You Take It When You Can

Yesterday, I was sitting the in the forest. The morning had been spent chasing monkeys up and down several cliffs until they ran off. It was a hot day, and I was greasy from all the  sweat soaked into my field clothes. I had ants in my boots, mosquitoes hovering by my ear, and chiggers in my navel. There were fresh puma tracks nearby. And I nearly fell asleep.

Why? Because I was tired. Because it had been a long day. We had lost the monkeys and were staking out a site we were pretty sure they would return to. Because my back hurt from carrying my pack. Because I hadn’t gotten much sleep recently and dammit, the sandy ground was kind of comfy.

That lack of sleep may have something to do with all the ant, mosquito, and chigger bites.

But my point is, I almost fell asleep in an area surrounded by things that would keep most people up all night. Hell, a few years ago I would have thought anyone was out of their mind if they had even a momentary lapse in awareness in the jungle. Biting insects and large predators? You can’t even risk daydreaming. Naptime? Forget about it!

Mostly, it comes down to comfort and perspective. After so many years in fieldwork, and so many hours physically in the field, the forest is just another place. I’ve mentioned before about how it’s all relative–every location and environment has its own risks, perceived or otherwise. I’ve simply gotten used to this one. It’s not that I don’t notice the bugs anymore (especially ants, don’t think that I don’t), it’s just that I consider them differently when prioritizing things like efficiency and comfort.

Mostly sleep. I cannot emphasize enough how big a factor sleep deprivation is. I thought this mushroom was a turtle.


As for the predators, they simply aren’t that big an issue. Not during the day, at least, and not for a fullgrown, healthy human. I’m willing to share my space with large cats with the understanding that they’re more wary of me than I am of them. For the most part, they have no reason to disturb me while I rest. The ones around here don’t consider humans food. And I after a few hours of hiking, I smell far from edible.

I’ve reached the point where I can find a few minutes of sleep just about anywhere. Not that I can maintain it uninterrupted, though. The flip side of all this field time is a whole other issue–I will bolt awake in a near panic at the slightest disturbance, going from coma-like torpor to wide awake, machete-waving fight-or-flight at the drop of a hat. Or the snap of a twig. This means I can cue in to approaching monkeys even while nodding off, but also means that I sometimes scare the piss out of coworkers and roommates.

My suggestions: stay out of arms’ reach. Doubt me at your peril.

It’s a skill that comes with a tight balance. While I doubt anyone can literally sleep with one eye open, I can generally sleep with both ears perked. Even in the forest. Certainly when I need it. Just be careful if you have to wake me up.

Return of the Queens

I know it’s a little soon to be doing another post about ants, but this is different. It’s not even a rant–this is something actually cool.

Returning from a night hike, several students started screaming, complaining of large flying insects crashing into them. I suggested they turn off their lights, which usually attract nocturnal bugs, and inspected the area, expecting maybe large beetles or moths.

Understandably, not something you want flying into your headlamp.

What I saw were giant, winged ants, reddish and swollen, and covered with what looked like armored plates. Closer inspection proved them to be Atta sp, leafcutter ants, but of a caste that I had never seen before. They were queens. Thousands of them. All over the place.

I realize I may not have explained leafcutter ant ecology before. It’s truly fascinating, despite concerning ants. Leafcutters are the world’s oldest farmers. The leaves they clip and carry back to the colony are not for food–they are compost. The material is food for a certain strain of fungus that is harvested and eaten by the ants. Large chambers underground house huge, rotting masses of leaves, flowers, and fruit, covered with fungus, carefully tended by fungivorous ants.

The colony is divided into specialized subcastes. Large-headed soldiers guard the colony, and address any disturbance with massive jaws. Cutters clip segments of leaf and carry them back to the entrance. Once a cutter’s jaws become too dull, they are delegated to a different job of vetting leaves at the entrance and rejecting those of poor quality, a kind of ant retirement policy. Inside, there are more jobs for gardeners, nurses, and of course the queen. All of the above are female. Winged males live for short periods, and only only live to grow fat with sperm and fly around looking for mates.

Insert your own jokes here.

