A Naturalist in Nicaragua

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A Naturalist in Nicaragua

Book excerpt

By: Thomas Belt

Date: 1873

Source: Belt, Thomas. A Naturalist in Nicaragua. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1874.

About the Author: Thomas Belt (1832–1878) was a British geologist and naturalist who studied gold deposits in Australia and Nova Scotia throughout the 1850s and 1860s. His work in the mines of Nicaragua led to the writing and publication of his book, A Naturalist in Nicaragua.


In the decades that followed Charles Darwin's well-chronicled trip throughout portions of South America and the publication of his book The Origin of Species in 1859, exploration of the continent's land and potential resources yielded a wide range of information about minerals, animal life, precious metals, fuels, and plant-based medicinal remedies. As professional and amateur geologists, biologists, geographers, and chemists explored the Amazon basin, the Andes Mountains, Patagonia, and the Brazilian rainforest, these scientists detailed their observations and discoveries in journal articles, books, and popular magazines. Understanding the natural world had become not only the province of specialists, but also a pastime for the wealthy and the educated middle class. A strong demand for published accounts of natural science developed in Europe and the United States; through-out the 1870s and 1880s, various science societies and publications, National Geographic among them, formed in response to this demand.

Belt, a British geologist by trade, had worked in Australia, North America, and Europe before going to Nicaragua in 1866. In 1867 he published a memoir-observation on mines in Wales in Geological Magazine;the article was well-received and encouraged him to continue writing about his observations and analysis of natural phenomena.

Belt chronicled his four years in Nicaragua with a richly detailed account of the lands, animals, insects, plant life, and geology of the region in which he lived and worked. Belt painstakingly described the activities of ant colonies near his quarters, speculating that the ants used a particular leaf to cultivate a certain type of fungus, an observation borne out by later scientists. This relationship between the ants and bull's-horn acacia led to the naming of a portion of the plant "Beltian Bodies," in honor of Thomas Belt. Belt's theory about the symbiotic relationship between the ants and the acacia was controversial in its time.

In other sections, Belt describes the patterns of rivers, giving modern explorers a baseline from which to calculate change in the region over time. Charles Darwin praised Belt's book, and his observation of the effect of glaciers on South America generated debate and scholarly interest.

In addition to noting the conditions of the natural environment in Central and South America, Belt also wrote about the actions of the inhabitants. From discussions on "slash and burn" agriculture to descriptions of workers in the gold mines he directed, Belt created a book that encapsulated Nicaragua—and much of South America—in a frozen snapshot of the late 1860s. In keeping a "naturalist's journal," Belt's meticulous attention to detail gave fellow scientists, both professional and amateur, a blueprint of the sections of the continent he explored.


… Having determined to go up the [Colorado] river in this boat, we took provisions with us for the voyage, and one of the negroes agreed to act as cook. Having arranged everything, and breakfasted with my kind friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hollenbeck, I bade them adieu, and settled myself into the small space in the canoe that I expected to occupy for six days. Captain Anderson took the helm, the "Caribs" dipped their paddles into the water, and away we glided into a narrow channel amongst long grass and rushes that almost touched us on either side. Grey town, with its neat white houses, and feathery palms, and large-leaved bread-fruit trees, was soon shut from our view, and our boatmen plying their paddles with the greatest dexterity and force, made the canoe shoot along through the still water. Soon we emerged into a wider channel where a stronger stream was running, and then we coasted along close to the shore to avoid the strength of the current. The banks at first were low and marshy and intersected by numerous channels; the principal tree was a long, coarse-leaved palm, and there were great beds of wild cane and grass, amongst which we occasionally saw curious green lizards, with leaf-like expansions (like those on the leaf-insects), assimilating them in appearance to the vegetation amongst which they sought their prey. As we proceeded up the river, the banks gradually became higher and drier, and we passed some small plantations of bananas and plantains made in clearings in the forest, which now consisted of a great variety of dicotyledonous trees with many tall, graceful palms; the under-growth being ferns, small palms, Melastomae, Heliconiae, etc. The houses at the plantations were mostly miserable thatched huts with scarcely any furniture, the owners passing their time swinging in dirty hammocks, and occasionally taking down a canoe-load of plantains to Greytown for sale. It is one of the rarest sights to see any of these squatters at work. Their plantain patch and occasionally some fish from the river suffice to keep them alive and indolent.

