Sunday, June 28, 2015

Gall-y Gee Willikers

I've been in Costa Rica for almost a week now and in that time I have seen more mammals, insects, and glorious plants. I have hiked mountains daily, met quirky entomologists, and finally collected my first galls! As I mentioned in my last post, I'm here to study gall wasps, parasitoids of plants. But what I didn't anticipate was the diversity of galls from other insects. My first collected set were large bulbous stem galls made by some lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). Surprisingly one little wiggler resides in these large galls and they are fairly common in San Luis and Monteverde. But I didn't learn about all of this until I met Kenji.

An Aggregation of Hyperparasitoids of Fig Wasps
Kenji Nishida, otherwise known as the exploratory entomologist, is brilliant. He lives in Monteverde on top of one of the tallest mountains (I know because I climbed it). His home is full of different insects that he is rearing: new species of phasmids (walking sticks), wasps, and lepidopetera (caterpillars). I spent a night up at the Estacion Biologica to absorb some of Kenji's knowledge of galls, especially those formed on plants of family Myrtaceae (myrtles). He taught me how to identify different species of myrtles through smell, touch, and appearance, opening my eyes to the minute details separating these described and undescribed species of plants. I also collected my first wasps from Costa Rica. There were several aggregations of hyperparasitoids of fig wasps (the wasps who parasitize the mutualistic wasps of figs). Needless to say, I made immense progress on my research with his help.

Chrysina sp. found at Monteverde

The biodiversity in Monteverde is much more rich than in San Luis. A few hundred feet of elevation takes you into the cloud forest (aka cloud factory) and with all that extra moisture the land teems with life. In the little time I spent up there I saw more species than I could wish for, including the silver Chrysina beetle. I also had the pleasure of digging through the station's collections and seeing beetles that were bigger than my hand for the first time. It was a religious experience and in moments like those, I feel reaffirmed in my love for insects.

Coleoptera collection at Estacion Biologica de Monteverde
While in Monteverde, I also visited CASEM, a women's co-op with the rest of the group from Hendrix. This co-op sells materials made by local women, providing them with an opportunity to develop their own craft and business. Mostly tourists come through this region and because of the land's peculiarities and the poor roads, there are few options for trade. Alongside the opportunities for work, CASEM has also functioned as a community center for women. It was there that women would meet and some learned about their spouses cheating on them with other women, while others voiced how they had been abused. These discussions fueled political change for equal rights among men and women and later protection against domestic violence. Although it seems like a tourist destination, this building has empowered local women and hopefully, will continue to do so as tourism grows.
Undescribed species of walking stick

After CASEM, the group and I toured the Monteverde's cheese factory. This strange building was built in the 1950's by 11 Quaker families who retreated from Alabama when the military drafts for WWII came through. I tried amazing cheeses and snacked on even tastier ice cream, but after hearing about those families I had a strange dream. In it I was babysitting many kids and couldn't keep myself from telling their father that he shouldn't have anymore children, considering how impossible it would be to take care of them all and based on the world's over-population. It didn't go over well.
Nyssodesmus python - milipede decomposer

Alongside my research at the Ecolodge, I am also helping teach a comparative animal behavior class. I took this class while at Hendrix, but now get to see all the critters in person with their strange displays and social strategies. There's nothing I love more than sharing the wonders of nature with others and this trip is all about that! I'll be giving a lecture on Coevolution between Fig trees and Fig wasps this week and perhaps convert some students to loving Hymenoptera.
Wearing makeup in the rainforest is absurd, so for the first time in 10 years I have gone 1 week without doing so! This is a huge leap for me considering that just 2 years ago I was too uncomfortable to let anyone see me without makeup. Last year, during a life changing mission trip to Seattle, WA, I finally let some people see me without and photograph me without makeup on. This past semester was the first time I willingly took a picture of myself without makeup and sent it to my very sweet boyfriend who assisted in helping me be comfortable with my makeup-free face. This may sound silly to some, but in these past 10 years I have been digging myself out of the mentality that I have to wear makeup to be pretty. I've had bad skin for several years, which only assisted in making me makeup dependent, but now there is no excuse. The main aspect I have missed is the spf that is in my foundation. Monteverde gave me a nice sun kiss and my face and shoulders are now bright red. But hopefully I'll develop some melanin and get a tan. All I can think now is that I'm one step closer to being an Amazonian queen.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Two days in Paradise

The road to paradise was long, but much worth it. I arrived with a group from Hendrix College at 4:20am yesterday, but was wide awake for breakfast at 7:30am. Coffee, mangoes, and sweet plantains made me forget any weariness I had. Then the array of insects, mammals, reptiles, and birds, each twittering with fantastic life kept me wide awake. There was so much to see, every niche is filled by 2-3 organisms! My home for the next six weeks would be at the Ecolodge in San Luis, Costa Rica--a biologist's paradise.
Fallen leaf from a local trumpet tree (Cecropia spp.)
Costa Rica has been teaching me to listen. The thick canopy above trills and chirps with the feathered remnants of dinosaurs while insects swarm and march in every corner. The wind is so powerful that at times I think I'm near running water. It's always knocking on my cabin door, making the beams creak and moan while filling my mind with images of the power of nature. Nature rules here with no life. Each death is instantly covered with new life and if we left, this lodge would instantly be taken over. But the occupants of UGA's Ecolodge have followed nature's pattern--no waste. All the food is composted here, napkins recycled, and most resources are locally grown. I can feel the cycle as I clean my plate of exotic fruits, rice, and beans at each meal and am very conscious of each item I might throw-away.
Rico, the local coati egg fiend

Animals are everywhere too. I'm finally around other mammals. Capuchin monkey's were angstily screaming in the canopy above as we pointed our binoculars at them. A white-nosed coati strolled across campus like one of the researchers before climbing into a tree to elicit the angry calls of a bird. He invaded her nest and fed on her eggs, loudly smacking his lips while she flew away crying.

But these animals are not what I'm after. I've come to this paradise for an Odyssey Project on gall wasps, parasitoids of plants. Like parasites, parasitoids rely on a host for survival. They'll use the host while it's living, whereas a predator kills another organism for survival. Unlike parasites though, parasitoids eventually kill their host. In the case of gall wasps, they lay their eggs in some part of the plant (stem, leaf, fruit, etc.) and those larvae develop overtime, using the plant's resources in place of a yolk or other food supplied by the parent. These larvae can greatly inhibit the growth of the plant, but typically do not kill it like other parasitoids. Still, their evolutionary heritage is similar, so together they remain under division Parasitica. Isn't that a beautiful word? Parasitica. It sounds like the name of paradise for me. I know I'm biased with my love for insects, but let anyone else see the diversity in this group that I have and it will move them like a life-sized landscape in the Louvre. I'll have such collections once my I get my supplies next week, but for now I will continue to listen.

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