Parental Proximity (More Penguins)

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This is one of my favorite photos from our recent trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. Surprisingly, it was taken just feet from one of the only inhabited structures we saw on the continent, at Port Lockroy on Goudier Island (part of the Palmer Archipelago). It’s a British research base, or it used to be- now it’s mostly a museum and a place to send postcards, from the most southern post office in the world! The little museum is in one of the original buildings, along with the little gift shop and mailbox, and a more recent addition houses the few people who summer at the base and run the island’s buildings and projects, which take up half of the island. The other half is reserved for the gentoo penguins, who have arrived since the base was originally constructed in 1944 and are slowly and surely overwhelming the area ostensibly overrun by humans.

Pink penguin guano, filled with the exoskeletons of unfortunate krill, coated almost every surface (penguins are projectile poopers- the excrement goes up a lot higher than you might expect from flightless birds). The sides of the path from our landing site to the buildings were barely five feet away from gentoo nests, which seemed to bother the humans a lot more than it bothered the penguins. It was overwhelming- by that point in our trip, we’d seen a lot of penguins. But… penguins! Meanwhile, this fascinating little museum filled with half-century old expedition rations, notebooks, maps, radios, record players, and creepy audio reconstructions waited just beyond the adorable-birdie gauntlet. And we had something like forty minutes to experience all of it.

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p.s. here is the main museum/gift shop building. I like that the color scheme matches the gentoo penguins so well.

I blame Dad for my lack of photos of the island- he left me to write postcards to all of our various family members (anyone whose address I had in my phone). But I can’t really actually muster up any righteousness about it. He had so much fun checking out all the weird leftovers from the age of brutally beardy science-men of the Antarctic… and while my freezing fingers wrote too slowly for me to get back outside for long, our delay kept us in the building just long enough to catch the penguin parent above returning from its foraging trip. From the rocky path, we watched the parents greet one another with bows and beak touches before orchestrating their careful swap in position, moving simultaneously so that the two chicks in the nest would be unprotected and uncovered for as few seconds as possible. Chicks safely covered once more, the relieved parent headed for the water and the returned parent settled on the pile of rocks and guano and roly-poly babies. As the rest of our group headed to the zodiaks and the ship, we lingered for a gross but awesome feeding (the parent barfs up some portion of whatever he or she has consumed while out foraging straight into the mouths of the hungry young) and finally, this picture-perfect family photo.

Leaning on my dad on our way back to the Orion, I did tease him about making me write all of our postcards… but he reminded me of all the times that, like that penguin dad (or mom), he’d (not as graphically) brought home food for me and my siblings. He never barfed up food for his offspring, but he is pretty great as a human father.

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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

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. 

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!