Howler Monkeys

“Baby monkey, but the PUMA! Oh my god!” yelled the sweaty man. He looked at us, three college girls hiking along the trail with a satchel of insects in plastic baggies and socks tucked into our field pants, and ran back the way he had come, over the fallen logs and around the trees and thick vines. 

What would you do if a crazy man ran out of the jungle and screamed something like that at you? 

We followed him off the path, of course, leaving our packs at the forest’s edge and picking our way inwards. Our crazy man wasn’t alone, as we soon found- a guide was waiting with him under a big tree, and with one mystery solved we started wondering what exactly they were both so excited about: the guide told us breathlessly of the mother howler monkey they had spotted giving birth in the canopy above. We’d heard the troop start making noise, actually, and wondered what had set them off- it seems they might have been at first welcoming their newest member before tragedy struck. The mother, after cuddling her baby for the first time, tried to remove the umbilical cord… and dropped the not-five-minute-old infant twenty meters to the jungle floor. 

Of course the mother, like any animal (humans included) deeply invested in her offspring, nearly flew down the tree to retrieve her baby, but this was Corcovado, the most biologically intense place on earth. It wasn’t going to be that easy. On her way down the tree the mother monkey was met by a leaping mountain lion (Puma concolor). I can only imagine the wave of muscles and damp fur that rose to meet the already-terrified monkey, but still I can’t blame her for taking the edge of the blow on her shoulder and then retreating to the top of the tree, where she sat screaming by the time we arrived at this bizarre scene. 

After the guide and tourist had explained most of this to us, I looked around. We had been at rapt attention hearing about this explosion of energy in what had been a fairly peaceful afternoon (for this jungle, anyways). Now, every shrub could be hiding a cougar; every tree, every vine might be breaking up the outlines of a predator and it hit me that we, too, were potential food in an unfriendly wilderness. The shrieking of the howler troop above did nothing to lighten the atmosphere. But the next words out of the guide’s mouth changed the scene considerably.

“The baby is still here.”

The mountain lion, for all its patience and predatory skill in pursuing the mother monkey, seemed to have been unaware of the newborn, and now that five humans were on the scene it seemed unlikely that it would return to play an active role in finding the baby. The mother, traumatized by her recent near-death experience, was also unlikely to return to the ground anytime soon… which left us, straining our eyes and ears to determine if anything was left of the life that had so recently and so dramatically been introduced to the cycles of jungle existence. 

We found the baby under leaves, clinging with closed eyes to a twig and making tiny, unhappy noises. 

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You can see the afterbirth in this photo- it’s the blueish-white lump under a leaf directly below the little monkey’s face. And it was still attached. Much to the distress of the baby monkey. 

“Do you have a pocket knife?” the guide asked me. Of course I did, but I didn’t expect his next statement. “You have to cut the umbilical cord.”

I’m an ecologist, a student of natural systems and interspecific interactions, an observer of the world and a fairly educated human being. But in this situation, I had no idea what to do. The arguments against intervening at all were very strong- I’d be interfering with a natural system, I could hurt the baby, or I could myself get some sort of disease from contact. But on the other hand, it was impossible to tell how much our presence had already affected the events of that patch of forest that day, like the actions of the mountain lion or the hesitance of the mother to return to the ground for her infant. And tangled in what had once been its life support system, the baby could hardly move or breathe. So in a haze of bewilderment, I tied my hair back, got out my pocket knife, and picked up the baby in the leaves that had fallen on it.

Her. She was a baby girl, sticky and warm and strong-fingered, wrapping her tail tight around my forearm. I pinched and snipped her cord, dropping the afterbirth to the ground and trying to keep my skin away from her tiny body, but her arms scrabbled for me and she wanted, so clearly, with her tiny now-opened eyes and elf ears and wrinkled face all straining forward, to be close to another being. 

I could feel her ribcage, her heartbeat, her breath in my hand, and her little cries broke my heart as I’m sure they were breaking the heart of her mother high in the trees. 

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We left her near where we found her, tucked between a tree’s buttresses. Her family watched from above and I prayed to anyone listening- pumas, monkeys, tourists, or gods- to let her rejoin her clan in the canopy. I had no business interfering any further in the life of the rainforest, but as we walked away from the tiny baby I had just peeled off of my arm, all I wanted was to make sure she got every chance to make it to her next birthday. 

Life goes on. I’ll never know what happened to her after we left, and I can’t make myself believe that she made it or that she didn’t. Life goes on. 

The Monkeys

 

 

 

There are four species of monkey found in Costa Rica, and over the winter we saw them all! In fact, we saw them so often that we became accustomed to them to the point of absurdity- more on this later. 

