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, June 29, 2007

Magic disappearing photos

I don't know what happened to the photos I posted a few days ago. They were fine for a while, and now they have vanished. I think I will have to invoke demonic interference (Hurlbert 1984) as an explanation. They were pretty damn good pictures, though, so I will try posting them again. Here goes nothing.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Denizens of the lab clearing

Many of the interesting animals here are way out in the forest, but you don't have to travel too far to see wildlife. Here is a sampling of animals I've spotted in the lab clearing-- the space of cut grass and semi-organized plantings around the lab and dorm buildings-- just this week.

Exhibit A: Saturniid caterpillar. These guys are attractive but oh-so-nasty. I ran into one unawares last summer. It stung me through my pants pocket, through three layers of cloth, leaving a welt that burned unbearably for about 20 minutes, itched thereafter, and was still visible a week later. And I am not kidding when I say these things are the size of my index finger:

Still, it's not so bad: in Brazil, caterpillars from the Saturniid genus Lonomia have been known to cause fatal kidney failure from unknown toxins. (If anyone knows the genus of this beauty, please enlighten me. Invertebrates are not a forte of mine.)

Speaking of things that can kill you, here is another one recently spotted in the lab clearing. This is a beautiful example of the eyelash viper, Bothriechis schlegelii. These snakes have highly variable color morphs, from a mottled brown-green to bright green to this gorgeous yellow form, found only in Costa Rica. The local name is oropel, more or less "golden skin." Snakes from a single litter can be very different colors. Oh, and before antivenin was widely available, these little guys caused a number of fatalities every year. Though the fatality rate is much lower now, they are still responsible for some disfiguring injuries: because they hang out in low vegetation, most bites occur in the face and neck area.

Eyelash vipers are smaller than you might expect, and harder to spot. See if you can find the one that Diego's taking a picture of. Fortunately they are also very tranquilo, as snakes go. A researcher I know was taking pictures of a bird, running around trying to get it in the frame, when he felt something drop out of a bush into his shirt pocket. He didn't think much of it until five minutes later when he looked down and saw the little snake crawling out.

And finally, monkeys. They were on the bridge again, close to sunset, and I managed to get some semi-arty shots of a mother and baby. Everybody loves monkeys. Myself included.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Extracurricular activities

One of the perks of working with the REU program is the opportunity to work with the mentors. This is Steve Yanoviak, an expert on canopy ant communities, ten meters up in a Brosimum tree. And guess who took the picture, also ten meters up the tree? That's right, dear readers, it was me.

If I could start my PhD over again, I think I would do something that involved a lot of climbing.

Your tax dollars at work

Every summer, the National Science Foundation of the USA funds the Research Experience for Undergraduates program (REU), in which undergraduate students work with established scientists to learn about research and how it operates. I was an REU fellow myself, quite a few years back, working on kidney physiology in estuarine fishes in a lab on the coast of Maine. Now I find myself involved in the program again, in a very different capacity and a very different setting: I’m the REU Coordinator at La Selva Biological Station. Most REU programs take place at labs in the US, but this one is in a Costa Rican field station.

Given the workplace, my job description is a little more varied than one might expect for a typical REU coordinator. I’ve done a lot of routine office work, coordinating purchase orders and doing inventories of lab supplies. I’ve also given lectures on avoiding snakebites, parasites, and skin fungus. Last week I spent the better part of an evening pulling spines from a Cryosophila palm out of an unfortunate student’s hand with a pair of forceps sterilized with lab-grade ethanol.

There are twelve students, each paired with a different mentor who’s doing research at the station. They’ll be here until mid-August, studying a huge range of topics: the effect of phosphorus on stream invertebrates’ growth rates; fruit dispersal by birds in old growth and young forests; the ecology of an invasive frog species; how to distinguish the land use history of a forest from satellite imagery; etc. This year’s students are an amazing bunch: adaptable, fun, dedicated, and bright. They come from all over the US and Puerto Rico, from schools ranging from Ivies to city universities. Some of them have traveled all over the tropics; many have never left the US before.

