The most valuable lesson I learned (or, should I say, remembered) on my OTS course

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I have a personality type that tends to succumb to an unfortunate condition: stress. Throughout my schooling I excelled in nearly everything that I did. Not to say that I didn’t work hard, but I always seemed to have a natural knack for what I was doing. This lack of failure I experienced and my tendency towards perfectionism (eek!) led to an unrealistic perspective of myself as a professional.

Graduate school is hard. At the end of my first year, right before I came on the OTS course, I was feeling a little desperate. Despite having worked hard in my classes and on an “on-the-side” research project, I still hadn’t accomplished this looming goal: coming up with a solid dissertation project. Needless to say, it was a considerable source of stress. Enough so that I lost sight of the main reason that I wanted to be in graduate school.

Then came a two month whirlwind of colors, shapes, smells, textures, sounds, questions, curiosity and creativity. The OTS course is a mix between biology boot-camp and summer-camp. Boot-camp because we were busy learning from 0700 to 2200 hours everyday. Summer-camp because we were like giddy children, frolicking in our favorite jungle-gym, fascinated by every big tree and little insect. I learned a lot of valuable skills from the boot-camp side of the course that I will take with me as I continue in my studies: how to analyze data, give a good presentation, design experiments, and implement those experiments in challenging field conditions.

However, the most valuable lesson I take from this course is something that I always knew, something that I remembered while on the course. It is something that I felt while walking through the forests in total awe, something that I felt while setting up an experiment that involved 40 m pole cutters and 60 empty beer cans, and something that I even felt as I learned how to run statistics in R. It is something that was given as words-of-wisdom by the majority of our outstanding visiting faculty. It is simply this: science is FUN! We are biologists because, despite the long hours and low pay, nature is amazing and figuring out how it works is FUN. And most importantly, if it is not fun, don’t do it.

The first time I heard one of our visiting faculty say this, it really hit a bell. I DO think nature is amazing and I DO love the process of figuring out why and how nature works. I realize that I really need to work on my tendency to feel stressed and this notion of being a perfectionist – both are unnecessary and unrealistic. I leave this course feeling rejuvenated and more empowered than I did when I started the course. I know that there will be times ahead with lots of work, but I also know that as long as I remember to laugh and have fun with it, my time spent doing science will be well worth it.

PURA VIDA!

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Barro Colorado: More Than Just An Island

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When the USA built the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914, the army engineers created a humongous dam and the world’s largest artificial lake (at the time– Lake Mead, held back by the Hoover Dam in Nevada, is now larger). Lake Gatun, as it is known, submerged thousands of miles of tropical rainforests, flooded hundreds of farms, and required the relocation of several indigenous communities.

Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? I won’t argue the fact that creating this lake had several negative environmental and social aspects, but it does have some positive aspects for understanding how the natural world functions. Once the water stopped rising, the peaks of several mountains in the area became islands. We call the largest of these man-made islands Barro Colorado.

Barro Colorado Island wasn’t always an island

After the graduate course ended, six of us continued our journey at Barro Colorado Island, which is now a tropical research station run by the Smithsonian. As the huge container ships sail by on their way to the Atlantic or Pacific, hundreds of scientists work year-round on all kinds of interesting questions. We heard talks about ants in the forest canopy, chemicals in leaves that protect them from herbivores, and bats that eat fish (obligatory awesome photos here)!

You may have heard of habitat fragmentation– which is what happens when humans build farms or cities around forests or prairies. Well that’s exactly what happened when we “built” a lake around all these mountain tops and created a bunch of islands. Since Barro Colorado is an artificial island, it allows the scientists there to see what happens when humans isolate natural areas.

Sadly, the number of animals species has decreased on all the islands, ever since the lake formed. Birds that don’t like to fly in open areas (aka over lakes) died off, even on the largest islands, as their populations became small and inbred. The number of big cats seen on the islands decreased, too.

