Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Field Research Update: Wrapping Up!

It's been a busy week since I last posted a fieldwork update! Unfortunately, my camera conked out a while before that, so my illustrative ability will be lower than usual. Fortunately, persistent emails to NIKON finally convinced someone to reassure me that my warrantee will probably cover whatever has happened to it, even if I can't ship it till a few days after the warrantee expires. Probably.

Despite being outside of the U.S., I had a fantastic Thanksgiving at La Selva Biological Station. We had a long field day there, with a 1.5 hour hiking commute and a lot of rain and mud. It rained most of the day while we were out, so when we returned the next day a lot of the lowland trails were flooded. We found an eel swimming down one of our trails the next day! After the long day and a bit of rest, we were treated to a truly fantastic Costa Rican hybrid Thanksgiving feast. About 40 people were in attendance, and there were tables and tables laden with side dishes and desserts. My favorite was a turkey carved out of pineapple! We drank ginger chicha and I my entree was a tomato baked with basil, spinach, and cheese. Short of being with family, it was the best Thanksgiving I could hope for.

La Selva was a great place to look for animals; notable sightings include two Leptophis nebulosis (Oliver's parrotsnake) and a Bothriechis schlegelii (eyelash viper). Very cool! Also saw some unidentifiable bats and a lot of glass frogs.

Wimper Groefkopadder (4)
Bothriechis schlegelii
The following week was the last one available for fieldwork, and we tried to squeeze in as much as possible. At one sight, we had a ball of a time hopping down an almost-too-large river using boulders. Low sightings there due to rain, but I did see my first wild Thecadactylus rapicauda (turnip-tailed gecko)!

Thecadactylus rapicauda in Dominica-a02
Thecadactylus rapicauda
Our last site of the season here, we did a double: day and night surveys in the same day. The stream transects were absolute slogs; we split to either side of the river and I spent too much of the searching time whacking at grass and brambles taller than myself, trying to follow the riparian corridor. We finished early enough to head back to town for a special pizza dinner before heading back out in slightly-damp field clothes for our night surveys. I had good luck catching anoles by hand, something I've been working on the whole trip. It's really, really helpful to do it at night, when they are slowed by sleep and cold! Land transects in the pasture were unsurprisingly unfruitful, but we were on a big beautiful piece of land and had a small audience of horses and (friendly!) cows for a lot of our ramblings.

It was a great field season: I learned a lot about herpetofauna sampling techniques and systematics, Costa Rica flora and fauna, swamp locomotion, dissertation structure, and lots more!

Bucket List: See Sloths

It might not be a good bucket list entry if I've already seen one (does a distant blur in the jungle room of Montreal's amazing Biodome count?), but I am in love with sloths. Like, not so far from Kristen Bell-level in love with sloths:

Well, I'm within a day's travel of this sanctuary. I'm always going to be a little dubious about tourism-oriented "rehab" operations, but if the background research checks out and this is a legitimate rescue and education operation, I am sooooooo interested in going:

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bullet Ant Inspired Experiments at La Selva Biological Station (Video)

Check out this video about a bullet ant experiment performed right at our very own La Selva Biological Station. La Selva, run by the Organization for Tropical Studies, is the home of many of our research sites.

The video has some cool shots of bullet ants, the old growth and late-stage secondary forests we are working in for the herp project, and offers a cool example of what visiting graduate students might do in a visiting course with OTS.

If you're interested in the liquid/solid protein confusion on the part of the bullet ants, here is the publication referenced in the video. InsideScience.org did an explanatory piece that's not behind a paywall.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Stung by a Bullet Ant! All About 'Paraponera clavata' And Why They Are Scary

Well, it was likely to happen. If most of my work here is bushwhacking through the jungle, brushing up against trees and walking slowly and poking around with a stick, I was bound to tick something off. And tick it off I did!

The sting of the bullet ant, Paraponera clavata, is rated as the most painful hymenopterid sting on the planet (more than a factor of 10 more painful than your average wasp sting, according to the Schmidt sting pain index. It contains a neurotoxic peptide named for the genus, poneratoxin, which blocks the voltage-gated sodium ion channels in the muscle and causes slow and extremely painful slow muscle contractions.

I must either have gotten a glancing or light sting (or stung by a sister species?), because what I experienced was not incapacitating; it peaked at an 8/10 on the pain scale. The pain lasted a little over 2 hours, subsided for about an hour, and returned again in a very painful way for about 90 minutes. The surge-and-subside pattern of pain persisted into the night, but didn't interrupt my sleep. The sting site was numb and inflamed on the day, and twinged throughout the next day. I still have a mental twinge response whenever I see a bullet ant crawling around!

And crawl around they do. They generally nest at the base of large trees (the riskiest place to tick them off), but they forage far and wide, including into places that seem like they should be safe (near other ant nests, swamps, streams, bare earth, etc).

