Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Vacation in San Jose and Liberia and Santa Rosa National Park...and Ricon de la Vieja... and Playa Grande

Howler Monkeys from our estuary tour
Since several groups were coming to the lodge, my group from Hendrix College had to evacuate for a week. This 'evacuation' was modified into a vacation and we traveled all to a few cities and national parks. First on the agenda was San Jose for museums. It was strange to be in the city again after spending so much time in the forest both adjusting to local culture and the pace. San Jose is a concrete jungle like any other with a little extra goodies: fantastic museum, intense peddlers and stores that sell mopeds and flat screen TVs while blasting techno music. We only spent a day there, but it was plenty of time for me.

When we got to Liberia, which is in a more arid part of the country, I couldn't help but feel like I was in Texas. The landscape paired with cowboys being advertised everywhere was a big influence, but then we went to a fair. Fairs are like childhood, you feel like you've been transported back in time when you go to one. Some things about fairs are universal: the rides, the dirt that gets in your sandals, and slew of strangers--the best place to people watch. But Costa Rican fairs are far superior to any American one I've seen: their food is AMAZING. Casado (the traditional plate) with chicken that leaves you chewing on the bones and churros that will make you dream about cinnamon for the rest of your life. The strangest part of it all was the rodeo. I felt like I was in a small town in Arkansas as I sat in the bleachers. Even back home I can't understand the speaker while I sit mesmerized by the cowgirl's and boy's as they race their horses around barrels. It shouldn't be so surprising, but this cultural overlap just reminds me how big of an impact cattle ranching has had in Costa Rica. It is the livelihood and thread of each family like it is in any small town back in the states.
Hugo and the Buttresses in Rincon de la Vieja

Aside from Costa Rica's less exotic rodeos, the tropical forests and volcanos transport you to a world of magical realism. Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez become kindred spirits as you traipse through the ferns and fronds that inspire magical realism. Most of Costa Rica is windy so it's common find large roots that only tap into the topsoil, but spread out widely to support their large tree. We call them buttresses.
Rio Colorado in the tropical humid rainforest
After our trip through Santa Rosa National Park where we visited one of the hottest parts of the country, then dried our sweat off at the top of a windy mountain, we climbed back on the bus. The large picture windows hypnotize you into a daze of rolling hills covered with large trees. Many things pass in a blur leaving you wondering if it was a termite nest or a large bird. Occasionally though, we spot a critter and pull over. First it was white faced capuchins, then just up the road we pulled over for a troop of spider monkeys! The students I'm with are in a class on animal behavior, so they took the opportunity to make observations while I got to oogle on.

Playa Grande and it's killer sunsets
I learned a lot from our trips to each national park. Each guide was kooky in his or her own way, while showing us the variety of habitats (dry, humid, and rainforest with volcanoes tucked in each). It was the end of the trip that was my favorite though. After a day of travelling from Liberia and stopping in a neat, but hot ecomuseo on pottery we headed to Playa Grande. When we first arrived we all went straight for the beach, rushing into the waves at dusk. After each wave passed over us a froth of bubbles would follow. I kept cupping my hands to pick the bubbles up and trying to make myself believe that this was real. Everything was so perfect.

Playa Grande is famous for surfing because it has some of the most vicious waves. They'll toss you and make you do cartwheels underwater until you learn how to flow with them or dive beneath. I rented a boogie board and spent half the day immersed in those waves. By the end of it my whole body was sore and my hair had an entirely new texture. I felt transformed, but still ashamed of my light morphology. I feel weak by having such pale skin. Still I know this light skin will keep me looking young and I'd rather have a periodic sneaky sunburn then try my chances for skin cancer.

 We got back to the lodge in time for dinner and UGA's famous hot chocolate. The trip was fun and I would do it a million times over again. Still, there is a certain quality to UGA. We kept celebrating that we were going home when really we only have a few days left here. June 29th is our last full day and by Thursday our bags will be piled on the deck to leave.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Bajo del Tigre

Me beside the Mrycianthes sp. tree (Photo by Kenji Nishida)

I separated from the group again on Saturday and while they went on a cool canopy walk and zip-lining, I rode down to Bajo del Tigre with Kenji Nishida. There we met Willow Z. in her greenhouse. She is married to Bill Haber, a famous botanist in the area, and she guided us through Bajo del Tigre to see if we could find other galls on plant family Myrtaceae. Willow is very observant and quirky like most scientists, but was amazingly helpful. We hiked down the trails and took our time, well past lunch just stopping to look at different plants and even did some bird watching. She was also sure to wish me luck in working with Myrtaceae, which after the day was through, we discovered was even more difficult to identify than we had thought before. Tiny T-shaped hairs separate this whole family of plants from that of family Malpighaceae. Regardless, we got plenty of new samples to work with and met some well grown Myrtles like Mrycianthes sp. and an undescribed species of Psidium. There were plenty of unique new galls like the one pictured below from a Inga plant. This gall stood up on a stalk from the leaf and Kenji thinks that it is induced by a cecidomyiid (fly) which normally only has one occupant, but he found three exit holes suggesting that the larvae had been parasitized! The most likely culprit would be Tanostigmatidae (superfamily Chalcidoidea).
Inga sp. gall (Photo by Kenji Nishida)

