Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Patterns of Time Budgeting in Jessica stitt as a Function of Work Load and Environmental Stimuli


This update was meant to serve as a brief link to fill in the gaps between the visit to the mangroves and the start of San Jose … but it looks to be just about as long as usual; ¡Pura Vida! Plus – lucky you – I am in a paper-writing mindset, so I have organized this post just as I would a research paper! Needless to say, it has been a whirlwind of a week, and my brain is a little fried. Everything is a little hazy but the underlying structure of the week consisted of two days given to us to study for our midterms, a third day set aside for taking the midterms, then two more days allotted for rewriting our scientific papers. On the morning of the sixth day we packed up and headed to San Jose.


Now, that all sounds pretty bland and boring. But it turns out that if you give Jess a total of four days to “study” or “rewrite,” she will inevitably procrastinate and find better things to do with her newly-created free time. So while some of my classmates were stressing over learning ecological terms or trying to find more sources to cite in their papers (Stitt 2009), I was out exploring … or napping in the hammock. Below are some examples of how I spent my time:

Crocodile hunting

This activity requires nightfall, marshland, a headlamp, bare feet, crocodiles, and the ability to disregard that voice in your head which tells you not to do stupid things. You slowly wade into the marsh, sweeping your headlamp back and forth, looking for the eyeshine (reflection from the eyes) of a crocodile half-submerged in the water. It is important to keep quiet. This is often hard to do because the marsh is very windy, knocking you off balance, and you sink up to your calves in the mud, which makes loud squelching sounds. When you locate a pair of eyes, you must keep the light trained on them, so as to keep the animal blinded to your whereabouts. If you manage to get close enough without the scaring the croc away, you plunge your hand down around the snout – keeping its mouth closed as you bring your other hand around its belly. Then you bring the animal out of the water and hold it against your belly to keep it from thrashing. When you’ve had your fun, you release the croc back into the marsh, making sure to orient it away from you. It was just as hard as I imagined to willingly thrust my hand towards a mouth full of tiny razor-sharp teeth. Yet even with my adrenaline pumping and my bladder threatening to empty itself, I managed to catch a caiman about 3ft long, from snout to tail, and emerge (nearly) unscathed. I discovered that the teeth really are razor-sharp! Thank goodness they were tiny.


During our orientation walk at Palo Verde three weeks ago, we passed some lovely boulder fields, and I promised myself I would return to play around on the pretty rocks. As the weeks passed away, I began to get frantic, because I had not found free time in which to go bouldering! Thank goodness for study time. On two separate occasions I found my way into the forest to climb around on the very sharp limestone boulders that were scattered about. The second time I went with two of the guys here, Gabe and Allan, who were also interested! The rocks were a bit chossy, but there were tons of bomber holds and a few nice overhanging roofs, complete with solid huecos … yay climbing jargon! However, the limiting agent was to be the two species of cacti (Family Cactacea) that inhabited these rocks: Stenocereus aragonii and Acanthocereus tetragonus. Days later I was still pulling their mini spines out of my legs and fingers. (Side note: on the trip with Gabe and Allan, we found a really cool carpenter bee that was half black, half yellow; we showed our professor – who is an entomologist – and he had no idea what was up. So it has been put in a jar and taken to Universidad de Costa Rica, where they can hopefully shed some light on the insect’s strange morphology … how bee-zarre!)

Sunrise hike

On one of our last mornings at Palo Verde, a group of us woke up pre-dawn to hike up to a point called La Roca and watch the sun rise. I needed a little help stirring from my sleep, but once I was awake, the three of us (Erin, Gabe, and I) set off on our trek up to La Roca around 4:45am. La Roca is one of the best vantage points in Palo Verde: it is an exposed rockface that overlooks the marsh and the surrounding valley. From time to time, a black vulture would glide by, riding the thermals up past our lookout point. We arrived at La Roca in time to see not only the sun rise but the moon set. It appeared to be a full moon and looked huge as it disappeared behind the mountains. The sunrise was slightly delayed because a cloudbank prevented Mr. Sun from making his way into full view until about 6am. Nevertheless, it was beautiful, as most sunrises are. We also caught another sunrise on our last morning at Palo Verde – but this time we watched it from the tower on the marsh (meaning 5:30am wake up instead of 4:30am). Also beautiful. And both days we were the first students at breakfast. Wepa!

