Agent Red Heads South

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Agent Red Squirrel has been remiss- I’m sorry for the disappearance! But I have good reason: things have been busy in my world recently. I relocated hemispheres once again, this time even further south than Exmouth, and I made it to a fifth and sixth continent. That’s right, after a very brief stopover in Buenos Aires, Argentina (South America), I headed for the Antarctic Peninsula on board the National Geographic Orion. It was my greatest adventure yet, scientifically fascinating, photographically exhilarating, and so much fun that it can’t be contained in a regular series of posts. For the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a single photo and an explanation thereof four times per week, about every other day, to tell the story of the Time I Went South.

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Long Nights

This post may not be appropriate for young cousins, just FYI. Not graphic. But might result in a lot of unwanted explaining about grown-up stuff. And with THAT intro:

Quan, our guide, has by now gotten used to my many questions about life in urban and rural Vietnam, and has in fact begun to offer quite a bit of information that he thinks I’ll find interesting. On the long and windy road to Mai Chau, he talked about the ethnic minorities of Vietnam (54 different groups, all with different religious, social, architectural, and stylistic traditions) and their relationships with the government and one another, the extinct and extant fauna of Vietnam’s mountains, local cuisine (“bird soup” recommended; monkey not recommended), national politics, and, most intriguingly, birth control.

As we drove up into the higher passes, the clouds and sun descended. Lights switched on in the many storefronts and houses along the road, and through nearly every open front door we could see families attending to their dinners and their televisions. According to Quan, it’s only been in the past several years that the villages in this area have had reliable electricity at all. “At six it gets dark,” he said, “and night is very long. So, many childrens.”

Self-evident. Long night equals lots of kids, because, you know, what else do people have to do in the dark? And in terms of birth control, well… “The people from the city are shy about teaching condoms,” he told us. “So they show, and then the people in the villages do like they show. But still, so many childrens.” What happened? Condoms elsewhere in the world are known as effective birth control as well as disease prevention. They’re cost-effective and convenient, with no medical side effects. But, as Quan told us, the city-folk were shy about teaching condoms. “They show using fingers,” he said with a smirk, “and the people do like they show, just like that.”

Certainly not the most effective sex ed. Possibly worse than abstinence-only, which is really not a thing I ever thought I’d have to say. But wait! With the advent of village electricity and the subsequent invasion of television into the homes of rural Vietnamese, we expected a similar rise in sexual sophistication leading to better birth control and the current lower birth rate. Not so, according to Quan. It’s not that they have access to more information or more medical technology, it’s that they’re just too busy watching TV nowadays (apparently HBO is particularly popular) for the nights to be as long and the sex to be as good.

Game of Thrones as contraceptive; who knew?

En Route

One of the loveliest parts of our visit to Cambodia was the side-trip we made out of the city. About a 40-minute drive away, the river is full of boats to take vegetables, fish, and tourists out to the floating villages on the Tonle Sap, a huge shallow lake that rises and falls with the changing seasons. But on the way, we made a few significant stops:

First, we pulled off of the road to take some photos of a lotus farm- fields and fields of soggy ground and plate-like leaves hovering below giant pink flowers and drooping green seed pods.

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The woman who owned this field was shelling the lotus seeds at an alarming speed with an alarmingly sharp knife.

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We got back in the car and drove on a little farther, to one of the many narrow lanes filled with tiny shops, hammocks, and houses high on stilts. I always feel weird about taking photos of people, but Sinat (our guide) walked us down toward the water where the kids were playing, and all of the time I’ve spent with my cousins and the kids at Camp Galileo kicked in. One little girl was clearly a fan of high-fives, and we practiced some new fist-bump techniques. She brought her friends over to say hello, and Sinat helped us buy some snacks from a nearby vendor.

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She’s now a pro at the fist-bump-to-wiggly-fingers maneuver.

I’ll leave you for now with some alliteration: blowing bubbles from a bobbing bowl

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Next up: a floating village on the Tonle Sap!

Lost but Not Abandoned

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The temples are old, twelve centuries old in some cases. They are mossy, disordered, eroded, unsettled by roots and shifting sands, and sometimes riddled with bullet holes. They were lost to pilgrims and scholars alike until painfully recently, swallowed up by trees and climbing vines until they were unrecognizable. But they were not abandoned.