At seven o'clock we reached the Colorado branch, which carries off the greater part of the waters of the San Juan to the sea. This is about twenty miles above Greytown, but only eighteen by the Colorado to the sea, and is near the head of the delta, as I have already mentioned. The main body of water formerly flowed down past Greytown, and kept the harbour there open, but a few years ago, during a heavy flood, the river greatly enlarged and deepened the entrance to the Colorado Channel, and since then year by year the Greytown harbour has been silting up. Now (I am writing in 1873) there is twelve feet of water on the bar at the Colorado in the height of the dry season, whilst at Greytown the outlet of the river is sometimes closed altogether. The merchants at Greytown have entertained the project of dredging out the channel again, but now that the river has found a nearer way to the sea by the Colorado this would be a herculean task, and it would cost much less money to move the whole town to the Colorado, where by dredging the bar a fine harbour might easily be made, but unfortunately the Colorado is in Costa Rica, the Greytown branch in Nicaragua, and there are constant bickerings between the two states respecting the outlet of this fine river, which make any well-considered scheme for the improvement of it impracticable at present. A sensible solution of the difficulty would be a federation of the two small republics. The heads of the political parties in the two countries see, however, in this a danger to their petty ambitions, and will not risk the step, and so the boundary question remains an open one, threatening at any moment to plunge the two countries into an impoverishing war.

If the Colorado were not to be interfered with by man, it would, in the course of ages, carry down great quantities of mud, sand, and trunks of trees, and gradually form sandbanks at its mouth, pushing out the delta further and further at this point, until it was greatly in advance of the rest of the coast; the river would then break through again by some nearer channel, and the Colorado would be silted up as the Lower San Juan is being at present. The numerous half filled-up channels and long lagoons throughout the delta show the various courses the river has at different times taken.

Our boatmen paddled on until nine o'clock, when we anchored in the middle of the stream, which was here about one hundred yards wide. Distant as we were from the shore, we were not too far for the mosquitoes, which came off in myriads to the banquet upon our blood. Sleep for me was impossible, and to add to the discomfort, the rain came down in torrents. We had an old tarpaulin with us, but it was full of holes, and let in the water in little streams, so that I was soon soaked to the skin. Altogether, with the streaming wet and the mosquitoes, it was one of the most uncomfortable nights I have ever passed.

The waning moon was sufficiently high at four o'clock to allow us to bring the long dreary night to an end, and to commence paddling up the river again. As the day broke the rain ceased, the mists cleared away, our spirits revived, and we forgot our discomforts of the night in admiration of the beauties of the river. The banks were hidden by a curtain of creeping and twining plants, many of which bore beautiful flowers, and the green was further varied here and there by the white stems of the cecropia trees. Now and then we passed more open spots, affording glimpses into the forest, where grew, in the dark shade, slender-stemmed palms and beautiful tree-ferns, contrasting with the great leaves of the Heliconiae. At seven we breakfasted on a sand-bank, and got our clothes and blankets dried. There were numerous tracks of alligators, but it was too early to look for their eggs in the sand; a month later, in March, when the river falls, they are found in abundance, and eaten by the canoe-men. At noon we reached the point where the Seripiqui, a river coming down from the interior of Costa Rica, joins the San Juan about thirty miles above Greytown. The Seripiqui is navigable by canoes for about twenty miles from this point, and then commences a rough mountain mule-track to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. We paddled on all the afternoon with little change in the river. At eight we anchored for the night, and although it rained heavily again, I was better prepared for it, and, coiling myself up under an umbrella beneath the tarpaulin, managed to sleep a little.

We started again before daylight, and at ten stopped at a small clearing for breakfast. I strolled back a little way into the gloomy forest, but it was not easy to get along on account of the undergrowth and numerous climbing plants that bound it together. I saw one of the large olive-green and brown mot-mots (Momotus martii), sitting upon a branch of a tree, moving its long curious tail from side to side, until it was nearly at right angles to its body. I afterwards saw other species in the forests and savannahs of Chontales. They all have several characters in common, linked together in a series of gradations. One of these features is a spot of black feathers on the breast. In some species this is edged with blue, in others, as in the one mentioned above, these black feathers form only a small black spot nearly hidden amongst the rust-coloured feathers of the breast. Characters such as these, very conspicuous in some species, shading off in others through various gradations to insignificance, if not extinction, are known by naturalists to occur in numerous genera; and so far they have only been explained on the supposition of the descent of the different species from a common progenitor.

