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Hoping for rain June 30, 2014

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June 13, 2014


When you’re hoping for rain, every change, no matter how momentary, becomes a sign. That the day is still or windy, sunny or cloudy, thick with mosquitoes or not, all these things, singly and together, become possible signs that rain is coming. This morning dawned not just cloudy, but misty, and I hoped that that might mean that it would rain. It did, but only just enough to wet the dirt.

It hasn’t rained for the last two weeks, and it’s starting to show. I didn’t notice at first, because everything is still almost overwhelmingly green, but once you start to see it, you can’t help but constantly notice it. It’s easiest to see along the sides of the east-west dirt road that is my collecting route through the forest.

PV14 06-14-14 (9599)


The same plant species grow on both sides of the road, but it’s difficult to tell, because all the plants on the left side are wilted from too much sun and too little water.

Something about tropical weather, or maybe being marooned at Palo Verde, makes everyone exceptionally passive about the weather. Despite the fact that I’m eagerly awaiting the rain, it only just occurred to me that I could look at a weather forecast. So I put Bagaces (the nearest town as the car drives) into The Weather Channel website. It predicts a few more days with little chance of rain, but very good chances at the end of the 10-day forecast. Here’s hoping.


Postscript: There was no rain within that 10 day period. I didn’t keep checking the forecast, so I’m not sure if it changed, or if Bagaces, which is a ridge and 30 km north of us, got rain but we didn’t. I guess I could check the observed weather on The Weather Channel website, but what’s the point?


Call for (audio)book recommendations June 25, 2014

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Counterintuitively, my “field season” routine  involves spending 1-3 hours a day in the field collecting caterpillars and 8-10 hours in the lab taking care of them and collecting data.  Most of that time in the lab is spent on tasks monotonous enough that music only keeps my attention for a few hours at a time.  But too much of my attention is required to listen to something requiring responses (like Spanish lessons).  Thanks to my public libraries, I can borrow audiobooks online, so that’s what I started doing midway through last field season.  Killing two mosquitos with one swat, I did my work and also made it through Moby DickThinking Fast and Slow, and Volume I of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative , as well as quite a few other books of various lengths.

Since I’ve just finished Volumes II and III of The Civil War, I’m looking for recommendations.  Someone’s already suggested I listen to Game of Thrones, but other recommendations, fiction and nonfiction alike, would be greatly appreciated.  Just leave a comment or send me an email.

Guy talk June 25, 2014

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June 6, 2014


Another US graduate student is staying here for a week, and he also has very limited Spanish. At lunch today, he had a conversation with one of the station workers who speaks very little English. He was explaining to the grad student (in Spanish) that he was a grandfather four times over. The student responded in Spanish with double entendres about what he (the student) had been doing, or would like to do, with the man’s daughters. Why this was a bonding experience instead of incredibly offensive I don’t know (maybe he only has sons), but they both seemed quite happy with their mutual heterosexual badassness.

Although when the student tried to call someone a “badass” in Spanish, the guy in question looked horrified and pointed, a bit frantically, at one then another of the women sitting next to him. I suspect that “You are a badass” came out as “You have a bad ass”, but I can’t be certain. I hope so.

“I’m a snake! I’m a snake!” June 23, 2014

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One thing that many humans, including biologists, find fascinating about caterpillars is how many of them look like other organisms or objects. There are caterpillars that people think look like sticks, leaves, flowers, bird droppings, moss, and snakes. Of course, humans are also the animals that invented Rorschach tests, so it’s an open question whether these caterpillars also fool animals with less imagination or less reliance on color vision.

Consider some caterpillars that have “eyes” and “faces” and might be trying to pass as some sort of snake:

Caterpillar "faces" from Janzen, D. H., W. Hallwachs, and J. M. Burns. 2010. A tropical horde of counterfeit predator eyes. PNAS 107:11659-11665.

Caterpillar “faces” from Janzen, D. H., W. Hallwachs, and J. M. Burns. 2010. A tropical horde of counterfeit predator eyes. PNAS 107:11659-11665.

I find some of these caterpillars more convincing than others, although the authors argue that a caterpillar-hunting bird that sees the “eyes” of something that might be a predator and sticks around to figure out if it really is a predator is probably not going to survive. After all, the bird only has to be wrong once.