After all of this gally excitement, Kenji dropped me off to re-join my group, bags of plants in-hand. It was about 5pm and I was worn out from hiking so when we got back I laid my plants out for the next day, took a few notes, then took a much needed shower because Saturday night was the night of the local dance and concert. It was a fundraiser for the school with a small raffle and a lot of entertainment. Azul Plato, a fantastic band from Guanacaste showed us how Costa Ricans get down and pretty soon we all braved the dance floor. Ticos can dance; young or old, they are all amazing dancers! It wasn't long before we got the steps down with the help of some local Tico dance stars. Several hours later, my friends and I were about to fall over from exhaustion and joy. If you want a work-out, do a little salsa or merengue for a few hours. Your calves will hate then thank you.
Post-merengue with mis mujeres

Chalcid wasps inside a leaf petiole gall
Sunday was dedicated to plants and galls. I took endless notes, changed out my trap head, and was practically dancing around the lab with all of my specimens. Most of the galls I dissected were empty, but then...there was one. Kenji left an Araceae (Philodendron sp.) specimen in my bag so i was dissecting the petiole gall on the plant. It was a small gall, very inconspicuous. But then...there were THREE WASPS INSIDE. They were chalcid wasps, freshly molted and ready to emerge! Thankfully I was alone in the lab when I found them because I couldn't stop cooing. These guys were beautiful!!! And I had spent all day going through galls with no luck, so when I found these guys my luck had changed. They aren't the Eurytomids that I'm looking for, but I am always happy to wasps! I cried while I watched them crawl around, then quickly deposited them in ethanol for identification and records.

Over the years I have had some complaints about insect collecting. Most are along the lines of the collections being cruel by killing insects. There are millions of insects killed each day by cars, lawnmowers, pesticides, and purposeful human feet.My trap and collection are for the contribution of knowledge. The sacrifice of these wasps allows us to learn about each of their species, especially how they work into their ecology. Research like this also permits the development of our co-existence with nature as we find more natural methods of controlling pests and working with the environment. How can anything be used or preserved without knowing about it first? I welcome any comments here, especially since it's a discussion I think I'll encounter throughout my career.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A trap at last!

Right after breakfast on Friday morning Jose Montero and I marched down the Camino Real trail to the spot I had scoped out. He carried his machete and rope and I proudly hauled my mesh Malaise Insect Trap and chemicals. Down, down, down the slope, just past the looped tree and into the brush we walked. The sun broke through the canopy in this one spot and several hopeful saplings were taking advantage of the sunlight among their older counterparts. One such young woody plant was of the Myrcia genus and had several green, swollen branches than slightly hummed with larvae. Those larvae are most likely Eurytomidae wasps, parasitoids of the plant and the ones I'm seeking. I tried to keep my wailing at bay, but excitement and anticipation at what I may catch with my trap or what might emerge from my rearings made me yelp and coo. Everything that I have worked for and worried over has finally come together. With my traps set I will wait 5 days for the trap head to fill up before I exchange it out. Once I switch them I'll sort through the past week's collections and very well may cry over the waspy friends I find.

Rio San Luis--ole' frio swimmin' hole
Once my trap was staked down with local limbs, and ready to withstand the fierce Costa Rican winds, I hiked back up to the lodge to join my group from Hendrix College. We had an arranged hike through la Finca Bella, the local coffee plantation, and to the Rio San Luis, where we could finally have a chance to swim in fresh, although frigid water. All of us embraced our inner water nymphs and braved the cold water by dipping under. The cold water kept reminding us that this was real--we were really here--a paradise of tropical plants, flowing water, and blue morpho butterflies.
The Hendrix sirens in Rio San Luis on the 4th of July!

