You Can Take the Naturalist Out of the Jungle

Getting ready to leave here.  Again.  But since the last time I prepared to bid goodbye to Costa Rica I ended up coming back barely three months later, I’m not getting too upset.

I first came here just over five years ago.  I was a college student then, and at that time Costa Rica had been a fantasy.  An abstract destination.  Over the next few months it became like a dream, a wild, exotic mystery that was mine to explore that fulfilled my every expectation and then some.  Upon returning years later as a biologist with a few more tropical-worthy chops, I found it to be a trove of rich ecological treasure, the ripe potential for study, an invitation for pursuit and research.  It was my playground.  My eden.  And now, five years and only a few kilometers from where I once began, typing this into a computer, I am forced to ask: what the hell happened to me?

Desk work? In this place? How dare you!

I’m sitting inside, for god’s sake!  In front of a computer!  Grumbling because the internet is slow!  The fucking internet!  Right outside is my favorite paradise/domain/Heart of Darkness-esque self reflection of man’s primal nature or some shit and I’m ignoring it in favor of internet!  I can hear frogs calling.  It just rained—perfect night hike conditions.  And yet here I am, as I was yesterday, and the day before.

When did Costa Rica become a work site?  Seriously—when did that happen to me?  These days I get out of bed, eat breakfast, drive to the worksite, work until it rains, drive back, eat dinner and that’s it.  Entire days go by without taking photos.  Catching snakes.  Tracking mammals.  Scrutinizing bizarre plants.  Catching snakes.  Wandering around aimlessly.  Because I’m used to it all now.

I just realized that I almost forgot to show you a picture of this salamander. Whew, that was close.

The thing is, I’m tired.  I had a long day.  I deserve a break, and don’t have the energy to romp around in the jungle right now.  I was on my feet all day wading in the river.  And I have work to do.  Job apps to send out.  Real life is knocking on my door, telling me to get a real career and a permanent address and cut my hair.  And you know what?  I’m starting to agree.

But fuck that.  Is the magic gone from Costa Rica?  Hell no.  True, I have been idling my evenings away cursing the internet in front of a screen but only out of necessity.  Last time Life made me leave, I didn’t last three months.  I’ll find my way back.  I always do.

Is it true that some people get paid to study these things?

Costa Rica may have become just a place to work, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable to me.  So what if some of the mystique is gone.  Maybe that just means I have to pass it on to someone else.  Start thinking long term about research.  Grad school, maybe.  Invest a in a plan to return.  Because what better reason to sit in front of a screen for an hour than to ensure that you get to spend another hour outside in a place that you love?

But also I need to get a real job.

Pura vida.


Rainforest Patriotism

(Note: this post is a day late, owing to the below-mentioned thunderstorm)

Exactly one year ago, I had only been an intern at UGA for a week when I tried to plan a 4th of July Barbecue.  I got the go ahead, after explaining to the admins that anyone was invited and assuring the two anxious British interns that we weren’t going to be burning the king in effigy.  We were just going to drink beer and cook meat outside.  The purpose, I told them, was not to celebrate our independence from Britain, or even to be especially Patriotic.  There would be no flag-waving, no God Bless Americas, no guns.  For me, 4th of July is a day to not necessarily celebrate my nationality, but to reflect on it.  To recognize it, prides and shames combined.  And to drink beer and cook meat outside.

Which we did.  The party was an enormous success, on top of being organized in about 36 hours.  UGA even loaned me a grill to use, which I put to work searing some good ol’ American-size patties.

Today, we’re at a small research station just outside Corcovado.  It’s a dry campus, and we have no kitchen access.  On top of that, it is pretty much perpetually cloudy with a chance of “do you really have to ask?”  Needless to say, I don’t think tonight’s festivities will even compare.  We’ve hidden a 6-pack of weak Costa Rican beer in the back of the fridge and there’s a third of a bottle of warm rum somewhere, but that’s about it.

