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Winding down, gearing up August 26, 2014

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Getting ready to leave Palo Verde is always a drawn-out process. T minus four weeks, we stopped searching for new caterpillars. T minus three weeks, all the caterpillars were being reared in the lab and I applied for the permit to export my samples. T minus two weeks, we put the plant aspects of the project into high gear, collecting specimens to identify and measuring leaf traits that might be important to the caterpillars, like leaf size and thickness. T minus one week, I started getting everything ready to go.

Despite that, the last day or so before I left Palo Verde was a scramble. I always want to leave everything to do with the caterpillars until the last possible minute, just in case something interesting happens. I felt somewhat vindicated when parasitoids emerged from one of the caterpillars:

Hymenoptera parasitoid pupae on the body of a Cephis aelius caterpillar (Hesperiidae)

Hymenoptera parasitoid pupae on the body of a Cephis aelius caterpillar (Hesperiidae)

Unfortunately, waiting that long meant I didn’t finish my data collection until 12:30AM the night before I left, with more packing to do in the morning. Even worse, I’d put off working on the talk I was giving at the University of Costa Rica in the hopes that I might have time to analyze and report some of this season’s results. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

Unfortunately, waiting that long meant I didn’t finish my data collection until 12:30AM the night before I left, with more packing to do in the morning. Even worse, I’d put off working on the talk I was giving at the University of Costa Rica in the hopes that I might have time to analyze and report some of this season’s results. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.


Chocolate cake August 26, 2014

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August 1, 2014

One of the foods I miss most at Palo Verde (maybe even more than ice cream) is chocolate. Last year, there was some for sale in the gift shop, but there isn’t any this year. Sometimes when people come into the station, they bring some with them—a faculty member on one of the courses brought some, and my field assistant brought little chocolate foot(soccer)balls when she came back from Nicaragua. But otherwise, chocolate has been as rare as rain.

I’m not the only person craving a chocolate fix. A few weeks ago, when dessert was a yellow cake frosted with dolce de leche, someone asked the cook about making a chocolate cake. The suggestion was unanimously endorsed, but I wasn’t sure if chocolate cake would actually happen.

So I was pretty excited when I arrived at lunch and saw a two-layer chocolate cake sitting on the table. I’m happy to report that it more than met our expectations. Objectively speaking, it’s not the most chocoholic cake I’ve ever had—it tastes almost like red velvet cake, so I think the cook used cocoa but not chocolate in the batter. But it’s still the most, and most concentrated, chocolate I’ve had in months. And there’s some left for dinner.

Imminence August 24, 2014

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July 23, 2014

Today was hotter than usual until the late afternoon. Then it started clouding up and when we sat down for dinner at six, we could actually feel the air changing, turning cooler and moister. Soon we could see rain clouds coming north across the wetland towards us, and the atmosphere turned electric. Not literally—there was no lightning—but there was an excited tension running from one person to the next. It’s going to rain; it’s finally going to rain!

And at 6:15, it did. We could hear the rain just outside, and everyone who could was staring south as if their lives depended on it. I finished my dinner as quickly as possible and went outside to soak up the rain. It was falling gently, but it was falling. When I went back to the lab, I left the fan and my music silent so I could listen to the rain.

That I had to strain to hear the rain should have warned me, but it didn’t. Fifteen minutes after that first wonderful drop fell, I was standing outside cursing the clouds for stopping.

A tale of two cooks August 24, 2014

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Palo Verde always has two cooks at any given time so that they can take turns being on-station. One of the cooks has been there for years and he’s a real character. He wears a chef’s toque in the kitchen, does woodworking in his spare time, and is without a doubt the most outgoing person on the staff. He’s a good cook, but very traditional and predictable with it. He has one or two weeks’ worth of dishes that he makes without variation. (Whether it’s a week or two depends on whether you’re a vegetarian or not, if only because there are more cuts of meat than types of beans at Palo Verde.)

The second cook is new since February, and his stated mission is to get creative. Among other things, he makes tiramisu and cheesecake, which were received enthusiastically by all. Unfortunately, the entrees have been less successful. He made what I thought were fairly credible ham crêpes, but some of the staff felt those were too adventurous and went straight to the cheesecake. Less exciting, he’s also introduced hamburgers and fried chicken. Both of which were fun the first time they appeared, but at this point I’ve eaten more burgers and fried chicken in the last month or so than I did in the year before that.

