Into the Wild Woods


The first time you enter the jungle is a uniquely bizarre experience. At once you are surrounded by a wall of green; emanating from it is a multitude of aromas, colourful speckles and a cacophony of cries. You might as well be in downtown Marrakech, where stall upon stall of everything from intricate carpets to pickled olives stretch until the horizon.

You are not here to buy couscous, though, and keeping focus is important. Above you some of the tallest trees in the world stretch out their impressive emerald canopies. These giants are in an ongoing race to grow upwards as they seek the maximum amount of sunlight.

In the tropics, where dizzying humidity and heat are so intense, light is a surprisingly costly resource. Most species that inhabit the rainforest are up in the branches; everything from macaws to coatis can be found here, and even some plants (known as epiphytes) have learned to grow on trunks and branches so that they can be closer to the light.

If you were to climb one of these enormous trees (which is by no means an easy task) you could look inside a type of flower called a bromeliad and discover a whole world of its own. Rainwater fills the funnel at the centre of the plant and this becomes home for frogs wanting to spawn, spiders that hunt on mosquito larvae and, most incredibly, to crabs that somehow made it into the jungle. When there are not enough bromeliads to house everyone, some creatures can become unlikely neighbours and have to share, even if that means a salamander cohabiting with a scorpion!

Surprisingly, some of the biggest trees inside this forest rely on their smallest citizens. The mighty brazil nut has epiphytic orchids growing on its trunk that encourage the pollination of its own flowers. The petals of the orchid resemble a certain species of bee that is attracted from far and wide in its desire to mate. Disappointed that their potential partner is actually a photosynthesizing gimmick, the bees stop to drink nectar from the flowers of the nut tree and incidentally pollinate it.

Not only does the tree need assistance in fertilizing its seeds, it also requires help to free them once they fall on the ground. The latter is done by the agouti, a rodent that is happy to eat away the hard shell that imprisons each seed. None of these organisms can exist without the other and will perish if any one is disturbed.

Back on the forest floor, you find yourself in perpetual darkness. Still, the intricacies of nature abound, from insects that look like sticks to snakes that look like flowers.

A distinct voice breaks out from far away, making everything temporarily go quiet. Imagine standing close to a speaker in a rock concert where you can feel every bass chord as a vibration inside your body. This penetrating sound reverberates through the trees but the origin is nowhere to be seen, in fact it may be coming from kilometres away. One of the loudest mammals, the howler monkey, announces its presence…

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More than five thousand miles away, meanwhile, the struggles of daily life still apply. Cambridge students sit in their rooms, disconnected from the world and in deep concentration to reach that next deadline. Surrounded by our own version of a jungle, perhaps we do not care to look for the details. There are wild predators in our surroundings too; in autumn newts prepare for the long hibernation ahead by preying on a variety of insects and even going as far as cannibalism to sustain their diet.

Just as in the jungle, symbiotic partnerships also play a key role in our garden. A curious pairing exists between a fungus that relies on algae to provide it with nourishment, while also giving its guests a stable home. Look closely at the tiles in the College and you will see rings of many colours growing there – unbelievably some of these lichens can be hundreds of years old!

No matter how much you go into the jungle or into your own back garden, when you think you have seen it all, look deeper inside and every time you will discover a new world!