We were joking about this today, as well as grumbling amongst ourselves that we should give ourselves a holiday from work, but with only a few days to go we’re really feeling the crunch of not having enough data.  Every day so far the rain has forced us home early, leaving us critically behind on damselfly tests.  Today was no exception.  On full days we can get in twenty tests.  Today we got in one single test and were starting another when the clouds darkened and we heard the rising hiss of an approaching rainstorm, the kind that appears suddenly and mercilessly.

Five minutes later we were huddled under the umbrella that covers our work station, which by now is so full of holes that it would work better as a sieve.  On top of that, the wind had picked up, drenching us from the sides.  We were soaked, cold, and getting no work done.

It was then, for no reason that I can explain, that I started singing the Star Spangled Banner.  I honestly cannot tell you why, or even why it came to me.  I don’t even like that song.  And I’m certainly no chest-thumping, gun-toting, flag-waving patriot type.  It just seemed funny to me.  Somehow, it fit.  And everyone cracked up, too.  They were probably just as confused at themselves as to why, but they totally did.

So happy Fourth of Goddamed July, everybody.  Even in the face of a tropical downpour, holding up a wilting umbrella, suffering the worst of the jungle for freaking damselflies, I can still recognize my country.  Not for some glorified ideal.  But for what it means to me.  What it made me into.  For the fact that somehow it provided the setting and conditions that put me on this path, one that has led from a blessedly free upbringing, through a supportive educational system, over cooperative foreign borders and into this place, huddled in the rain, with nothing but weak beer and a plate of rice and beans to look forward to for dinner.  I think that deserves a stupid song.

I couldn’t find any Bald Eagles, so here’s a Roadside Hawk eating a dead frog.


Mexican Snakeoff

Down to one last week here.  Again.  But since the last time I prepared to bid goodbye to Costa Rica I ended up coming back barely two months later, I’m not getting too upset.  But I am trying to make the most of my dwindling time here before I return stateside, jobless and hopeless.  OK, maybe I’m a little upset.

This is how I feel after spending three hours on job apps with bad internet connection

But what better way to deal with melancholy than pick up large snakes?  We hadn’t had any sightings at our latest worksite, but that changed today when I looked up from a damselfly to find myself face-to-face with an Ebony Keelback, a good meter and a half and seemingly just as surprised as I was.

I radioed the others to come have a look, and tried to keep the snake in place with a staring contest I was bound to lose.  The snake counted on its camouflage enough to hold still for a good five minutes, but nerves must have gotten the best of it and it turned and started to crawl into the bushes.  I managed to grab its tail with one hand, but then the snake turned and reversed direction around a tree trunk, coming around to face me and preparing to strike.

Which put us in a kind of stalemate.  I had hold of its tail, so it couldn’t reach far enough to bite me in the face.  However, it would only be hindered that way as long as I didn’t let go.  I couldn’t reach its head with my other hand, and it couldn’t bite my holding hand without exposing its neck.  We were stuck in place, it wrapped around a tree and me standing knee-deep in water and shoulder deep in the shrubbery.

That was the situation when the others arrived.  I eventually tried to use a stick to maneuver the head away and let the snake go, but ended up with a decent-sized bite on one hand as a parting gift.  Good thing it was a constrictor, and non-venomous. The wound is healing fine.

No superpowers. Yet.

One Last Post About Ants

Nothing has changed:  I still hate ants.  But it’s been a while and in light of recent discoveries I thought I’d elaborate on one little narrative of ants’ natural history that actually brings me some mixed feelings about the lousy bastards.

The plant below is bullhorn acacia.  It is a small tree with small feathery leaflets and large sharp spines, the kind of plant that you’d think would have enough of a defense mechanism on its own.  However, as I can attest, the slightest contact with this plant results in several painful, stinging welts with considerable staying power.  You see, the tree has a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with ants of the genus pseudomyrmex, vicious little buggers that will defend their host tree in exchange for food and shelter.  Anything comes too close and they hurl themselves at the attacker, driving in their jaws and hammering away with their stingers, sometimes even climbing to higher branches to drop down on the poor trespasser.