Entire books can be, and indeed have been, written about leafcutters, so I won’t go into detail. But essentially, at times all the queens of nearby colonies take leave and take flight, taking with them a sample of the fungus. They find males by pheromones, mate, then find a place to start a new colony. They dig a hole, and inoculate the burrow with the fungus.

Atta girl.

Which is what was going on. I had never seen this before, and didn’t realize the mass emergence was so…massive. Are there really this many colonies around? Are they from different colonies? How many will survive and succeed? Judging by the number around, it can’t be a high percentage, or we’re in for a lot of ants.

Final note: I watched one queen dig a brand-new hole near the station. The next day, there was a trail of cutters bringing leaves to it in a tidy line. Where did they come from so fast? There’s no way they could have hatched and metamorphosed so soon. Did the queen recruit them? From where?

I can still hate ants and be curious about them, right?

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.


You Had to be There

(I’m going to have to start uploading these several at a time since I’m now sharing slow internet with 20+ Save the Rainforest high schoolers with smartphones.)

There are some scenarios that are utterly impossible to conceive of if you don’t live in the area where it occurred.  Imagine explaining a traffic jam to a member of some isolated jungle tribe.  Or a sinking ship to someone who had never left the desert.  The following is one of those stories.

We bring our lunch with us into the field, a very gringo-worthy fare of sandwiches, apples, some empanadas, and cookies.  Usually the food bag is tightly sealed and placed in a backpack, but as we should all know, this is nothing to stop my least favorite unstoppable force: ants.  And on one particular day when the ants got the munchies the backpack serving pantry was my own.

They were some species of Azteca, I think, something very small but with a considerable sting.  I knew from the moment I saw the little black bodies scurrying over my bag and into the zippers that a single lone scout had found the food and left a trail long enough for the rest to arrive.  Sure enough, they had gotten in and where all over the food.  The fruit and sealed cookies were salvageable.  The rest was not.

Normally, this would not have been a problem.  While we can’t just dump food out in the forest in a Reserve, we could have tossed the infested food into the back of the truck for later disposal and just gone a little hungry that day.  Mitigate it with some extra helpings of dinner.  But our situation was complicated by a second arrival: monkeys.

As soon as they saw the food, they went wild.  Any other day I would have used this as an opportunity for karmic justice and eaten the food deliberately in front of them, but the ants prevented that.  We couldn’t let the monkeys have the food, because this would encourage them to seek handouts.  We didn’t want to leave the food in bed of the truck or else we’d have the monkeys tear apart the work site looking for it, and we couldn’t put it inside the car because it was crawling with ants.  Here I was, holding a bag of antsy food, unable to move, and surrounded by monkeys that were getting bolder by the second.

We settled on the idea of washing off the food as best we could in the river, then putting it in the car.  Which brings me to my original point.  After a few minutes of brushing ants off a soggy, dissolving pineapple empanada, the sheer idiocy of our position hit me.  How would I explain to someone from back home how I got to be in this position, on my knees enduring ant bites, rinsing off inedible food so that monkeys couldn’t eat it either?

In the end, I picked up the entire bag, held it over my head, and walked off, calling over my shoulder, “Follow me, shitheads!”  I made sure the monkeys knew the food had left the humans’ work site, then walked down the road a ways from our work site.  With the troop overhead, I dug a shallow hole, and dumped in the food.  Before I covered it I pissed on it.  I made sure they watched.

So Long, Farewell, Pura Vida

Aw, what more is there to say?  It’s been a great run.  I leave tomorrow for San Jose, where a long series of flights and layovers await me before I am, once again, back in a land with no monkeys to speak of.

I would love to stay longer.  But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the ecotourism and conservation field in Costa Rica is a competitive one, and you have to be pretty specialized or experienced to find your place.  If you want to get paid, that is.

Also, wear a hat. All the good guides wear hats.

Which is a good thing.  I’m glad that Costa Rica promotes its own educated workforce, and that natural science is taken so seriously that only the best and brightest can make it.  It’s the best country I know of that has a future in its own conservation efforts, and should be a model country for that reason.  This place is beautiful, biodiverse, utterly unique, and I get the feeling that the people who live here appreciate that.