The faces smiling down from the Angkor Tom towers don’t seem lonely. Nor do the happy little amblypygids smiling down from the inside rooftop corners:

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Ain’t he cute? He’s not a spider, but a completely different type of arachnid also known as a whip spider. You may recognize him from one of the Harry Potter movies, or from a late-night freakout in which you likely jumped onto something as far from the floor as you could manage while maybe squealing or whimpering just… just a little bit. Fear not, gentle readers! Amblypygi are not venomous, aggressive, or even particularly defensive. For the most part they just hang out and eat crickets. Those long pedipalps (crabby-looking claws in the front) tell you whether the animal is a male or a female (males have longer ones, females shorter) and have the capability of grabbing on to little buggy snacks, but at their worst could give you a good pinch if you really tried to make their owner mad.

The temples have been re-occupied by humans and restoration work (funded by Cambodians, the French, Indians, Russians, and Americans among others) is everywhere through the temple complexes. But the company that the temples have kept through the hundreds of years between creation, overgrowth, rediscovery, looting, and tourism refuses to give up its home.

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They live here now. It’s their temple too.

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Some of them even engage in restoration work of their own, contributing silvery adornments to the crumbling walls.

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The temples have been reclaimed many times over their long history, by Hindus, Buddhists, Khmer Rouge, the French, modern-day Cambodians, and the forest itself. But I’d never call them abandoned.

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Ends and Beginnings

Dear Readers,

I promise that Agent Red Squirrel isn’t gone. The past week or so has been super hectic, with packing and last days on the water, saying goodbye to friends and to Ningaloo reef… but there are still a thousand things left to blog about! I may have left Exmouth but as I am able, I will continue writing away. Upcoming highlights include a Meet the Locals feature, a post on mixed-species dolphin groups, and possibly a little bit of my own personal speculation about the research we’ve done this season.

THAT BEING SAID, I am currently located in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and am therefore super excited to bring back travel-bloggy Agent Red Squirrel! As usual, expect biology and curiosity and adventure, but with more history and cultural stuff. And with that, here’s an update on what I’ve been up to the past few days:

First, we left Exmouth. Packed up the whole house, books and papers and computers and food, football and port-a-crib, binoculars, posters, clothes, beach towels, scuba gear… the lot. It all (mysteriously and magically) fit back into the big truck, and we took off at 6 am for Geraldton, our Exmouth-to-Perth roadtrip stop. (In case anyone is unclear here, I’ve been in Australia for three months, so this is the tale of how I left my field research position at the end of a wildly fun and scientifically successful season.)

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I snapped a last emu photo for the road. Of course.

After a quick stop in Coral Bay to drop off our beloved boat:

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We booked it down to Geraldton and in the morning, we took off for Perth. But you know Team Sousa- first we had to make a pilgrimage to one of the most biologically exciting and real-people boring tourist sites in the world!

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Stromatolites are the oldest extant living things in the world. The earliest known fossils (3.5 billion years ago???) are layers and layers of these same kinds of cyanobacteria, the primary engineers of our current oxygen atmosphere. They converted the carbon dioxide that used to dominate into oxygen, which poisoned most everything else living at the time but allowed for some bigger stuff to develop, like… us. As these particular cyanobacteria grew, they accumulated dust and grime and calcium carbonate in layers corresponding to periods of activity in their clustered flagella (wiggly external bacteria bits that move stuff around, or in this case attach things together), probably as protection from strong ultraviolet light. All told, they are big piles of ex-bacterial film growing in shallow sunny water, and they look a little like ossified elephant poops, but symbolically represent the very beginnings of the field of biology and so there we were. We saw them. We nodded in respect/camaraderie. We got back in the car and continued south.