But, the big cats haven’t disappeared. Ocelots still live on Barro Colorado, the biggest island, and a jaguar will even swim over once and while! Also interesting, those freakin’ awesome fishing bats I told you about? They’re doing great on the large and small islands. For them, this type of habitat fragmentation wasn’t so much about isolation as it was about exciting new hunting grounds!

Now, most habitat fragmentation isn’t caused by lakes or water. So understanding how farms or cities impact natural processes and communities is important, too. The team of scientists at the Smithsonian and Barro Colorado is working on this, right on the Panamanian mainland. The Agua Salud project promises a lot of interesting advances– ones that I’ll be happy to follow, and maybe even participate in, in the future.

Ranking my favorite sites

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I love rankings. Rankings of countries by size, ranking of countries by population size, rankings of countries by population density, rankings of countries by Muslim population size. Did you know that Indonesia is first? So one of my favorite questions to ask the other students in the course is “what’s your ranking of the sites we visited?” Here’s mine:

1) La Selva: Before arriving at La Selva, it was described to me as “Disneyland for ecologists,” and I was not disappointed. Peccaries were everywhere, parrots were as common as sparrows, toucans were regular visitors. We were crazy with work—faculty-led projects, podcasts, videos, independent projects—but when four armadillos let me pet them, how could I resist the temptation to take a break? Things like that happened every day there.

La Selva also felt magical because of the scientific atmosphere. It is a place just for nature and science. I got to talk science with anyone I felt like pestering. Normally, when I find a cool animal or plant, I tell people around me, and they mostly feign interest.  At La Selva, it was different. When I got a picture of a basilisk outside the GIS lab, the girl I was working next to demanded I show her where it was.

Best of all, we spent almost two weeks there.

Peccary

Peccary

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Basilisk

Casque-headed Lizard

Casque-headed Lizard

2)  Monte Verde: Monte Verde was dreamlike. There’s nothing as ethereal as fog rolling through lush forest. Every morning we woke up in what can only be described as a fairy land. At the tops of mountains, the plants became dwarfs, barely reaching over our heads. On one of our hikes, we saw a Quetzal (kwetzal), an avocado-eating bird with some of the most iridescent flower one of the crown jewels for bird enthusiasts.

Monte Verde 2 Monte Verde 1

3)  Cuericí: Nearly as magical as Monte Verde was Cuericí. We stayed at 2600 meters (8500 feet), high enough to get winded walking up a flight of stairs. The reason Cuericí made it to #3 was the Páramo, a scrubby habitat that reached up to ~3400 meters. At that elevation, there are only short bushes, wildflowers, intricate lichens, and a thick moss that made a comfortable mattress. Plus, there was a resident sheep-horse hybrid at the station where we slept.

Moss Mattress

Moss Mattress

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Páramo

Páramo

4) Cabo Blanco: Cabo Blanco was the hottest, most humid site. I’ve never experienced a more dreadful climate. Despite that, it had two of my new favorite animals: crabs. Crabs are the cutest! Something about their ineffectual scuttle is immensely endearing. There was one species of land-crab with bright red legs and purple claws, and hermit crabs everywhere. Sometimes they were so numerous that I had to plan my steps meticulously to avoid squashing those adorable buggers.

 

Hermit Crab

Hermit Crab

Red Land Crab

Red Land Crab

5) Palo Verde: Palo Verde deserves to be #7. It was blisteringly hot, and the mosquitoes outnumbered oxygen particles. I barely saw any mammals in Palo Verde. I think the mosquitoes had sucked them all dry. What saves Palo Verde from being last were the iguanas. They were everywhere, and they were big. When it comes to lizards, bigger is better. I caught my biggest lizard by far there.

Coati

Coati

Black Iguana

Black Iguana

6) Las Alturas: Las Alturas was a quiet, mid-elevation site. We didn’t spend much time out hiking because we worked on a meta-analysis project. So Las Alturas didn’t make much of an impression me. On the positive side, the group had plenty of time for bonding, catching aquatic cockroaches and singing around a bonfire.

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7) Las Cruces: Las Cruces is a combination tropical botanical garden and nature preserve. It came in at #7 because we stayed in the botanical garden. At all the other places, we stayed in nature, which is way cooler. However, I did see the tiniest frog ever and an equally tiny walking stick so small that it floated like a feather when it jumped off me.