Because I sure do.  As I appreciate being able to work here for as long as I did.  Boy, were there some good times.  Even the worst stories involving ants, scorpions, angry monkeys, greedy coatis, pissy border guards, merciless diseases, whiny kids, grumpy guests, and absolutely almighty rain are fading into pleasant memories, backed up by plenty of photos and good friends to share with in the years to come.

Did I mention the ants? Because I hate them.

And I’m not bitter.  As I said, I’ll be back someday.  And there’s plenty of cool stuff in the US as well.  Great forests.  Large snakes.  Good food that isn’t rice and beans.

Did someone say snake?

So hasta luego, Costa Rica.  Thanks for the trip.  Sorry about the mess.  Love what you’ve done with the place.  Don’t change.  Be seeing you again.

Pura Vida.

Special thanks to:  Birdman, Unnamed Naturalist Woman, Braids Girl, Admin on the Move, Strong Silent Schoolgirl, Snake Showering Marine, Several Generations of Moth Interns, shellshocked tourists, whoever else I’m forgetting at the moment, Cutpaw the Coati, Gimpy the Agouti, Edith the Tarantula, Fritter the Squirrel, and the rest of the staff at UGA.  You know who you are.

Here’s one last picture of a snake.

The Night Hike Curve

One person, walking around alone at night, will see plenty of stuff.  Having another person along will help them to see more, although not twice as much.  Usually, adding one or two more will slightly increase the chance of locating cool wildlife and having a good time.  This is the optimum number of people I like to lead for a night hike, and it follows a curve that tends to taper out around five or six.  More than this, and the hike tends to fall apart.

Part of the problem is that any given group is only as fast as its slowest member.  Or as punctual.  The following happened to me a few weeks ago:  I told several separate groups of tourists to meet for their assigned night hike at seven, and then waited around for an extra five minutes for a family of four to show up right before I decided to ditch them.  The father was wearing sandals.  I then took some time to explain to him why that was a bad idea.

This is why.

After some trying and fitting of spare boots, I then asked if everyone had a flashlight.  The same man looked at me blankly.  “Will we need them?”, he asked.

“No, we’re going to walk around in the dark and find animals by feel” I said, only it came out, “Yes, we will all need flashlights to find animals.”

Some more loitering while TevaDad went to find a light later, and he returned, and promptly blinded me by turning on a 3-LED headlamp while looking me in the face.  We were almost half an hour late at that point.

Another issue is that the bigger the group, the more directions get diluted.  Not only is it hard to speak over a crowd, but there’s something about being in a crowd that causes an otherwise normal person to completely tune out occasionally.  Or mishear things completely.  Especially when those directions are passed down a single-file line in near total darkness.

“Do not step on these ants” has been interpreted as “please stand here as long as possible and stare blankly upward while ants climb your boots.”  “You can only see the bird from right here” has become “by all means, keep telling me out loud that you don’t see it”.  “Turn your lights off”?  Continue ignoring me.  “Be quiet or you’ll scare off the opossum”?  Continue ignoring me.  “Look where I am pointing?”  Continue ignoring me.

Wait, did you say to keep talking loudly and shining my light at the bat, or not to?

And finally, there is the disaster of trying to accommodate a group spread out over a good ten or twenty meters.  One question from someone way in the back leads to a game of telephone tag and suddenly I’m hurrying past everyone, blinding myself in headlamp beams, brushing past bushes to address whatever has been sighted.  And by the time I get there, believe me, it had better be something pretty fucking interesting.

What?! You made me come back here for ants? Oh, go to hell.

The size of a night hike is critical to its success.  I don’t like to go over seven or eight, max.  And if you show up late, wearing Tevas, so help me I will leave you behind.

Feral Children

You have to know how to cater any tour to the age and interests of your group, and this is especially true when dealing with kids.  Even more so for young kids.  This has been quite the week for that, with a couple munchkins running around on any given day or so.  Not sure why, but my guess is that this is the time of year that families are out traveling, and it’s becoming more common for young couples to take kids and even babies out on hikes.  At the moment, we have two families, each with a baby that gets carried around, papoose-style, reacting to exotic wildlife with either an excited gurgle or a nap.