 Just at lunch on Sunday, I found a Tarantula Hawk buzzing around in the comedor. I set my food aside, grabbed a cup, and almost held an insect with one of the most painful stings. According to the Schmidt sting pain index, it's the second most painful sting and one victim described it as "having all your blood suddenly turn to hydrofluoric acid while being electrocuted." The rest of his encounter is captured here. Tarantula Hawks (Pepsis sp.) are members of the family Pompilidae which is contained within division Parasitica, that I study. Parasitica is a group of wasps that encompasses all groups except for Aculeata, which is commonly known as "the stinging wasps," which are most wasps, ants, and bees even. Although most members of Aculeata sting, not all of them do. Still it is believed that the ancestors of present-day Aculeata did sting, so now all of their social descendants But Tarantula Hawks sting...and it's no whimpy pinch. This transformation of blood to hydrofluoric acid is caused by a modified fluid that was originally used for just laying eggs. That's right, stingers are female reproductive organs (ovipositors) and so it's only the females who can sting. But that's not all, the ecology of Tarantula Hawks is even more potent fodder for death metal songs. Living up to their name, Tarantula Hawks and other spider wasps of family Pompilidae capture a spider and paralyze it with their nothing-but-screams stinger. This paralyzing sting, whose pain last 5 minutes for us, immobilizes the tarantula for the rest of it's life. Afterward stinging, she drags her prey to a nest where she lays a single egg on the abdomen of the spider. The entrance to the nest is sealed and the spider left alive, but paralyzed in the tomb of darkness. Over time the egg hatches and a wormy larvae crawls out to suck fluid from the spider's abdomen. After weeks of this alien-esque torture, the grub reaches it's final moult where it then devours the rest of the spider and emerges as an adult Tarantula Hawk. It's an intense initiation into adult hood, almost as horrible as middle school, but you should be proud of your ability to have just read through that. SO, with that in mind, I caught a little black and orange-winged metal angel and showed it to the naturalists on campus. I have yet to have been stung by these wasps, but am sure that once I am that I will continue to love them. For all of their horror and gore, they're still beautiful and amazingly adapted to their environments.
The Tarantula Hawk I caught in el Comedor

You may wonder what could top the Tarantula Hawk's sting, and let me tell you that right here in Costa Rica, you can find the top menace. It's another member of the order Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps) and it too is very appropriately named. The number one most painful sting can be found from the small, but menacing Bullet Ant. It's sting is described as being shot and I'm happy to have not yet run across this devil. There are plenty of biting army ants that swarm the ground, turning leaf litter into black rivulets of arthropod anger, but solitary bullet ants have yet to come across my radar.

In other, more delightful news, I learned how to milk a cow Monday morning. I'll have to work on my effciency, but now I can proudly say that I know my way around an utter. UGA has 3 dairy cows on campus and they use the milk that these cows produce in the kitchen for all of our hot coco and cooking needs. The cows are hand-milked by a lighting fast udder-master and grass fed alongside their babies. When they're not being milked you can find them playing in the field, looking strange in the area of a cloud forest, but oddly homey. Many locals have cattle and sell milk to the local cheese factory. The cheese factory and most of this area was settled by Quakers and has grown well over the years to be more and more sustainable. A big waste concern for most farm is where all the manure can go. Most farms have many more cattle or pigs and in recent years UGA and some surrounding farms have adopted the method of using a biodigester. This simple design allows for waste to accumulate in a giant, underground bag where anaerobic bacteria from the animals guts flourish. The bacteria consume the waste, breaking it down into methane, which is light and naturally flows up. This methane is collected in a second bag above ground and piped to the kitchen up the slope to be used for cooking. This is an excellent way to re-use materials and sustainably obtain fuel. Not only is this great for the environment, but simply economic considering the lodge's rural location. More methods of sustainability are being researched here on campus, while still more are trying to be spread throughout the community. Like I said in my last post, people have to live here too, so now it is a matter of finding more methods of coexistence.
My sorting and wing venation station

By Wednesday I switched out my trap and started sorting through what was collected to begin my search for Eurytomidae wasps. Jose generously gave me two bags full of extra vials so that everything I collected could be stored here at UGA to add to their insect collections. My wasps, of course, will leave with me and travel to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History where I get to sit down with Mike Gates to work on my first manuscript. He recently told me that I would get to be senior author on the paper and I cried a little. First author on a publication is the badge of being a legitimate scientist. Although this publication has a long road ahead of it and will probably not be published for a year or two, I'm thrilled to be working on it!

For more fun, you can always find more pictures on my instagram: justanothernakedape and there is a ugacostarica_blog where other students have reflected on their study abroad experiences here in Monteverde and San Luis.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Night Hiking and San Jose

Dichotomius sp. of dung beetle
On Sunday night a little beetle decided to hang out with me. He was a cute guy, fairly large, and seemed to be really happy on my wrist, so much so that when I tried to let him go, he kept hanging around. However, this little guy was a dung beetle, so I started taking it as a good sign that I needed to take a shower. I bathe daily here, but things rarely dry and each day my small pack of clothes gets re-worn. I'm finally caving in for laundry before I start attracting more dung beetles.

