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Sean of the Jungle: Biology Prof Works on Documentary in Ecuador

January 10, 2012

In the humid Ecuadorian night, after a long day of filming, Dr. Sean O’Donnell treks back into the Tiputini rainforest alone.

The thick canopy blocks the moonlight, replacing the lush greens of day with the deep black dark. Sean sweeps the narrow beam of his headlamp in search of army ants (his specialty) while the steady chorus of cicadas grows around him, mixing with the gurgle of tree frogs and the low, haunting growl of a jaguar.

Here, amidst the rare sightings, dank smells and symphonic sounds of the forest, surrounded by the spiders and ant nests of horror films and nightmares, Dr. Sean O’Donnell is at home.


An animal behaviorist in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, Sean was recently recruited to Ecuador to serve as an expert consultant on an episode of a new travel documentary series featuring a well-known actor (currently undisclosed).

For six days in late November and early December, the crew filmed Sean's journey through Ecuador, beginning in the city of Quito, moving east to the frontier town of Coca, and ending at a remote rainforest field station by way of the long, winding Tiputini River.

Army ants were the primary focus of the expedition: their massive swarm raids and bivouacs (literally a living nest composed of hundreds of thousands of interlocking ant bodies), and their relationships with rainforest animals. Along the way, however, the crew made time to film other jungle legends, including a scene with the feared—and frighteningly common—Brazilian wandering spider, believed to be the most poisonous species of spider on Earth.

Quito, Ecuador

The city of Quito, Ecuador, the start of Sean's journey.

“That was the only one that made me a little nervous,” says Sean. “Not only is it deadly but it doesn’t have a web; it’s out in the forest wandering around. And it’s fast. And it’s aggressive. I found that a little intimidating. I showed it a lot of respect.”

Venomous snakes are the only other species that make Sean particularly nervous. In 2009, while on a field course in Costa Rica, a viper bite through his boot brought him near to death. He didn’t see the snake, and because only one fang cut into his foot, the researchers leading the course believed he had been bitten by a different animal. Twelve hours later, Sean found himself in the hospital with severe internal “problems.”

“I wear snake boots now,” he says.

(Fortunately, venomous snakes are rare on the Tiputini River and the field station has no record of snake bites.)

Journey to the Tropics

The new documentary series is the fourth television project Sean has worked on; since 2007, he’s done two National Geographic series in Costa Rica and he recently wrapped up another in Ecuador.

Dr. Ant Biovac Ecuador

Army ant bivouac (living nest made of interlocking ant bodies

“Filming is a way to get not only a message out about my research and about the animals that I work on, which are really fascinating, but also, hopefully, it’s a way to connect people with, or get them to have an appreciation for, the beauty and the importance of these rainforests and the things that live in them. Any little bit you can do is worth the effort.”

Although Sean has been passionate about the tropics for many years, his professional career originally started out on a different path.

“I went to graduate school at the University of Miami for plant ecology and was studying plant population genetics, population ecology, and so on. Basically, the department fell apart the year I was there so I started looking around for other places to go. I happened to find, really by accident, an ad for a research assistant position at the University of Wisconsin, which would require me to study paper wasp behavior in the tropics. It was funded by the NSF. I applied. I got it. And I went off into the field, fell in love with it, and never looked back from there.”

Sunrise in Ecuador

Sunrise in the Tiputini Rainforest.

Sean worked with paper wasps and bees before moving on to army ants. He got his M.S. in entomology and his Ph.D. in zoology and entomology at the University of Wisconsin, and then went on to do his postdoctoral work at the University of California-Davis. From there, Sean headed to Seattle to join the University of Washington’s Department of Psychology, where he served on the faculty as an animal behaviorist from 1996-2011. In September 2011, he escaped the dreary Seattle weather and moved to Philadelphia to become a professor in Drexel’s rapidly growing Department of Biology.

Currently, Sean is working on a collaborative research project with chemist Bruce Kimball at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, ornithologist Nate Rice at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and researchers in the Shared Instrument Facility in Drexel’s College of Engineering. 

ant soldiers

Army ant soldiers (larger, with white heads) "supervise" army ant workers.

On nights when the film crew wasn’t shooting in Ecuador, Sean would head back out into the forest to do a bit of work for the new the project. His primary goal was to collect pilot data, which involved gathering army ant volatile compounds. Because the project is still in its early stages, much of the details cannot be released. However, Sean says it could hold important insight into the relationship between army ants and certain bird species.

To learn more about Dr. Sean O’Donnell’s research, visit his lab website. Graduate students interested in working in Sean’s lab should email him at:

Photos and Videos of Dr. O'Donnell's Trip

All photos and videos courtesy of Dr. Sean O'Donnell.

Click on the thumbnails to see larger images

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Above the Canopy: Sounds of Sunrise in the Ecuadorian Rainforest

The evening isn’t the only time Sean ventures out to enjoy the rainforest on his own. Here, from a platform in an emergent tree above the canopy, he captures the sounds of the jungle waking up at dawn.

Riverboat Journey to Tiputini Field Station

Pan of Ecuadorian Rainforest

Howler Monkeys in Tiputini Rainforest

Eciton Army Ant Raid - Ecuador

Moths "Puddling" on the Tiputini River

Trips to the banks of the Tiputini River provided a much-needed break from the claustrophobia-inducing denseness of the rainforest. Here, Sean captures moths and butterflies “puddling”: “Animals need a lot of sodium and it’s very hard to come by in the rainforest,” he explains. “Anywhere that has the tiniest concentration of sodium because the water is evaporating—that’s where they head to suck up the water. Their digestive systems are designed to pull the sodium out. Then they squirt pure, super distilled water out the back end.”