Free as a Bird

I’ve seen an awful lot of birds thus far- everything from brown boobies to exotic hummingbirds to scarlet macaws to jabirus- and every time (except maybe in the case of tinamous) I’m just a little (or a lot) jealous of their ability to fly. 

Imagine catching a big thermal and just lofting up and up in a big, lazy spiral, or stooping into a dive before snapping your wings out and jerking back into the sky on sheer momentum. Imagine hovering at flowers, or snatching beetles out of the air with your face. (Maybe that last one isn’t as appealing.)


Imagine feeling the power under you as your engines start up and your propeller picks up speed and you reach the end of the bumpy grass runway with just enough lift to pick you up over the short trees at the end and just enough thrust to push you out over the teal-green ocean before you gain speed and altitude. 

Well, that last bit I’ve done.


We flew out of Corcovado with the gear- I opted for the aerial view this time, rather than the terrestrial. Our pilot was reportedly the only one who flies in and out of Sirena Station, in his little single-engine Cessna. He definitely knew what he’s doing, but it still terrified me a little bit when he landed, props still spinning, leaped out, and lit up a cigarette all within a few feet of the engine. 

He’s been doing this short trip for 25 years or something like it- I guess you get casual on the job after that long, and you really don’t see that many old stupid pilots- so we hopped on with half of the baggage and took off into thin air.


The view was glorious, and the wind in my face from the open window helped with the illusion of my own personal flight. 

Until someone invents jetpacks for the masses, though, I guess that’s about as close as I’ll get to really flying. I’m sort of okay with that in an actual real-life way… but I’m going to keep watching those birdies and flapping my fingertips.

Fat-Bottomed Spider Ladies

In the spider world, big girls really ARE beautiful. Male Nephila clavipes (golden orb-weaving spiders) on search for mates choose the biggest female they can find, preferring to duke it out with other males than search for an unclaimed lady-friend. Our project in Corcovado had to do with feeding different-sized prey to different-sized female Nephila, as well as counting the numbers of “kleptoparasites” (little spiders that steal prey from the big spiders’ webs) and males each female was hosting in her web. 


They’re beautiful to watch as they build webs and snare their prey… but they’re fraidy-cats when it comes to anything bigger than this cicada. Still, that’s an impressive predator-prey size ratio. This big girl sure can handle herself. Watch out, spider-boys…

Hurry Up and Wait

Pretty much all of the best pictures I’ve taken on this trip have been a result of a super nice little camera (Canon G11- this baby’s been around the world twice now and is hardly worse for wear), good advice on framing and lighting from my parents and my big sister, and an awful lot of waiting around ready to fire off a shot. 

I spent, for example, two and a half hours sitting on a patch of mangrove roots over a murky estuary as the tide rose toward my feet, scanning the water and contemplating the science one could do if the crocodiles on the other bank would only come closer and stop being quite so bitey, waiting for this shot of a young bull shark come in with the tide.


I knew they’d be coming through, thanks to some good tips from our professor and the guides around the station. They follow the big predatory marine fish up into the brackish water to hunt the same, who are in turn hunting the smaller freshwater fish that by the time I got there were already cowering by the banks of the Río Sirena. All I needed was a bit of sunscreen, a sharp eye out for crocs, and the time and patience to match the tiger herons’.

This shot, on the other hand, wasn’t a sit-and-wait sort of experience. It was a run-and-get-ready. Squirrel monkeys are small, shy, and on the move, and I was fairly resigned to the possibility that I might not ever get a good photo of one on this trip. We’d spotted them a day or two before high in the canopy, and hadn’t managed to get more than a quick peek through our binoculars before they were gone. But some wonderful guide walking right in front of me spied them in the trees by the station, focused his telescope in the blink of an eye, and let me take this picture through that lens at the briefly resting mother and baby here.


It was waiting of a different kind- waiting to spring into action. I was suddenly very glad that I’d been carrying my camera all day, despite the strap cutting into my neck as I hiked and the sweat that dripped alarmingly close to its delicate electronics. I’ve resolved never to be without my trusty little friend through the rest of this trip, save possibly in the bathroom. You never know when that perseverance is going to land you a postcard-worthy opportunity… like this one.


Welcome to Biology

“The most biologically intense place on earth,” they call it. 