But there are some caterpillars that are fairly convincing snakes. (Or snake heads—caterpillars just aren’t long enough to be whole snakes.) This is one of them, although as far as I’m aware, it doesn’t look like a particular snake:

Papilio astyalus pallas (Papillionidae -- the swallowtail butterfly family)

Papilio astyalus pallas (Papillionidae — the swallowtail butterfly family)


One reason it’s so convincing is because whenever someone bothers it, it does this:

PV14 06-05-14 NIKON (267) - CROP



All that’s missing is a hiss.

Hand wash only June 19, 2014

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June 4, 2014


Due to the limited amount of water available at the station, no short-term visitors are allowed to launder their clothes on-site. This policy has to be relaxed for long-term researchers. Last year, whether because of more water, inadequate supervision, or sympathy for the first-timer, I had free access to the laundry room, which I happily made use of every 10 days or so.


This time, when I asked about the key to the laundry room, I was told that I could arrange to get my clothes laundered, for the princely price of $7 a load. I’m not sure whether that price reflects water scarcity, labor scarcity, their monopoly, or some combination of the three. I decided that machine washing could wait until the situation was more desperate—after I’d been here a month, say. In the meantime, I’d wash my clothes in the laundry sinks outside the laundry room.


Here’s how you hand wash clothes at Palo Verde:

1. Rinse any dirt out of the sink. (They wash the bags they use to handle small crocodiles in these sinks. Those bags get very muddy.)

2. Plug up the sink with a sock.

3. Fill up the sink with water and clothes, until there is one layer of clothing covered by water. If the water isn’t looking nicely murky by this point, you’re washing your clothes too soon.

4. Mix some soap and water together in a bucket. If you didn’t bring bar soap (I didn’t, because the showers all have soap dispensers), “borrow” some detergent from the laundry room.

5. Add the soapy water to the clothes and mix well. Let sit approximately 30 minutes.

6. Squish and scrub the clothes. For especially stubborn stains, use the scrub brush. It probably won’t get them out, but at least you can say you tried.

7. Remove the sock-plug and let the sink drain. Rinse each article of clothing until the water you squeeze out doesn’t look milky and you hands don’t feel slippery or burn. Then rinse one more time, because soap plus sweat does not equal fun.

8. Wring out everything as much as possible. Then wring it all out one more time. These are khaki pants, cotton shirts, and wool socks. They hold a lot of water.

9. Hang the clothes on the covered laundry lines. Allow between six and twenty-four hours for drying. (Afternoons are generally overcast, if not actively rainy, so most of the drying happens during the sunny mornings.)


What I find amazing about all this is that it actually works—even if it doesn’t get the stains out, it removes enough sweat and dirt that the clothes feel clean when you put them on again. At least until you start decorating them with mud, mosquito guts, and caterpillar frass again.

Assistance June 15, 2014

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On May 29th, my field assistant arrived at Palo Verde. I met her when she was working here last year for the station director, and I knew we had two things in common. Neither one of us is Costa Rican (she’s Nicaraguan) and neither one of us is anywhere near bilingual.


These two facts create a few logistical problems. The simplest way for a biologist to enter Costa Rica is on a tourist visa. For US citizens, that lasts 90 days, but for Nicaraguans, it’s only 30 days. So she will stay here for 30 days, leave the country for two or three days, and then come back to work with me for another month. This is definitely harder on her—taking two eight or nine hour bus rides to get back to where you needed be in the first place is no fun. But while she’s gone, I’ll have to do both our work.


Next, the language barrier. This has been ably addressed by the bilingual graduate student/station naturalist and by Google Translate. Both of us have improved our language skills a bit already, but when there’s so little shared language, that’s much easier to do when there is an unambiguous reference (e.g., a numerical display). So both of us know our numbers very well now, as well as some project-specific terms, but we’re a long way from chatting.


In some ways, the difficulty with explaining how to assist me wasn’t translation, it was articulating all the procedures and systems I worked out last year. Despite what I thought, I hadn’t listed out every single one of the many, many steps to be performed once a caterpillar was found. Or mentioned that I record dates MM/DD/YY instead of the Latin American (and admittedly saner) DD/MM/YY. Or planned how to divvy up the lab work as well as the field work. Those were just some of the many details I hadn’t thought about when I said “oh, I’ll hire a field assistant for this summer”.


