A Herper’s Glossary

ATM: (acronym) About To Molt. The state a snake is in a few days before shedding its skin, when it is mostly blind, itchy, and especially cranky. Careful, she’s ATM and likely to bite.

Bag ‘n Tag: (v) To quickly and efficiently identify, capture, and store a herp in a labeled container for later release, either for scientific study or public safety. (NOTE: not to be confused with simply “Tag”, see below)

Barehand: (v) to capture a herp without any tools.

Corwin: (n) A semi-professional herper who often hams up Bag n’ Tag for attention, but has little academic background and is kind of a poser. 

Dance, The: (n) The process of trying to safely capture an excited and dangerous snake, often in front of a crowd of horrified students. Well, I flubbed the hook, so now we start the dance.

DBD: (acronym) Dead by Daylight, a reference to the myth that dead snakes do not fully die until the next morning, but really does refer to the long-lasting death reflex that can still cause fatal bites. Don’t pick it up yet, bro. Remember DBD.

Dundee: (n) A herper with no academic background, but has plenty of practical background and skill. He Barehanded that python, he’s a real Dundee.

GIS: (acronym) General Impression and Shape. Used as a reason or excuse for a vague identification. Alternate meaning: Goddamit, I’m Sure. How do I know that was a Leaf Frog and not a Tree Frog? GIS.

I know frog GIS. And this thing has frog GIS all over it.

Herp: 1.  (n) short for “herpetofauna,” reptiles and amphibians, evolutionarily distinct but often included in the same study for functional or historical reasons. Often autocorrected as “Herpes,” with disastrous results.

I went out with the guys last night and we all caught herps together.

2. (v) to search for, catch, study, or observe herps. See: Herper, herpist (obsolete). Conditions are good, so we’re going herping this weekend.

Horse Juice: (n) Antivenom, which is–seriously–made from horses. I got tagged, hit me with the Horse Juice.

Hook: 1. (n) The Snakehook, the herper’s trusty tool consisting of a long rod, usually stainless steel, with a short blunt hook at the end. Used for capturing snakes. Also doubles as improvised weapon, walking stick, staff of office, and back scratcher.

2. (v) to catch a snake using the hook with a simple scooping movement.

Irwin: (n) A professional herper who hams up Bag n’ Tag for attention, but has the academic background to back it up and is probably a really cool guy.

Kit, the: (n) Snakebite kit. Notorious among professional herpers as a generally ineffective placebo.

Phobe: (n) Short for Ophidiophobe: one who is afraid of snakes. Make it a quick Bag n’ Tag, there’s a phobe in the audience.

If you’re a phobe, you probably stopped reading a while ago.

Pollywog: 1. (n) regional slang for tadpole, frog larvae

2. (n) regional slang for intern, graduate student larvae.

Tag: (v) to bite a human (if you are a snake). She tagged me, bro! Get the kit!

WWSID: (acronym) What Would Steve Irwin Do?

I, Naturalist

It’s been a rough couple of months. Between travel restrictions, career, and a debilitating injury, it doesn’t look like I’ll be in Costa Rica again any time soon. So in my boredom and gloom, I got back into something I thought I’d sworn off years ago: a little app called iNaturalist.

It was either that or reach for something else I’d sworn off years ago.

My reasons for dropping iNat are due to a poor first impression. See, the app is designed to be a tool where users can upload photos of living things and then try to ID each other’s photos. Photos can be geotagged and date stamped, and IDs can be as specific as you like. IDs are based on current accepted taxonomy, and can be searched by scientific or common names. If multiple IDs disagree, the app displays the lowest common taxonomic level. Algorithms can automatically suggest IDs based on photos and geography.

But when it was first rolled out, the algorithms had so little data to work from that they were practically useless. There weren’t enough experts using the app to make accurate IDs. And the potential for abuse was too easy.

Years back, I TA-ed for a high school level field course when the new app was included in the curriculum. The instructors, without much foresight, decided that each student had to make 5 IDs a day. There were sixteen students over 2 weeks.

The problems were immediately obvious to me. “So are we going to have to verify 80 photos a day for two weeks?”

No, I was told. iNaturalist would verify the photos automatically.

“But how do we know that the ID is correct? More importantly, how do the students learn anything if all they’re doing is posting a photo and waiting for the app to suggest something?

Brown. Spiny. Suggested ID: hedgehog–iNaturalist, early days.

