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.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Field update

One thing about being a professor for a field course is that life is never boring. Exhausting, hair-raising at times, wonderful at times, but never boring. I came back from Peru in mid-October and spent a few weeks at home working on manuscripts and resting up. Good thing I did, I guess; I hit the ground running on November 1st and it feels as though I haven't stopped. Tonight the students are finishing up and printing their final independent project papers, and I find myself for once with a few minutes to write.

The first site we visited was San Gerardo station in Monteverde, an hour's hike into the cloud forest on the Atlantic side of the continental divide. San Gerardo is one of my favorites among the stations we visit; the forest is beautiful and the station is managed by a delightful young couple with a three-year-old son who brings cute to a whole new level. San Gerardo offers a chance to study cloud forest conservation as well as some of the basic ecology topics that we cover. Mauricio and I talked about pollination, seed dispersal, climate change, tropical deforestation, gap dynamics and the maintenance of tropical diversity, soil seed banks, and the history of conservation in Monteverde, with walks and field activities linked to almost every lecture. Clear skies in the morning gave us a view of Volcán Arenal looming over the valley below us, and in the afternoon clouds rolled in with occasional thunder.

Everything seemed to be running smoothly at San Gerardo until the third day, when an invited professor brought news of the outside world in the form of La Nación, Costa Rica's major daily newspaper. The front page was full of stories about tropical storm Tomas, which had slammed into the Pacific slope of Costa Rica, leaving bridges out, many towns without water or electricity, and dozens dead in landslides. On the Atlantic side, we hadn't even noticed a change in the weather. We were fortunate to escape from the major damage. The road to Cabo Blanco (our next study site) didn't escape it, though. When we called the main office to check on the logistics for the next segment of our trip, we found out that a major bridge and several kilometers of road on the way to our planned site had washed out. There was some possibility of getting the group in, if we hiked 5-6 km, but no way to get enough food in, and—with more rain predicted—some concern about getting the group out. Also, our planned activities at the study site were mainly snorkeling and tidepooling, and the waves were still too high and the water too murky to make either one feasible. So, plan B.

Over the phone with Erika, who had planned to meet up with the group at Cabo Blanco, we formulated a new plan. She was able to find a field station that could accommodate us for four of the five days, and Mau was able to get us an extra day at a field station near Monteverde and line up some biologist friends as invited speakers. He lived in Monteverde for years, so he's well-connected in the area. And my job? Redesigning curriculum. The field station that Erika found, the Soltis Center, is a new place built by a Texas A & M alum (much to the discomfiture of Erika, a UT graduate!) and donated to the university, at about 400 m elevation on the Atlantic slope, in forest quite similar to La Selva. Obviously, the planned lectures on marine ecosystem ecology and Pacific coast fishes were out. I didn't have my computer with me at Monteverde, since we hiked in, so I planned as best I could with the resources at hand. The minute I jumped out of the bus at Soltis and Erika handed me the backpack with my computer, I set to work. I expanded a lecture about my research into two separate talks and developed a new lecture on tropical forest succession. On the first full day at the station, while the students were in orientation walks, I visited a nearby eco-lodge and fortunately found enough secondary forest of different ages to be able to put together a field trip. I guess this is the kind of story I can tell in job interviews when they ask, "what kind of setbacks have you faced?"

After Soltis I went back to my apartment for a few days of so-called rest. It turned out to be less than restful, as I had to take care of the resurgence of the termite problem on my back porch, finish up a manuscript for submission, and review two manuscripts for coauthors along with the usual host of things that need to be done when one is home once a month. I didn't get to see any friends except Amaris, who lives right next door.

And then to Palo Verde. In the dry season, Palo Verde is magnificent—the hard dry wind over the grass, the wood storks winging over the marsh in slow motion like creatures lost in time, the forest bright and strange with the sunlight pounding down between the bare branches of low, sculpted trees. In the wet season, which seems likely to extend into December this year, Palo Verde is the proverbial green hell. Welters of mosquitoes descend on any exposed flesh. Sticky mud cakes itself over your boots, each step adding more layers until you lumber on Frankenstein feet. About half the trees near the station are acacias, bearing sharp thorns that house the nests of stinging ants. Bushwhacking is less than pleasant.

At Palo Verde the students do their second independent research project. I was working with three groups of students, two with relatively straightforward herbivory/reproductive allocation projects and one group that ran into all kinds of trouble. Their first project idea was to look for spatial segregation of the sexes in a dioecious tree species. (For the non-scientists out there, briefly, most plants have both male and female reproductive parts on the same individual. In dioecious [die-EEE-shuss] plants, each individual bears only male or only female flowers. In some species, it's been demonstrated that the males and females occupy different habitats, keeping individuals from competing as much with members of their own species.) It was a great idea... but of the three dioecious species that might potentially be found flowering this time of year (the only way to tell the sexes apart is through flowers or fruits), none could be found in large enough quantities to work with.

So, plan B. They decided to look at seedling distributions relative to the position of adult trees. There's a plot of old-growth forest with all the tree locations mapped, about 6 km from the station on a poorly-maintained woods road. It's passable in the dry season, but in the wet season the Toyotona got about 100 m into the forest before we came to the first downed tree. Beyond it, we could see a mudpit that looked too deep to cross. So, plan C.

We returned to the station and I helped them find a species that was abundant enough to work with, and they finally started collecting data. Of the four days of data collection, though, they had already spent one entire day in a fruitless search for dioecious plants.

Everything seemed to be running smoothly again, which I guess I should know by now is a worrisome sign. On the last day of the project, which is generally set aside for writing up papers and presentations, one student from this group decided to go back to the field and get a few last data points. She had been feeling sick, and I tried to dissuade her, but she assured me that she felt fine and would be right back. Cue the ominous music.

When she wasn't back in an hour and a half, another student from the group went to look for her. He reported finding her backpack and camera at the edge of the site and no sign of her. Imagining the worst, I told the rest of the staff what had happened and we formed a search party. With a park guard, our TA, and the other two students from the group, we headed into the forest where her backpack was. We saw puma tracks in the mud. I thought about all the possible outcomes, and it was grim. The only student death in the history of OTS occurred at Palo Verde, when a student was trapped in the rocks while trying to outrun a swarm of killer bees. We shouted her name into the buzzing green thickets. After ten minutes of searching we heard a weak answer. Still imagining the worst, we fought through the vines and stinging ants to find her, disoriented and dehydrated but otherwise uninjured. Apparently she had followed a family of coatis and lost her way back to the plot. I don't know if I've ever been so grateful to see anyone in my life.

For some reason these things always seem to happen in Palo Verde... last time here, I spent the night at the hospital with a student who had possible appendicitis symptoms, and the next day I had to explain how to conduct three-dimensional chi-square tests to a group of undergraduates on less than three hours of sleep. Fortunately they were stellar undergraduates, as is the group this time around. The students are what keeps me going.

OK, time for bed. Whatever misadventures tomorrow will bring, I'll be better equipped to deal with them after a night of sleep and a cup of coffee.


At 5:06 PM, Blogger Bess said...

Wow, Susan, never a dull moment. I can't wait to see you and hear all the juicy details! Love, Bess

At 12:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Killer Bees? Stinging ants in sharp thorny trees?

I'll take the AT anyday.



At 10:09 AM, Blogger Susan said...

I would take the AT over wet-season Palo Verde in a heartbeat. Even New Hampshire in the rain. But PV is what I've got, and I guess it beats numerous alternatives. Today at least there's a breeze to keep the mosquitoes down!


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