Not a friendly plant, with or without ants.

Now, usually symbiosis in nature is heralded as a kind, inspiring tale of cooperation between different species, finding commonality, complementing weaknesses, kum-bay-yah, yadda yadda.  But in this case, a closer look at the coupling takes a darker turn.  Besides providing the ants a place to live, the acacia also provides them with food in the form of little sugar-secreting organs called Mullerian Bodies on the bases of their leaves.  But it isn’t ordinary sugar.  Once consumed, the chemical causes the ants to be unable to digest any other type of sugar, forcing them to rely on the acacia plant and essentially become addicted.  They must then protect the tree out of necessity, not just efficiency.  Their host is now their sole source of food.

It gets worse.  Since the ants chase away all potential threats, they often also repel bees, depriving the tree of pollinators.  When the tree wants to be pollinated, it stops producing the sugar until enough of its flowers are pollinated, forcing the ants to seek another tree.  Then, once it’s coming into fruit, the Mullerian bodies kick back into action and the ants return, jonesing for a fix.

This isn’t inspiring.  This is horrible.  This is the toxic, abusive relationship of the natural world.  This is a drug dealer keeping a junkie on a short leash.  This tree is playing these ants, kicking them out when it’s not entertained only to drag them back again with promises of more nectar.  Because the ants do come back.  They always come back.  They hate themselves, but end up forgiving the tree every time because, y’know, it doesn’t mean it, it really loves them, and besides…the sugar…

And who would expect this kind of thing from a tree?  It’s a freaking tree.  And it’s outsmarted ants.  The unstoppable animal.  The scourge of the tropics.  The bane of my naturalist career.  This is an animal that creates cities with specialized jobs.  Builds bridges with their own bodies.  Knows to move to higher ground during a flood.

There are humans who can’t figure this out. I’m looking at you, Louisiana.

As always: fuck ants.  But this time:  man, fuck trees.


Frogs That Grow on Trees

One of the few things I have the pleasure to say I’ve actually independently studied is the diversity of frog egg-laying strategies.  While there is the usual progression of eggs in water—tadpoles—froglets—frog, tropical species have a wider variety of techniques at their disposal.  For example, some lay eggs in a jelly mass that the males whip into a foam ball with their legs, leaving puddles full of amphibian meringues that resist drying out.  Some lay eggs in ponds, but then carry individual tadpoles into bromeliads in trees.  But my favorites are the ones that create thick, gooey egg masses that they glue onto leaves overhanging streams.

We’ve been seeing many of these on our transects while are, likewise, situated along rivers and streams.  The egg masses up to three meters above the surface, glistening with the consistency of tapioca pudding.  They’re from a few different families of treefrogs as well as glass frogs.  Since the eggs are transparent and develop and hatch in under a week, I’ve been able to get some good photos to document the process.  When the tadpoles are developed enough, they wriggle out of the goo and drop into the water below, where they continue to grow and metamorphosize.  This usually happens during heavy rain, when the jelly is softest.

Like if you mixed chia seeds with Jell-O

The idea here is that, while suspended, the eggs are safe from most ground- or water-dwelling predators. If they get threatened by a tree climber—say a snake comes along to eat them—they sense the vibrations and can hatch prematurely.  The kicker is that, even as a developing embryo, the tadpoles are able to differentiate between the vibrations caused by a hungry predator and things like raindrops.  Anything shakes their leaf too much and they panic and jump for it.

Think about that: even before they’re born, frogs can recognize predator signs and have enough of a survival instinct to react to it.  Not only that, but for many of them, their first conscious thought is to fight free from the soft, wet, protective medium that is all they have ever known as home and drop several hundred times their own body size into what is, to them, a raging river.  Heck, even under normal, they force themselves to perform this leap of faith during thunder and lightning, wind and rain.  Man, frogs are freaking metal.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at them.