The activity was abandoned after a few days, and the experience really turned me against the app. But now I see that my initial assessment isn’t fair. Because in the years since, between new features, better code, and a growing community of users, this is quite a neat tool.

I can now, from the comfort of my temperate-latitude home, scroll through photos that are being taken in Costa Rica. I can narrow my search by taxonomy or location. I can help people identify the animals, plants, and even fungi they’re seeing, just like I did as a guide. I can even get an idea of what’s going on–a lot of amateur bird photos suggests the migratory species are showing up. A series of professional, specimen-grade insect closeups means there’s an entomological study going on at one of my old field stations. And I can even keep updated on puma activity around where I had my encounter–most likely, it’s the same cat.

And the community behind this is great. People are generally helpful and supportive. We’re all naturalists enjoying what we do best, and apart from a little bragging here and there, it’s perfectly wholesome. Sure, every now and then I’ll see someone use it to plug a business or social media account, but so far the community is niche enough that there isn’t any abuse or toxicity. Disagreements are kept professional, not mean-spirited. A true gem for the internet.

It’s like Instagram, but exclusively for nature nerds.

I’ve even used it to reconnect with people. Scrolling though CR photos, I saw a couple shots of damselflies with painted abdomens–the same technique we used back in 2016. Messaging the photographer, I asked if they ever worked with my old PI. Turns out, they were one of my coworkers on that project. They were still at it, years later, making little bugs fight for science.

Remember this? That was…wait, six years ago? Jesus!

I don’t often plug anything, especially anything app-related, but this is social media exclusively for things I like. The system isn’t perfect, and still should not be relied on for poor lesson planning, but for now it appears to be serving its purpose and then some. To me, that’s worth sacrificing a little personal metadata or whatever its taking off my phone in exchange for a little guiding-by-proxy. I’m that desperate.

A Lovely Little Post on Ants

I love ants.

Ants are just so great. The absolute best. They’re cute and interesting and amazing and just so much fun to be around. Especially in the Tropics, where there are just so dang many of them.

So, so very many.

They’re helpful, too. They’re often an important, if not the most important, function of recycling nutrients in an ecosystem. Though the individuals may be tiny, their sheer numbers, organization, and hard work means they can scour a habitat for organic material to collect and break down into more basic components. It’s a remarkable process. The colony works collectively as a superorganism, with drones using antennae taps and pheremone trails to plot out forage paths in patterns so efficient, modern delivery companies are basing algorithms on them to minimize travel routes. The ants really do cover some ground, and they get everywhere.

Everywhere.

Of course, not all ants are foragers exactly. Some are farmers! I’ve mentioned leafcutter ants a few times, those stupendous little wonders who clip plant matter into compost for a fungus which they harvest as food. In Costa Rica, the majority of plant consumption is done by leafcutters, not larger herbivores, and the underground fungal gardens can create huge pockets of aerated, nutrient-rich soil once the ants move on. The species has been growing the fungus far longer than humans have been practicing agriculture, making them the world’s oldest farmers. Take that, neolithic hominids!

Not so special now, huh?

Some ants are predators, such as army ants. I’ve mentioned these a few times as well. However, they tend to feed on other insects, including large annoying wasps. That’s helpful! Should these ants invade human space, they often scour the area clear of all pests and clear out the remains before leaving. Locally, they are known as “house cleaners” since no scrap of remotely edible material escapes them.

Nothing. Nothing escapes them.

Fascinating, diligent, and useful–ants truly are amazing. It’s so great to think about all the ways they benefit our lives and our entire world. I could go on and on, enumerating their qualities all day, but today I’ll sum up my thoughts thusly:

I love ants.

Super Bowl Monkey

I just realized I drafted this, but never posted it. Man, this month has been a mess.

I’m a bad American. I don’t own any guns, I speak more than one language, and I don’t care one bit about American football. The very fact that I have to specify the modifier “American” should clue you in to where I stand on the sport. So the fact that the last day of my trip fell upon Super Bowl Sunday came to me as a surprise, until I was reminded of it by the friend whose house I was staying at in Manuel Antonio.

Now, she’s a proper fan. A real red-blooded gridiron goon. So I was honored by her invitation to join the party. Better yet, another friend there was British, and I knew that watching her watch the American watch football would be the real entertainment. So I agreed to participate in the festivities the best way I know how: by grilling dinner.