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This spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) was foraging with its family in the mango trees above the road in Palo Verde. Among Costa Rican monkeys, spider monkeys are unique because of their ability to swing through the trees (brachiate, like humans do on monkey bars)- their thumbs are reduced to pretty much nonexistent nubs, but their prehensile tails and long limbs make up for that. This one looks awfully sweet, doesn’t it? Its friend/relative threw a hard mango at Seth’s head not long after I took this shot. They were cute, but not so friendly.

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This White-Faced Capuchin (Cebus capucinus) was another cute-from-a-distance kind of monkey. We saw them very frequently in Palo Verde, and they let us get quite close a lot of the time… but we had to watch our backs. Sometimes the big males would try to sneak up on us from behind, purpose unknown but undoubtedly unwanted. ImageThe last monkey for this post is the squirrel monkey (Saimus oerstedii oerstedii), that I spotted finally in Corcovado after quite a few weeks in Costa Rica. Tyler pointed out one group, scampering through the trees, on our very first orientation walk in the jungle. I had to wait a few days to get a good photo, though- one of the awesome guides of Corcovado let me take this shot through his scope once his clients had looked at the adorable baby and mother resting in a tree near camp. 

The final Costa Rican monkey is actually quite dear to my heart, as much as its noise-making tendencies bother other people that I know. More on the howler monkey in the next few days. 

 

Epiphytes

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned them before, but after visiting the San Mateo County Fairgrounds today for a garden show, I’m feeling planty. And having just bought a little green bromeliad to join my ever-expanding window garden in Hanover, I was inspired just now to read a little more about epiphytic plants and bromeliads in general.

In Costa Rica, especially in the wetter areas, space is valuable. Once a tree has a foothold in the soil and a clear view of the sun, it can take off and spread its canopy as wide as possible, filling in the spaces and cutting the light off from the understory of the forest. Even in the lower light smaller, larger-leaved plants can grow and soak up whatever trickles down from their bigger cousins. Every inch of ground besides the continually cleared paths has something growing on in, whether it’s bare rock covered by lichens and liverworts and mosses or soil sprouting ferns and palms. But some plants have found yet another space to call their own- epiphytic plants, a “type,” but not a taxonomic distinction, use structures not their own to lift themselves above the ground, toward the light and the rain.

Mosses, liverworts, and lichens can also be considered epiphytes, since they grow on tree trunks and bare rocks- they aren’t parasites and don’t suck nutrients out of the trees or substrates that they grow on, but rather use ambient moisture and nutrients that collect in tiny pockets. The epiphytes that capture my attention, however, are the orchids and bromeliads, showy and beautiful waxy leaves and flowers that spring seemingly from nothing and adorn the branches of canopy trees.

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The spiky additions to the branches bearing reddish leaves are bromeliads, some of my favorite plants. They’re known sometimes as “air plants” because they don’t always grow in dirt, but rather absorb whatever they can from surfaces and the atmosphere around them. Pineapples, possibly the most famous of the bromeliads, do grow on the ground and in the soil, but many others live their whole lives without ever touching the surface of the earth, sending fluffy wind-borne seeds from tree to tree or budding off little clones of themselves to propagate. 

If the seeds manage to hit a tree (or a fencepost, telephone pole, rooftop, or cliffside,) they can sprout and slowly add leaves. Eventually they flower and send out more fluffy seeds, or set out little clones. 

Soon to come, photos of my favorite little bromeliad-in-a-jar. It lives on my windowsill and is soaking in some water at the moment- it was looking a little dry.

 

Fear Not, Gentle Readers!

For Agent Red Squirrel is not gone. I took some time off from blogging, as one is wont to do after nearly three months of intensive post-age, and have since I last posted returned to my native lands through much struggle and airport-sleeping. But I have now returned to the lands of the internets and intend to continue blogging my little heart out.

In other words, I have a big ol’ backlog of photos and stories from this past trip, and potential other fun adventures in the coming term, so stay tuned! My goal is to explore some of the ecology stuff and tell a few more awesome stories that I skated over in my haste to tell you about all the adventures we were having. Currently, my plan is to post at least once every two days, as my back-to-school schedule allows.

It took Dad and I about 16 hours longer to get home than it should have (thanks, U.S. Customs slowdown! We love you too!) but we did make it, and I have showered and obtained clean laundry (I actually do really love you Mom, you are the BEST). The dogs have been patted, the fish have been fed, the brother has been punched, and the photos have been sent to be printed (wheee)! The real posts will commence forthwith!

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Puddles and Lil’ Booger

Puddles is what we have decided to name our new friend. He’s not as dear to me as Nacho (see one of my posts from Monteverde for the story of Nacho the Science Dog) and he was not as lingering a companion, but Puddles is very beautiful nonetheless.

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See why we call him Puddles? Tyler found him under a giant lump of dead coral, and we coaxed him into one of our sampling buckets to get a better look at him. He was obviously unhappy, so we didn’t hold on to him for too long- just long enough to watch him change from bright turquoise to green and red and back again.