Tiny Walking Stick

Tiny Walking Stick

Tiny Frog

Tiny Frog

But what does being #7 mean anyway? Las Cruces was cooler than any eastern deciduous forest I’ve ever seen. I’m actually worried that I’ll never be able to enjoy the forests I’m used to, after being in these seven remarkable places. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

The sound of your voice will live in my soul always

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Las Cruces was an island of conservation we found out. It is surrounded by farm and residential areas, but it creates a pocket of living space for toucans, agoutis, and my favorite: Mexican jumping vipers! Yay… But other than the venomous snakes, it was a great place to wrap up our 6 weeks in Costa Rica. Our first meal there we ate out on the patio, which had a gorgeous overlook and amazing sunset views. The food here was family style, which presented issues occasionally, as our “family” eats a lot and there wasn’t always enough food for everyone. But we slowly figured it out. And luckily there was usually plenty of rice and beans! Eat them while you can!
Our introductory hike to the area was like most of our other hikes, in that it rained part of the time. But we got to see the botanical gardens and learned there is a large collection of bromeliads here, one of the largest in the world. And there is bamboo everywhere! The cool thing is that we are staying in the actual garden, so every day we walk by many of the bromeliads from all over the tropics. The bad thing is there could be venomous snakes in the garden so we have to wear our rubber boots all the time.
We only had a day to get to know the forest before we were off and running with our independent project. I decided to work in streams, of course, but since there were no shrimp I had to switch to different stream invertebrates that were more like insects. This independent project was different because we had the choice of pairing up with someone else or working on our own. Dan and I were the only ones to work on our projects alone. Although it meant more work, I came on this course to make myself a better scientist and I figured that would only happen if I got lots and lots of practice. Also, because there were so many of us, I had to go out in the forest alone. And it was awesome!
I had the best day. I was so attuned to what was happening around me, mostly because I was worried I would step on a snake. And my time at the river was so peaceful. I developed my sampling methods the day before, so I was excited to go out and test them. I picked out the sites carefully the night before, planned my route, and followed it to a T and it worked! Those of you who know me know I love it when I am able to work my plan and it turns out great.
The most exciting site was my second stop. As I paused to pull out my notebook, I noticed something swimming in the water. At first I thought it was a small otter, as it was swimming against the current at lightning speed. But as it picked its way through the rapids, I saw it had the tail of a rat! Later, Victor told me it was probably a rare aquatic rat. Whatever it was, it was crazy cool! Of course I didn’t have my camera… I finished up my work at the site, but kept checking the spot where I had last seen the rat, hoping to catch another glimpse. On my way out of the river, I had to pass under several low lying branches that stretched over the water. I guess I got careless on one, because all of a sudden I felt a sharp stinging near my armpit. I worried it might be a bullet ant, whose stinging pain is legendary, so I whipped off my backpack and started pulling at my shirt in that area. But the sting wouldn’t stop. Finally I looked at the spot and saw a little poke in my skin. Since I also felt a stinging on my back near the same spot, I figured I had brushed up against a wasp nest and had been attacked. They make their nests on the underside of leaves and there’s usually a few of them per nest so I was lucky it was only twice.
As I walked to my last site, I wondered if I was allergic. I didn’t think so, but you never know. I kept checking for swelling or shortness of breath, but as I neared the next river I decided the shortness of breath I was experiencing was normal as I was out of shape and hiking. As the shock of being stung was fading, I looked at a clump and leaves and noticed it wasn’t actually leaves. It was a venomous snake! For some reason my immediate reaction was to run past it shrieking. When I had gone a good distance, I stopped and looked back. I could barely tell where the snake was, but once I found it again I saw it hadn’t moved. I went on, did my sampling, and when I walked past it was still there. Creepy, but then they are sit-and-wait predators.
So, maybe as you’re reading this you’re thinking- this sounds like a horrible day! Tons of painful and scary experiences! But it wasn’t. I was out there, on my own, in the field, doing science. And though I may have gotten a little banged up, it was fun! And I proved to myself that when the going gets tough, I got going. Also, my sack lunch was amazing and kept my spirits high: rice, beans, and eggs with tortillas. And chocolate cookies known as chickys. Heaven!
The next day Victor offered to come with me and watch for snakes, and though I was glad to have his company and extra set of eyes, it wasn’t the same. But it was probably a good thing he was there as my sites were really far away and if I had gotten hurt, there would have been no way to get help quickly. We walked for hours to a site, where it turns out there was no easy river access due to a combination of steep slopes and gnats that live by the water and infect you with flesh eating bacteria. So instead we turned around and walked the hour and a half back to the station. The following few days were a blur as I rushed to analyze the data and make an ignite talk. The ignite talk was fun, but tricky. We had to have 20 slides, with 15 seconds for each slide and they would advance automatically. We were all nervous about doing one, but as is becoming the theme, everyone pulled it together and did an amazing job.
Our last night in Las Cruces was spent as most of our nights are: working. But it wasn’t so bad because by now we were used to it. Everyone poured themselves something tall and strong and we set ourselves to working hard and getting everything turned in. Except for when we took a break to watch the tear-jerking slideshow I prepared of pictures throughout the trip. It was a whirlwind tour of Costa Rica, but my fellow participants made it a trip to remember. So although I learned a lot about myself and science, it wouldn’t have been possible without the incredible people on the course also. I wanted to sing this Girl Scout song around the campfire at Las Alturas, but I couldn’t get up the nerve so I think I’ll just put it here. It sums up how I felt at the end of the course:

