Critters for Today

About to lose internet for up to a week and a half- my apologies, Internet! But just think of all the glorious catch-up there will be afterwards!

Today we went to the Monteverde Butterfly Garden to check out some arthropods, but on the way there met this little guy:

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He’s some sort of very young pit viper. Some facts: 

1. When they’re that small, they’re actually almost more dangerous because they can’t control how much venom they give you in a bite… they just give everything they have.

2. Snakes like this can strike up to half of their body length. Get a stick longer than that. Preferably quite a bit longer.

3. Tiny snakes are still cute even though they’re snakes. So weensy!

When we reached the butterfly garden, our TA Zak gave us an awesome tour (he used to work there and was described as their “star tour guide”). We got to hold some cockroaches, walking sticks (my favorites), and an orange-kneed tarantula that was missing all of its urticating hairs… not sure why. Some people tried eating a certain type of beetles and described them as “peppery.”

We then moved on to the main event- releasing some newly-metamorphosed butterflies into the garden. I had a Blue Morpho in a little tupperware- when I took her out to let her go, she sat on my hand for almost five minutes, flapping her incredible blue wings occasionally. Tyler got this awesome shot:

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When her wings were closed she looked like an Owl Butterfly, a huge insect mostly seen at dusk and often mistaken for a bat. 

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Her colors are good for camouflage but those eyespots can serve to actually scare away fooled predators by making them think she’s just a really big face. 

Have a great week, Internet. Find something cool outdoors and tell me about it!

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Look Out the Window

We’ve been spending most of our time the past few days indoors, working on our various papers- abstracts, methods, citations, data, discussion, figures, formatting… and after too long looking at the same figure or the same phrases, they stop meaning anything. We’ve turned in some papers to the TAs and the professor with entire paragraphs of nonsense, because at 1:30 am after having struggled with explaining a concept we’re no longer interested in for 5 hours or longer, we can’t see that our sentences are not, in fact, actual English. My science writing has improved more in the past 72 hours than in the past 4 years… but my reading comprehension has slowed by half or more, just due to number and letter fatigue. 

It’s been important for us to occasionally look up from the figures at the jungle out the window and remember exactly what it is that we’re doing here. Giant butterflies are still passing us by while we slave over statistics… coatis go about their mischief as we search for relevant papers in the brief periods of working internet access… and blue-crowned mot-mots perch on low branches and search for insects as we format columns and charts.

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After clearing our heads a bit, we can get back to the figures and realize that we all did actually super cool projects this time around- investigating stream invertebrates and finding real results (check out dem p-values below, heck yes!), testing hummingbird territoriality and conflict trade-offs, determining the effects of constant wind on fern fecundity, and looking for a reason why some trees of the forest put out red leaves when they’re young…

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Don’t get stuck in the numbers, we have to tell ourselves. The science we’re doing is all about interesting explanations for the cool stuff we have questions about. We’re in the jungle, checking out awesome and totally foreign systems… GET PUMPED, SCIENCE.

Tree-root Bridge

One of the best sights from yesterday deserved its own post.

As we were scrambling along the stream on our way to our next sampling site, I came around a corner and saw what looked like a bridge ahead. I was surprised to see a path so far off from where we had expected one… but it wasn’t actually a path at all. It was a huge tree root that sometime in the decades past had reached across the ravine and grown itself supports, anchoring the tree and creating a natural barrier and bridge across the stream.

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The forest here is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Read my previous post for more musings on time.

Temporality

This cloud forest seems eternal- the trees tower, the quiet is rarely broken by anything other than small birds, and the leaves and ferns look prehistoric in their hugeness. I always feel this way in a forest, like nothing has changed for thousands of years and nothing soon will. My presence is irrelevant to the living organism that is the forest, or the watershed, or the globe. But then suddenly, here in the jungle with the thick vines hanging from the trees and the ever-rushing streams pouring down and down the mountain, a huge bough laden with bromeliads and mosses will crash to the ground, bringing down leaves and trapped water from above and opening a gap of light in the canopy. The lives of the epiphytes are probably over, but the light gap leaves room for tens of new plants to spring up and compete for the sun. 