I don’t want this to become a food blog, but god damn do I love doing this.

I had a perfect setup on a little ledge overlooking a quiet side street. The view was lovely, surrounded by the trees and vines of the ever-encroaching jungle. This being mid Dry Season, many flowers were in bloom and the air smelled great, only embellished by my signature barbecue chicken, veggies, and pineapple over open coals.

And wouldn’t you know it, the monkeys thought so too. Because not even half an hour in, a full troop of squirrel monkeys showed up.

Yep, should’ve seen that coming.

I don’t think I’ve talked about these guys much. When I refer to “monkeys” with a dark tone and shiver of revulsion, I’m usually thinking of capuchins. Or howlers, the fecal bombardiers with voices like unmuffled motorcycles. Or spider monkeys, the rare and enigmatic canopy dwellers. But here’s a quick rundown of Costa Rica’s fourth species: Saimiri oerstedii.

These.

Central American (or Red-Backed) Squirrel Monkeys are the smallest monkey in Costa Rica. They are known locally as “mono titi,” which can be confusing since an unrelated South American monkey is known in English as the Titi Monkey. However, this species is found along the South Pacific Coast of Costa Rica and into Panama, and is still considered Endangered along its range.

Highly social and omnivorous, squirrel monkeys travel in large troops of up to a hundred (usually about half that), foraging for insects, fruit, and small animals much in the same way as capuchins. However, unlike the capuchins of my woeful field days, their group structure is much less hierarchal and more egalitarian, with multiple mating pairs and no dominant alphas. As a result (or consequence; gotta love evolution), they are much less aggressive.

If these had been capuchins, it would’ve ended with one of us in the hospital.

But they are still opportunistic little bandits. Not to mention clever and persistent thieves, especially around human areas where they have learned to steal and beg for food. And while local conservation efforts in the MA area have led to a recovery of the local endemic subspecies, this has meant that they are far more abundant and bold around humans. As I rediscovered.

The group moved in from all sides, quickly surrounding me and the grill from rooftops, fences, and electrical wires. I shouted and waved kitchen implements at them, threatening to add them to the fire if they should dare to touch my food. They ignored me. Instead, they coordinated small advances, darting in and out just out of range, testing my defenses. I ended up practically straddling the grill, standing over the food to shield it with my own body, turning chicken with one hand while snapping tongs at marauding monkeys with the other.

I would never eat a monkey, but I would sure as hell cook one.

Ultimately, I held them off. Not one single dirty little primate laid his filthy hands upon a morsel of my food. The group eventually moved on in search of easier swag. But the victory was not without cost. In my rush to finish the meat before the monkeys got to it, some wings weren’t fully cooked all the way through and had to be finished in the microwave. Not my finest moment. At least the monkeys were sent away, disappointed and hungry. I consider that a win any day.

Oh, and there was a football game too at some point. I guess.

Missed Information

As a naturalist and guide, I like to know (or at least appear to know) a little about everything. To have something to say about anything I might find in my particular habitat. My goal is to be able to, off the top of my head for any given plant or animal, rattle off the name, general classification, ecological role, and a couple of cool facts. For those IDs, one out of three should include personal anecdote or story. For those stories, two out of three should include some kind of bodily horror.

Coati…related to the raccoon…omnivorous and diurnal…once bit me on the ass.

But sometimes I get utterly stumped. It happens. Sometimes a client or student or I will stumble across a creature or plant that I have no idea of. No frame of reference. No clue. And when it happens I can lose my mind.

Now, I am not above uttering my 3 least favorite words (“I, Don’t, Know”). I am perfectly fine swallowing my male academic pride and admitting defeat in the face of identification. And I even relish a little challenge in investigating, trying to pin down an ID of a new encounter.

But in those first few moments, as the confusion sets in? I can get a little dramatic. Especially if it’s something I feel I should know. Or if I run into something I was simply not prepared for. Below are a few of those moments, as I remember them.

#1 Praying-crick-roach

Check out this bug! It’s got the back legs of a cricket, middle legs of a cockroach, and the front legs of a mantis. That’s nuts! It’s like someone glued together three different bugs. An insectoid chimera. A bug manticore. Bugticore?

It’s just so wrong. There’s too much going on her, too many parts on one body. It’s 50% cricket, 50% roach, 50% mantis, and no I did not do that math wrong. 150% of bug. That’s too much bug. Three Orders in one.

