Sunday, June 17, 2007

Fifth in a series of catch-ups

La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica
June 15, 2007, 10:15pm

Howler monkeys woke me up about 4 times this morning—they sound a little like a lion with a cold. There were a million birds singing, so I got up and went to breakfast at 6:30. It’s funny how that’s so easy to do in this latitude—everything else is up and going, so it is easy to do the same. After breakfast (which wasn’t all that exciting), we went out on our intro hike. It is much easier than at Cuerici for several reasons—the fact that we’re only a double-digit number of meters above sea level is certainly one of them. For instance, there’s enough oxygen that you don’t have to nearly black out every 30 feet. Also, it’s so hot and sticky…it’s actually not all that hot…but the stickiness makes me pour off sweat.

So, before we even left the patio in front of the dining hall, we saw some parrots flying overhead. We also saw—this was last night and I forgot to tell you—this beautiful bright green arboreal iguanoid type thing on Tracy and Melissa’s screen. I picked it up, and it tried to bite me, but I didn’t let it. So we put it on the ground, and it walked like a drunkard because it has such long toes that it kinda has to…paddle on the ground…and it has to move its legs about 4x too fast for how fast it moves. So, I put it outside, and chased it away from the door once, and then went back in. About 8 minutes later (or less—maybe five minutes later), we opened the door to go do laundry, and the lizard ran (drunkenly) into the room. We almost died laughing…so I tried to pick it up, and it tried to kill me…but it didn’t. I put it back on the window screen…and today it is gone. Nobody knows what happened to it.

Anyway. This morning we saw a pretty yellow bird, some toucans (chestnut mandibled, not the bright bright billed ones, although if I get up early tomorrow morning, I will see those, too), and a cayman (you know, the small alligators?). We also saw (from a distance) several iguanas lying on big old branches of trees way far up. One of them was probably 2m long. No kidding. They look like they should be related to rhinos, because they are so…rocky looking.

As soon as we got across the river (in which we saw some fish), we saw the howler monkeys! Males have white testicles. (that was about how relevant it was when the guide told us that, too…just sharing the experience…) They were all acrobatting around in a tree, and some of them howled a little bit at us. Others tried to throw their poo at us when we got too close. They were up in a rubber tree (the latex tree; not a tree made of rubber), eating the fruits, which kind of look like the small, flat kind of persimmon, but are softer. After we all ran around being totally amazed for a bit, the guide took us over closer to the edge of the forest (this was just in the clearing near some of the cabins), and we saw a 2m long boa constrictor. He (?) was so beautiful…red and yellow and browns…we didn’t see his head, although I came back later and rustled the leaves until he poked his head out and did some tongue flicks at me. He kind of looked just like a big Kokumuo…but he wouldn’t have been as cuddly if he bit me. His head was a deep cream color, with some brown speckles on it, and it definitely had that…shape. The one that is kinda in common with the boids and the pythons. His tongue was long and slithery and black, and I backed off after taking a few pictures of him. That is my second wild (and biggest) snake, now…but the black one was a bigger adrenaline jolt, probably because I wasn’t expecting it.

After we tore ourselves away from the boa, we saw a bunch of leafcutter ants carrying pretty purple blossoms…and their highways, man, they’re like that bike path that goes down the hill next to the west side of Corson-Mudd Hall…you know, about 5 or 6 in wide, and totally cleared. Leafcutters are completely common and mundane here, although we all are still impressed by them…kinda like giraffes in Africa. Turns out, they are more like giraffes than I thought…some people estimate that they cut 17% of the foliage of the forest every day!!!!!! So they’re like, the most important pruners of the forest ever. Kinda like giraffes are…in Africa.

We saw a huuuuge harlequin beetle (maybe 5 in long, with antennae at least that long, all patterned in sorta…tribal face paint type cream and brown and black). We saw the “blue jeans” poison dart frog—a little red froggie with dark back legs that look black but are actually blue. They are endemic to this part of the world (although I’m not sure how big “this part” means. They’re the ones we’re gonna do our project on tomorrow morning at 6. woo. The adults aren’t (and don’t have to be) worried about predation, since they taste gross, but the tadpoles—that’s pretty cool. When the male mates with the female, she lays her eggs in the leaf litter. Then, when they hatch, she comes back, and carries them one by one to a little water container (usually a bromeliad…which is a plant that kinda looks like an artichoke with long long leaves) and puts them there. THEN she comes back periodically, solicits a response from her tadpoles, and if they are still alive, she’ll lay unfertilized eggs in the little pool of water for them to eat. And these frogs somehow keep straight which bromeliad and which tadpoles are theirs. But monkeys, toucans, possums…lots of things like to eat the tadpoles. So if you’re a blue jeans, and you make it past tadpole, you’re home free. Another interesting thing about them is that the toxicity of their secretions varies by region—all are toxic, but some places it’ll knock you out much more strongly than other places. They aren’t sure why, but some researcher here is working on it by mildly shocking the frogs (electrically, not with surprising news) to be able to collect secretions…and stuff.

We heard some white crowned parrots…more as pets in the US than wild in CR…and of every one in captivity, maybe 10 or 15 died in transit. Sad.