Newly emerged black witch moth
Monday night was when I finally went on a night hike through UGA's campus. The sun sets early here, about 6pm and normally my hiking for the day goes with it, but all sorts of neat critters--especially insects--crawl out at night. George, one of the campus' naturalists led our group through a neatly winding trail and pointed out each tarantula home that he knew about. Most of the hairy friends were home, waiting for dinner to creep by. We also found a leaf cutter ant queen (Atta cephalotes) who was really docile with a golden ocelli that looked like a crown. On the stranger side, we also spotted slug-like lepidoptera larvae and aggregations of seed bug larvae (family Lygaeidae). A newly emerged Black Witch moth (Ascalapha sp.) was hiding behind a leaf, probably getting ready to go munch on some overripe fruit. These guys are considered to be harbringers of death in Central America, but I like to think she was a sign of good luck for our trip. Not all witches are bad witches ;)

For Wednesday, I bummed a ride with a group going to the airport and then made my way to the University of Costa Rica in San Jose. While there I briefly met Paul Hanson, another local entomologist who is familiar with gall wasps. I picked up the supplies I was sent from the Smithsonian from him and almost cried when I saw my Malaise Insect Trap. These traps are expensive, but they catch a lot of insects--mostly flying ones like wasps. I'm thrilled to see what will fill up my trap heads, but more importantly I felt completed. I have worried a lot about getting my supplies, so much so that it has inhibited my excitement about the trip. No need to worry now though!

From San Jose, I took a bus, which I read would be unreliable. We left at 6:30am, made a few stops, but were in Santa Elena/Monteverde by 11am. With my heavy pack of supplies I wasn't very willing to explore the city so I went back to UGA and made it back in time for lunch. The bus wasn't hot or unreliable as I had been told to expect, but most importantly I traveled all that way for about $4. I highly recommend taking the bus!

Sloth-pose selfie
After my one night in San Jose, I was thrilled to come back to the Moneteverde region though. Although I was exhausted from my trip, I skipped around once I got back on campus and unloaded all my supplies to organize them. Afterwards, I spent some time running the trails, happy to be surrounded by foliage again. I even climbed a few trees and embraced my inner sloth(or monkey) by hanging upside down. While running along the trails out of joy, I was also scouting out some areas to set-up my malaise insect trap that was sent from the Smithsonian. Now that I have a few spots picked out, the only thing keeping me back is catching Jose, the research coordinator, for long enough to have the site approved. Jose is newly taking charge and his passion for entomology has thrown him into several projects. In the past, UGA's campus has been more about having students study abroad, take classes on Spanish and local biodiversity or ecology, while naturalists, who have learned the local flora and fauna give guided tours. But now, Jose wants to implement more research. There are a few researchers on campus from UGA who have different projects from soil to bird movement. Still there is a lot to study! With the naturalists each having a research project, more information could be churned out of this rural lodge and each tourist or visiting student could learn more about the local ecology, but also how research is conducted to perhaps inspire the next generation. This exposure to research also gives visitors an opportunity to realize the importance of scientific research and possibly motivates them to care more for the environment. I really like Jose's ideas and enthusiasm, now we just have to wait and see how things grow.

A very confused Blue-crowned motmot in the
laundry room caught by Cody
We have also gotten to hear from the local researchers on campus to learn about their projects. Cody Cox, who is working on his PhD from the University of Georgia, is here for a 5 years project on animal movement. He's been focusing on birds so far, more specifically the blue-crowned motmot. He catches the birds using fine mesh mist nets, tags them, then tracks where all they move to document their home ranges and if they are limited to certain types of forest. Research like this is critical to improving conservation efforts because it sheds light on what kind of forest conservation may be the most efficient. Cody is also investigating what communities seem to support conservation efforts more and see if there is an overlap in their localities and the forest that needs to be conserved the most. On top of all of that, Cody plans on translating his data into computerized models that can predict where and how animals will move if forest in certain regions is restored or taken away. We have to learn how to coexist because we obviously can't conserve everything and this research is not only fascinating, but crucial to that development. I love being surrounded by such brilliant researchers who are pioneering our way to a better future!

While I wait for my trap to collect wasps, I have been doing research on local flora and fauna. In my research I have found some very valuable tools and made a list below.

Great online databases for plants in Costa Rica that includes live plant photos and plant voucher specimens:

If you're interested in learning more about wasps, WaspWeb's Wonderful World of Wasps has some great online exhibits:
For information specifically on gall wasps, they also have this exhibit:

Most online information on gall wasps covers wasps belonging to superfamily Cynipoidea, but wasps from other familes like Eurytomidae (superfamily Chalcidoidea) also form galls. Chalcids, or wasps belonging to superfamily Chalcidoidea.
Wasps of Family Eurytomidae

As always, I post daily photos and videos on my instagram, justanothernakedape AND there is a ugacostarica_blog where other students have reflected on their study abroad experiences.