The Worst Laid Plans of Damselflies and Men

Damselflies are sensitive to the slightest amount of precipitation.  Any rain; they seek cover, and we cannot test.  So why we have chosen to study this particular animal in the rainiest part of the rainier slope of a rainforest during the rainy season is a question I have had plenty of time to consider while sitting under leaves waiting out showers with misplaced hope.

As far as the tests themselves, my job is usually the recorder.  To study male territorial behavior, we locate and mark males that keep to the same perch regularly for a few days.  The, we catch a new male, tether him to the end of a fishing pole with a short piece of magic string and a little sliver of duct tape, and fly him in.  My job is to narrate the fights.  I swear I am not making any of this up.

Pics. It happened.

So I spend my days usually hip-deep in water speaking into a microphone with eyes riveted to two tiny insects engaged in aerial combat.  The descriptions of the action tend to be short and terse, with specific actions being used over time to describe an ethogram—which is a fancy word meaning a table representing behavior over time.  Man, science has a word for everything.

Like this: a caterpillar that looks like bird poop? Fecal mimicry.

However, as these recordings are made in real time and this is the jungle, the ethograms are rarely completely professional.  Mine are usually end up as “focal male chasing—goddam fucking mosquito just flew in my ear”, or “male is perched, is now chasing again, and something just swam into my boot”, or “focal male is on territory at…never mind, aborting test.  A lizard just ate him.”  I like to imagine the poor lab assistant who has to listen to all these recordings and just wonder at all the drama hinted at by them.

What Comes Down the River

Since this project began, we have been working our way down in elevation, so to speak.  Our first site was in Monteverde, Premontane Cloud Forest.  Then we left for Tropical Dry Forest along the side of a lowland volcano, followed by some Wet Forest on the other side.  Now we are in coastal lowland Tropical Rainforest, the true jungle, the real deal.  I have come full circle, it seems, and have now ended up not far from where I began my Costa Rican travels over a year and a half ago.

Our current site is a small river in the Reserva Vida Silvestre, near the town of Golfito on the Golfo Dulce.  While not very big, the forest here sure feels dense and has been active enough as far as wildlife goes.  Since it’s been a while since I’ve written about mammals, I thought I’d use this as a chance to give them some attention.

Not that they need it.

Squirrel monkeys have been visiting us regularly. So far, they’ve been the only monkeys we’ve encountered here up close, which I am glad of considering they are by far the least aggressive and least likely to throw things or intentionally poop on us.  The resident troop is big; at least fifty strong.  Fairly well accustomed to humans too, as some of the bolder ones have come pretty close down to eye level to check us out.

Two days ago I was able to get a picture of something I have seen before but never photographed: a tayra.  Two of them, to be exact.  This couple was crossing the river over a fallen tree, making too much noise to be a monkey but not enough to be a lizard and held still long enough for me to snap a photo.

See? Giant, black, tree-weasels.

But even that event was normal compared to what happened when two fellow researchers radioed me to their position saying that “some kind of animal” approaching them in the water.  I arrived to find it was an agouti, albeit an agouti that had been swimming downstream only to stop and freeze less than a meter away from where they stood.  As to why it did this, I haven’t a clue.  I ruled out rabies and blindness.  Maybe it just didn’t see them in time and then froze out of fear?  I didn’t even know agoutis could swim.

Not photoshopped, and not dead.

Unfortunately, much of this natural spell has been somewhat broken of late by another mammalian arrival—some local kids here to see what the gringos are up to.  Some of them called to me as I was in the water that there were crocodiles that would eat me.  “I’m skinny and I don’t taste good,” I responded.  “And they already ate my friend, so I think they’re full.”  That got some giggles, although my attempt at Spanish usually does.