Following monkeys

On one of the days allotted for paper writing, I found myself napping in the hammock one afternoon, after reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for a while. When I woke up around 3pm, I noticed a group of howler monkeys dozing in a nearby tree. Great minds think alike, as they say. I got up from the hammock and went to go get ready for a brief solo hike in the woods. I grabbed my camera and went in search of a trail that supposedly originated near the dining hall. On my way, I saw the same group of howlers! They took had risen from their afternoon naps, and were on the move. When I eventually found the trail I was looking for, I looked up to see the howlers again. We seemed to be heading towards the same area – this trail must have tasty leaves. I watched the troop try to solve the problem of getting from one branch to another, and recognized the same actions as can be seen by a group of people trying to get up a rock climbing route. One would try to get across, get nervous, and step back while another gave it a go. Once one monkey figured out a good way across, the rest would follow the same path. I was able to get some nice pictures of the mantled monkeys moving from tree to tree before our paths diverged and I continued my hike up to a very nice lookout point (complete with some good boulders). On my way down, I came across a group of white-faced capuchins nimbly making their way through the branches. Any day is made better when monkeys are added to it.


By the time we were getting on to the bus on the last day at Palo Verde, I was fully content that I had gotten the most out of the trip that I could. I remembered that I had some regrets as we were leaving Las Cruces (the first site we visited), so I invested the energy at Palo Verde to ensure I did not leave with the same sentiments (there is still a large strangler fig at Las Cruces I am determined to climb at some point in the future, as well as a nice riverside lunch I have yet to have there). Getting the most out of my time at Palo Verde was painful at times – waking up at 4:30am, getting sliced by crocodile teeth – but I am glad to report that I have no regrets.


Now this is not to say I did not prepare for my tests or do a good job editing my paper; those activities define the study portion of study abroad, and are essential to my education and the active learning process I love so much. However, I feel it would be a tragic mistake to neglect the abroad portion of study abroad too. Why read over notes in an air-conditioned classroom when there is a perfectly good tree to sit under? From which you can watch scarlet macaws fly by at 3pm, or see a troop of capuchin monkeys swing through at 4pm? I cannot be assured I will ever get free reign over a national park in Costa Rica again to spend unencumbered time walking the trails and snapping photos of anything that moves.


Yes, I realize that I am a biology nerd. And that I enjoy the structure of scientific papers just a little too much. Thanks for reading!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Manglares Y El Mar

After finishing my first Costa Rican research paper – a nice ten-page essay all about the extrafloral nectaries of morning glories – I hopped onto the bus for yet another Costa Rican adventure.  Seemingly as a reward for completing the first draft of our papers, we were taken to a mangrove forest on the coast of Puntas Arenas the following day.  Mangroves are plants adapted to live in areas of high salinity, meaning they are only found near the ocean, often juxtaposed by sandy white beaches.  The place we visited was no exception. 

However, our first stop was an inland mangrove that only floods during the rainy season.  There were two species of mangroves here: white mangrove and red mangrove.  The white mangrove deals with salinity by excreting the salt from glands on its leaves.  This leaves a coating of crystallized salt on the surface of the leaf – and it tastes extremely salty!  This species also has roots called pneumatophores that look like little pencils sticking up from the ground everywhere.  The red mangrove is even cooler in my opinion.  It uses lenticels (openings) on its roots to filter salt out of the water and so must expose its roots to the air.  Since the tide often inundates these trees in the rainy season, the roots must be high enough out of the mud to be able to breathe at some point every day.  This means that in the dry season, when the mud is exposed, these rhizophorous roots can be up to fifteen feet off the ground!  They are often in a big tangle and, since the species is a hardwood, the roots are very strong. 

The main reason that I am spitting out all of this natural history is to illustrate that these mangroves create the perfect treeclimbing environment!  In the dense thicket of trees you can easily move between multiple trees while remaining off the ground completely …  natural ladders are also abundant, lending themselves to exploration and copious amounts of swinging.  Needless to say I have discovered a profound liking of mangroves.

When we had all had our fill of monkeying around in the mangroves, we were taken to yet another biological station.  This one was quite small and we were only staying the night, but we made the most of our time in such a mesmerizing place as the mangrove beaches proved to be!