We finished our last few hours together in typical Team Sousa style: Tim and me singing the Pitch Perfect soundtrack and Kaja and Nat gritting their teeth and bearing it. With some lovely hospitality by Luke, Nat’s brother who very conveniently lives in Perth with some awesome housemates and, you know, a house, we got some last-minute Australia points out of the way:

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Yes, Kaja finally did eat the Vegemite under Australian supervision. But we still just called it all a tie. Highlights from the Australia Points list may make up a future post- I feel like we did pretty well in terms of covering the main stuff! (Sports, naming the states, eating native flora and fauna, not getting eaten by the native flora and fauna…)

And then, at three in the morning, I bade goodbye to my most excellent and cherished science companions (L) and headed to the airport. A few hours of flapping my wings REALLY HARD, and I was in Cambodia, wherein I took a nap and met up with the coolest person in the world (you think this is hyperbole but it isn’t). More on Cambodia and its many delights tomorrow, dear readers. For now, I bid thee to have a good night and to dream of guppies and lotus flowers until the morn.

Clams

Hello beloved readers!

I apologize most heartily for my relative absence- we’re wrapping up the field season here in Exmouth, with all that entails: extra snuck-in snorkel trips, boat cleaning, taking posters and papers off of the walls, last-minute photo-ops on the water, cooking strange combinations of things from the remnants of our kitchen cabinets… It’s been a bit of a whirlwind. But still fun, of course.

As a metaphor for my lack of posting, here are a series of photos of giant clams.

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The color in the mantle (the soft part, showing from inside the two shells) comes from algae that the mollusk can cultivate within its own tissue. The algae and the clam’s own filter feeding both provide it with food/energy.

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Giant clams like these can live up to 100 years in the wild, building up layers of thickening shells as they go.

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Just so that nobody emails me with warnings that these animals should be added to my list of Things-In-Australia-That-Want-To-Kill-Me (Wikipedia: “It was known in times past as the killer clam or man-eating clam, and reputable scientific and technical manuals once claimed that the great mollusc had caused deaths; versions of the U.S. Navy Diving Manual even gave detailed instructions for releasing oneself from its grasp by severing the adductor muscles used to close its shell.”) I’m pretty sure that I’d have to be trying to climb inside of one of them for it to even give me a good pinch. Most can’t even close their shells the whole way, nor would they have any desire to hang on to a snorkeler/diver. They’re about as dangerous as rotting logs. But much prettier.

Contact from the Outer World

Watching a big male emu and his chicks walk straight toward you as you crouch on the sidewalk at the edge of suburbia is like being visited by aliens.

“What do they want?” you wonder. “Where did they come from? And where will they go when they leave here?”

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Well, it turns out that emus do actually wander off into the bush at night to sleep, though the thought is still funny to me. They find a place that they assume is more sheltered than anywhere else and slowly doze off after a period of sleepy vigil, folding their long legs under their bodies and curving their necks back. I imagine they’re fairly well camouflaged at that point. The chicks, according to Wikipedia and this fascinating article on “The Sleep of the Emu” (so many questions answered!) stretch out a little less gracefully, necks flat along the ground like sleeping ostriches. The emus wake up periodically throughout the night, grazing and defecating for a while before settling back down up to eight times.

Someone (Immelmann, the author of that article) stayed up all night ten days in a row in some zoological garden in Germany to collect this information. I think someone needs to do the same for emus in the wild, though getting them to sleep normally in the presence of humans would be a challenge. This is what I love about science- we figure one thing out, and have to resort to ever-more absurd tactics to get closer and closer to real answers about the basic workings of the world around us. We’ll never really know what emus do in the Outback at night until we can follow them around, and we’ll never really know what it’s like to walk on a planet not our own until we load up a rocket with literal tons of explosives, sit a person on top of that, and light it on fire. There’s so much left to explore, and so many crazy scientists ready to commit their sleepless nights and endless calculations, frustrations in coding and camouflage and mosquito bites and sterilized lab equipment, to the pursuit of knowledge.

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In a sort of thematic segue (I try, okay?), I’ve received some other contact from the outside world! Because internet is so expensive here, I feel like I’ve been a bit (or a lot) absent from the planet as a whole, wrapped entirely up in my two housemates, our boss and his family, and the approximate 3 other people we know in town, along with 112 humpback and 250-ish bottlenose dolphins. Keeping up with my friends and family has been difficult, so you can imagine my delight at seeing one Sheila Brady, who turned up in Exmouth a few days ago!P1080767

I can’t say how much it means that she came all that extra distance to hang out and bring some much-missed news of home and general cheerfulness!

-Agent Red Squirrel