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Mérida, part 2 July 16, 2017

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On Wednesday, the third day of the conference, I played hooky in the afternoon and went to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya–the Great Museum of the Mayan World. The size of the building certainly lives up to the name:


If you wanted to be pessimistic, you could say that the museum is organized around three catastrophes: the asteroid that crashed into Yucatan 65 million years ago, the collapse of the Classical Maya, and the Spanish conquest. The first exhibition hall has lots of items related to the asteroid, including an animated movie of the impact that’s actually called “Armageddon”. They didn’t really mention the fact that some dinosaurs survived and that they could be pooping on your windshield at this very moment. This struck me as since they went to some pains to point out that the Maya are still very much alive, despite their abandonment of their large cities in the 800s and the invasion of the Spanish in the 1500s.

It turns out that some people don’t like the term “collapse of the Maya” for what happened in the 800s. On the one hand, this strikes me as a bit silly—I want to go to Italy and ask whether people object to “the fall of Rome” as a description of what happened in the 400s. On the other, I think it’s much more obvious to your average First World resident that Rome continued to exist than the Mayans did. There also seem to be at least a few people who think that the abandonment of the cities was a successfully response to a changing environment, rather than a collapse. These people don’t particularly like Jared Diamond, either.

Regardless of the term, the Spanish conquest seems to have had more negative consequences, including some that continued (and are probably continuing) well into the future. One of these was the Caste War of Yucatan, which was a 50+ year war in the Yucatan between the Mexican federal government and the Mayans, who were trying to establish and maintain an independent state. One of the more memorable pieces in that exhibit was a bust of one of the Mayan generals—it was a facial reconstruction based on his skull, which had been placed in a now-defunct Yucatanean museum as a war trophy in the 1870s.

Despite all this, Maya languages and traditions still seem to be quite widespread—a lot of the exhibit signs were in Mayan, in addition to Spanish and sometimes English, and the first exhibits about the Maya were about contemporary Mayans. Those displays had a lot of crafts, including some traditional embroidery patterns:




Mérida, part 1 July 14, 2017

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July 14, 2017

I started writing this in Mérida’s airport, and finished it in Houston’s. To quickly cover the basics: The conference was interesting, I gave a pretty good presentation, I had fun, etc. I have also doubled my number of foreign countries, although I don’t know how much I can extrapolate about Mexico in general from Mérida in particular.

The first thing I noticed about Mérida was that it doesn’t have four-to-six-inch ankle-breaker rain gutters the way San José and Palo Verde do. This area is relatively dry for the tropics, and either it doesn’t get torrential downpours as frequently as Palo Verde does, or people are okay with the streets flooding. Given the general upkeep of the city, and the fact that the entire area is incredibly flat (the second thing I noticed), I suspect it’s the former.

Something that took me a bit longer to notice was the sense of being in a large country again. While Costa Rica isn’t totally homogeneous, it’s a lot smaller and more centralized than either the United States or Mexico. Of the three, Mexico seems to emphasize regional identities the most. On learning it was my first time here, a taxi driver told me “welcome to Mexico, welcome to Mérida, and a double welcome to Yucatán*”. Similarly, almost all the food, art, and other cultural elements in Mérida were specifically identified, usually as Yucatean, sometimes as Mayan, rarely as an import from another region. When a dance company performed a series of traditional dances, almost every dance was identified with a particular state, like Veracruz or Oaxaca.

Incidentally, since Mexico has 31 states and is officially known as the Estados Unidos Mexicanos (United States of Mexico), it turns out that my current answer for where I’m from, “los Estados Unidos,” is theoretically ambiguous, although probably not to anyone who’s listening to me speak Spanish. Oh well, it’s still more informative than saying I’m an American.

* Yucatan is the name of both the state Mérida is in and the entire peninsula. I was never quite sure which was meant.

Exercise for an inattentive reader July 13, 2017

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Guest post!

Hopefully, I’ll have a few more stories to tell in a bit, but for now, I came.

I saw.

I got hungry*.

I chilled.

* not actual research station food.  actual research station food is, in fact, even tastier than shown here.

Big snake, little snake July 9, 2017

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July 9, 2017

I’m sitting in an airport on my way to Merida, Mexico for the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation conference, so I have some time to kill. I also had to get up at 4:15 in the morning to make my flight out of Costa Rica, so I’m a little tired. The last few days have been weird, since it’s almost been like getting ready to leave for good. Less packing, but more making sure that my assistant has everything she needs to hold down the fort for the week.

Anyway, the snakes. Yesterday, we saw a big boa constrictor in the road:

PV17 07-08-2017 (35521)

There’s not much in the photo for scale, but it was at least 5 feet long. On the other end of the spectrum, here’s the slender blindsnake we found in the lab the day before:


That was maybe three inches long. When we looked at it under a low-magnification microscope, the scales almost looked like they’d been woven together, like the outer wrapping of a round shoelace.

Old and new mysteries July 6, 2017

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July 6, 2017

A mystery from my 2013 field season just got solved. I finally identified this bird, which I had such trouble with that I was wondering if Palo Verde might be outside its normal range:

PV 06-15-13 014 - CROP

It turns out it’s a roadside hawk (Rupornis magnirostris) and is perfectly common here. The problem is that the bird book shows the head as being a light ash-gray rather than the slate color here. After someone told me the color varied and a quick image search, it looks like there are ash-colored birds, slate-colored birds, and chocolate-colored birds that all have the same color pattern and are all this species. I don’t understand why the bird book doesn’t say anything about the variation, but at least that’s one mystery solved.

The new mystery is how my caterpillars are escaping from their Ziploc bags. This is happening more frequently than I’d like, especially with caterpillars that are almost ready to pupate. Sometimes there’s a hole in the bag, sometimes it seems like the bag didn’t get completely zipped, but most of the time the bags seem well-sealed. My field assistant and I are making jokes about ninja caterpillars, but we have no idea what’s going on.

Vocabulary July 2, 2017

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I’m almost totally better, but here’s some Spanish I wish I hadn’t needed to learn:

La gripe – the flu. I maintain that what I had was a cold, but people keep disagreeing.

Asqueroso – disgusting. As in apologizing to my long-suffering field assistant for sounding that way.

Toser – to cough. And cough, and cough.

Jengibre – ginger. As in asking the cook for more ginger tea. It helped a lot, so I was using four or five tea bags a day sometimes. I’m not sure if there’s any left.

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.