Going Batty!

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Wow! This has been a great summer, and I can’t believe the course is almost over. I’ve experienced and learned so much that it would be really hard to distill my thoughts into one post. Instead, here are some pics of bats :), courtesy of expert wildlife photographer Alex (of Los Banditos Photography).

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This is Dermanura watsoni, one of many bats of Costa Rica known to roost under leaf tents. It’s a little tree-tent-engineer! We caught this little guy here in Las Cruces, during a bat workshop led by Dr. Gloriana Chaverri. After presenting on her fascinating research on social groups of Spix’s disc-winged bat (Thyroptera tricolor), Dr. Chaverri took us into the forest and taught us the proper ways to catch and identify bats. Here we are trying to determine if this bat is an adult or juvenile by checking the amount of cartilage still present between its finger joints:

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Check out those blood vessels! The patagium (membrane between the body, arms, and fingers) contains a complex network of muscles, nerves, and blood vessels, and it has “wrinkles” that allow it to extend and stretch while in flight.

This workshop was especially important for me and Alex, because we wanted to collect some bat guano for our Las Cruces Independent Project (scroll down to see Andrea’s post on bat biogeochemistry). It turns out that bats are small and thus produce small “guanos”, so we spent the next couple of nights netting lots of bats with the help of Gloriana, Paula, Vilisa, Diana and more. We converted Diana, Vilisa, and Meredith’s back porch into a bat lab:

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Alex and I also searched Las Cruces for tree hollows that serve as bat roosts. We found 5 probable roosts and 1 confirmed, although we didn’t know it until we took a much closer look at the photo:

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It’s been a batty week at Las Cruces, but it’s not the first on this trip! As a parting note, I give you an Ectophylla alba from La Selva. Paula and I caught several (in like 20 minutes) near the labs. (Photo courtesy of Tim of Los Banditos Photography.)

ectophyllaThanks!

Katie Stanchak

The Santana Lab, University of Washington Dept of Biology

Microorganisms for the win!

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I will just preface this by saying, “I am not a mycologist”.

With that said, I am a microbiologist, characterizing the mechanisms that drive bacterial diversity. Now, studying microbial ecology is a bit different than traditional ecology. You do not have the wonderful experience to capture your study organism in the field, or see a glorified mating ritual. What you do get, is the excitement of seeing a successful next-gen PCR run come back clean, ready to be sequenced. Or the fascination of processing terabytes of sequence data for down-stream analysis. Further, the fieldwork, at least for me, is almost nonexistent. Now, don’t get me wrong – I live for this field. I love processing data and find that how microorganisms dictate almost all broad-scale ecological processes to be utterly fascinating. To this day, I am blown away how large of an impact these litter bugs can have.

So, when I first ventured into the field down here in Costa Rica, I was expecting to see insects, the coolest frogs ever, and, most excitedly, large mammals. To my surprise, I did happen to see a lot of insects, however, they were not the most welcomed ones – mosquitos! However, in all seriousness, these giant primary tropical forests almost appear desolate. You have this amazing biodiversity of plant species, but, to the untrained eye, there is really nothing else to see. You rarely see a howler monkey grace you with its presence in the tree canopy, nor do you ever see the elaborate and beautiful snakes that are indicative of the tropics. But, as you look more closely, an entire world begins to unfold.

At the smaller scale, there is an entire world to be seen. You have colonies of leaf-cutter ants marching through the forest, harvesting leaves for its fungal garden. There are dung beetles carving out its delicious meal, ever ready to present its glorified treasure to a mate. And as you continue to examine this world, you come across one of the most interesting branches of life. Fungi. This clade is responsible for the vast portion of decomposition in terrestrial systems. Without fungi operating at the level that they do, life would simply not be the same in the tropics. The soil here is very nutrient poor, and most of the usable nutrients are locked in living biomass. Because of this, the turnover rate by fungi (and of course bacteria!) to recycle these nutrients is essential. I told you it’s cool that microorganisms dictate everything!