It’s the human touch in this world that counts
The touch of your hand in mine
And it means far more to the fading heart
Than shelter, bread, or wine.
For shelter’s gone when the night is over
And bread lasts only a day
But the touch of your hand
And the sound of your voice
Will live in my soul always.

Can’t wait for the OTS 2014-3 reunion!

The whole group on one of our last days together. Which is why we are mostly clean...

The whole group on one of our last days together. Which is why we are mostly clean…

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Even after a long day of field work, I'm still smiling!

Even after a long day of field work, I’m still smiling!

Sunset from the patio where we ate our meals. So beautiful.

Sunset from the patio where we ate our meals. So beautiful.

Do you see the snake?! Hint: look slightly below and to the right of the bright green/yellow leaf in the center. It looks like leaves but it's not.

Do you see the snake?! Hint: look slightly below and to the right of the bright green/yellow leaf in the center. It looks like leaves but it’s not.

Shoplifting the Nectar

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Shoplifting the Nectar
It was that time. We had been together for a month. The day we all boarded the van in San Jose seemed so long ago. Everyone was a stranger, now we were all together 24/7. We knew so many things about each other; some things we wished we had never known but they were in our memories just the same. We were realizing it was going to be hard to say goodbye in 10 days, so we tried to make the most of it.
When we first got to Las Alturas, we were given a chance to unpack and then we had something extremely rare: free time! I decided to rinse out some laundry before heading out to join a game of Frisbee. I haven’t been running at all during our course, mostly because I lacked the motivation but also because snakes were everywhere and I was too busy, but I figured sprinting after a Frisbee was just as good. We played monkey in the middle and that really got the heart pumping. But it was fun! I wasn’t getting enough of this kind of fun lately. Most people went for an actual run, though, and as they trickled back our game got bigger and bigger. Finally, Jane pulled out her Jillian Michaels video and a majority of us (me excluded) went out and followed her in a 30 minute exercise. Those of us that weren’t participating were working (me) or watching the participants (everyone else, including our chefs). It was a bit of a sight to see, especially when they used books instead of weights.
The next morning, after we survived an insane wind storm that threatened to blow us all away at 3:30 am, we hiked up to take a look at La Amistad Reserve, which is right on the border between Costa Rica and Panama. We tried to be quiet to see birds, but it started to drizzle early on and there didn’t seem to be many birds around to observe. The hike was long, and we easily climbed for 3 hours. The higher we got, we noticed we had climbed into a cloud. It was pretty spectacular. We also snaked our way though a bamboo forest that was incredible because it was just all bamboo. But the top of the hike made it all worthwhile. There was a small lookout area where all we could see were hills covered in green trees and the clouds would shift and block our views before changing again and allowing us to see Panama. We all sat down and took a break to admire the view. We also took a ton of pictures. It was another magical sight!