Update: I still have no idea what this is.

#2 Blow-Up Frog

What a cute little frog! Never seen this species before. It’s like, 3 centimeters long. Man, there’s so many different kinds here. This is tough. Need to check its feet. Gonna poke it…

Oh my god, he just puffed himself up rose up on his legs as a threat display! Like a tiny wrestler. That’s adorable! You go, little guy. Look at you, all tough and stuff.

Update: Still not sure what this is, but since it came from the Amazon, not Costa Rica, it could be one of hundreds of species.

#3 The Katy Perry Bird

This one has no photo because I never got a visual ID on it. Rather, I heard its call. And it sounds–and I mean really sounds–like the chorus riff from the Katy Perry song Dark Horse. If you know the song, you can hear the call. It’s spot-on. Uncanny. And the fact that I’ve never been able to actually see this bird calling is maddening. Plus, every time I hear the call it puts that song in my head, just like this paragraph put it in yours. Sorry.

Update: Still haven’t IDed this, but friends suggest some kind of antbird.

Other Update: No, I don’t generally listen to Katy Perry. Why do people keep asking me this?

#4 Red-Touching Black Snake

(OK, obviously I knew this was a snake, but the lack of specific knowledge led to a critical incident)

Ok, my PI just handed me a snake. This day rules. I wonder what species it is. I don’t usually handle snakes I can’t ID, but this guy knows best, right? I mean, he’s an entomologist, but should know better than to pass around unknown snakes. He’s got a PhD after all. I’ll ask him…

What do you mean you don’t know what kind of snake it is? It could be a coral snake! What’s that, boss? “Red touches black…?” That rhyme doesn’t work in the Tropics, you bug-loving maniac! Some coral snakes are red and black. You could’ve gotten me killed! I’m never trusting you again.

Update: It was a harmless tree snake.

Other Update: I never trusted him again.

A Day in the Life of a Real Naturalist

Years back, an ecolodge I worked for commissioned me to write a guest post for their blog. It was supposed to be a “Day in the Life of a Naturalist” post, and someone had heard that I had my own personal blog going at the time. However, the boss clearly had no idea of the tone of said personal blog and its, shall we say, irreverence. The piece I wrote was true to form and, while accurate, didn’t really fit with the professional, family-friendly official page. It was rather off-brand. So the Director himself decided it was in need of much re-writing, a task he did on his own.

And I didn’t even mention ants.

The resulting post wasn’t so much re-written as ghost-written. Gone was the spite and sarcasm. Gone were the gory details. Gone was the actual day in the actual life of an actual naturalist. In its place was a squeaky-clean bit of G-rated ecotour propaganda. I allowed it to be posted only with my name removed, and decided to post my original work on my own blog.

But then I remembered that I was under contract, and that technically what I had written belonged to the organization. Plus, I was under a kind of NDA and some details pertained to work. Plus, I was trying to be professional, and didn’t want my employer to think I was a dick.

Well I just learned that that place is no longer in business so they can’t do squat! Below is my original post, along with their edits in bold.

My day begins at 5am dawn when the monkeys wake me up by dropping guavas on my roof. My first coherent thought is deciding whether or not to go outside and yell at them to imagine all the animals I’m going to see today. Then I shake the spiders out of put on my boots and head to the dining hall where I fill myself with as much rice, beans, and strong coffee as is medically possible eat breakfast and drink a cup of coffee. This is the jungle and I can’t waste daylight.

Monkeys are awful little tree gremlins interesting creatures.

The first tour of the day is usually birdwatching. After passing out binoculars, and helping the one or two chuckleheads who try to use them backwards, we head out to see what’s around. Depending on the year, we can get all sorts of migrants and visitors from the Northern Hemisphere flying in and making a lot of noise. Sometimes we see migratory birds too. The campus is great place for birding, with plenty of open areas, forested habitat, flowers, fruit, and tall trees. Sometimes we visit a ledge overlooking the river with a great view of the valley, which also happens to be my favorite spot to pee a very relaxing place.

If nothing is scheduled, I like to head over to the campus farm to lend a hand. Agriculture in the Tropics is a never-ending rewarding job, as the growing season is year-round. The food goes right from the dirt to the kitchen. Lunch is typical Costa Rican food, generally organic rice, local beans, homegrown veggies, and a meat dish with fresh fruit. Along with, of course, more coffee.

Ok, he was trying to plug the farm here. I get that.

