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View the documentA suggested nature trail guide for Guatopo national park, Venezuela
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A suggested nature trail guide for Guatopo national park, Venezuela

Welcome to Guatopo National Park. Soon you will find and be introduced to some of the beauties of the forest and discover the parts they play in the rain forest community.

Your discoveries along the 700 meter trail will be aided by this guide. The numbers on the stakes along the trail correspond to the numbers in the leaflet. The trail will return you to this place in about 40 minutes.

So that your experience on the trail will be as pleasant and interesting as possible - for you and those who follow - please observe the following regulations:

1. Stay on the established trails.
2. Use the proper receptacles for garbage.
3. Do not disturb, molest, kill or remove any plant or animal. All plant and animal life is protected by law.

1. These trees represent a whole community of plants. They are involved in a struggle for survival. Many different kinds of trees evolved in the competition for minerals, water, sunlight and space. How many do you see?

How is the Matapalo making a place for itself? Note its white, trunk-like roots to the left and look up to see how it is growing over and strangling the Puin tree.

Air plants sit on the trunks and branches of trees. They collect nourishment that falls from the air, and so they are not parasites. How does the shape of their leaves help them catch water and falling debris like dead leaves and insects? Who might visit their water pools? Insects? Tree frogs? Hummingbirds? and who else?

What other plants are growing on the trunk of the Puin tree?

2. The stream creates an opening that breaks the dense vegetative cover of the forest, allowing the sunlight to penetrate, Sun-loving plants found here may be different from the shade-tolerant species in the forest. Why?

Do you see the skirt of vegetation that seems to flow from the treetops to the ground, covering the edge of the wood? Why do you think this happens?

A few of the common plants that can be seen here are:

Trees:

Yagrumo - a favorite meal of the sloth
Mulato - with its delicate leaves
Urape - the butterfly leaf

Ground Plants:

Cariaquito - a member of the mint family with its square stem
Platanillo - a bird of paradise flower

3. This tree fern is a living fossil - a living record of the earliest evolved form of tree. Various types of giant ferns were widespread over the earth during one geologic period. Then, with climatic changes through time, their success became limited to specific geographic areas. What is special about the climate in Guatopo that allows us to find the tree fern growing here?

The climatic changes also encouraged some tree forms to evolve and specialize. This continuing process of evolution results in the infinite variety of plant sizes, shapes, textures, and colors. Look around for some plants that look similar. Find some that are very different.

Some plants developed special aids for seed dispersal, protection and getting along in extreme climatic conditions. Consider, for instance, different seed shapes and how they travel away from the mother plant. Carried by the wind? Stuck to the fur of a passing animal? Deposited in excrement? Or dropped from the beak of a bird, perhaps?

Are the two thorny palm trees to your immediate right the same species?

Thorns may serve as protection. What kinds of animals might eat the berries of the Macanilla palm tree if it did not have thorns? The animals which eat the fruits determine how far the seeds may be carried. How does this affect the tree's pattern of distribution?

4. We have noticed a variety of plants. Some, like air plants, ferns, lichens, and mosses can live on the trunks of trees and on rocks. But what makes up a whole forest?

Trees? shrubs? ground plants? vines? Of course, all of these. Look at these as different levels in a cross-section. How does each layer benefit from its position? Which layer seems to prefer shade? Why do lower leaves seem to be larger? What do vines and lianas do to satisfy their need for water and full sunlight?

Guatopo has yet another group of plants. Here in the rain forest there is enough humidity to support an abundance of air plants and orchids.

5. The homes of these two insects are commonly seen in the forest, They play different but equally important parts in the breakdown and recycling of minerals. Who are they? Ants and Termites,

Both live in societies organized for efficient harvesting and reproduction. Do you know how to identify the worker ants from the guards?

Leafcutter ants gather a variety of green leaves. The leaves are used to prepare a recipe in which a fungus is cultivated. This fungus is their only food.

The termites are organized into groups of reproducers, workers and soldiers. What do they eat?

In what ways are their homes different? What animals may eat them? What animals may move into their abandoned homes?

6. Root shapes, too, can be found in variety. They serve to support the tree and to absorb water and minerals. As a growing part of the tree, they also need to breathe.

Roots have different shapes depending on the kind of tree, and wind, soil, and growing conditions.

What conditions may have contributed to the elevated roots of the Yagrumo tree?

7. We can learn curious, delightful and useful things about our environment. How good a detective you are depends on how well you use your senses - sight. smell, hearing, and touch. Forest plants can be good clues. Some like wet places -others grow only in dry areas. We call these indicators. What might the Casupo plants on your right indicate about their micro-environment?

Plants can also be clues to history. If they are seen in areas where they are not native, we can suspect that the plant was introduced by people, often for decorative or agricultural purposes. Can you find an introduced plant nearby?

8. The forest is a hive of activity. Everything living, breathing, growing. But the dead and dying things play an equally important role.

Minerals are the money of the forest, They are concentrated in the growing vegetation as money is in the bank. But how then are the minerals in one plant recycled -that is, made available to new plants? What breaks them down into simpler parts?

Many helpers speed the decomposition of fallen leaves, and dead plants and animals. Which animals help break down these materials into the simpler parts? Vultures? Termites? Worms?