Of course, this information is not new, nor was it to me before I set foot in Costa Rica. However, what I didn’t expect to see was the morphological diversity that was on full display in all its glory. I would have never thought that a decomposing log in the middle of the forest would captivate and demand my attention. But these logs in particular, are the playground for these eukaryotes. There are clonal colonies of these fungi creating a vast and integrative network of mycelium, culminating in the production of these beautiful mushrooms. Beyond the decomposing logs, you see mushrooms sprouting up aboveground, evidence of the potential for these organisms to grow beyond belief. What few people seem to realize is that most fungi form these mycelium mats, creating giant organisms of massive size with the ability to become the largest organism in the world!

Fungi extend beyond the limitation of decomposition; and can have potential detrimental and pathogenic effects to all forms of life. Most interestingly, is the story of the zombie fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis), as described by Alfred Wallace in the 1800s. I had the privilege to witness the effects in all its glory on a trip to La Selva. This fungi infects social insects (in my case, the mighty bullet ant) by using enzymes that have been deposited within the fungal spores to breakdown the armor that is the exoskeleton. Next, the fungal spread within the insect causes a truely unique and horrifying effect. Inevitably, the insect becomes a puppet, fully manipulated by the fungal pathogen as it reprograms the ant’s entire social behavior. The obediant and systematic social insect that has developed over eons of evolutionary time is disrupted within just a few days. The ant leaves its nest or foraging trail, abadoning its family, to find a suitable habitat for its newfound master. The ant then climbs onto a stem and secures its place on the underside of a leaf, using its giant mandibles to fixate its location. It is here that the fungal pathogen shuts down the ant altogether, muscles atrophy and the infamous fungal ‘death grip’ is in full effect. The mighty ant, who is capable of lifting thousands of times its own body weight, is left helpless and paralyzed on what will eventually be its final resting place. The hyphae continue to spread throughout the ant, eventually killing its host who, at this point, has served its full purpose. Eventually, fruiting bodies grow out of the head of the ant, releasing spores from this advantageous position high up on the leaf of this plant. These spores disperse and are ready to fall onto the next unsuspecting ant brigade, starting this fascinating process once again.

Zombie fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) fruiting body erupting out of a bullet ant (special thanks to Bernal Carranza and Alex Wild)

Zombie fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) fruiting body erupting out of a bullet ant                     (special thanks to Bernal Matarrita [Univ. of Costa Rica] and Alex Wild)

In conclusion, microorganisms are awesome! The more you learn, the more convinced you will become, I guarantee it. Since I cannot take photos of bacteria (which equally have a number of amazing stories), I settled for fungi. I could not stop from taking photos of the vast diversity of fruiting bodies – some smaller than a pencil point, while others were as large as a person. Below you will find some of my favorites, most of which I have zero idea what they are (all input will be much appreciated!). To conclude, I am not a mycologist, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying and appreciating the unique stories and beauty each of these little guys has to offer! PURA VIDA!

Thanks for listening!

-Alexander Chase

at the Martiny Lab at University of California, Irvine

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A bit of MacGyver-ing

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I’ve a lifetime association with MacGyver. That show about the special agent/forces guy who fights evil by combining common materials into ingeniously simple means of saving the day. I didn’t watch the show directly, but my dad did. He’s been MacGyver-ing things in, around, and on our home for as long as I can remember. I was frequently his helper, and while I can’t claim to have directly inherited his intuition, I did develop a fascination with the process.

Fortunately for me, as a behavioral ecologist-in-training, MacGuyver-ing has become an increasingly large part of my life. In fact, the prospect of piecing together intuitive solutions to sudden, pressing problems is one of the main things that pulled me into the field in the first place. In my brief time, I’ve cobbled together leech traps and made cafeteria trays to feed caterpillars to paper wasps in nest boxes, but when Andrés Rojas and I came across this creature:

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We knew something else was in order.

This amblypygid (also known as a whip spider or tailless whip scorpion, a type of arachnid) is absolutely SLATHERED in the pupae of parasitoid flies. Flies that (as described by Carlos Viquez and Luis F. De Armas [2009]) lay their eggs into the amblypygid’s egg sac, which then hatch into larvae which eat the amblypygid’s eggs, and then, mimicking the behavior of the whip spider-lings, climb onto the amblypygid’s back. The fly larvae then pupate, emerge, and spread the love/misery. I’ve seen photos, but to see this in person was, well, horrific and disgusting and fascinating all at once. Hopefully you feel the same.

