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A small mystery, half-solved June 30, 2016

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June 30, 2016

One thing that confused me practically every time I’ve walked past it the last two years is this little patch of plants on one side of the road:

PV16 06-13-2016 (26208) CROP

The reason I was confused was because those plants are a mimosa species that grows along the shores of the wetland. Not only is the road fairly far away from the wetland here, but the mimosas are growing on the wrong side of the road. During the drought, I could never figure out how there could be enough water there for the mimosas to survive, let alone thrive.

This year, the mimosas turned out to be perfectly aligned with either an extremely shallow pond or an extremely wide part of a creek that passes under the road at that point. There’s been flowing water there for the entire month, even though it hasn’t rained for a week.

PV16 06-13-2016 (26208)

However, this raises two questions: First, where is all that water coming from? Given the limestone ridge close behind it, I suspect a spring. Second, how on earth did I not notice this stream in 2013? Unfortunately, that remains a mystery.


Book recommendation June 27, 2016

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This is about the time where I traditionally ask for book recommendations, in order to have plenty to listen to while doing labwork. This year, however, I seem to have quite a few books already lined up to listen to. So I thought I’d suggest one to all of you. It’s called The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf.

If you’re a biologist, Humboldt may already be familiar to you. If you aren’t, he was a German scientist and explorer who was arguably the first ecologist, in that he was most interested in how geography, climate, plants, humans, and other animals all interacted with one another, rather than cataloging individual species. He was also very good at explaining science in a variety of ways to a variety of people.


This is probably Humboldt’s most famous diagram. It’s a combination map and table of a really tall volcano in Ecuador, showing how all sorts of things change with altitude: temperature, pressure, the boiling point of water, the locations of different plant species, etc. He also compares it to other mountains.

I should warn that the book is not a particularly insightful biography. Wulf’s idea of probing a subject’s character is expressing surprise at a series of conflicting characteristics, rather than investigating those apparent contradictions. But she tells a good adventure story using lots of quotes from Humboldt’s travelogues and scientific publications. And since just one of Humboldt’s works was 34 volumes, this is a much more tractable read.

My favorite part of the book was the second half, which moved beyond Humboldt’s life to trace how he influenced 19th and 20th century thinkers. These range from the obvious (his books were one of the main inspirations for Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle) to the less obvious (Thoreau, John Muir, and the Art Deco movement). The inspiration Humboldt provided to all of them was his method of combining scientific data with sensory and emotional description. So I suppose, extremely indirectly, Humboldt also inspired my writing.

Happy birthday! June 23, 2016

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June 14, 2016

Don’t worry, it wasn’t my birthday today. There’s an OTS field biology course here and one of the students had her birthday. Which meant that we all got birthday cake for dessert at dinner. Every year I’ve been here there are two OTS courses that come in the middle of June and there’s always been at least one birthday while they’ve been here*. What’s really fun is that Palo Verde is always their first stop, so none of the students are expecting it. And there’s a ritual to it, so I can tell when I arrive at dinner that there’s a birthday even when I wasn’t told about it.

First, there’s no dessert set out like there usually is. This is a huge red flag that there’s birthday cake in the house. It also means that I’ll need to stick around longer than usual to get some, but it’s worth it. Sometimes a student or two will finish eating, leave, and need to be herded back to the comedor. Once it’s time, someone has to turn off the ceiling fans, because the candles won’t stay lit long enough for the birthday person to blow them out. Sometimes the students notice the fans are off, but they never seem to guess what’s going on. Then the lights get turned off, which definitely gets everyone’s attention, and they bring the cake out of the kitchen.

Finally, there is a rousing, more-or-less incompetent rendition of Feliz cumpleaños and the cake is served. In Costa Rica, it’s customary for the birthday person to cut the cake for everyone else, so it can be a while before they get to eat any. But the cake is definitely worth the wait. This cake was chocolate with dulce de leche as frosting. Delicious!