Mushrooms, bacteria and other soil organisms complete the process of reducing the leaf litter, wood, and animal matter to humus. The thin, dark, top layer of the ground is the mineral-rich humus. This enriches the soil. Like the bank teller, it holds some of the mineral-money ready for exchange.

Water carries the minerals from one place to another. With rain, the humus minerals dissolve and filter into the soil. In this way, borrowed minerals are released again into the forest community. Again available to the growing plants and the animals that eat them.

Leaf litter and humus also help the soil to absorb and hold rainfall, and protect it from erosion.

Examine the humus. Feel and smell its richness.

9. Stop and listen a moment. There are many different sounds. Why are some pleasing and others annoying?

How do animals communicate in a dense forest where it may be difficult to see one another?

10. The soil has structure. How many layers can you see? We have seen the leaf litter covering, and the humus or organic matter. Beneath this lies what is called the A layer, occupied by most of the living roots. Therefore, water and minerals for plants are provided by this top layer.

If water is not absorbed by plants, it, along with some of the dissolved minerals it carries, will leach out and be deposited in the B layer. Therefore, the soil of this zone will be more colorful.

The C layer is defined as the non-living parent material from which new soil base will be made.

How would you define soil? What is it a mixture of? It is a mixture of decomposing organic matter, parent inorganic material, air, water and living organisms.

The process of soil building is slow. It takes about 500 years to produce 2.5 cm of topsoil.

Erosion washes away in hours what took centuries to build. The roots of forest plants help hold the soil in place. And this soil can then hold more water for steady release into the streams. What happens to the soil and the waterflow in deforested areas?

11. Where do the animals of the forest live? Some sleep in nests on branches or in the hollows of trees. Others in dense ground vegetation, or even in the cracks in rocks. What do we have here? These burrows in the cliff to the left and also along the descending bank on your right are of many shapes and sizes. Which animals could live here? Armadillo? Rodents? Lizards? Snakes? Jacamars? Crabs? Whip scorpions?

If the stream is approached quietly, especially in the early morning or evening, you may see some wildlife. Many animal tracks have been seen here, including deer. Look around a bit.

12. Why do animals come to the stream? Because water, like food and shelter, is one of the basic necessities of life for them as well as for people.

In and around streams lives a special community. Feel the rocks in the stream. Slippery rocks are an indication of microscopic plant life, phytoplankton. This is food for snails and some insects that spend their early life in the water, like the dragon fly, caddis fly and black fly larvae.

Food is fuel. Fuel is energy. Each hungry animal is a link in the food chain - both the eater and the eaten. Some eat only plants; others eat only other animals; while some eat both plants and animals.

Who lives around the stream to eat the insect larvae and adults? And who, then, may we expect nearby to prey on the crabs, frogs, fish, and birds? Which insects are flying around now? How do they fit into the food chain? Dragon flies, for example, eat other insects, including mosquitos !

Like the wild animals, we too are dependent on the stream flow. Where does the city water come from? What kind of land holds water best and releases it in an even flow?

13. What are some of the forest interactions that can be noticed from this point? What story could you tell about this tree and the vines around it?

14. These roots of the Jobo tree are very different from others we have seen. How do they help the tree and the soil at the same time? What could be a cause for their shape and length? Feel their texture.

15. Both plants and animals have defenses against being eaten. One of these is a chemical toxin in the yellow and orange milkweed flowers often seen blooming in open fields. The Monarch butterflies incorporate this distasteful toxin into their bodies when they feed on the nectar of the milkweed flower. Their would-be predators soon learn that they are NOT a tasty meal.

The grassy state of this open field is maintained by the intervention of people. If left undisturbed for a few years, which plants might occupy the field? After these sun-loving species have colonized the area, imagine how this space might look.

The place where two habitats meet is called the edge. More animals may be found in this zone because they benefit from what both habitats offer - often food from one area and cover from the one next door. We are on an edge. What are the two habitats? Where else have we seen an edge today?

Why is this an open field? Are there any clues of historical information?

16. This log of Cuji may be called a Mother Log because it hosts a plant nursery. Notice how there are many different plants, including tree seedlings, growing on it.

In the moist, dense rain forest, plants need a space to start growing. A log or fallen tree such as this provided the opportunity by creating an opening of light in addition to space. How does this process both encourage growth and speed up decomposition?

17. Did you guess that this field was once the site of a sugar mill? Marker 15 is beside the ruins of the aquaduct which brought water from the stream to power the trapiche.

Concentrations of people now live in cities and towns: away from the sources of running water to power small machinery, and for washing and drinking; away from the source of wood for fuel and building materials; away from the source of wild animals and plants for food; away from an intimate daily dependence on nature for our survival. How do we meet these needs today? What are some of the complicated problems of our lifestyle today?

Measures can be taken to ensure the wise management and use of our resources.

How can you Help:- Prevent forest fires and encourage reforestation projects.

- Follow hunting laws; hunt only when and where permitted.

- Remember that litter is a sign of waste. Waste and litter are signs of negative use of natural resources.

- Insist on moderate and appropriate use of wood, water, fuel and minerals.

Can you think of some other ways in which we can apply our technology to preserve our environment?

Text prepared by Basha Goldstein. Peace Corps Volunteer, Venezuela.