But after a couple of days of working together in the field and the lab, with the graduate student going with us into the field so she could figure out what she needed to explain, we were able to start working separately. We’re being extremely productive (we’re getting more than twice as much done as I did last year), and I’m glad we’ve been able to go our own ways more, especially in the field. While I consider being alone with my thoughts in the field one of the great things about field work, being alone with my thoughts and another person I’m not having a conversation with is just stressful. When you work with someone else, the conversations and companionship are usually another great thing about field work. Silence enforced by a lack of language doesn’t feel companionable, it feels pent-up.

Obligatory monkey, Part II June 13, 2014

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This is obviously a sore point for me. Here’s why: Capuchins and Costa Rica’s other three monkey species are charismatic species—ones that people come to Costa Rica to see, and go home with photos, T-shirts, and assorted other souvenirs of. Despite that, I know almost nothing about their biology, behavior, or ecology. This doesn’t reflect a lack of either research or interesting biology, but rather that such information doesn’t get mentioned in response to “I saw a monkey!” By contrast, interesting factoids are often volunteered about the less charismatic plants and animals I and other people encounter.


This reliance on monkey charisma has two effects. First, since it stems largely from novelty, it wears off quickly. The road through Palo Verde where I do most of my work has two old mango orchards and almost no large predators. I see at least one group of monkeys almost every day, and there is very little novelty left for me. Second, visiting monkey fans don’t get the kind of information that might give them a deeper appreciation for them. They want photos and T-shirts, and that is generally all they leave with. Which seems like a waste of an opportunity for both education and conservation.

Obligatory monkey, Part I June 12, 2014

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May 25, 2014


I don’t know why, but it seems like Costa Rica is inextricably linked with monkeys in people’s minds. As in “Why don’t you get me a (picture of) a monkey while you’re down there? Pretty please, with a cherry on top?” Well, monkey-people, this is for you.


A group of white-headed capuchins went right past the lab this afternoon. One of them hung around long enough for me to take this picture:


PV14 05-25-14 (7032)

White-headed capuchin (Cebus capucinus)


Frankly, I don’t see the appeal. Is it the dark expressive eyes? The poor table manners? The fact that, barring certain toddlers and adolescent boys, there is no similar wild mammal in the US? In any case, this is the last monkey picture (and possibly the last mammal picture) I will be posting this summer.


Instead, consider this critter. Dark eyes, check. Messy eater, check. Not native to the US, check.

Black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura similis)

Black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura similis)


Waiting for rain June 8, 2014

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May 24, 2014


I deliberately arrived at Palo Verde two weeks earlier this year so that I wouldn’t miss the caterpillars that emerge at the very beginning of the wet season. As soon as I saw the marsh near the station, I worried that I’d gotten here too soon.


This is what the marsh looked like last June:

PV 06-25-13 015



This is what it looks like now:

PV14 06-02-14 (7575)


This is why Palo Verde is a dry tropical forest.


But when I went for a little walk to get reacquainted with Palo Verde, I found seventeen shelter-building caterpillars in three hours. That may not sound like a lot, but it was enough to keep me busy for the rest of the day. Even though a lot of the smaller plants are waiting until there’s more water available before they sprout, most of the trees and shrubs are producing lots of tender new leaves. And where there are tender leaves, there are caterpillars eating them.


The missing city June 5, 2014

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From the air at night, Costa Rica’s Central Valley looks very different than the daytime view I’ve seen four times now. By day, the tin-roofed buildings of San José, Alajuela, San Pedro, and other towns form a dense mesh that can take hours to navigate. Over 2 million people (a third of Costa Rica’s population) live in the San José greater metropolitan area, and by day, you can tell.


At night, you can’t. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that we were flying over the outlying countryside and San José was somewhere over the horizon. The reason is the lights. Anyone who’s flown into a US city at night has seen the plethora of street lamps, lit-up signs for gas and fast food, and the streaming ribbons of head- and taillights. In San José, only some of the streets are lit, with widely-spaced rows of lamps down one side or the other. Fast food restaurants and gas stations in the city don’t invest in signs like glowing lollipops, possibly because there are few cars out and about after dark, even at 7:30 at night.


The effect was eerie. I had to keep reminding myself that we were, in fact, flying over a large metropolis filled with people, instead of the nearly rural landscape suggested by the lights. But eventually we landed, and I saw that San José really was still there.