But, what are we to do with a find like this? Well, try to capture it and rear the flies for identification, of course! That’s where some MacGyver-ing comes in, courtesy of Mr. Rojas (our esteemed OTS course TA). Behold his creation:

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I can claim to have helped a little, but the credit goes to Andrés. Our subject is cozily housed in a rice container filled with leaf litter, covered with a trail map to keep it dark (because amblypygids are nocturnal). The hand-sewn net at the top is held up by a trail flag and fastened by clothes pins. Since most insects travel towards light, we expect the flies should, er, fly upward into the net. We’ll see what comes of it! Hopefully we’ll have a batch of horrid parasitoid/parasitic flies to ID soon. I’m confident in this MacGyver-ing venture. And I expect it’ll inform future ones.

-Tyler B. Corey

A Cheesy Game of Words

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You guys, what an experience! Science, fieldwork, nice people, awesome places, gallo pinto, what else could I ask for in order to make this culturally enriching summer any better? A larger sample size? More pygids? Palm oil? Nothing, it does not get any better than this. Laundry, cooking, cleaning….DELETE. It seems like it is not possible to complain while you’re doing what you love, surrounded by people that are equally as passionate.

Just like El Bebé saying BIENVENIDO every time someone enters his room, that’s how Costa Rica welcomed us. Although I’m sure in Venezuela it would have been a similar experience. From ants to plants…from big buttresses to soundscape, this country certainly has a lot to deliver. We’ve experienced cloud forests, beaches, and everything in between, it has been buenazo! There are so many ecosystems and habitats out there waiting to be explored. So next time someone asks me ¿dónde está la biblioteca? I’ll tell them the cheesy-est respond ever: the world is your biblioteca, go explore it! This course has shown me that the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know about the world around you.

I would not change this experience for anything in the world. ¿Por qué? Porque yo lo digo. Why Why Why? Because of the knowledge I gained. Because of the places I visited. Because of the people I met. But mostly because there’s an amazing story behind every one of you. I love you guys, just as I love grad school, and for that reason I will miss you dearly (saudade). But relax, I know most of us will see each other again and will have even more stories to tell.

 

It’s only natural

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I am both a naturalist and a biologist. I am that person who won’t be caught dead without my binoculars, camera and field notebook when hiking. For summary purposes, and for the information of anyone interested in attending this course and curious about the diversity you could observe, I am providing a table at the bottom of this post of the estimated number of species that I saw at each site that we visited on the OTS 2015-3 course.

Anolis carpenteri at La Selva
Anolis carpenteri at La Selva

Of all of the sites we visited, my favorite was La Selva, because it had the highest diversity of reptiles and amphibians – my preferred study organisms. However, all of the places that we visited had their own special appeal for me, whether it was rare bird species, high lizard abundance, or beach-front lodgings (e.g. Cabo Blanco). The places we stayed, projects we did, and the wonderful people that I have lived with for 6 weeks, together created an incredible experience that reminded me how much I love Latin America and why I want to work in the Neotropics. I hope I can return to the Neotropics sometime soon to continue to study leaf litter reptile and amphibian communities. Voy a echar de menos Costa Rica!

Site Bird Species Reptile & Amphibian Species Mammal Species
Parque Nacional Palo Verde 37 15 8
Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco 21 12 8
Monteverde 23 3 4
La Selva 41 34 6
Cuericí 19 1 1
Las Alturas 7 2 2
Las Cruces 12 9 4

Vivir para contarla

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Coming to the OTS Graduate Course was a difficult task that I couldn´t accomplish without the support and collaboration of many friends, professors and family.  In these 6 weeks I had the privilege to know extraordinary scientists and share with people of different languages and cultures and as a result I have new friends, more expectations and interest as a researcher. We have being visiting different biological stations around this beautiful country; in those places we have been working on projects, attending classes, hiking and doing workshops. I never thought I could be so productive and also have time to party. I´m never going to forget the mosquitos from Palo Verde and also the ¨Checherereche team¨ from our FLP that helped us break the ice and start the course in the best way.

