By Lee Rando of Tamandua Expeditions
The agouti is hunted by jaguars, ocelots, harpy eagles, and anacondas, but out of all of these powerful animals, it is the only one that can open a Brazil nut pod. The agouti, a type of rodent, can grow to about two feet long and weigh somewhere between 6.5 – 12 pounds and has a sharp pair of incisors in their mouth that enables them to chew open a Brazil nut pod. The difference between agouti’s teeth and other rodents is a special layer of enamel that makes the teeth extremely strong. The Brazil nut pod is a rock-hard fruit containing nuts that crashes to the ground from above and can kill or severely hurt any living thing standing underneath the gigantic Brazil nut trees. It is difficult for a human to open a pod swinging a machete full force into it so it is quite impressive that the large rodent can open it with its teeth. The incisors in an agoutis mouth will keep growing throughout their life so as long as an agouti can find Brazil nuts, they will not go hungry.
Agoutis have very strong senses of smell and hearing which helps the animal in the never-ending quest for food that is part of every living things existence in the jungle. They are able to hear a ripe piece of fruit fall to the jungle floor and use their sense of smell to find food they may have stashed for lean times. The hiding of Brazil nuts is part of an important relationship between the Brazil nut tree and the agouti. When Brazil nuts are abundant, the agouti will bury them to eat at another time but may never come back to every single nut it hides so the nut could eventually germinate when conditions are right, even after years in the soil, and turn into a massive Brazil nut tree. The tree is dependent on the animal for the dispersal of its seeds, forming a unique symbiotic relationship between the pair.
Brazil nuts are delicious and healthy so a big business has developed from all the trees spread out by the agouti. Up to this point, Brazil nut plantations have not been successful so the most effective way to get these tasty nuts is to gather them from naturally occurring trees in Amazonian rainforest which can make the industry an important part of the rainforest conservation effort. We run our expeditions out of the Madre de Dios region of Peru, and in this area alone there are over 1,000 people that have Brazil nut concessions from the government which helps employ many people from the native communities. In 2014 this industry resulted in over US $30 million in sales and employed roughly 15,000 people in the Madre de Dios region. In a region where extractive activities such as illegal gold mining, logging, and poaching continually add to the degradation of pristine jungle, industries centered around Brazil nuts and eco-tourism can play a key part in keeping the rainforest standing and healthy.
So the next time you eat some Brazil nuts, think of the journey that nut has taken from the agouti planting the seed, growing into a towering 150 foot tall tree, pod hurtling down to the jungle floor, gathered and processed by humans to just nuts, sent out for sale, and most importantly how this nut is an important part of the most biodiverse area of the planet.
Hodgdon, B.D., Martínez, G. (2015) Transforming Small-Scale Non-Timber Forest Production Into Competitive Enterprise: A Case Study of Work with Brazil Nut Producer Associations. Community Forestry Case Studies No. 6/10.
Photos by Brian Gratwicke, Mohsin Kazmi, and Lee Rando.