Puddles might have been the reason we didn’t find any mantis shrimp in that section of the beach, though- octopuses are listed as major predators of the formidable mantis shrimp. Seems like “squishy” would not be the best strategy for tackling the smashers and spearers of the stomatopod world, but cephalopods are supposed to be very smart, so maybe there are some secret plans and clever tricks involved…

I still doubted, however, that this little lady could take on our mantis shrimp:

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BABY OCTOPUS

 

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She was just so weensy, and so floppy that it wasn’t, in fact, difficult to imagine that Tyler had just sneezed her right out. Hence her nickname, Booger.

When they’re that young, it’s hard to ID them to species, but she (it, he, I don’t really know…) is likely the same type of Caribbean Reef Octopus as Puddles. Which is good, because that species is not known to be venomous, and this little Booger bit Tyler quite hard with her teeny little beak. 

Booger actually managed to escape captivity all by herself, but not before I got this shot of her post-battle pose:

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If I were a witch (I totally am not, please do not be suspicious in any way because IT’S NOT TRUE I SWEAR) my familiar would definitely be an octopus. The inconvenience of carrying around a bucket of seawater would be far outweighed by the awesomeness of their square pupils, the wiggliness and versatility of their soft bodies and extendo-sucker-arms, and the constant reminder of the Beatles’ song “Octopus’ Garden,” which I have loved since I was small. Plus according to Zak, one of our TAs, they’re GREAT conversationalists.

 

Turning Over Rocks

You know how sometimes you really need to go looking for the good stuff? Like, the best and cutest hostel on Cape Cod, or the tastiest hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, or the awesome snarky humor that your quiet friend can express just with eyebrows and three-word sentences: none of this stuff is flying banners or running newspaper ads or leaping out of the water to attract your gaze (dolphins are SUCH attention-seekers…). But you have to take the time to peek into the little jewel-boxes of the world, and you have to pay close attention to the AWESOME STUFF that lives in and under the algae-encrusted rocks right at the waves’ edge.

Seriously, there is a ton of stuff down there! At first glance it looks like just a pile of moldy rocks- cast-off and dead coral chunks, bits of limestone, and old cracked conch shells- but under all the rocks there’s a zoo and a half of biota. Everything from sneaky hidden anemones to sea urchins, flatworms to crabs and suckerfish and sea stars… 

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I was a big fan of this little guy- we found him on the underside of a big slab of limestone. I think he’s a Stippled Clingfish- an algae grazer. 

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This one wasn’t technically under a rock, but more washing over them in the edges of the waves. I honestly have no idea what it is, beyond the vague inkling that it’s a cnidarian (jellyfish) of some kind. It didn’t seem to sting me, but its tentacles were very delicate.

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This last pretty lady was inside of a conch shell- when I picked it up, all these legs came wriggling out into my hand.

Don’t miss the little stuff! Go and pick up some rocks, and look behind those doors you’ve always wondered about. There could be some pretty schweet stuff in there. 

Mantis Shrimp Are Super Weird

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A mantis shrimp is not actually either a mantis (insect) or a shrimp (decapod) but is, in fact, an arthropod. They are referred to in science as “stomatopods,” which as far as I can tell means “mouth-foot” (don’t ask me why… I do not know). They’re pretty much filled to the brim with wizardry and badassery.

The wizardry comes into play in their two stalked, independently moving eyes. They’ve got 16 photoreceptor pigments (humans I think have three?), twelve of which are for color sensitivity… but that’s not all. Each eye has three parts, and can perceive depth independently of the other… but that’s also not all. At least some mantis shrimp can use those other four photoreceptors to see polarized light, both linear and circular. What even does that mean? It means WIZARD VISION. It also potentially means that mantis shrimp have better vision than anything else in the animal kingdom, and a possible secret language of light in which to send each other signals. What are they up to down there on the seafloor?

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The badassery is derived both from their absurd good looks (that is one handsome arthropod, no?) and their incredibly powerful front legs. Like praying mantises, these guys have nearly rocket-powered striking front legs that they use to stun or kill their prey- stomatopods’ hunting appendages are so powerful that they create cavitation bubbles (spontaneous air) underwater behind their super-fast strikes. The sound you can hear from mantis shrimp hunting is not snapping from hitting their prey- it’s the collapsing air pockets that then exert further force on the hapless, stunned, or killed little edibles. Mantis shrimp are divided into “spearers” and “smashers”- some spear their prey (or invading fingers) with lightning-fast stabby motions, and some use club-shaped elbows to smash open shells or knock out prey (or fingers). Their name in German, “fangschreckenkrebse,” translates to “scary-claw crab.” Fairly accurate… at least as accurate as mantis shrimp.

Moral of the story: Mantis shrimp are super weird and crazy awesome. But keep your hands clear- their wizard vision and rocket-claws will help them mess your fingers right up.