Postscript: The first week of August, the new cook left the station for his break and didn’t bother to come back. One of the cleaning ladies took over the cooking, but while the food is decent, it’s less appealing than usual.

Cocoon-robbing August 24, 2014

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July 17, 2014

Almost as soon as I started out this morning, I saw a golden glint on a leaf. It turned out to be a small beetle, so iridescent that it’s difficult to see much detail in the photos I took. (Or maybe I’m just a bad photographer, but I’ll blame the subject since it can’t object.)

While I was looking at the beetle, my eye was caught again—this time by a piece of white. It was another great find—a moth that looked like it was made from snowy owl feathers.

PV14 07-17-14 (13122)

I went to pick it up, to see if its legs and body were as soft as they looked, but found that the moth was otherwise engaged. Part of the white mass was actually another moth, and they were in the middle of mating.

PV14 07-17-14 (13123) CROP

Most moths and butterflies have very complex lock-and-key genitalia, so I”m not sure how easy it would have been to dislodge the first moth. At any rate, it seemed rude to try, and I kept my hands to myself after that. The final piece of white in the picture is a cocoon, which one of the moths must have recently emerged from.

The dense texture of the cocoon and the mating immediately after emergence suggest that these moths are related to silk moths (i.e., are in the Bombycoidea somewhere).

Postscript: The next day, the moths were gone but the cocoon was still there. I picked it up—the texture really is unique (and is not transmissible via the internet). However, I’ve been looking through a photo database of the region’s Lepidoptera (http://janzen.sas.upenn.edu/caterpillars/database.lasso) and haven’t seen them yet. So maybe they’re in Bombycoidea and maybe they aren’t. Regardless, the database is fun to play around with, and it definitely proves that anyone who thinks moths can’t be as fancy as butterflies just hasn’t seen the right moths.

Veranillo winds August 9, 2014

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July 10, 2014

Mid-July brings us into veranillo (literally, “little summer”*), the period in July and August when there is little to no rain. Since we’ve had little to no rain since May in this year of El Niño, the designation is rather pointless, other than to say that we probably won’t get any rain for a while yet. But it does help put a name to the wind here, which has become even more noticeable now.

The veranillo wind is the one saving grace in the dry heat, since it blows almost constantly. It is also a tremendous tease, because the only time a summer wind blows this hard or consistently in St. Louis, it means that rain is coming, while here it means the opposite. It blows in such gusts that I can hear it coming through the trees like a wave, pass over me, and continue on its way. This reminder of the sea is strengthened when the wind comes over the marsh. It makes a soft rustling as it moves through the reeds, then breaks like the surf on the forest’s edge.

* One thing I find striking about Latin American Spanish is the tendency to repurpose words rather than invent new ones. Instead of unique words for “dry season” and “wet season”, “summer” and “winter” are used, respectively. This hurts my head, not only because I consider those seasons to be defined by the tilt of the Earth rather than precipitation, but because for me, “summer” is the growing season and “winter” is the fallow one.

English probably goes too far in the other direction: At one point this summer, I was trying to figure out what the difference is, if any, between a “pail” and a “bucket”, and whether it mattered. But using tigre (“tiger”) to refer to any wild cat from an ocelot to a jaguar seems like a bit much.

DNA guns and other fantasies August 6, 2014

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In my lab, we’ve always joked about how great it would be to have a DNA gun: a gizmo you could “shoot” at a plant or animal that would instantly identify it. So when a professor visiting  here said that someone was testing a machine that would accept a tissue sample and identify it, it set off an animated dinner conversation. (This professor was one of three who were investigating possible sites for a field course.)

Oddly, they were not enthusiastic about this potential breakthrough. One of them was very worried that biology would turn into just knowing how to operate various machines. I think one reason they were unenthusiastic was that they were all vertebrate biologists. Instant identification isn’t a big deal when you’re studying a few relatively large and relatively distinctive species. There are only about 60-something mammal species at Palo Verde, for example. But if you’re studying plants or insects, there are at least 696 species of plants in the park and uncounted numbers of insects. Moreover, plants can be nearly impossible to identify if you don’t have flowers or fruits, and there are entire families of Lepidoptera whose young caterpillars have black heads and green bodies and can’t be identified until they grow larger. If you study mammals or reptiles, a DNA gun can seem lazy. If you study plants or insects, it seems more like a wonderful tool.