About 500m from the station there was a very nice white beach that opened onto a sheltered cove with waters of a brilliant aquamarine.  As this was our first real chance to swim and our first interaction with the ocean thus far on the course, many of us threw on our bathing suits and booked it to the water’s edge for the remaining hours of daylight we had that first day.  Seeing the ocean for the first time in a little over 6 months, I immediately jumped in.  A frisbee was pulled out and a game of 500 commenced in the surf, complete with many unnecessary layouts and tackles.  Once satisfactorily exhausted and salty, we watched a painfully beautiful sunset over the cove before heading back to the station for dinner. Rice and beans are still going strong.  After dinner I returned to the beach with a few friends and refreshments to enjoy stargazing and watching the tide come in.

The next day we visited some more mangroves along the beach and spent some more time playing in the surf.  It was definitely a great break from collecting data and writing our research papers.  I knew that once we returned to Palo Verde that afternoon, the following week would be consumed by studying for midterms and working on final drafts of the research papers.

But before leaving the beach, we were able to do a bit more exploring in the waters just behind the station, where a boat launch leads out into a swathe of ocean bordered by a vast spread of mangrove forests.  There were several small dinghies anchored around the boat launch, and about 10m out there was a larger, wooden vessel.  The clan of guys on the course who call themselves “the BioPirates” decided that this would be the perfect craft to commandeer as their pirate ship.  They swam out to the boat and, naturally, I joined them. 

The vessel was really only half a ship capsized, and with its portside mostly absent.  It was encrusted in barnacles and ridden with broken planks of splintering wood, as well as ropes covered in a thick green layer of slime.  After deciding that it really only needed a paint job and a few touch-ups, we climbed aboard (this was harder than anticipated since the boat was leaning at a 45-degree angle).  All five of us ended up bleeding by the time we gained stable footing on the boat…the barnacles and broken planks proved to be very sharp!  So the color of choice for the paint job was chosen to be blood red, since we already had a head start.  With a bandana flag raised at the helm and the mission hailed as a success, we descended the ropes back into the salty water and went ashore to grab some grub.

Our afternoon was spent traveling … through the Nicoya Peninsula and through time.  On our way back to Palo Verde, we stopped at the Megafauna Park alongside the road.  This is a set of trails complete with life-size statues of many of the large animals that used to roam Costa Rica’s lands. Giant sloths, massive armadillos, and the famed gomphotheres were all on display – in addition to the towering tyrannosaurus rex that greets you at the entrance.  Oddly enough, we spotted a ctenosaur (big iguana) sitting in the jaws of the T-Rex.  I felt that this display aptly captured the living ctenosaur’s triumph over the extinct tyrannosaur.

I am now back at Palo Verde, mentally preparing for the onslaught of the coming week.  Only seven malaria pills left… that’s less than seven weeks left in the jungle!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Stomp in the Swamp

As my friend Erin pointed out to me yesterday: "Jess [pronounced 'yes' in Spanish], you can remember new flavors you've tasted, but not whether someone owes you money?"  It is true, so if any of you owe me money out there, consider yourself lucky, because I don't recall any of these debts.  But I think it's a pretty good insight into my character; I definitely value experience way more than I value monetary sums.  If I was faced with the choice between one million dollars or a trip to Indonesia (orangutans included of course), I would easily pick Indonesia...or I'd use the million dollars to fund my trip to Indonesia.

Anyway, I've picked up and moved again in Costa Rica, and am currently in the NW part of the country at a national park called Palo Verde. It is a marsh, meaning lots of water, mud, and bugs.  It's the dry season, so the mosquitoes are next to nothing - supposedly in the wet season, you walk through an area and the ground slowly rises with the small humming bloodsuckers...they would eat me alive, since I am deemed "sweet meat."  I count my blessings that we're here in the dry season. But the rest of the bugs are crazy: giant praying mantises that follow you with their creepy eyes, cockroaches the size of my hand, and big kamikaze katydids by the dozen. 

There is also a bug here we were warned about called the Assassin Bug: it creeps onto you while you are sleeping and sucks your blood, using an anticoagulant.  This is all fine and dandy, except the bug often defecates right after its meal, close to the open wound.  In your unconscious state, you feel a tickle of the blood on your skin, and try to wipe it off; this mixes the bug poop with your blood and goes back into your bloodstream.  This all would be just a mild nasty story, except that the Assassin bug is a carrier of Chagas disease, which weakens your heart over time and eventually causes it to fail.  That makes it a scary nasty story.  I am glad we have bug nets for our beds here. They also keeps out the scorpions.

