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.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Today I’ve been upstaged by a rain shower and several species of charismatic mesofauna. I’m back in one of my favorite places in the world, La Selva Biological Station, setting up projects and giving workshops to some of the visiting student groups. Right now the sky over the lab clearing is turning the opaque gray of an overcast jungle sunset, and the vine-festooned branches across the lab clearing are becoming indistinct as the light draws out of the clouds. My office in the newly remodeled Old Lab still smells mainly of fresh paint and varnish, but with overtones of Sarapiquí fungus and wet wood already sneaking in.

Last week my student Tyler and I finished up the plant surveys at Finca Los Nacientes. The incipient forest there has already formed a canopy in many places, and the early successional species are beginning to die out. Solanum jamaicense, a particularly nasty little viny tomato-like plant covered with hooked spines, seems to be dying particularly fast. I’m happy to see it go; pulling the remnants of those thorns out of my legs before they got infected was one of my least favorite parts of the field season last year. Not many new species this year, but the few that did come in are mainly forest species, real trees that could live for decades or centuries instead of the scrappy, weedy, bird-dispersed Melastomataceae that dominate right now. I wish the spiny ferns would also die. My hands are crisscrossed with scabs from battling through head-high banks of spiny ferns. Even less pleasant, there’s still something in the plots that I’m allergic to. Last year I had a massive histamine reaction, partly because I was still recovering from pretty serious poison ivy, and I had to take a double course of prednisone to finally get rid of the full-body hives. This year I was able to keep the itching down to a dull roar by taking antihistamines, but the drawback was the slowed-down, underwater feeling from the drugs. Loratidine is supposed to be the least soporific of the over-the-counter antihistamines, but it still left me feeling drugged. It is very discouraging to try to work in the field in that state—my body could only go about 75% as fast as my brain wanted to. But we still got it done. It’s even more discouraging, I discovered, to try to conduct advanced data analysis and format figures in R while under the influence of something like that.

In the few days after we finished the plant surveys, Alex and I worked on data analysis and figures for our upcoming talks at ATBC (Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation)—more on that later—Tyler got to spend some time with Felix taking care of the farm and seeing the countryside. They fed the horses, harvested yuca, milked the cows, and made fresh cheese. On Sunday afternoon, a hot humid day buzzing with cicadas, they went to the river for a swim. Tyler’s Spanish was virtually nonexistent when he arrived, but he’s picking it up fast. After Felix dropped us off at La Selva, Tyler told me, “Felix is one of the nicest, most patient people I’ve ever met.” Definitely. I am fortunate to have such good friends.

I’ve been very busy in the past two days getting my students set up with the project that will consume the rest of the summer. Tyler and Angie, another Purchase undergrad, will be revisiting a data set from 1986/7, measuring lianas associated with the trees that the TREES project has been following for the past 30 years. This will be the first liana survey to directly compare individual crown occupancy by lianas over such a long time scale. We’ll measure the lianas on the surviving trees from that year’s survey, and we’ll also compare the data to a cohort of trees of the same species that are the same size now as those trees were in 1987. The fieldwork is non-trivial; there’s going to be a lot of tromping through the forest and peering up into the canopy. Tyler and Angie are getting more practice at how to do this safely, paying attention to their surroundings as they go and avoiding the many hazards of tropical fieldwork. Yesterday we located some of the trees and began the survey. It’ll be slow at first, but I’m confident in their abilities to work efficiently and safely. It’s good to see them working together to solve problems and communicating well.