Last night we had our first ethics discussion. The ethics series is a part of every REU, but there’s considerable leeway in the topics discussed. When I was an REU, working at a lab that focused on toxicology and physiology, we spent a lot of time talking about the ethics of animal care and use. Here, I decided it would be a good idea to focus on issues related to tropical biology. We talked about conservation in the tropics: what is the appropriate balance of land use in the tropics? who makes the decisions about tropical conservation, and who enforces them? what role do scientists play in tropical conservation? It was a lively and illuminating discussion. People shared their expertise on everything from conservation biology and watershed management to colonialism and Native American fishing rights. We went from CITES to buffalo burgers. (I’m still not sure how we got to buffalo burgers, actually.) On the whole, I was amazed at the level of maturity and thoughtfulness. This is going to be a great summer.

For years, I’ve subscribed to Joseph Campbell’s philosophy: follow your bliss. I try to do what I love and love what I do, and hope that somehow this will lead me on a path to useful, sustainable work that will leave the planet a little better off. The job I’m doing right now feels like a step in the right direction. Thanks to all the US taxpayers for making this possible!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Dawn from the balcony in Panama

Friday, June 01, 2007

A man, a plan, a canal...

Yes, that’s right. Panama. I was there, though I have nothing to show for it—not even a stamp in my passport—except some blurry seascape photos from the balcony of a 5-star hotel.

Tuesday night, as the plane descended toward San José, I was musing on what an easy trip it had been. Everything had run on time; I’d had plenty of time to get to the international terminal in Atlanta. They didn’t even make me pay overweight charges on my giant duffle, though I’m pretty sure it was a few pounds heavier than it should have been. I wondered, as I stared idly out the window at the city lights and a distant thunderstorm, what could go wrong this trip. I was kind of half-hoping the airline would lose my luggage, so I wouldn’t have to worry about negotiating the Caribeños bus terminal with it in the morning. I think that all the time I’ve spent in Latin America has been good for my blood pressure: the expectation here is that nothing will run smoothly, and when things do it’s a pleasant surprise.

As the plane sank lower, the clouds closed in. The fog was so thick I could hardly see the wingtip light. The engines droned; I felt the thump of the landing gear coming out. Then suddenly the plane lurched upward and climbed again with stomach-wrenching speed. The captain came on the intercom a few moments later, sounding more shaken than I’d ever heard a captain sound. “Uh, folks, we had a little visibility issue here with ground fog around the airport. We got down to about 300 feet and we still couldn’t see a thing. We don’t have the capability to land on instruments here, so we’re just going to, uh, go into a holding pattern for a bit and see what happens.” Airline captains are generally such stalwart examples of Midwestern bland good cheer. It was rather nerve-wracking to hear his composure slip.

A few minutes later: “Folks, this is your captain again. We have just received word from the tower that the airport is closed. Nobody’s getting in or out right now, and we don’t know how long that’s going to last. We are headed down to Panama City and hoping we can land there.” And so we did, getting into the airport a little after midnight. With nothing but carry-on luggage, the motley herd of passengers—including two high school groups, who seemed to enjoy the proceedings greatly—was waved through customs and immigration with only a cursory glance at our passports. We loaded into buses at the curb, the night air still hot and steamy, redolent of wilting flowers and diesel exhaust. The first class passengers were deposited at a hotel half an hour from the airport, and the rest of us headed out into the countryside. It was a long, long road with absolutely no lights on either side. I speculated with my seatmate, a fashionable young tica, about whether we’d end up in army cots in the middle of the jungle somewhere.

Eventually—well past one—the bus reached our destination, the Hotel Intercontinental Playa Bonita. The place was quite grand, with live orchids all over the lobby, a private beach, and two giant swimming pools. Unfortunately we had all of six hours in which to enjoy it, and I spent most of that time sleeping.

In the morning I did get to play a halfway decent piano in the lobby, so the little detour was worthwhile. I also got free lodging for the night, coffee and a stale roll for breakfast (apparently marooned air travelers don’t merit the full five-star treatment), and a view of the Panama Canal from the bus. All in all, a nice—if quick—vacation to Panama. I must say, though, that I’m very glad to be in Costa Rica.