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Palo Verde sky June 29, 2017

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June 28, 2017

As I left the lab for dinner, the sky was beautiful in a way that’s impossible to capture with a camera, at least with point-and-shoot settings. The entire sky had a strong faded-orange glow, almost like the greenish light that signals tornado weather in the Midwest, but everything was calm and quiet. A few minutes later, it had turned a uniform light purple. My working hypothesis is that the thin and even cloud cover spread out the sunset even more than usual and somehow produced the glow.

One of the students here took some photos, but the camera “corrected” for the light and he wound up with entirely forgettable shots of the station. I didn’t even try. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this at Palo Verde, but it’s rare enough that I didn’t want to waste it fiddling with my camera.


It’s been a loooong day June 25, 2017

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June 25, 2017

I’m still getting over my cold, and have reached the point where I feel pretty good but sound like I might hack up a lung any minute. On top of that, today we placed a lot of caterpillars in the field, collected more, and moved the temperature/humidity sensors. I think I’m going to go to sleep earlier than usual tonight. Here are some other sleepyheads:PV17 06-17-2017 (35250)

As I say at Palo Verde, “Sleep tight and don’t let the mosquitoes bite!”

Being sick in the field STINKS June 22, 2017

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June 22, 2017

Especially when there’s a big disconnect between how sick you feel and how sick you sound. Yesterday, I started the morning with a sore throat that quickly turned into a nasty hot, stuffy headache. I was drinking ginger tea constantly, but apparently looked perfectly normal, since no one was asking if I was okay or edging out of the germ transmission zone. I was cold all night, and it only took me until 3:30 in the morning to realize that turning off the fan might help. Then when we were out in the field, I suddenly started feeling much better and sneezing a lot.

I’m still going to take it as easy as I can for the next few days, since I really don’t want a repeat experience. Aside from the obvious reasons to stay healthy, the problem in the field is that each day contains data that can either be collected or lost, but can’t be postponed. So unless you really are too sick to move, the instinct is always to get up and get the data, even if you’d normally decide that you were sick enough to put off work.

Who I mean when I say “we” June 18, 2017

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Usually when I say “we”, I mean my field assistant and I. This year I have a new assistant, since my previous one graduated from college a couple of years ago and has established herself as a field assistant with several of the field station’s projects. Since the experiments I’m doing this year are quite different, I figured it was time to train a new field assistant. My new assistant is a Costa Rican undergraduate who actually has a lot of experience with caring for caterpillars, since her family operates a butterfly farm. She understands more English than she speaks, so we’ve been conducting most of our work in Spanish. Unfortunately, this means I’m getting the better end of the deal in terms of improving my language skills, but it’s hard to engineer situations at Palo Verde where it makes sense to converse in English. We had the idea of alternating Spanish and English days, but the one time we tried to do an English day, we both had so much trouble remembering which language we were supposed to be speaking that we haven’t repeated the attempt.

At the beginning of June, “we” also included my advisor, who visited for a week. It was funny, because several times he said that the only time his advisor had visited the field station where he did research, he wasn’t there at the time, and he wasn’t sure what he would have done if his advisor had visited. In this case, what he did was tag along with us, hold things when asked, and take tons of photos, including a bunch of us working. We also had the time to have a few long conversations about some of the analyses and manuscripts I’ve been working on, so that was useful too.

Alien abductions June 15, 2017

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Sometimes, when I’m describing my caterpillar-switching experiments to people, I describe them as alien abductions: some unknown being picks up a caterpillar, takes various measurements, and puts it down someplace else for some unknowable reason. Other Palo Verde researchers do the same thing with iguanas, crocodiles, and various other critters.  Therefore, allow me to present…

Alien Abductions Anonymous

If you can’t read my crummy handwriting, here’s the dialog:

Caterpillar: And then I saw this bright light and was lifted up into space.

Iguana: Forget about the light. Did you get probed*?

Crocodile: Dude… if you haven’t been probed, there’s no way you were abducted.

Tarantula: Hey now, remember AAA is a no judgement zone!


Okay, back to work. More manuscript writing, less doodling.

*If reptile researchers can’t determine an animal’s sex by secondary characteristics, they have to probe the animal’s cloaca to tell if it’s a male or a female.