* Statistically, I guess this makes sense. If you have 35 people staying for 10 days and they each have a 1/365 probability of having a birthday on one of those days, the probability that someone will have a birthday during those 10 days is 96%. (1/365*10*35 = 0.96)

On a scale of 1 to 10… June 20, 2016

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My opinion of 1 to 10 ratings scales is extremely low, since I can very rarely figure out what the ends actually represent. With something like “Please rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10”, shouldn’t the pain at 10, by definition, be nearly unimaginable? Even if they say that a broken bone is x, that doesn’t help much if you’ve never had one.

So I was rather surprised to realize that I could conceive of a 1 to 10 rating scale for mosquito intensity or density. On the low end, there are zero mosquitos. On the high end, there are so many mosquitos that you suffocate, either because they physically block your airways or the swelling from internal mosquito bites blocks them. I suspect that level of intensity is biologically impossible, but it is imaginable. After a little more thought, I also realized that I think this scale is logarithmic, with 1 corresponding to 10 or fewer mosquitos in the vicinity, 2 corresponding to 10 to 100 mosquitos, etc.

I’d say we’re currently between 1.5 and 2 on the mosquito scale. I suspect the high 2s or low 3s is when a face net becomes an absolute necessity. If nothing else, saying the mosquitos are only a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10 does make them seem more tolerable.

So, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much sense does that make?

Chrysalis June 16, 2016

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One of my caterpillar host plants had a very striking chrysalis hanging on it for about a week and a half. On June 6, it looked like this:

PV16 06-04-2016 NIKON (4017)

and from the side, it looked an awful lot like a slightly wilted leaf

PV16 06-04-2016 NIKON (4014)

By the 14th, the colors had changed and it was pretty obvious that it was some sort of swallowtail butterfly:

PV16 06-14-2016 (26395)

On the 15th, it was gone. I assume it had emerged and was flying around.

A jeep and trilingual confusion June 13, 2016

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June 7, 2016

This morning, I came across a truly impressive jeep. While a lot of the rental companies have little 4WD mini-jeeps (jeeplets?) that they rent out to tourists, this was a substantial Range Rover with enough extra gear tied onto it to make it about twice as big as a jeeplet . The jeep and everything on it looked like it had seen a few miles.

This turned out to be a major understatement. When I stopped to talk to the couple packing up the car, they said that they’d started in southern Argentina, driven up through most of South America (they skipped Venezuela), and were about halfway through their four-week stay in Costa Rica. They didn’t say when they began, but given that they were spending about a month in each country, I suspect they started around the beginning of 2016. After they leave Costa Rica, they’re planning on driving all the way through to Mexico. Then they’ll go back home for the winter and pick up driving again in the spring. Their ultimate goal? Alaska.

Since ‘home’ for them is Germany, I got a chance to practice my German, at least for a little bit. I accidentally dropped enough Spanish words into the German that they decided that it would be easier to just speak English. Although my Span-deutsch was definitely messy, I think it’s a mess in the right direction. Before this, when I was accidentally dropping words in the wrong language into German, they were in English. Here’s hoping that this means the Spanish is starting to settle into my brain.


Wildlife Xing June 9, 2016

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Someone quite artistic has replaced the generic ‘Caution: animals — 35 KPH’ signs with individually hand-painted ones:

PV16 06-03-16 (25031)

A very accurate pair of curassows, which frequently cross the road, although not exclusively at this spot.


Unfortunately, I saw most of these as I was getting into the station by taxi, so I was unable to get a close look at the whole set. The other one close to the station is this one:


PV16 06-02-2016 (25024)

That’s a jaguar and a pair of jabirus, which are huge storks.

I have to say that I’ve never seen either of those cross the road, there or anywhere else. But I did see a jabiru fly by a few days ago. And a couple of days ago, I saw these farther down the road:

PV16 06-07-2016 (25394)


It was probably a puma, though. Jaguars are on the park species list, but they’re very rare.



Mud, glorious mud! June 6, 2016

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June 2, 2016

Well, I made it, and it rained a respectable amount here in May. So we’ve got mud:

PV16 06-02-2016 (24992)

We’ve got mosquitos (photo not included), and we’ve got water in the wetlands:

PV16 06-02-2016 (25006)

The water’s not quite as high as I remember it being back in 2013, but it’s quite an improvement over last year. In case you don’t remember, when I arrived in 2015, the “wetland” looked like this:

PV15 05-27-15 (14836)