The thing is that if you sit still in this forest for an hour, you’re likely to see something fall out of the canopy, or some earth tumble down the hill, or the leaf of a heliconia slowly unfurl from a cone into its full wide span. We’ve been in Monteverde for 5 days now, and I am still getting lost on the trails directly below the field station because half of my landmarks are different every day.  The tree that had a branch of red leaves yesterday is fully green today; the fallen branch that blocked half of the path has fallen to pieces already; the tree trunk covered with lianas has now fallen into the stream, taking a bit of the tree next to it as well, and they all look like they’ve been there forever, so the only answer is to head uphill and hope to meet something familiar that hasn’t changed drastically in the past 24 hours.

The clouds stream by overhead as if they are in fast-forward, always in the same place but always changing, just like the mosaic pattern of this forest. Light gaps open and close, trees and vines replace each other slowly on the scale of animals but rapidly on any plant scale I’m used to, and decomposition takes hold of anything that has landed on the ground, sucking precious resources out of every scrap and turning it right back into fruit or leaf matter.

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Among all this life and death, it seemed too cruel to unnecessarily kill this river crab that we caught, just to put him in our sample. We’d counted him, and brought him back to the station to attempt to identify him (he was male, in fact, but we didn’t get much further than that). I felt that if I could save his life and didn’t just because of laziness, I’d be disrupting the cycle and the flow for no good reason, so I trucked him back down to the stream and watched him scoot away, rejoining the flow of resources in and out of the stream and down and down the mountain. 

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Simultaneously, all our various groups are working full-tilt to finish papers and projects before this third of our trip ends. We’ve been here forever and we’ve only been here for minutes, but we’ve done and seen so much and yet experienced so little of the full extent of the ecosystems here. There is so much left to see and so many questions to answer. I certainly don’t have time for naps… but this coati doesn’t move with the rush of FSP and can afford a little time for himself.

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Adventuretimes by Day, Writingtimes by Night

It’s been difficult to blog the past few days, in part because I’ve been booked solid from 6:30 am till midnight or later every day and in part because I’ve been doing so much writing that I can’t fathom choosing to do more. But I just couldn’t wait to explain all my adventures from today!

Jimena, Sammi, and I are working on a project in which we’re sampling stream invertebrates at various elevations along a tropical mountain stream, which sounded fairly simple at the time of inception- go find the stream, walk up and sample, walk down and sample, sort out the bugs, analyze data, and done, right? But then it got fun- we couldn’t walk far down the stream from our top point, and when we found it again it was down a very steep ravine. Eventually, we found a road that crossed and asked the… interesting gentleman… who lived in the adjacent house-type object if we could use his backyard for Science. He was very enthusiastic and probably a little bit altered in state of mind, and was thereafter referred to by our group as “shirtless booty-shorts guy.”

After sampling the stream in his back yard, the epic journey continued down the mountain slope. We talked to probably twenty different townspeople (using my rudimentary and Jimena’s more real Spanish), and encountered what we termed the “Tiny Dog Gang” (which is definitely what I’m going to call my next bank-robbing venture).

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We bravely continued onwards and downwards until we reached the Monteverde Butterfly Garden, where our Spanish was greeted with blank looks and an “excuse me?” They actually did give us directions to a super-secret path down to the stream, which we found after a bit of extra walking. Our other extremely valuable acquisition from the garden we named Nacho- he ran up to us as we arrived and then followed us out as we were leaving. I know it’s bad to pat stray dogs, but his enthusiasm and his big brown eyes reminded me too much of Murphy, one of my dogs at home, and I just couldn’t help myself.

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Nacho followed us for four hours, scrambling down rocks, splashing through the stream (downstream of our study sites, luckily), scaling ravine walls, inspecting unexpected river crabs, and sharing my lunch. He cheered us on when we thought we were lost, and definitely became one of the crew. Our most noble pathfinder, our scarer-of-birds, our little sleepyhead in the later afternoon, and our constant companion, Nacho just made the sampling process a happier time.