But night hikes have been tricky.  On those, the key is to move as quietly and slowly as possible, two things easily forgotten by an intrepid toddler experiencing a jungle at night.  It can be either too daunting, or so overwhelming that they lose focus and burst out with questions when they’re not running ahead at a firefly or giant moth.  And then there’s the issue of bedtime.  You see more wildlife the later out you can go, but the little ones tend to melt down quicker and the parents can end up trying to carry their offspring with one arm and aim a flashlight in the other.

And don’t touch the glowing ones.

But night hikes are when the best animals come out at eye level, and can be the most valuable for children at that delicate age when they don’t know how their supposed to react to certain things.  What I’m saying is that most people are taught from childhood that bugs are icky.  Spiders are scary.  Snakes are dangerous.  Things like that.  But exposing them to these things early, while they’re still impressionable, can change their impression of animals for the rest of their lives.

Unicorn katydid. Pro tip: Anything with name “unicorn” in it is guaranteed to interest little kids.

And anything can be special if you react with enough enthusiasm that they catch on.  Case in point:  last night we saw a rat of some kind cross the trail and freeze in our lights.  Had we seen it around a building, it would be considered vermin.  But I spoke in an excited, hushed tone, let them take pictures, and the little girl ended up happier than when she first saw a coati.

The parents are the key.  I have had some who were clearly not interested in the hike, and that apathy was picked up by their kids.  I have had many who acted scared of insects or spiders, and their kids reacted similarly.  But these ones were cool.  They made sure their kids followed my directions and learned about what we saw.  They told me what animals they were most excited about, and so I adjusted the hike based on where we could find those particular ones.

Frogs were a big hit. No surprise there.

What impressed me most was a moment later on that same night.  After the little girl started nodding off, the dad took her to bed while the mom continued on with the baby, fast asleep in a bjorn.  We went a little further along the roads to a frog pond, and on the way I spotted a four-eyed opossum in a tree.  However, while we moved closer for a better look, I also noticed that we were standing in the middle of a swarm of army ants.

After some panicked dancing and brushing, we got them off our shoes and legs without too many bites, and the mother calmly asked us to direct our lights toward her so she could check her baby.  He was fine, and we laughed it off.  She wasn’t mad or even too upset after nearly exposing her infant son to hordes of biting insects.  Come to think of it, I reacted worse than she did, but you already know my thoughts on ants.

I have enough pictures of ants, so here’s a blurry picture of the opossum instead.


The baby slept through the entire thing.

And Yes, Once Again, More on Ants

In case you were wondering:  I still hate ants.  And because the magnitude of my hate is impossible to express with words alone, I would like to provide you with some pictures from this morning, courtesy of a visit from my old acquaintances, army ants.

Just…so much hate for these things.

The horde must be entering statary phase again, because we’ve been seeing swarms closer to the station and more often.  Today, they raided my office, the dining hall, and the front porch.

You may recognize those as places where you work, eat, and relax, things that you cannot do while being swarmed by ants.

I got to watch a katydid get caught and eaten.  You may note that katydids are an insect that can jump and, at times, fly.  But all it took was one single ant to latch on and pump out attack pheromones, and then they were all on the poor insect, swarming it in seconds.  The venom from the stings acted quickly, and the katydid was soon torn apart and dragged off.

Never stood a chance.

It is frightening to see how efficient the swarm can be, considering each individual is only operating off basic instinct and simple instructions.  A lone ant is blind, helpless, and easily lost, but together the swarm acts as a predatory superorganism, a collective machine with a combined feeding instinct.

Once again, now as always:  fuck ants.