Afternoons are for more activities. If we’re in luck, we’re hosting a researcher, and they always need someone to play Tonto an experienced guide. Or Sherpa a helpful assistant. Throughout my time here, I’ve assisted with forestry techs, bat catchers scientists, herpers biologists who study reptiles and amphibians, butterfly geeks lepidopterists, and camera trap nerds specialists. Onsite, we have our own research on seed dispersal, reforestation, mycology, and a poor resident moth intern who stays up all night counting bugs an ongoing moth survey.

Throughout the day, I like to make myself available to guests to tell stories, point out animals, and answer their questions. I hear all sorts of things. “What was that animal we saw that looked like a large guinea pig?” Probably an agouti. “We heard a strange call last night.” This is where I start making animal sounds until they hear the right one help them find out what it was. “Is it true that there’s a bug that lays its eggs in your brain?” Um, not sure about that one. No, but the Director once got bit by a botfly.

What he hell, man? That isn’t even MY anecdote.

Dinner is similar to lunch, and afterward is my favorite activity: night hike. A few hours after sunset, I pass out flashlights, slap on some bugspray, and hit the trails with a group of wary excited guests in tow. Nighttime is when the jungle really comes alive. We can count on seeing all sorts of critters nocturnal wildlife, from massive insects, ghostly owls, and absolute hordes of frogs. If we’re lucky, we might even see a kinkajou which is a Costa Rican mammal that looks like a large squirrel. We often rarely see snakes.

Exhausted, delighted, and very sweaty, everyone heads back to the cabins to dream of weird animals they’ve never seen before. It’s been another day in the life of a naturalist.

So You Don’t Want to Be a Naturalist Anymore

So you’ve decided to change careers. The life of a naturalist just isn’t for you. Maybe you’re tired of being constantly bug-bitten and mammal-mauled. Maybe the apocalyptic scale of climate change has you despairing for environmental work. Maybe you’d like to for once in your life make some actual money.

I’m not giving up my dream just yet. But as a naturalist who has, at times, had to support my career with jobs outside my field, I thought I’d offer this self-help guide to readjusting back into normal, civilized, adult life. Here goes.

I know it sounds crazy, but there exists a job without ants.

Rewrite Your Resume

If you have a science background, you’ve been taught to prepare your resume/CV a certain way. To just pack that baby with every study, research project, lab activity, and field gig you were remotely a part of, and describe each one with as technical of wording as possible. Extra points for being as taxonomically specific as possible. Double points for including Latin words that barely qualify as English.

Well now you’re applying for a normal job and guess what? Not only does no-one give a crap about that, they will barely understand it. Some poor recruiting manager doesn’t want to have to scan through a list of “research experiences” involving animals they’ve never heard of. Especially if the work was unpaid and, let’s be honest, it was unpaid wasn’t it?

For example, I recently applied to an ordinary job for the season. I edited down my Research section greatly, and changed things like “conducted a species assemblage of amphibians across a geographic gradient” to “Studied frogs in the jungle.” Much more palatable. “Comparison of interspecific sexual and territorial behavior of damselfies” became “Made horny bugs fight each other. For science.” And anything involving the collection of feces…yeah, I removed that entirely. That sure made the document shorter.

Man, not even spellcheck knows what a damselfly is

Change Your Appearance

Did you know there are other colors for clothing besides green, brown, grey, and other drab earth tones? Did you know that some people buy clothing with appearance in mind, not function? That there are other factors to take into account other than a fabric’s ability to resist mold, scratches, and animal blood?

Strange as it seems, you may find yourself in a job where your appearance matters. You may be expected to meet something called “professional standards” of dress, grooming, and general hygiene. You will not be allowed to wear clothes that are stained or torn, even if they function just fine. You will be expected to shave and cut your hair, despite your protests that it will all grow back anyway.

It’s rough, but think of it as an adaptation. Civil camouflage. Clothes shopping is just gathering materials. Now go out and get yourself a makeover. Get dressed. Wear perfume. Put on makeup. Cut your hair. Do your nails. Take a bath, you dirty hippy.

Stop Telling Stories, Seriously Just Shut Up Because No One Believes You

Another personal anecdote: a while back on a construction gig, a coworker noticed the scars on my hand. He asked where they came from. I told him, “monkeys.” That guy never spoke to me again.