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After our last sampling site (possibly in private property, definitely not road-accessible, potentially the best spot in Monteverde for spotting Blue Morpho butterflies), we headed back up through town, stopping at a grocery store to pick up necessities (loofahs, chocolate, nuts, sunscreen…) and catching a cab for the last long hill. Nacho went home when we headed for the grocery store, and I miss him already, but today was definitely a good one for the story-telling later on.

Just remember, kids, adventure is out there!

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And now back to editing, editing, editing papers. Ah, well, an adventure in journal research awaits…

Everything is Green. Except When It’s Not.

Okay, finally going to be caught up to the present. Ish. I’ve got a huge backlog of things I want to tell you about- how can I encapsulate everything we’re doing (and how exhausted it makes me) in just a few pictures per day? We’re now in Monteverde, a beautiful cloud forest preserve on the continental divide of Central America. You can actually see both oceans at once from a certain point along the ridge.

Because of the constant winds and the moisture coming off of the seas, Monteverde is more or less constantly damp, especially as you climb the mountain upwards. From the field station here (a gorgeous, and to our minds luxurious building) you can climb trails that take you straight up the elevation and corresponding moisture gradient. This is really the most classically “jungle” spot we’ve been- everything competes for light and space, decomposition happens almost at the speed of light in order to keep every bit of nutrient in the cycle of life, green and brown vines hang from almost every tree and rock, and epiphytic bromeliads adorn tree branches and collect tiny pools of water in their leaves. 

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It’s so much harder to see animal life here- apparently there are lots of Resplendent Quetzals (my spirit animal, remember?), ocelots, jaguars, tapirs, hummingbirds, butterflies, and frogs, but in the riot of dense green makes it so much harder to spot anything. Somehow, we managed to spot this little froggy, though it took me nearly a minute to find him in the leaves (we moved him for this picture, don’t get too impressed with your frog-spotting skills)!

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Other than the occasional insect or bird, though, almost everything else is plants. And the plants don’t disappoint. More on them soon!

A Bit of Sand and Sun

After our first week and a half of science boot camp, we took off for a few days at the beach to hang out, explore, and look for turtles at night. We didn’t find any turtles, sorry to ruin the suspense, but if you know me well you know that I live for ocean. Set me up on the beach with a towel, a book, and a pair of goggles and I’m set for pretty much ever. I had really wanted to see baby turtles hatching, but so it goes- we saw lots of other awesome stuff.

One thing I had not expected to find at the beach was a giant walking stick, which has been on my list of must-see animals from the beginning of this trip. I love stick insects- their camouflage is fascinating, their stick-like behaviors are so fun to watch, and they are so gentle. All species of walking sticks are vegetarian, usually munching on leaves of the rosaceae family (but branching out too- I had some stick-bug friends at the Bohart Museum of Entomology last year who hailed from Australia and ate eucalyptus), and make really good hats.

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I spent hours in the sand right at the waves’ edge- I’ve found that people often think of white, sandy beaches as inert, simply there for suntanning and waves, mostly devoid of life, especially if the life isn’t obvious (turtles, jaguars, sharks, etc.), but right where the sand meets the sea a whole host of little critters are partying it up. Literally millions of little striped snails oozed in and out of the wet sand with each wave, and little greenish-grey crabs used the points on their sides to dig themselves in as well, leaving only the top of their carapace and their pointy claws showing. Big snails, small snails, crabs of at least 4 varieties, tiny fish, probably clams, and felt-but-not-seen jellyfish were all through the surf, so as we dove through the waves listening for dolphins and whales, I was always on the lookout for smaller friends. Image

Somebody besides me knows about the wealth of little critters in the sand. These little birds were foraging, probably for the snails’ little filter-feeding arms.

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This beach was beautiful beyond words, and a much-appreciated break. 

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More on mangroves soon! (Playing catch-up- we’re at Monteverde now and I’ll have lots of good photos from here soon as well. Yikes!)