These guys are pretty cool, and I'm definitely researching them a bit more on the side. Here's a short video that I took of one doing something with some kind of nematode:

Harvesting the nematode? Being parasitized by nematode? I need better footage and a parasitic entomologist, please!

Additional videos of the infamous bullet ant glove ritual:

Monday, December 1, 2014

End of November Recommended Reads

I link to some of my favorite recent papers and stories from around the news feed.

Territorial poison frogs (like the kind I'm working with regularly) can navigate back home if they're moved somewhere else within a familiar area, demonstrating a type of spatial learning not previously known in amphibians. A useful skill, considering that the males of Allobates femoralis move as much as 180m (a lot for a tiny frog!) to drop their tadpoles off in a water source for them to grow.

Environment360 breaks news on a report declaring that the U.S. can cut greenhouse gas emissions according to the "80% by 2050" goal using existing technologies.

"As species decline, so does research funding" at LA Times. Dr. Terrie Williams on being the butt of willful political misrepresentation. (via SmallPondScience). Brings me back to when presidential candidate Senator McCain went after the genetic research of the continental U.S.'s largest endangered carnivore as "pork-barrel spending."

Noah Bonsey makes some suggestions to modify the Obama administration's IS strategy in Foreign Policy.

Charles C. Mann argues in this misleadingly-titled Wired piece that space travel is an exorbitant venture that probably must be funded without expectation of recouped costs. "Exploration of distant lands will be a short-lived venture unless it yields something really, really valuable."

Dan Ackerman explains the idea of the "interspecies internet" at Conservation Magazine.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, quantum chemist, and arguably most powerful woman in the world, is profiled in The New Yorker. (via Longform's Picks)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Field Research in a Field: Very Unfriendly Cows, Many Glass Frogs, and a Nice Dog

We recently completed a set of pastures sites attached to an idyllic set of casitas. Arriving on a Sunday, we found a large extended family or two relaxing-- kids in the river, senoritas to abuelitas in the shade of the porch. They were mildly interested in the gringas wanting to look for frogs on a sunny weekend, but not at all taken aback; this land had been used for other studies by scientists before us. After a very steep climb up the hill, we were greeted by fantastic views of just-as-steep neighboring hills to distant mountains half-obscured by clouds. The sun beat down as we headed off in search of our three land and three stream transect sites. Selecting the land sites is pretty easy; we pre-select some well-spaced tree or patch and a random angle to start from and go. We are usually more limited on stream availability; this site didn't have too many, so we spent a lot of time walking around the hills trying to find some streams of consistent size.

Our plans were severely complicated by a few groups of cattle that were, shall we say, not thrilled to see people creeping through their home. Our first interaction with the cattle involved an unyielding bull-- we skirted him and his herd and went on our way, hugging the fence. Later in our expedition, we descended into a valley bounded by a large river. Cattle faces poked over the ridge. The cows and calves jostled each other for a view, the bull guarding them started getting pissy and making some very deliberate eye contact and incremental movements towards us. Then, the herd started meandering in our direction, despite our hoots and hollers. I broke out my garbage bag, waved my stick, made threatening yells and "you're in trouble" sounds that would stop any horse in its tracks. But these cows, they did not care. They approached. The bull glared some more. He swung his head and stomped his hooves. After some hasty deliberations and calculated risk assessment (skirt around the herd to unknown pastures on the other side of the hill?), we retreated into the river and crept along its banks to a cow-free pasture. From then on, we didn't stray far from fences or thick vegetation in case of marauding cattle.

It was a fairly fruitless day; we had started transects later in the day than usual, didn't find much (as expected in day surveys of pasture), and didn't get all of our transects set up due to cow interference. We returned in midafternoon the next day to finish our day transects before dusk and night surveys. We were immediately befriended by two pups, one of whom latched onto us and kept us company the whole time! He was a little guy, white with polka-dotted ears, and looked like the product of an italian greyhound and a jack russel, but with a curly tail. We ate our dinner on a cow-free ridge, and he stole our apple cores and probably scared some frogs away. Something to incorporate into the model! (Every time something changes or goes wrong, I joke that it needs to be incorporated into the model. Models are without limits! Infinite variables means it's accurate, right?)

Cochranella spinosa brian.gratwicke flickr
We had a good night, spotting three species of glass frogs, an unidentified snake, a juvenile Rana warszewitschii, a giant fishing spider, and a marmosa (mouse opposum) that was missing most of a tail! A small swampy area on the side of a hill proved to hold not only tons of frogs but a large population of fish. I wonder how they survive the dry season-- mud burrowing?

Lithobates warszewitschii.jpg
"Lithobates warszewitschii" by Brian Gratwicke - FlickrLithobates warszewitschii. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Fun Fact: The Term For Ant Forage Is...

In my preparation for an upcoming entry on bullet ants and their habits, I've discovered something amazing:

Harkening back to pirates, many articles on ant foraging refer to foraged resources as... ant "booty."
The Blueberry Hunters (7932669124)