As I returned to the boat, I crossed a column of the army or foraging ants, many of them dragging along the legs and mangled bodies of insects that they had captured in their foray. I afterwards often encountered these ants in the forests and it may be convenient to place together all the facts I learnt respecting them.

The Ecitons, or foraging ants, are very numerous throughout Central America. Whilst the leaf-cutting ants are entirely vegetable feeders, the foraging ants are hunters, and live solely on insects or other prey; and it is a curious analogy that, like the hunting races of mankind, they have to change their hunting-grounds when one is exhausted, and move on to another. In Nicaragua they are generally called "Army Ants." One of the smaller species (Eciton predator) used occasionally to visit our house, swarm over the floors and walls, searching every cranny, and driving out the cockroaches and spiders, many of which were caught, pulled or bitten to pieces, and carried off. The individuals of this species are of various sizes; the smallest measuring one and a quarter lines, and the largest three lines, or a quarter of an inch.

I saw many large armies of this, or a closely allied species, in the forest. My attention was generally first called to them by the twittering of some small birds, belonging to several different species, that follow the ants in the woods. On approaching to ascertain the cause of this disturbance, a dense body of the ants, three or four yards wide, and so numerous as to blacken the ground, would be seen moving rapidly in one direction, examining every cranny, and underneath every fallen leaf. On the flanks, and in advance of the main body, smaller columns would be pushed out. These smaller columns would generally first flush the cockroaches, grasshoppers, and spiders. The pursued insects would rapidly make off, but many, in their confusion and terror, would bound right into the midst of the main body of ants. A grasshopper, finding itself in the midst of its enemies, would give vigorous leaps, with perhaps two or three of the ants clinging to its legs. Then it would stop a moment to rest, and that moment would be fatal, for the tiny foes would swarm over the prey, and after a few more ineffectual struggles it would succumb to its fate, and soon be bitten to pieces and carried off to the rear. The greatest catch of the ants was, however, when they got amongst some fallen brushwood. The cockroaches, spiders, and other insects, instead of running right away, would ascend the fallen branches and remain there, whilst the host of ants were occupying all the ground below. By and by up would come some of the ants, following every branch, and driving before them their prey to the ends of the small twigs, when nothing remained for them but to leap, and they would alight in the very throng of their foes, with the result of being certainly caught and pulled to pieces. Many of the spiders would escape by hanging suspended by a thread of silk from the branches, safe from the foes that swarmed both above and below….


Belt's descriptions of the natives in this passage contrast with his observations of plant life. Describing the villagers as "indolent," and the political leaders in Costa Rica and Nicaragua as having "petty ambitions" over their territorial pursuit regarding the Colorado River, Belt injects a judgmental tone that is not present as he records nature observations. His judgments, however, are related to the impact that people have on the environment. Political officials engaged in a border dispute may harm the river, or most certainly interfere with its natural progress and movement. Belt notes this as well, with great care and detail, speculating the path the river might take were it not touched by man.

The theory posited by Belt in the book concerning ants and bull's-horn acacia was not proven until the 1960s, when Daniel Janzen found that there was a mutualistic/symbiotic relationship between the two. Throughout Belt's career he put forth a controversial theory on glacier activity not only in South America, but across the globe. In The Naturalist in Nicaragua he used certain geological observations as evidence of glacial epochs having occurred in Nicaragua. Belt broadened those observations to develop the idea that continental glaciation may have led to the extinction of various Pleistocene plant and animal life, including early man.

Based on this research, Belt examined phenomena such as protective coloration in tropical plants. He maintained a correspondence with Charles Darwin and was well known among naturalists and scientists for his work in mining and his theory on glacier activity. Over time, Belt's theories have proven true, and his book has become not only an importance piece of natural history, but also a baseline from which modern researchers can measure change in the Central American environment.



Roberts, J. Timmons, and Nikki D. Thanos. Trouble in Paradise: Globalization and Environmental Crises in Latin America. New York: Routledge Press, 2003.

Soluri, John. "Altered Landscapes and Transformed Livelihoods: Banana Companies, Panama Disease, and Rural Communities on the North Coast of Honduras, 1880–1950." In Interactions Between Agroecosystems and Rural Communities, edited by Cornelia Butler-Flora. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2000

Web sites

"Environment in Latin America." LANIC. 〈http://lanic.utexas.edu/la/region/environment〉 (accessed March 13, 2006).

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A Naturalist in Nicaragua

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