Yes, a monkey. And I still see his face in my dreams…

It’s a naturalist thing. Fieldwork talk. Research station stories. We all do it, all trying to share and impress and one-up. We talk about the places we’ve been. The adventures we’ve had. The animals we’ve seen, studied, or fought. The tales border on the ludicrous and push the limits of believability because that’s the point.

But back here in the real world? That junk is straight out of animal planet. Fantasy that belongs on television. Best case: people will think you’re full of shit. Worse case: they will think you’re insane. Most likely: a bit of both. So learn from my mistakes, mistakes I keep making over and over wherever I go, and curb that kind of behavior.

Bottom line: what happens in the jungle stays in the jungle. Or at least let it out carefully, gradually, bit by bit over time.

Also, maybe don’t talk about snakes so much. Can’t hurt.

All Part of the Job

Hey, I just found a way to recover a bunch of photos from an old memory card that I thought was broken! This was from about a year and a half ago, when I was in Costa Rica working at that rescue center. Ok, so it’s mostly more pictures of bugs and snakes, but…enjoy, I guess?

Are you at all surprised?

Man, I’m really reaching for content here. No, that’s not true. I got plenty more photos and a million more stories on backlog that I could use to regularly keep this blog active. So why the dry spells?

It’s just that this started as a kind of release. A side project, something completely different. I would spend most of my days outside, wandering in the forest, taking photos and screaming obscenities at wildlife, then come back to hop on the internet for a quick minute. It was the one place where I could say everything I couldn’t say on tours, or to students, and this was OK because it was mostly anonymous. I would pour out my thoughts, unfiltered and unedited, dump some photos, jot down some snark, and hit post with minimal effort. It was my one little corner of my life associated with technology and social media, and I was Ok with that.

But I went legit this year. Started a business. Established an online presence. Designed my own website with a professional work email. Even put my face on social media–friends and consultants convinced me to get a Facebook and Instagram page. I drew the line at TikTok, though. And YouTube, for now. I will consider OnlyFans, however.

“Subscribe to watch me catch snakes. For Premium members, I’ll do it without that hat.”

And that took work. Time, money, and a whole lot of mental energy. I’m a private person, and putting all this together, keeping it active and relevant, is exhausting. But it’s my job now, so I get it done without too much griping. But now this kind of thing feels like work. This blog feels like work. So it’s less fun, less of the release it used to be.

The blogging, that is. Catching snakes will always be fun.

So, will I continue Pura Vida Stories?

The answer is yes. Absolutely yes.

Because remember what I said earlier, about this being everything I can’t say on tours? My need to do that is go exponential if I ever start guiding fulltime. I’m absolutely going to need that release, that anonymous corner of my life where I can spill all. I won’t be talking about clients, or betraying anyone’s trust, but I’m sure to rack up more crazy stories worth telling and hopefully get more photos that are due wordy explanations. More wildlife encounters. And I will never escape ants.

So I’m going to keep this up, and try to keep it compartmentalized. Separate from my professional life. As anonymous as I can. So if you know who I am, please keep this in mind for posting comments or sharing. God help me if clients find this before a trip.

God help them, too.

Guys I Saw a Puma

Guys, I saw a puma.

Pics. It happened.

A real life freaking puma. A mountain lion in the jungle. A cougar. A catamount. Puma concolor, color and all. I saw it. Me.

Ok, let me rein it in and start from the beginning: this was down in the Osa Peninsula, back at one of my old haunts. On a stretch of public trail that follows the coastline from Drake Bay to Corcovado. I was killing time, strolling along, trying to get eyes on some howler monkeys nearby. When I happened to look down and to my right.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. Until I nearly walked into it.

Kitty cat! Right there! Right freaking there! Just lying out with its ears three, maybe four meters away. Didn’t make a sound. Hardly moved. Just stared at me while I stared back. All brown and slinky and furry and–

Alright this happened months ago so I thought I’d calmed down enough to write about it legibly. Apparently not. Anyway, there had been puma tracks and photos from the camera traps nearby, but no one had seen one so clearly during broad daylight. Large cats are notoriously illusive and skittish, and people are lucky to get a glimpse as they disappear back into the brush. But this was lying right by a public trail, not even a hundred meters from the station. I wasn’t sneaking or anything. I didn’t even have a good camera ready.

