a Peruvian tree inventory:

    Phillips, O. L., P. Núñez V., and M. E. Timana. 1998. Tree mortality and collecting botanical vouchers in tropical forests. Biotropica 30(2): 298-305. Available online at

    The abstract says: “There was no detectable difference between the mortality rate of collected trees (1.96%) and noncollected trees (2.29%).”

    Data like those are a reminder that most of the impacts researchers have on tropical forests are a drop in the bucket of natural disturbances that trees face every day, e.g., windstorms, large peccary herds, troops of hungry primates, dead branch fall, liana overload, etc. Whether or not we’re out there studying trees there is a ton of scratching, breaking, and trampling going on in healthy forests…." 


  12. I've always loved plants so this particular episode really speaks to me. Skinning wolves and all are cool, but just look at all that green. It's beautiful. 

  13. When I was in the Peruvian rainforest, our guide showed us a tree that smelled intensely of garlic, though I can't remember what it was called. Did you see/smell those and do you know their name?

  14. Emily & crew: you're making huge improvements in the quality of your videos and teaching resources. It's a real pleasure to watch such good results from all the efforts and soul you put everyday.
    Smell the trees might be one of the most primitive (and reliable) techniques to identify plants. From the point of view of the evolution of us as a species, to differentiate plants and fruits was crucial to the survival of our hominid and human ancestors. I'm pretty sure that the "fine tuning" of this classification was made by smell and taste, being both senses deeply related.

  15. The Amazonian content of the video was, of course, fascinating and wonderful as always, but I have to say that I really enjoy the selected pieces of music of Brain Scoop videos. It's absolutely splendid to see good classical music incorporated into this kind of scientific education/entertainment in such a perfectly natural way.

  16. Hey Emily,
    Considering it's the season I think it might be neat to see a holiday themed segment. With how prominently the stable was featured in the nativity story, it would be neat to see how livestock and domestic animals from 1 A.D. differ from their modern counterparts.  Does the field museum have anything like that squirreled away?


  17. Tree hugging was yesterday. Now we smell 'em! 🙂
    Seriously, this may just be the most beautiful rainforest video I've ever seen. The clarity and the colors are incredible. It's pulling me in. Just achingly gorgeous. More, please!

  18. Great video!!! Amazing that you cannot take a picture of a tree trunk without having lichens or bryophytes on it! And those who worry about the little scratches to the trees, these are not really harmful as the trees recover easily from these. This is for instance how rubber trees are continuously harvested. Those little cuts help to get information about a piece of forest that subsequently can be proposed for conservation. Compare to that the approximately 5,000 square kilometers of Amazon forest that are cut down every year! Science has to be hands-on, and is a little destructive by nature, but that is a small price to pay considering the results. These Rapid Inventories have led to the protection of 130,000 square kilometers of tropical forest.

  19. That's one thing I could never do. I'm highly allergic to latex, so I imagine that sniffing trees which produce it would be hazardous to my health.

  20. I thought that biodiversity would reduce competition? There probably isn't enough space for a lot of species of the same size and shape to thrive in such a nutrient-poor place. Having lots of different kinds of species with different structures and different nutrient and water needs and defense strategies etc would mean every niche is filled, wouldn't it? Versus having a few really competitive species that are "the best at being rainforest trees." And wouldn't the different kinds of species and sizes and so on also mean there might be some nice symbiotic sharing of resources going on? Am I missing something? This was a great video. Very cool!

  21. I really enjoyed this episode. I think it gave a good sense of what it is like to do botanical research in a tropical forest. I spent a summer in Panama when I was a graduate student doing research in a tropical rain forest studying the potential adaptive advantage of drip tips. The one thing that I experienced that I did not see in your report were the clouds of mosquitoes that followed after me. Keep up the good work.

  22. Aw, nuu, my trees are wounded! Someone needs to come up with a tree bandage for this!

    Also, I would love for you to come visit Costa Rica, specially if you can get access to Isla del Coco, which not many can get on to. If not, Corcovado is an amazing place (considering Bear Grylls had to be rescued from it).

  23. I love these videos, a real chance to experience the excitement and adventure of discovering the natural world! Thanks for bringing me along with you!

  24. I guess one answer of the last question is that nature doesn't compete with itself but help/cohabit with itself, most of the action isn't above ground but underground where miselium/baterias/biomes feed the plants, example : legume plants fix nitragen in the soil and other plant can use it when this one dies, or plants with long tap roots that pump deep minerals and release them when they die.

  25. I miss the animal dissections you used to do. Dont get me wrong this is cool but learning about the anatomy of various species (like hose nose) got me hooked on the show. 

  26. PLEASE can someone  tell me the name of the song at 6:00?  I've been trying to find it literally for the majority of my life, danced to it in ballet class in the single digits, I've heard it once or twice since but never in a way that would let me figure out the name…

  27. there are these wonderful evergreen trees in the interior of the pacific northwet where the bark smells like vanilla :3

  28. I like the clarity of the video (which camera?) and of course being fed some delicious knowledge! Thanks so much, channels like this are IMHO the gems on youtube…

  29. Your hair! I finally remember what it reminds me of, the style done by the Vestal virgins! Though theirs was far more complicated with three tails and ropes and things. Yours is cool to.

  30. If you would be interested in seeing an alternative method of accessing the canopy for research, please do get in touch. I use a method less destructive to the canopy (although I admit the level of destruction caused here is minor) by climbing up using ropes. Once up there it becomes a lot easier to representatively sample epiphyte species as there is no bias caused by viewing from a low angle.

  31. Nigel is cute. also, the tree he wasn't sure where he cut it down with the extendable poles, did it actually end up being that specific type of tree, and why was it strange for that forest?

  32. even though I know it's not a big deal I couldn't help cringe whenever they were hacking into the tree like ahhh lol

  33. hello I love the series, I don't know much about trees but is it possible that each tree using different nutrients from the floor and that's why that we have so many diversity, I mean every tree is eating different things

  34. It's crazy to think a place that looks so full of life has barely enough food in the soil for it to grow.
    You would think it was the most nutrient dense place in the world

  35. Oh my gosh what is the name of the peice in the background in the beginning?? I recognize it but can't think of its name!

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