The average daily temp here is 90F, often making it too hot to nap in the afternoon - if any part of your body contacts another, you begin sweating profusely.  Yet it's a worthwhile tradeoff for the beauty of this place...

Like most bodies of freshwater, the marsh draws all sorts of higher-level organisms, including lots of bird species like egrets, storks, roseate spoonbills, and huge waders called jabirus.  There are also crocodiles and caimans in the marsh, adding a dash of danger to any walk in the muddy waters.  On land, there are two species of monkeys: mantled howler monkeys and white-faced capuchins.  We get to see both fairly often which is awesome.  At around 530 every morning, the howlers let out a disconcerting gutteral roar that shakes you the first time you hear it. Wild. 

The other cool land animals I've gotten to see include coatimundis, which are like large raccoons with super long tails, tamanduas, which are big slow anteaters, collared peccary, which are little pigs, and - best of all - the ctenosaurs (pronounced teen-o-sawrs), which are big iguanas that lay around all day and strangely remind me of Reptar.  There is also a pair of scarlet macaws that fly overhead almost daily, and it still amazes me.

But my semester here is not all fun all the time; we still have a fair bit of work assigned to us.  In our first week we were involved in faculty-led projects that took us out into the field at 5am, and then for my independent project I found myself getting up at 430am for a week straight.  To study flowers. But doing hands-on research has been cool, since I love being in the field collecting data.  One of the faculty-led projects was studying howler monkey time budgeting, so we got to follow a troop of howler monkeys for 6 hours and record whether they were eating, sleeping, or pooping.  Not the most exciting work, but it was an excuse to tromp through the woods following monkeys.  The next project also involved hours of observation, except it was spent watching plants instead of animals.  Not as exciting.  In fact a little mind-numbing. 

The independent project was more in depth and involved collecting nectar from morning glory buds at dawn, then measuring the volume and concentration.  Suffice it to say the project was looking at plant behavior - a very interesting concept, given most people only attribute behavior to animals.  The idea that plants can react and actually interact is a relatively new field...and it reminds me a little of the talking trees in Lord of the Rings.

But once all the data was collected, the research paper needed to be written...all 10 pages of it.  Fortunately, I've gotten a lot of practice with such things, especially during my time in Kenya!  Next up, a visit to the mangroves, followed by exam week.  

Learn Spanish!
  • marsh: humidales
  • monkey: mono
  • flavor: sabor
  • high five: alto cinco
  • awesome: wepa!!
Also, my photo library is being moody, so my posts may not contain pictures again until I reach San Jose.  Use your imagination!


When I was a kid, I had this picture in my mind of what "my future self" would look like, all grown up.  The image was basically Jane Goodall, wearing field clothes and sitting in a jungle with a notebook, staring up into the canopy.  As I was crouched beside a watering hole the other day, watching a troop of howler monkeys foraging overhead, I realized that I had become my future self. The thought caught me by surprise, and for a split second I was looking at myself from outside my body - which was kind of strange but cool.

It brought my thoughts to the fact that many of my friends are still struggling to figure out what they want to do, while I have known what I wanted since I was eight.  I have learned that this makes people jealous, and apparently gives me a great advantage, in the sense that I have security in my identity that lots of college students lack.  I have tried to imagine what it would be like to not have a clue as to what direction I wanted to take my life, and it seems terrifying.

Even with the knowledge and sense of security that has come from pursuing my chosen career for over a decade now, I am still far from being at ease.  Every question I have ever asked has only brought up additional questions, so that now I have accumulated more than I could ever hope to answer.  But as I walked down the dirt road back towards camp after my realization - with my dusty baseball cap and sunglasses perched on my head, my hair in a bun, a camera bag slung over my shoulder, and wearing my white button-up shirt, rolled-up field pants, and tattered sneakers - I couldn't help but smile at the fact that I was pleased with who I am - and ecstatic to be where I was.  It feels nice once in a while to be reassured that the thing you've been trying so hard to attain for so long is still the thing you want to attain.