West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Friday, November 04, 2005


It’s been a quiet week at La Selva. The rainy season has finally arrived, bringing three straight days of drizzle with intermittent downpours. Even fresh from the dryer, all my clothes have a faint mildew odor. My boots I won’t describe.

Bess is is Nicaragua to get a visa extension— it’s less of a hassle to travel out of the country for the required three days than it is to visit the proper offices in San José. She and Maike (the other member of the La Selva Bauhaus tribute band) wanted to go together, so I promised to help with Maike’s data collection while they were away.

Collection of what? you might ask. Well, something that not many people would be interested in collecting. Not to put to fine a point on it, bat shit. There is a German research team that has been studying a colony of bats (Saccopteryx bilineata) for many years. They have long-term records on the genetics and behavior of this particular colony, and they are using the droppings to study the annual cycle of hormone levels. Someone has to go out at twilight every day, after the bats have left their perches, and collect their crap in Eppendorf tubes. Yesterday evening that person happened to be me.

At half past five, as the shadows thickened under the canopy, I biked down the wide concrete trail. Following Maike’s instructions, I found a muddy side trail about 800 meters out. It led to a clearing with a dilapidated, Blair-Witch-style sort of abandoned house, prominently marked with “Keep Out” signs in three languages. Four, if you count the overpowering odor of cat pee that emanated from the inside room.

Before Maike left, she’d warned me that there were signs of some large cat— puma or jaguar, probably— hanging out around the bat house. At the time, I’d thought, cool! I’d love to see a big cat in the wild. As I stood there in the gathering dark, armed with nothing but forceps and a fanny pack full of Eppendorf tubes, it suddenly seemed less cool. Very far from cool, in fact. OK, I told myself. Maike does this every day. Be a big girl.

A quick peek showed that the rooms were empty, except for a few spiders. I took a deep breath, for several reasons, and stepped into the bat house. Aside from the cat pee smell (and the annoying tendency of the samples to stick to the forceps) it really wasn’t all that bad. I moved a stepladder around, labeling Eppendorf tubes and collecting bat dung, reflecting that I was probably one of a very small number of people in the world engaged in such a task at that moment.

And then, as I perched on the top rung of the ladder to get a sample from the rafters, I heard something in the bushes outside. A cough? A growl? I froze. Whatever it was, I didn’t hear it again. Just the rain dripping off the roof, the frogs and night birds and insects in the trees. (Matt said one of the things that struck him about the rainforest was how much it sounded like it’s supposed to. It’s true, there’s an element of authenticity in all those “jungle noises” you hear in the movies. Weird hoots and buzzings and warbles.)

I decided that if there was anything out there, it would be best to make my presence known. As I labeled the rest of the tubes and picked up the bat pellets from the far wall of the room, I sang the first thing that came to mind— “Babylon is Fallen,” which for some odd reason was a family campfire favorite. Between lines of the song, I kept up a running commentary:

Hail the day so long expected (get in there, little bat poop!)

Hail the year of full release

Zion’s walls are now erected (oh, no, you don’t! Come back here!)

and her watchmen publish peace…

At this point I was almost entirely certain that I was the only person in the world, all six-point-something billion of us, collecting bat shit and singing “Babylon is Fallen.” That thought was oddly comforting, and it kept me up there on the ladder. My handwriting on those samples, though, is pretty darn shaky.

There are a number of reasons that I study plants. Yesterday evening I was reminded of a few more. They’re out during the day, they don’t poop, and they’re not likely to try to eat you while your back is turned.


At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hola Susan, leí tu comentario en el blog de un amigo mío y luego entré al tuyo, me llamó la atención ver que eres bióloga, ¿por qué? te preguntarás. Pues porque escribo una sección llamada "Entrevista con una chica de ciencia" para una revista en México llamada Sync y me interesaría mucho poder entrevistarte para mi próxima entrega. ¿Crees que eso sea posible? Te dejo mi correo electrónico. susana0023@yahoo.com o susata@avantel.net. Muchas gracias ojalá que me puedas contactar. Saludos. Susana


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