We saw a lot of cool flowers and bugs…and trees…learned about lots of trees that are nearly extinct because they’re such gorgeous wood…that trees slough (exfoliate) their bark sometimes to get rid of strangler figs and other plants…saw a tree that makes a leaf you can write on…allegedly, pirates used to use them for playing cards.
I found a tiny Norops (not sure the species—just an anole type lizard) that wasn’t more than two inches from nose to tail tip. And it was nearly full grown!

And THEN we saw spider monkeys. They were even cooler than the howlers, because they are so…graceful, and yet they are so completely clumsy. We got to see a mom make a bridge with her body for her baby, and then heard her call it to cross…we saw them eating the rubber fruits (again), and saw them throw things at us because they didn’t like us. They climbed all around in the tree, and the two mothers took their two babies away, and hid them, and then ate a little more, and then got their babies and went and made big branch-cracking noises to frighten us away…I got some really cruddy videos and pictures, but it was just amazing. Did you know that they have no opposable thumb? We saw one hang just by her tail, though…the way they use the tail is truly amazing. Spider monkeys are one of the best barometers for how healthy the forest is, because if your forest isn’t really healthy, they won’t be around.

In one swamp we went through, when it is wet (not today), the canta rana (song of frogs, or frogsong) is so loud that you can’t hear yourself talk.

We saw a damselfly that had blue (dark and then light, two stripes together) wingtips…it looked like two helicopters on their sides, with their feet tied together. And in spite of the fact that the wing motion looked totally drunken and random, it was incredibly precise in how it could hover just above a flower to drink the nectar…if that’s what it was doing.

We saw the kind of tree, “wild almond” that the great green macaws love to eat, and saw the way they split the thick thick nutshells to get to the nutmeat inside. Great green macaws…are in the same situation as those parrots, only worse. We heard some, but didn’t see any.

The bullet ants are about an inch long and look as deadly as they sound. In reality, they’ll give you a sting like a wasp that lasts for longer than a wasp sting will…narsty little buggars.

We saw a bright blue cicada, and heard it sing while our guide was holding it. They drink the sap from trees, and in swarming season, if enough of them are on a tree, they can kill it through dehydration. Yikes.

We saw a totally unpolluted stream with a lot of fish in it.

We saw a lot of other things, but I’m fading kinda fast, especially because of that 4.5 hour hike…I think I covered all the amazing points, though.

After that, we had lunch, and I straightened more stuff out with Anden. I really am considering applying to the REU program in La Selva for next summer, if I can’t find something in Africa (I seem to be unintentionally heading for hardcore tropical field ecology…suddenly)…although I sweat what feels like gallons, it’s not actually uncomfortable. I mean, it is really uncomfortable, but it’s also really bearable. If I just kinda say “ok, I’m going to be literally soaked with sweat almost all over,” (because there is no evaporation)…it becomes…sorta…secondary. As long as you carry a bandana.

After lunch, I mailed my cell phone (finally) to my mom, and went with an REU girl I’m making friends with to feed mango peel to some fish…they jump out of the water to grab it. Maybe tomorrow I’ll take a movie of it. Then I had that conversation with Doug, and hung out a little more with Anden, and then we had the meeting to talk about our Frog Project.

Then we had a lecture on a species of bird that is totally dependent on army ants flushing arthropods for its food. This Ph.D student is doing really interesting work on the army ants and the obligate follower birds…there’s this whole really complex interactional system between birds and their neighbors and all kinds of things…but I will tell you another time, because I have to walk half a mile back to the cabins and then hopefully shower…and for the first time in a while, I’m actually a little cold (I’m in an airconditioned room…by myself….does it get any better?).

So after the lecture, there was dinner……and then we went on a night hike. Before we left, Ricardo (our driver) went to get his boots and then he came charging back up saying (in Spanish) “There is a BIG SNAKE IN MY HOUSE!!!!!”…turns out it was a little snake on the railing of the stairs that leads to his house…a baby boa constrictor (about as big as Kokumuo, but skinnier)…and we got to hold him. He was very cute, and people got pictures of him, which makes me happy. He was the strong, too…and the scared. He struck at Tracy once, but I guess I’m used to Kokumuo enough that my brain is convinced that a snake that looks just like him isn’t scary…because I wasn’t really very scared of him. We put him back in the leaves in case some idiot came along with something they could hurt him with. It made me miss my snake.

On the night hike I didn’t spot anything, but we saw some redeye tree frogs, and a yellow one, and a bunch of bugs, and a moth or twenty…and lots of leafcutter ants. We heard howler monkeys (or maybe jaguars?) and then came back…..

The only other thing of note that happened today (just remembered) was that I saw the howler monkeys howling back at the weedwhackers (they sound like lawnmowers—the weedwhackers, not the monkeys)…when the workers turned off the motors, the monkeys shut up. It must be frustrating to be a monkey and have to howl at everything so much. Especially something that goes on all afternoon without taking any notice of you whatsoever.

PS One last gripe: dumb OTS decided they can’t pay me through direct deposit….unless I send them another form…those dingbats have had the form for over 2 months, and they couldn’t figure that out until yesterday?! I hope the Peace Corps is better about doing stuff like that for Liz...

No comments: