Field of Science


End of the line for the field trip

Field trips tend to end with a whimper rather than a bang.  It's because people get tired physically and mentally; you begin to long for the comfort of the familiar, and the ease of you regular day-to-day life although TPP has on several occasions gotten into a new field trip routine where it feels familiar, sort of.  Usually that takes a few weeks.  So tomorrow the troops get packed up and depart. The mud gets washed off the boots and everything that has gotten strewn around gets gathered back up and stowed. How did it expand in size? Everything is heavier because of the humidity. Repacking is rather a depressing thing to do the more so that TPP is suffering from some sort of GI tract discomfort.  Never fun, especially when getting ready to travel overseas.  Another bit of last minute business is to make an order for Costa Rican coffee.  As you may know TPP never endorses anyone, but should you be in San Jose, TPP cannot say enough good things about Cafe Trebol, a 100 year old coffee roasting business located on the Calle 8 side of the Mercado Central. It's top notch coffee at fair prices, and TPP has been buying it for over 20 years now. Coffee is an easy to pack gift being nearly non-breakable. They also have cacoa of several grades.  Time to wrap up a few things for packing especially the plant press. 

Giving thanks for our dinner - a unique version

For a long time this field season has had a Thanksgiving dinner having co-opted the idea of being thankful for things, including their staff, and doing something nice for visiting gringos a long ways from family and friends. They had roast turkey and a most excellent fresh cranberry sauce (anadano rojo) along with potatoes and dressing, and some vegetables, but the really extraordinary part is this magnificent goody table of breads, and sweets, and fruits, and all manner of strange but wonderful treats (coffee-flavored flan, some sort of glazed roasted cheese, salad ala Waldorf?, sweet and savory breads & rolls) and then decorative fruit sculptures.  What a wonderful spread. This image will give you some idea of the extent and diversity of the array of items to choose among, and this is only about half of the spread. As if all of that wasn't enough they even had chicha (a truly wicked brew of Mesoamerican origin). For all of this we were most grateful and thankful for the good company and a most bountiful feast.

Something for a slow afternoon - Sloth

Tropical afternoons are a quiet time; it's hot and humid, unless it's raining, and generally the forest gets real quiet because no one is doing anything. For several days now this charming fellow has been doing just that, not much, while feasting upon the same tree, so it must be tasty, and because the tree isn't very big, sloth viewing has been pretty good. This is a three-toed sloth, and this locale also has the two-toed sloth, which we have also seen, but it wasn't so photogenic. This fellow looks a bit bedraggled because there had been a drenching rain all the night before. But as you can see he still looks pretty happy. Later this sloth was observed running up to the next branch, hand,...............over hand, ............over hand, .................just like that. Almost a blur of activity.  Next day, still there.

Damn big bromeliad

Bromeliads are members of the pineapple family; here in the tropics many are epiphytes, others are terrestrial. This particular bromeliad (Aechmea magdalenae) is one of the larger terrestrial ones. It has no discernable stem but the leaves can be 2 m tall. Many whorls of such leaves form dense patches, probably a clone, and with the sharp spiny margins on their leaves they make nearly impenetrable thickets. TPP has been walking by this one big patch for years never noticing anything special, but this time there was an inflorescence that couldn't be missed because it was as big as your head and bright red. Amazing since nothing in that patch had ever been seen to flower before. TPP seems to remember someone saying that this bromeliad was used for fiber which would be no surprise because many monocot leaves produce long parallel structural fibers (vascular bundles like Manila hemp from Musa textilis). So this plant could have been moved around with people quite a bit so no idea how "native" this plant is.

Leafy passion for phony eggs

One of the best things about rain forest when you're teaching or studying rainforest is the myriad of interactions among organisms. You just see them everywhere. The leaf above is from a vine found growing on top of a clump of Heliconia near our cabina. It's a passion vine, Passiflora biflora. Notice the 8 conspicuous fake eggs on the leaf. Butterflies that specialize on Passiflora vines for their larvae to feed on see these fake eggs and decide not to add another egg to a leaf where other larvae will be feeding first.  But these fake eggs are also nectaries on the back side, glands that secrete nectar and attract ants that will defend their nectar source thus providing another protection from herbivory. Indeed the back side of this leaf had several ants on board.  Note that the top of the 2-lobed leaf is oriented upside down in this image with the apex, a tiny tip pointing down

Rainy day thoughts

This is a rainy day blog. The day started out very early when a bat needed to be chased from out room. A few hours later the day dawned all blue, clear, and beautiful. If it stayed that way the afternoon would be hot and humid. But some overcast moved in gradually, so the day stayed relatively cool, and just as gradually the rain began, first just a mist, then a light sprinkle, then a drizzle, then it rained. It's the kind of rain that gets you wet when you're out in the rain forest even when you have boots and an umbrella. At least it isn't cold rain. Since the front stretches south of Puerto Limon, so it'll rain most of the afternoon.
The big find of the morning was a fishtail palm that had had its frond's secondary veins nipped to form a tent for bats, fuzzy white ewok sort of bats (but Honduran? Sure. Not.). Couldn't get a picture because the tent was low to the ground and back lit, and only later did someone think maybe an iphone set on selfie mode might have done the trick where fancy flash & lens had failed. These are really, really hard to find in the wild. You learn to look for the leaf tents among palms and heliconia. These were most certainly not the bats interrupting the Phactors' sleep.
None of us are cooking our Thanksgiving dinner so no preparations to make. Our modest contribution are 6 cans of cranberry jellied cranberry sauce, with and without whole berries. Since the cran(e)berry is one of the few native North American fruits to be domesticated, it isn't well known or easy to find down here in Costa Rica. The Ticos always regard the cranberry jelly with suspicion, and they like such things sweeter anyways. This dinner is done especially for us gringos, and having been here for this dinner many times, it's most appreciated. The Germans don't get cranberries either, or Turkey for that matter? (Why a European bird for your American holiday feast? Turkey is a native of North America. So why the name turkey? European taxonomists were a bit mixed up about where this bird was from.)
It's fun to not be barraged by the horrible, negative news cycle in the USA, but then you start feeling guilty about not really giving a crap. You do really, but the break is such a relief. Costa Ricans have already asked if we would really even ever consider making Trump president showing that their contact with our fellow citizens is quite biased by mostly knowing the scientific types. This makes TPP think about immigrants and the immigration problem. The thing people in the USA don't understand is that Costa Ricans don't want to move to the USA, while most conservatives think that immigration to the USA is what ALL people want. If you want to fix the immigrant problem, the USA should do things that make people's lives better where they actually want to live and do live. Bullets and bombs don't do that. Think about it; Costa Rica doesn't have an army! How do you think they have the money to afford universal health care and free higher education? 
Just to show you the deprivation TPP endures in the field, here's the view from a coffee drinking perch during the rain.

Ants! Equals Tropics! Aargh!

One of the more distinctive and typical features of the tropics is the inordinate prevalence of ants. This comes to mind because one little fellow just a few seconds ago, a critter only 2 mm long, just crawled out of my laptop's keyboard and stung TPP! What sheer affrontry! No where else are there so many ants, both in terms of numbers and diversity as in the tropics. At our location there are hundreds of species of ants (a colleague says over 500), mostly harmless, and a few real nasty critters, like the inch long black "bullet" ants, to some miniscule ants way less than a mm long that were found in a flower. It's pretty amazing that a 2 mm long insect can sting an organism several orders of magnitude its size, and while not debilitating it still hurt and you don't want the number a swarm of ants can deliver. But what the heck was it (TPP tends to think of an ant colony as a super-organism) doing? The answer is simple: foraging. Your first thought upon finding ants like this is to find the attractant and get rid of it ASAP. Several potential attractants were sharing the table in our cabina, some cookies, some lemon & salt plantain chips (wonderful! try them!), but not much else, and having had experience with ants in several tropical locales, all these goodies were safely being stored inside zip lock bags, a field work necessity for many reasons including excluding ants. But these bloody little ants were everywhere and they seemed centered on my laptop, and then the reason was found, a scent line had been laid along the charging cord! Not that they found anything making this foraging worthwhile, so eventually they would have left, but not before being very annoying. So first you clean off the cord, and then the floor around the cord, and then you shake out your laptop and clean under it, and of course they are coming from under the baseboard, and then you clean off the table and wipe everything down. TPP only got stung another 10 times or so in the process, and a few lingering trouble makers may get him some more. Hmm, forgot about the 3 or 4 stings to the toes. Ouch! Earlier today, a foraging trail of army ants wasn't noticed until quite a few were on TPP's boots. This particular column was raiding a wasp nest, and the wasps were swarming about helplessly while the army ants cleaned out their nest: eggs, larvae, young, trapped adults. Army ants can bite pretty hard, not scary hard, but they make up for that in sheer numbers and the speed of their over whelming attack. So best to watch out. It wouldn't be a tropical field trip unless something like this happened. This is where it would be great to have a graphic of an ant crawl up your screen.

Read this sign? Risk your life?

Every now and again you see a sign that just makes you wonder. TPP ran in to this one yesterday while on a trail through the rainforest. Now think about it. How long would you have stood at that location, positioning your body where the X was on the path, if you hadn't stopped to read that sign?  Made you wonder if you had missed a sign some steps back that said, "Don't stop to read the next sign." While still musing about the sign, some meters along the path, a huge limb up in the canopy let lose and crashed to the forest floor some 15 meters to TTP's left. Where was that sign? Made you wonder if some group of people just regularly came to that spot for their morning coffee to stand around thereby needlessly endangering their lives. And of course, as an alternative to the sign, there is the very practical response of cutting the bloody tree down if it was too threatening in that location!  Probably took a committee to decide. Reminded TPP of the time he found a "Danger: falling rocks" sign smashed under a boulder. 

Seeing red in the rainforest

Bright red and orange colors dot the rainforest here and there for the purpose of calling attention to an organism or a part of an organism for a number of reasons. Since such signals are readily noticed by humans, with the exception of red-green color blind people like my old friend and colleague, Dr. What-red-flower, they get a lot of attention. This time of year in Costa Rica many people will call attention to the vivid bright orange floral display of the llame del bosque, the flame of the forest, but mostly they are referring to Spathodea campanulata, a member of the Bignoniaceae with big displays of orange flowers.  But this plant is a native of Africa escaped from cultivation here in Costa Rica, but this doesn't seem to be noticed by many people who should know better. The native Costa Rican plant known as flame of the forest is a Rubiad (coffee family) with the name Warszewiczia coccinea that TPP has featured before. This was an exmple of the infuriating nature of common names.
Now of course these plants are using color to attract in this case pollinators. But bright red colors can also deliver other messages like notice me but leave me alone. The following image is a common sight, a bright red spot in the dense understory. A tiny frog whose color and voice call attention to itself, which you might think could put a male seeking a mate in danger, especially when so readily seen and bite sized. These frogs are way less than an inch long. However this is Dendrobates pumilio, the strawberry or blue-jeans frog, a poison arrow frog who benefits from gaudiness by reminding potential predators how nasty is was to have tried to eat one of these little morsels. Biologists call this aposomatic coloring. Sorry about the bright eyes, a bit of flash reflection. A young lady on the field trip is using 3D printed little frogs and a recording of their call to study what the ladies prefer. Hmm, have any of these frogs moved? It's not nice to fool TPP!  Nah, they're real.

On the trail again

The search for research specimens is at times quite arduous. So TPP and his long time friend & collaborator were on the trail looking for a tree that never flowers, in our experience, at least at this time of year, but probably because we desire it to flower so much, but somehow manages to reproduce anyways. Actually, it has flowered once in the last 8 trips. Well, here's what it looks like on one of the main trails through the forest. TPP stopped to take a picture while his colleague hiked on ahead.  You can see how the shallow tree roots form regular, or is it irregular, obstacles to hinder your progress. Add to this the slipperiness of tropical lateritic clay and you have quite some fun getting around, which only adds to the joy of not finding any flowers on your trees. This also shows you how far you have to go, which is not very far, to disappear from view even when the location is generally devoid of vegetation. Oh, and that's a six and a half foot guy who's almost out of sight. The great thing is that you see so many things along the way. Soon TPP will post a nice vista rainforest view that is very uncommon because generally you can't see very far.