In between fieldwork with my students, I’ve been giving talks and workshops for visiting student groups. Hence the bit about being upstaged by rain and charismatic species. This afternoon I talked with a group of Native American students about plant strategies and what plants do to survive. I love field teaching in the rainforest more than just about anything else. We got maybe 100 m into the forest, but in that distance I found more than an hour’s worth of things to talk about: cauliflorous fruits, iridescent leaves in the understory, lianas, hemiepiphytes, delayed greening, avian and mammalian seed dispersal, secondary compounds… I almost called it off in the first few minutes when the clouds that had been lurking all day decided to open up and dump on us just as we left. Trying to shout loudly enough to communicate over a tropical downpour is a losing proposition. But the weather cleared up after a few minutes, and I’m glad we stuck with it. The forest offered up all kinds of surprises, the best being a cask-headed lizard (Corytophanes cristatus) fixing us with its baleful reptilian glare. Its mottled green and brown colors were so fresh that it must have just shed its old skin. The students gathered around close to ask questions, enthralled by the forest and its denizens. There’s nothing quite like teaching under those conditions. It’s like improvising music: a partnership, an ever-evolving conversation.

Later I gave a scientific writing workshop for the REUs (Research Experience for Undergraduates). A funny story about REUs—the La Selva researchers often use the acronym, rey-oo, to refer to these guys, but the word is suspiciously close to the Spanish “reo”—convict. In 2007 when I was directing the program, I told a tico friend that I was in charge of the twelve REUs doing research at La Selva.

“Doce reos en el bosque? Y se portan bien?” Twelve convicts in the forest? And do they behave themselves?

Music night is starting in a few minutes, so I’d better wrap this up. More soon, and pictures!

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Back in the jungle

The storm has moved on, leaving the air thick with humidity and the trees dripping. A few parrots are squabbling over fruit in the high branches. About an hour ago the dark clouds came rumbling down from the Cordillera Volcanica Central trailing streamers of rain, and a few flashes of lightning close by convinced me to unplug the computer and take a break from preparing data sheets for the upcoming field surveys. As you might have guessed, I’m back in the jungle, specifically at Finca Los Nacientes in San Ramón de La Virgen, Sarapiquí, Costa Rica.

The biggest change since the last time I visited the farm was the arrival of baby Isabel. She is a remarkably sweet and calm four-month-old with a spiky cap of red hair just like Alex’s and deep brown eyes sparkling with curiosity like Felix’s. Life at the farm continues in a similar rhythm: rising with the dawn, a breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans), fried plantains, eggs, and coffee; long days in the field; a second round of coffee and some cake when the storms roll in mid-afternoon; dinner and an early bedtime. Felix’s cousin Yerlin looks after the baby during the day so Alex can get some work done. I’ve heard that a baby’s rate of vocabulary acquisition depends on how many words she hears in her early years, and if that’s the case Isabel will probably be off the charts: Yerlin is a talker.

Yesterday morning Alex and I went to the forest for a few hours to take leaf longevity measurements. For the last three years, she and Felix have marked the emerging leaves of new seedlings with little plastic tags when they emerge, and she revisits them every month to measure the leaf life span. It’s basic science, but with an eventual applied goal—the more we know about how these species behave in different conditions, the better we can plan for reforestation.

It was a hot morning after a night of rain. The red earth of the hillside steamed where slashes of sunlight came down through the canopy, and the thick odor of rotting leaves surrounded us. Being back in the forest always puts my senses on full alert: snakes? ants? scorpions? Nearly a decade ago now, during my first semester in graduate school, I visited the American Museum of Natural History with my systematics class right after three months in the jungle. There was an exhibit of live butterflies inside a climate-controlled tent. I remember that the minute I walked in and felt that air, 85 degrees F and 95% humidity, full of the humid smell of decaying vegetation, all of a sudden I was fully aware of where my hands and feet were and what was around me: snakes? ants? scorpions? It’s not paranoia; it’s more like a sharpened awareness that makes me feel fully alive and present.

Between two sets of plots yesterday, Alex and I paused at the trail junction for water and some oatmeal raisin cookies. Filthy, muddy, sweaty, swatting mosquitoes, we started chatting about biostatistics. There may have been other people in the world at that very moment sitting in the rainforest talking about model selection and the Akaike Information Criterion, but probably not many. And probably very few of them were as happy as I was. It’s good to be back.