But we couldn’t stay forever: we had to make it to lunch! We all sort of spread out on our hike down, and I ended up walking with Aviv, who taught me all about Israel and its complicated history. I never knew what I’d learn about each day on the course, but I always knew I’d learn something! Back at our accommodations, I rushed to take a shower as there was no hot water and I was already warm from hiking. I had to be warm to shower because the water was freezing and it wasn’t exactly warm outside the shower either.
After our piping hot meal, we strung up our hammocks and took naps until dinnertime…. NOT! This isn’t a vacation! We set to work on our next project: doing a meta-analysis on data that has been collected from over the last 30 years by previous OTS groups. To do a meta-analysis you have to pick a specific question you’re interested in. For example, my group decided to use all the previous data collected to see whether flowers that experience nectar robbing are negatively impacted by producing less seeds or not being pollinated as much. To answer this question, we had to go through tons of previous data to see if other groups had found this result looking at different flowers in different places. Meta-analyses are usually a lot of work, but this was even harder because we had no internet so we had to search the data by hand. Once we had found enough studies (about 8 different studies) we were able to start the analysis!
The analysis was somewhat tricky and we used a lot of formulas, but by the end of the day we had a result! And the answer is: yes, based on the previous work of OTS students, nectar robbers do hurt the plant by causing them to lose nectar and potentially true pollinators as well. By the way, in case you are wondering, nectar robbing is a term applied to a bird or insect that steals nectar from the flower without pollinating the flower or taking some of its pollen to another flower. If you think of nectar robbing like shoplifting, the shop owner would be hurt financially the same way the plant is hurt reproductively. So it makes sense that nectar robbing would be bad news for the plant, but because we are scientists we need data to prove everything.
After all the hard work was done, it was time to relax. We were promised a campfire, but on the last night it was pouring down rain until 9pm. But I underestimated my colleagues. We had a fire up and roaring by 9:30 pm! We celebrated our last night in Las Alturas with an impromptu karaoke session and howled at the full moon until midnight, unfortunately for our coordinators and the chefs and Alex our driver (though in the morning they said it didn’t bother them). As I went to sleep for one last time in Las Alturas, I realized I was tired of moving from place to place, but that this would be our last major move. Thinking about it that way made me happy to move because at least that meant one more new site where we would all be together!

Saying goodbye to Petey for a day was hard enough. How are we going to do it for real in a few weeks?

Saying goodbye to Petey for a day was hard enough. How are we going to do it for real in a few weeks?

Megan in the bamboo forest. So cool!

Megan in the bamboo forest. So cool!

Looking out to Panama and watching the clouds roll in and out.

Looking out to Panama and watching the clouds roll in and out.

Jillian Michaels with textbooks instead of weights. Feel the burn!

Jillian Michaels with textbooks instead of weights. Feel the burn!

Meta-analyses can be fun! When you have a good group of people...

