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! 

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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!

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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.

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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. 

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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!

 

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!