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After this first intense impression of field work and science, we went to Cabo Blanco and changed the dry forest for humid tropical forest and beach. From this place I am always going to remember the peaceful reaction of the first Coati that I saw face to face. Moving around the country, writing projects, learning about plants and herbivores, I entered the cloud forest in Monte Verde and woke up with the mist and beautiful mountains in Cuerici.

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Those were magical moments because they made me feel like being at home. The biological station La Selva and Las Alturas, won the prize for the looming experience. In the first one, I went to one of the towers and saw the canopy of the forest with the different tones of green and texture and felt the immensity of nature. In Las Alturas, without the light pollution, I could enjoy and appreciate one of the most coolbeans clear sky in my life and the perfect definition of the Milky Way with all the infinite and power of the universe. Finally, we arrived to Las Cruces and in the comfort of this place I´m writing these lines. I have been sharing field work, catching birds and improving my street English. Also, I´ve been drinkin beers and tea with friends, while armadillos or coatis come around my backyard, and strengthening bonds of friendship with talks after meals, ice-cream-time, while discussing stats, projects, and having fun.

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The pivotal moment of this course for me was our FLP on science communication. Ecology, conservation and photography are my passion, and having the opportunity to mix those to tell the biological and conservational importance of a station such as La Selva with the assistance of two experienced research and social media professionals was exciting.  Using really cool ¨toys¨ such as DRONES and professional photography equipment was awesomesauce. All this help us to convey   all the work that is needed such a place like La Selva and the hope that represents each one of us ¨the dreamers ¨ that work in tropical biology and the challenges that we have to face in this clusterfuck of a changing world. There is nothing left to say except that I am GIDDY to be here and everyone is welcome in Venezuela.

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Saudade

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Botany class in high forests with Mauricio Bonifacino at Cuerici, Costa Rica.

Botany class in high forests with Mauricio Bonifacino at Cuerici, Costa Rica.

Before coming to Costa Rica and diving into ecology in the tropics, I asked a friend to tell me about her experience in a previous OTS course she had been to so that I could know what exactly I was getting myself into. She said she didn’t have enough words to express how much being in Costa Rica meant to her and how much you can learn there.

Rodo showing a tunguragua palm seed and a Musa sp banana the orientation hike at Las Cruces Biological Station, Costa Rica.

Rodo showing a tunguragua palm seed and a Musa sp banana in the orientation hike at Las Cruces Biological Station, Costa Rica.

After almost a month and half of travelling to all corners of this amazing country I can truly understand her. During the “Tropical Biology: An Ecological Approach” course we had a talk almost every day about new research being done, everything from plant chemistry, bat and plant evolution, seed dispersal by agoutis, mud–nest harvestmen, nutrients cycling in soil to amphibian and lizard population declines. At each new place we had a guided hike into the forests to listen to stories about every plant or animal that crossed our way. So even if you were deep into thought about your FLP and IP project you would still always have these opportunities to expand your knowledge to a multitude of subjects. Besides that, every time we traveled to a new station without internet access we had to clear all our doubts the good old fashioned way: asking our friends!

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Green and black poison dart frog (Dendrobates auratus) at La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica (Photo by Vilisa Zambrano).

So every minute here in Costa Rica is an opportunity to learn and teach something. I am thankful for all the expressions and words in English that people taught me and of course every time someone taught me how to ask for more food in Spanish. And also I won’t forget the overwhelming feeling every time someone introduced me to a new plant, reptile, amphibian, bird or insect.

As all new graduate students think, and as all old good scientists have already thought about, there is so much out there in nature and books to be discovered and learned.  I am really glad to be part of this fundamental OTS course and to have the chance to learn about tropical biology constantly. And as a Brazilian would say I will have a lot of  “saudade” of all these intense and scientifically demanding days!!

Learning about birds during the orientation hike at La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica.

Learning about birds during the orientation hike at La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica.