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!


At 10:18 AM, Anonymous Scratch said...

Perhaps this is a bit odd, but it feels right to say a little thank you to you, and your sister, Lucy, for being some of the inspiration with your experiences on the Appalachian Trail to guide me along as I've begun living more barefoot. When I first began reading Southbound, it astonished to think of the idea that the two of you were able to walk over gravelly sections.

But then, this morning, I walked over a mile along a chip-seal road with its rough texture, areas of pebbly washout, and took a 2 minute or so interval walking up and down a person's gravel driveway. That would have been totally unthinkable 6 weeks ago. So I thought about that and how I had found your blog some weeks ago and basically it just seems obligatory to say thank you.

At 7:31 AM, Blogger Roger W said...

Love your posts. Thank you.


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