I told them, half-seriously, that I was more worried about drones. One thing I’ve always pointed out about my career path is that it’s not outsourceable—if you want to know about the biology of organism Y in location X, you need to hire someone in location X. If drones become widely available and are adapted for field work, that could change. I also find the idea of someone doing “field work” from a desk innately repellant. Field biologists are field biologists in large part because they like wandering around in the woods. And there is a freedom to observe nature and think about your research while walking in the field that I can’t imagine experiencing while piloting a robot from an office.

On the other hand, as soon as I said it, I began to think of all the places that a small drone might go much more easily than a human biologist. The destination that immediately came to mind was the forest canopy. In special cases, biologists contrive to reach the canopy, by climbing, by bucket truck, or by building towers and walkways. Such efforts are always time-consuming, limited, and disrupt the canopy itself. But I can imagine a small drone zipping between branches, or perching on one to give a biologist a long look at something. And if you were studying something small and light, like caterpillars, maybe you could even collect a few.

The art of luring butterflies August 4, 2014

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Please note that what follows are not instructions on how to catch a butterfly. To do that, all you need is a butterfly net and the right flick of the wrist. Enticing a butterfly to voluntarily land on you requires more preparation and even more luck. I’m not an expert at this, but I think I have better luck than most.

1. Don’t chase the butterfly. Things that chase butterflies usually want to eat them, not admire and release them. The more still you can be, the better.

2. Offer it bait. Butterflies need three major types of nutrients: sugars, ions, and nitrogen. You can offer them sugar water or rotting fruit, although those are usually pretty common in the environment. Salt water (sweat) or wet earth are both sources of ions. Nitrogen is most easily supplied by urine (from mammals) or guano (from birds or reptiles). But since you should hold or wear your bait, I don’t know that I recommend using either as butterfly lures.

3. Cross your fingers and hope the right butterfly comes by. Not all butterfly species are attracted to all of these nutrient sources, and different species also seem to vary in skittishness. At Palo Verde, the easiest butterflies to lure are the malachite butterflies (Siproeta stelenes). They really like sweat and will land on you even if you aren’t perfectly still:

PV14 07-14-14 (12863) - CROP

The waterfall August 1, 2014

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July 2, 2014

In the vicinity of Bagaces, there is only one waterfall, or maybe only one that people refer to as “the waterfall”. It’s a swimming spot that is free and open to the public, more or less. The waterfall is overseen by a local organization that accepts donations to support the local schools. The parking area is overseen by several men who charge a nominal fee (~$2) to watch over your car or bike while you swim.

There isn’t really a good place to swim at Palo Verde: the river has too many crocodiles, and the lagoons in the wetlands (when there’s been enough rain that the wetlands are actually wet) are too muddy. So when I got back from collecting caterpillars in the morning and the graduate student/naturalist asked if I wanted to go to the waterfall with her, I jumped at it. My assistant was back in Nicaragua, I’d been here for over a month, and I hadn’t really had a day off in all that time.

The creek that forms the waterfall runs through a good deep hollow, so as we walked down the path, it seemed as if we left the dried-out land behind and arrived at what the wet season should be here. The waterfall itself is perhaps fifty feet tall, a broad semicircle bitten out of the rock. The water comes down over an overhanging lip of rock, with a space behind the falls littered with blocks of stone. The water gathers in a large circular pool with a sandy bottom before continuing on its way. The sand has flecks of pyrite in it, so when I scattered a handful through the water, it glittered.

The waterfall was just what we needed. Not just the water, but also the chance to lie in the sun with no mosquitoes and close our eyes or people-watch. In addition to the many people taking photos of each other in the water, there were also quite a few people trying to lure butterflies. The most successful, a young girl, used a handful of the wet sand that the butterflies were puddling at. I could say more about the art of luring butterflies, but that’s for another day.