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. 

 

Night Life, Party Time

College kids are known for their late nights- procrastinated papers, raucous parties, frats, beer pong… well, our FSP does involve the occasional game of ping-pong on the folding table outside the researcher’s lounge, some late-night paper revisions (though it would be essentially impossible to procrastinate here), and, well, bio-nerd’s dream parties: night walks through the jungle.

La Selva is known for great birding, and to the FSP program is known as a great place to take night walks. The paths are wide and clear, and there’s always something interesting to see, whether it be an ocelot, an armadillo, a bat, or the little glass frog who sits on her eggs by the bridge. But if we only looked down on our nighttime excursions (party, woo!) we’d miss out on some of the most impressive sights.

Those who know me will know all about my passion for owls- silent fliers, possessed of awesome eyes and wicked eyebrows, sharp hearing, powerful wings… owls are pretty sweet. So far in Costa Rica I haven’t managed to get any good pictures, but I’ve been surprised a few times by a sudden rush of air over my head followed by a ghostly set of wings.

But another bird might be overtaking (or at least coming close to) my favorite avian predators- the Great Potoo, a tropical bird that perches during the day on dead trees, sitting perfectly still and pretending to be a dead branch. During the night, this fairly large bird (about  regular owl-sized, actually) shakes out its wings and yawns its massive beak before taking off into the sky and hunting down some big flying night bugs and sometimes even bats. (Can you imagine?)

As Tommy commented in a previous post, they have one of the most interesting and unsettling calls in the jungle- listen to the Cornell bird lab’s recording and imagine hearing that from out of the jungle as you walk alone through the dark:

http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/overview?p_p_spp=222936

Here’s my best Potoo picture- this one surprised me on the bridge over the river, and hung out for a few minutes to be admired.

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These next guys are some members of the nightjar family, either nightjars or possibly pauraques- I spotted their eyeshine with my headlamp on the ground right outside of our cabin, and had to check them out. They didn’t seem to care about my approach at all until they took wing in unison, buzzed my head, and set back down to wait for more insect prey on the ground nearby. You never know about those tricky birds… they could be anywhere.

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I probably ought to go to bed earlier than I do… but you know college kids, can’t miss out on that night life! 

Everyone Gets Defensive Sometimes

Animals displaying bright coloration and patterning to warn away predators are known as “aposematic,” and include things like coral snakes, skunks, and poison dart frogs (Dendrobatidae). This “blue jeans frog” is bright red and blue as a warning to potential predators that it is very nasty-tasting and/or dangerous to their health… but doesn’t lend them any stealth abilities for avoiding curious and camera-laden humans.

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Other fun facts about these frogs: they lay eggs in the leaf litter, fertilize them, allow them to hatch, and then carry the tadpoles on their backs high into the canopy, to deposit them in tiny pools of water caught in bromeliads. The mother will return to feed them every day until they are big enough to grow legs and leave the pools, somehow remembering each tadpole’s location, and providing them with the chemicals in their foods that they will need to retain their parents’ defensive poison.

Another type of animal defense involves not advertisement of unpalatability but simple hiding-in-plain-sight. Tent-making bats like the two species below chew along the midribs of big leaves, collapsing them down into little shelters. They hold on to the midribs with their tiny little feets, and nap through the day bathed in the green light coming through their tent walls. They also build decoy tents, with no bats inside, possibly to foil squirrel monkeys and other bat predators’ efforts to find their real hiding places.

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These ones look like cotton balls. Way too cute.

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Other interesting defense mechanisms we’ve seen in La Selva include: the armadillos, hard to photograph because they like to crawl around in the underbrush in the dark; fer de lance snakes with a very nasty bite to impart on anything foolish enough to tangle with them; and bullet ants, inch-long little boogers that are named for their ability to make you feel, for 24 full hours, as if you have been shot.

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Then there are things like this tamandua (ant-eater) that see potential predators like us, squeak, and waddle over to a too-small tree in order to climb it slowly and cast timid and unhappy looks down at the scientists below. Not maybe as impressive a defense strategy… but still pretty adorable.

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La Selva- the Jungle

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Yeah, that’s a sloth. A two-toed sloth, located directly above and next to a nice, wide concrete path running through the forest here in La Selva, an OTS Biological Station on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. It’s casual. No biggie. Sloths are just sort of the coolest and weirdest things ever. 

We arrived at La Selva, unpacked, and tumbled directly out into the jungle again. It feels like Corcovado but cooler, wetter, and quieter- the cicadas are fewer and farther between. There isn’t the same sense of inherent wildness (the warm-ish showers and solid bathroom floors help) as in Corcovado, but all the animals here seem a little closer to the paths, a little more accessible. Tapirs and jaguars are less likely here, but snakes and frogs and birds are everywhere. We’re actually doing our project here observing mixed flocks of Keel-Billed and Chestnut-Mandibled Toucans, Collared Aracaris, and Montezuma and Chestnut-Headed Oropendolas, following their calls and their flight paths through the forest.

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I’m starting to become fonder and fonder of jungles like this- I feel like nowadays I know what to look for in the riotous foliage and bright colors, and things get more and more interesting the more I learn. And they’re beautiful. When we take off in a few days for Little Cayman Island, as excited as I am for reefs and beaches (think kid-on-Christmas-combined-with-Halloween-and-birthday-excited) I think I’ll miss the big trees and the little mosses, the tree ferns, the clear streams, and the bromeliads.

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But the jungle’s not done with us yet. Still a few more days to spot the fer de lances, track the Great Potoo calls through the trees, and listen to the different calls of the toucans. And of course, write some more papers.

The Garden

It is more or less a place of biblical beauty, especially to a bunch of sweaty, bug-bitten scientists staggering out of the wild jungle-  Las Cruces Biological Station and the Wilson Botanical Gardens.

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We spent two days recuperating from chiggers and watching birds in the gardens, taking a bit of time to learn some plant taxonomy and work on papers. My favorite hours there were spent just exploring and then finding somewhere to sit and contemplate among the plants.

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Lots of cool stuff to see:

This weirdo spider-Image

This very suspicious nest-building parrot-

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And this ethereal-looking butterfly-

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It was good to have a bit of time to chill out and be comfortable- hot showers, clean sheets, no mosquito nets necessary, and some other undergraduates from a non-Dartmouth, OTS course in tropical biology to chat with. I also found out what our mystery evil-plant is! It’s in the family Loasaceae, an old group sort of related to thistles (thus the bristles) and magnolias (thus the flowers). The species name is Nasa speciosa. It’s nice to have a name to put to at least one of the two Cuericí study organisms! Apparently all of the specimens of this plant (and there aren’t many) were collected within a mile of where we found ours.

Hooray for science, and hooray for hot showers!

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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…