In a while, crocodile… June 11, 2017

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It’s been a busy week: my advisor came to visit, we determined that I was using the wrong statistical analysis for one of my chapters, and NSF announced that it will be discontinuing the DDIG program. So I need to rewrite my results and discussion, as well as send an email to NSF detailing all the reasons I think this is a bad idea. With all that and my field work, I don’t have the energy for a long post, but I’ll get back to that eventually.

In the meantime, we saw that crocodile again, and it was much less startled this time:

PV17 06-04-2017 (35092)

More guaco June 8, 2017

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June 8, 2017

As we were walking down the road today, there was a guaco down in the road, picking at something, maybe a dead snake. When we got a little too close, it flew into a tree, but it stayed there long enough for us to take lots of photos. These are two of my best:

PV17 06-08-2017 CROP 2

PV17 06-08-2017 CROP 1

Last year, the nature photographer who came here said that she had had a guaco pose for her. I wonder if it’s the same bird.

Laugh, guaco, laugh June 4, 2017

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June 3, 2017

Its name doesn’t have the right number of syllables to fit into the kookaburra song, but Costa Rica has its own laughing bird: the laughing falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans). Even if you’re as bad at imitating bird calls as I am, the guaco is safe to mimic, because it produces everything from a quiet chuckle to evil-genius maniacal laughter, with the gwa-co call that gives it its Spanish name somewhere in the middle.

A husband and wife who were here earlier in the week said they were really hoping to find a guaco, because it was “her” bird: she’s Japanese and the first to syllables of her name are gwa-co, although I presume it’s spelled differently. Unfortunately, they were always in the wrong place at the wrong time to find one, even though we’d heard one several times in the mornings.

This morning, we actually saw one, and because it was so overcast, I was able to take some halfway decent photos, although I still needed to adjust the lighting quite a bit. Allow me to present… the guaco!

PV17 06-03-2017 CROP (35074)

“Didn’t you finish your field work last year?” June 1, 2017

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Let’s face it, I’ve probably already had conversations with all of you about what I’m doing in Costa Rica this summer, but on the off-chance you’ve forgotten, or someone I don’t know is actually reading this, I’ll recap. I did finish my dissertation field work last year, and there was much rejoicing. After that, I applied for a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation, which provides money for what I’ve been calling a “cherry on top” project: It should make your dissertation even better, but it’s not part of your dissertation. In February, I found out that I was receiving the grant, and there was rejoicing, although it didn’t start immediately. (I had to send a couple of confused emails to my advisor because the bureaucratese was so dense, I couldn’t tell whether I was getting the grant or not.)

So, what am I doing with your taxpayer dollars? I’ve got two experiments going: a low-tech one and a high-tech one. The low-tech experiment involves putting hundreds of shelter-building caterpillars out in the field in different types of groups to see what the pros and cons of sharing a shelter with other caterpillars are. Are they better protected? Do they benefit from sharing the construction costs, or does the competition with their housemates hurt them? Right now, we’re* rearing bags and bags of tiny caterpillars in the lab until they’re big enough to put out on plants, which we’re doing every day now. Even though this is the labor-intensive, it’s still less work than what I was doing last year, which should give me time to work on my dissertation.

The high-tech experiment is pretty neat: we’re installing temperature and humidity sensors in shelters and on nearby leaves to see whether the shelters are providing any climate control for the caterpillars, and whether that has an effect on caterpillar survival. This is something people have been asking me about for years, but I never had the equipment to answer the question.

When a tree is all wired up, it looks like this:

PV17 05-25-2017 (34938)

Each of the white tubes is a data logger that records the temperature and humidity every 15 minutes from a sensor. The bags around the leaves keep the caterpillars from being killed by anything except the environment. We check on the caterpillars each day, then move the equipment to a new shelter after three days.

Why does this matter? Well, since some shelter-building caterpillars can damage forests or crops and others are threatened, understanding shelters will make managing those species easier. And understanding how much shelters protect caterpillars from the environment is important for predicting how vulnerable these caterpillars are to global warming. If you want more details check out the project abstract at the NSF website: https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1701855&HistoricalAwards=false


* Yes, I have help. More about that later.