Not a Day Goes By

After almost nine months in the tropics I must conclude: it is impossible to go a day without learning something new.  Now, usually I try to make an effort at this.  Much of my free time is spent wandering aimlessly around the grounds and forest armed with a camera and portentous curiosity that usually results in blurry photos and various insect bites.  But even just spending time on campus, refusing to leave the indoors, results in numerous unexpected lessons.  Here are a collection of things I have learned without even going into the field:

  1.  Tarantulas are strong enough to hold onto the inside of a boot even after you’ve shaken it upside down to remove anything that crawled there in the night.  (Follow up: having your toes ticked by a tarantula first thing in the morning is a more effective way of waking up than drinking coffee.)
  2. Whatever material they make passports out of is a great medium to culture mold.  Many different colors of mold, in fact.
  3. The little squishy nose pads on glasses are edible to giant crickets.  In fact, they find them irresistible and will return on successive nights to nibble away at them.
  4. Cockroaches do not fit up my nose.  They think they can, but they are wrong.
  5. Ants can get through the foil wrapper of chocolate bars.
  6. An angry kinkajou sounds like a weed whipper on helium calling from the trees at one in the morning.
  7. A single gecko can stink up an entire room after it crawls into the fan of a computer and dies there.
  8. Scorpions can jump.
  9. A ripe guava dropped by a clumsy squirrel onto an aluminum roof from eight meters up sounds like a gunshot if you are trying to sleep right underneath it.
  10. Giant crickets do not fit up my nose.  They think they can, but they are wrong.

And Yet More on Ants

I want to be clear:  I fucking hate ants.  In fact, I hate them more than ever now.  The reason for this is I just had my cabin invaded by army ants.

It started with a raid.  I was returning for a book after breakfast, when I noticed a little black trickle heading towards my living space: a line of Eciton ants.  By the time I got there, the line had converged with others and become a swarm.  They were all over the porch and climbing the walls.  One file disappeared under my door.  Dreading what I would find, I opened and had my fears realized.

I want you to understand, this is going on where I sleep.
        I want you to understand, this is going on where I sleep.

They were everywhere.  They poured over open books and papers, across folded clothes and through the sheets and blankets on my bed.  I summoned some others to witness the sight, and offered in colorful language my thoughts on the subject.  I was livid.  Here I was, a member of Earth’s dominant species, forced out of his home by tiny insects.  I was not open to reasoning.  One of the staff told me that they would, at least, clean up all the dead insects in the building.  To hell with that!  I don’t care about dead insects, I care about live ants!  Someone else tried to explain to me the benefits of learning to share living space.  I wanted to say, A:  that’s my line, and B:  shut up, I hate ants!

My only consolation was that, as a nomadic raiding species, they would be gone without trace in a few hours when they ran out of food.  But then nature got the better of me.

Dammit, nature.
    Dammit, nature.

See, army ant colonies cycle through two phases: nomadic and statary.  Each one is triggered by the food needs of the colony and the developmental stage of the larvae and pupae, and can last about two weeks.  During nomadic, they don’t spend more than a day in one place, but during statary, the bivouac can sets up in a long-term site for the queen to lay eggs and for a new generation of workers to develop.  A raid is differentiated from a migration by the presence of eggs, larvae, and pupae, carried by the workers.

So when I checked on my cabin later that day and saw workers carrying little white packages into the crawlspace, I panicked.  Oh hell no was I about to let a swarm of ants move in.  This called for drastic action.  Most people just surrender to army ants and wait them out, but fuck that—this was war.  To aid me in my effort, I called upon mankind’s oldest advantage over other animals:  fire.

I didn’t have to kill them all, just make them leave.  Most ants will panic in a fire, grabbing the queen and eggs and running away.  I poured a little alcohol over the entrance to the crawlspace and applied a light.  A cool blue flame erupted.  Success!  The ants scattered.  I spat a mouthful over my lighter into the hole.  More chaos!  They were in full retreat.

Burn, you bastards.
      Burn, you bastards.

Sure enough, the rest cleared out, leaving only a few stragglers behind.  I suffered a few dozen bites from ones that got abandoned in my bedclothes and rafters, but I call that a victory.

But the bivouac is still close by.  I know this because raids have been going on since in the station and trails around the buildings.  And since they’re in statary phase now, we can expect to be seeing them a lot in the next few weeks.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  fuck ants.