ImageThings live here (frequently) that live almost nowhere else. The forest is hot and wet and crawling with life of all kinds… you know you’re somewhere interesting when this is what you see on your front porch before breakfast:


It’s a very young green iguana, probably feeding on the bugs attracted to the porch flowers.

Later that same day, we saw a three-toed sloth and a tapir (don’t worry, I’ll post sloth pictures soon, it’s just that the photos I took of each of those animals look like they MIGHT have something in them but just as well might not… the later sloth photos are worth the wait). Anything and everything could and was lurking and creeping and flapping and fluttering and swinging in the canopy, through the tree trunks, along the rivers, and under the ground. And the cicadas simply never stopped. If you want to feel immersed in the rush and quivering palpable intensity that is life on this planet, there is no better place than Corcovado, where everything is alive and growing and dying and changing all at once.


Looks nice and peaceful, doesn’t it? From a distance, with the mute on, and with just the right framing…

The Big Hike In

From the ranger’s station at the edge of Corcovado National Park to the Sirena Station, it’s about a 15 minute flight. Or, if you’re Dartmouth Bio FSP, it’s about a 23 km hike along a jungle trail.


23 km is a long way, especially if you’re carrying three liters of water, binoculars, camera, safety supplies, and doing all of this in 90-degree weather. But the scenery was fascinating and the company was fun. Corcovado is located on the Osa Peninsula, one of the largest stretches of primary-growth lowland rainforest in Central America, untouched by man besides the rough trail and the research/tourist stations farther in, and known to National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on earth.” The biodiversity is huge and the plants and animals strange and colorful, with giant waxy leaves and bright feathers in the most unexpected places, vines draped across trees like arms around shoulders, and fungi peeking out from the moist clay and crumbling logs.



The three big nutrient cyclers of the forest are actually quite commonly seen… but easily overlooked. Termites, army ants, and leaf-cutter ants abound and make up a large part of the animal biomass of the forest, astounding for their size. These leaf-cutters were the first we saw this trip, but they soon became ubiquitous along the trail. 


Among the other exotic creatures was a simultaneously cryptic and vivid poison dart frog- I’m used to seeing these in pictures and behind glass, but to see one in real life was almost unbelievable. It looked like a little plastic toy in the leaves… until it hopped into the jungle.


The walk took us about seven hours, down red-clay trails and over tree roots, across streams and under the ever-present drone of the cicadas. 


But we all made it in good health and good spirits to Sirena Station, the intersection between river, beach, and jungle at the edge of the wildest jungle we’ve visited and the biggest ocean on the planet. We could feel the adventure waiting in the air around us… but it could wait until after dinner.


The Evil Unidentified Plant of Doom (and its sneaky fly associates)

In Cuericí, a species of plant grows high on the mountainside, occupying light gaps and canyon walls. Its hanging bell-shaped flowers look like light orange fairy skirts swinging from the vines, dusted with thin peach fuzz from petal to the base of the plant. Unsuspecting passers-by (or more particularly, people named Gillian Britton) refer to them as “Tinkerbell flowers,” and admire the hummingbirds that come to drink the plant’s nectar.


Be warned. The tinkerbell flowers are sneaky for several reasons:

1. They escaped my every attempt to key them out even to family (!), and remain unidentified until possibly this afternoon, when I will consult a botanical expert and his entire herbarium

2. They are occasionally full of tiny flies (up to 430 in one flower) and nobody knows why

3. The tiny hairs on the plants are actually EVIL HYPODERMIC NEEDLES full of MEAN NASTY CHEMICALS that want to make you VERY SAD

So of course, presented with these facts, I (along with Colleen and Tyler) decided to embark on a research project exploring the potential hypotheses to explain the presence of these tiny flies. It felt like such old-school biology- unidentified plant, unidentified flies, little specific knowledge of the study system, and a LOT of back-breaking work to make the leaps of knowledge we needed for understanding of this system. It was like detective work, under a microscope and in the field, contemplating flowers and flies while wincing from the lines of painful bumps we’d earned by errantly touching a leaf or stem. 

I think it was probably the best and most interesting science I’ve done so far. Taking apart the flowers and leaves to better understand them, looking at fly morphology, and extrapolating from the sizes and shapes of plant parts the life history of the entire organism… it was actually and non-ironically thrilling. 