But I saw it! And photographed it! Oh, the sweet vindication! After all those months in Monteverde, prowling around with camera at the ready. All those hours staking out watering holes and game trails, smearing myself with mud. And listening with utter frustration when some tourists saw one in the middle of the day from their car. I earned this, dammit! Earned this!

I still can’t believe it. I was in shock. Not out of fear for my life–since puma attacks in Costa Rica are rare–but that it would bolt and leave me with no proof. After all, who would believe me? So I tried to keep calm, and coolly reached for my phone. Snapped a few photos, and a few closeups with a crappy zoom lens.

Yeah, give ’em your good side, you goddamn gorgeous beast.

And OK, my mind did melt a little. I said something inane, as if had just stepped on a stranger’s foot: “Whoa, sorry, my bad,” only it came out, “Whoop. Shmeerie. Marbles.” But purely out of excitement. Then I remembered that I was, after all, facing down a predator and I backed away, never turning round, and took a little video as it disappeared from view.

I got back to the station with my heart hammering and silently handed my phone to the first person I saw, a member of the staff. He looked at the photo and at my face, which must have been ash-white even under a sunburn. He asked when this was taken. “Just now,” I said. His jaw dropped.

Pumas in Central America are slightly smaller and redder than those in the North, I’ve noticed. They also have slightly different habits, probably due to the fact that they eat smaller prey. This one, I think, was a juvenile that was staking out a game trail frequented by curassow, peccary, and agouti. It probably didn’t mean to get so close to humans, but clearly wasn’t too concerned. After all, it didn’t growl or flee right away. In fact, it broke eye contact and looked away while I was still there. Quite the casual move for a predator.

So yeah, I saw a puma. Cross that one off the life list. I saw a puma and didn’t even try. Just out here in my bad jungle self, trompin around and shootin cats like it ain’t no thing.

I saw a puma.

Sense-less

I’ve talked before about how smell is an important often overlooked sense, but even more so in the jungle. Between the blooming flowers, ripening fruit, decomposing organic matter, and sweating human bodies, the experience just isn’t the same without it.

Which means that most of my stories and photos lack a certain essential element. A particular context. So to remedy that, I’m going to provide the next set of photos with instructions on how to fully experience them, nasally. And I’ve gone through my last trip’s album to pick out ones that are especially memorable.

Note that I did not say “pleasant”

The Rainforests of Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast–what remains of them–are one of the few places left to see White-lipped peccary, a kind of wild pig. Known as “javelina” in the Southern US, here they are called “Saino” and used to run in herds of up to a hundred. Now, due to habitat loss and overhunting, there are few left and they are very skittish. The best way to see them is to track them, following your nose until you get close enough to hear the clacking of their tusks. Or stake out one of their mud wallows, as I did.

To fully experience a peccary trail, wear the same shorts to the gym every day for a week. Then, stick them in a bucket, add a couple dozen bad eggs, pour in a gallon of gasoline, and let that sit for about a month. Then uncover and inhale deeply. That, my friends, is what peccaries smell like.

Reminds me of freshman year.

Millipedes are a common sight in the Tropics, and they can get rather large. Don’t worry–they’re harmless. It’s only centipedes that sting. Millipedes just eat decaying organic matter and when threatened, curl into a ball and release a distinct smell.

Millipedes smell like almonds. Seriously, just like almonds. Just like an amaretto latte in some species. The reason is cyanide: almonds contain trace amounts of cyanide, which is what millipedes release as a defense. Oh, did I say they were harmless? I meant they’re harmless to touch. Yeah, don’t eat them. Because, y’know, cyanide.

And wash your hands too.

Finally, something that is not native to Costa Rica, but has been naturalized and now flourishes: ylang-ylang. This fragrant tree releases its scent mainly at night to attract nocturnal pollinators. In many parts of the world, including its original home of Southeast Asia, it is made into fancy perfumes and used for aromatherapy.

Ylang-ylang smells wonderful. There is no way to fully describe the sensation of sitting below a ylang-ylang tree in full bloom, or to properly explain the associated feelings of enchantment, decadence, and pure joy. It’s just too rich. It feels almost wrong, somehow, or self-indulgent. It’s a guilty pleasure. It should be a sin to smell something this good. To experience this, to go to a fancy perfume store, find the most expensive bottle, and just smash that sucker on the floor. The resulting smell, as well as the perversely gleeful guilt at your transgression, just might suffice. Next, eat a chocolate chip cookie. Now you’re getting it.

You deserve it.

Smell ya later.