Meta-analyses can be fun! When you have a good group of people…

The Land of Imagination

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After our whirlwind at La Selva, everyone was looking forward to relaxing. We were promised a wood burning fire place with hot chocolate and warm, comfortable beds at Cuerici. And we weren’t disappointed! And not only were those amenities waiting for us, but there was also breathtaking views. Our van dropped us off at the top of a hill that wound down for an hour’s walk to the farm we were staying at. We walked past lush green hills and cute houses that looked like they were made for elves. I felt like we had fallen into a storybook. As we looked out across mountaintops, you could see blue sky and clouds blowing in and out of view. Enchanting.
Down at the farmhouse, we were led into rooms for the guys and girls, but for the first time we were all under the same roof, with only walls separating us. It added to the cozy feeling that permeated the atmosphere. We took a quick tour of the farm, and learned that for income, the owner and his family sold blackberries and raised rainbow trout in homemade fish canals that was very sustainable and had a low impact on the environment. We also saw the sheep horse, which was a huge white horse that looked like it had wool instead of normal horse hair. Apparently the horse had been born right before one of the coldest winters and ever since then it had produced really thick fur. It only added to the magic of Cuerici.
The next day, after falling asleep in comfortable beds with hot chocolate in our bellies, we got to explore the Paramo. The Paramo is a very interesting ecosystem. It is located near the highest point in Costa Rica and has no trees because strong winds prevail. So it is very exposed and cold, but beautiful. We went to “Cerro de Muerte” which means “Mountain of Death” because back before the trans-American highway passed through it, travelers would die trying to cross the peak as temperatures would drop near to freezing. But since we were bundled up, all we did was admire the view. We even got to see the tallest point in Costa Rica for a brief second, before the clouds rolled over again.
We then went on another hike close to the farm where we were staying. The owner, don Carlos, led us through the forest and explained how different species of oak and bamboo preferred different sections along the mountain. It was fascinating to see one species stop growing and another one begin, almost along a line. We would be scouting the Paramo and the forest for rare salamanders the next day. We were trying to model where you might expect this specific species of salamander to live, and in order to check the model we had to actually look for salamanders. So again, we weren’t here on vacation. We were here to do science!
I was part of the group that got sent to the forest. We weren’t supposed to find any salamanders, because no one had found them for years in that area, but we still had to look hard. We spent hours looking under rocks, moss, fallen trees, but we didn’t find a single one. But we did see tiny bright blue snails and beetles, and again, amazing views. So it wasn’t a complete loss. Back in our classroom, which was also heated by a wood burning fireplace, we used GIS to see if our models correctly predicted where the salamanders should be found. We found that the models were pretty good, but it still would have been better to have more known salamander locations. But that’s almost always the case. You can never have too much data!
The last day of our stay in Cuerici, some of us helped don Carlos catch some rainbow trout for our lunch. Forest and Dan held the net to scoop up the fish from the pond and told us it was harder than it looked. But I did not think it looked easy: you could tell the net was extremely heavy. They towed it to the end of the long, rectangular pond and pulled the net out. Don Carlos then began tossing the large fish out on the ground, and told us to kneel down, grab a fish and break its neck. It was a difficult business, as the fish were very slippery, but everyone that wanted to killed a fish. Then we rinsed and gutted them. Halfway through the gutting, a pair of quetzals were spotted, so don Carlos was left to finish up and take them off to be filleted and ready for lunch. That was the best lunch ever!
Like every place we have traveled to, we were sad to leave Cuerici. Our instructors, Dave and Rob, were awesome and we had really enjoyed getting to know don Carlos and Alberto, our hosts. We had learned a lot from them, including the difficulties of running a sustainable operation and conservation in general in Costa Rica. But they promised we could come back and visit one day, just like many of the previous students have. With a final hug, we climbed aboard the van and headed to out to our next adventure!

Here we are on our forest hike with Don Carlos, the owner of the farm where we were staying.

Here we are on our forest hike with Don Carlos, the owner of the farm where we were staying.

some of the group on their way to the farm. The views were fantastic!

some of the group on their way to the farm. The views were fantastic!

More than meets the Eye: Do Birds Avoid Toxic Plants

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By Colleen Nell and Maanav Kamath


Some of the most interesting interactions between organisms in nature, are those regulated by chemical signals. One of these interactions that is of particular interest to us exists between plants, insects that feed on them, and the birds that predate on these insects.

As part of our last project on the OTS Tropical Biology course, Colleen Nell and I (Maanav) investigated some of the ways in which plants might be influencing the feeding behaviour of insect- eating birds.

Our short film explains the methods we used , and the results we found.

 

Here are a couple of pictures of our clay model caterpillars that were attacked. You can clearly see the impressions made by the beaks and claws of the various birds that attacked them!

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