Best as we can figure, the picture stands thus:

Flies are not, as previous groups had hypothesized, using the flowers as greenhouses to warm themselves in the mornings. Though the flowers do, indeed, warm up significantly more than their surroundings when hit by the light, the flies weren’t aggregated in warmer flowers either in the morning or the evening. 

There was little evidence for mating gatherings of any kind, as the sex ratio of the flies in the flowers (another adventure in microscope use and fly-sexing knowledge left over from my genetics class) seemed random.

But our most astounding result was that the flowers were protandrous, meaning the male parts that bear pollen matured first when the blossom was young, and the female parts became fertile after the pollen from that flower had been dispersed (flowers often use this as a strategy to avoid accidental self-pollination). The process of the flowers’ maturation corresponded to the growing female portion of the flower, which takes the form of a “style,” an extended tube that reaches into the flower’s ovaries. We found huge aggregations of flies almost exclusively in flowers that had very short styles, meaning that the flies preferred to aggregate only in young male flowers. The trend was both striking and completely unexpected- it was just a stroke of genius observation on Tyler’s part that led us to measure style length at all.

In this picture, the style is the green part visible on the right half of the dissected flower. The anthers/pollen-bearing portion are the long, thin strands topped with little black or green dots. 



I don’t know if anyone but me finds this incredibly exciting, but I have so many more questions about these plants and what the heck those flies are doing in there. Nectar-gathering while the plant is young? Seeking shelter and using the plants’ urticating spines as protection? Pollinating? Mating? Resting? Do they benefit the plant at all? SCIENCE!



Don Carlos is maybe the coolest ever

Don Carlos Solano is one of the owners and the main person in charge of the biological station at Cuericí. He’s one of those people who knows everything and does everything, but just so efficiently and quietly that you almost wouldn’t notice. He’s got 50 projects going at once, and does them all with a DIY-attitude that I find super admirable (and lots of fun).

His major occupation besides conservation and management of what is essentially his patch of cloud forest is running a whole small farm, complete with blackberry patches (and accompanying blackberry-wine-brewing), chickens, ducks, a chubby hog named Petunia, and a trout breeding and growing system that uses gravity and the natural stream flow down the side of his mountain. Meanwhile, he makes fires and fixes showers in the field station, gives tours of the preserve, and is trying to reintroduce a species of edible palm tree to the mountainside.

Here he is showing us his hydropower equipment, kept in a tiny shack next to the stream. This tiny little machine provides all the energy for the farm’s workings, excluding the field station when groups are in residence.


He doesn’t really speak English, (or actually speak that much at all when he’s not specifically asked about something) but he’s very eloquent on the topics of conservation and responsibility. Someday when I grow up I think I’d like to be a little like Don Carlos.

Cuericí is Quercus-y

Quercus is the Latin name for the oak trees, of which there are two species in Cuericí, one at higher altitude (costariccensis) and one lower (bumelioides). They’re both spectacular, unlike any oak trees I’ve ever seen in the US, towering above the trails on steep slopes, covered with bromeliads and  thick trailing vines that reach all the way to the canopy. 


The trees of this area (and not just the oaks, but the avocados (aguatillos, actually), alders, and the palms) provide homes for countless bird species including the quetzal (elusive…), the black guan (very obtrusive) and toucanettes, the long-legged dancers of the bird world. (Just kidding. A toucanette is a small toucan.)

Also, bromeliads are cool.Image

Adventures High and Low

I’ve been gone for a while, but I am now back into fairly-constant wifi and hot shower territory! 

It’s been a heck of an adventure since I posted last, and the catch-up posts will take at least a few days. General outline: we spent several days in Cuericí, a high montane primary and secondary forest reserve in the Talamanca mountains, right on the continental divide of Central America (not sure about the term “continental divide” here, but that’s how it was described to me), and then hiked 23 km in to Sirena Station in Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula, a huge tract of primary lowland rainforest. Each place was “jungle” like you’d imagine from books and movies, though one was fairly high and cold and wet while the other was low and hot and damp (and buggy beyond belief). 

Those posts will soon follow this one- just to catch you up, we have all just had nice hot showers at Las Cruces Botanical Gardens (an OTS station) and are checking our oodles of emails and messages. Glad to be back in contact with the world- the jungle was getting pretty surreal. Find out why SOON!