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Test 1-2-3 July 19, 2014

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anything but that.

Bargaining for rain July 10, 2014

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June 22, 2014


Every four or five days we go without rain, I try to bargain for it. Like any good superstition, there is a ritual to this. I hunt up the graduate student/naturalist and complain that I need rain for my plants and caterpillars. She has a vested interest in it not raining yet, since she’s catching crocodiles in a few water-filled lagoons that will disappear when the marsh fills completely. So she argues that the marsh can’t fill yet and I argue that the plants need rain, and we eventually agree that a few hours of rain each day would suit both of us. At this point, she gestures grandly to the sky and commands the weather gods to let it rain. Unfortunately, they don’t listen to her any more than they do me.

Sacrificing to the field gods seems to be working better. In my lab, we say that anything we lose in the forest—a Sharpie, a roll of flagging tape, a GPS, a wallet—is a sacrifice to the field gods for success in our endeavors. When I told the graduate student that maybe I should trying losing something, she told me not to lose my field assistant. I agreed that that would be very bad (also difficult, since we go in opposite directions), and that losing my GPS would be too much, but that maybe a Sharpie or something would do.

Yesterday, we lost the station’s GPS, although not in the forest. A course staying here used it, but packed it up instead of the course’s GPS. This was the best possible way to lose something—they left their GPS here and made arrangements to send the station’s back once they reached their next Organization for Tropical Studies field station. And this morning after they left, it rained.

Postscript: We had rain each day for five days, but none after that. The truly superstitious might tie this to the return of the station’s GPS.


Surprises July 6, 2014

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Almost all of the day-trip visitors who come here are surprised for a variety of reasons, most of them unpleasant. Surprise #1: You need to reserve a boat ride on the river in advance. I’m not sure how so many people know about this boat ride and don’t know that you need reservations, but there it is. Surprise #2: The same goes for meals. If there’s a big group already here, it’s easy to feed an extra person or two, but when it’s just us, there’s only just enough food for us. These are the standard surprises. There are also special ones, like the frog in the toilet.


A few days ago a family of four arrived in the middle of lunch and discovered Surprise #2. Before they headed back to town and food, the mother went to use the restroom. When she came back, she announced with mild horror that “there was a huge frog in the toilet!” If she had spoken with amusement or enthusiasm, I would have responded in kind, since it was a first for me too. Frogs in sinks and showers, yes; frogs actually in the toilet, no.


Instead, I said “I’m not surprised,” as blandly as I could. (And I wasn’t, particularly, given the sinks and showers.) Surprise #3 is, broadly speaking, this: “Nature” doesn’t stay politely outside at Palo Verde. In fact, with the exception of a few airtight, climate-controlled spaces, “nature” doesn’t recognize much of a difference between “outside” and “inside” at all. People who don’t accept this have a very uncomfortable time here. And because they tend to be vocal in their discomfort, I tend to want them to leave as quickly as possible.


So I act as if relatively unusual visitors like frogs in toilets or army ants are daily guests whenever horrified people are about. “I’m not surprised” was a much tamer reply than I could have given. Some that occurred to me before I restrained myself:

“That’s why there are two stalls—in case one is occupied.”

“Oh, that’s our pet frog Roberta. Don’t worry, we’ve trained her to jump on the handle when she’s finished.”

or even:

“You think that’s a surprise? One time there was a baby crocodile in there.”


It would be pretty easy to make the last one true, since the graduate student/naturalist is rearing a bunch of hatchlings in the lab. Sure, someone would need to put the crocodile in.   But once there’s been a crocodile in the toilet, saying  there had been a crocodile in the toilet wouldn’t be a lie.  That I find this tempting means I need a few days without surprised visitors.

A message from the subjective future July 3, 2014

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July 3, 2014


After Costa Rica beat Greece on Sunday, I decided that I probably should say something about the World Cup, and that I should probably post it now, instead of in two or three weeks.

Five-second recap: Costa Rica has made it into the quarter-finals of the World Cup (= soccer), which is in Rio de Janerio this year. I mention this for any of you who live under a rock when it comes to sports. I generally live there too, but Costa Rica making it to the quarter-finals is a big deal, so it’s even made an impression on me.

Although it’s a big deal, there hasn’t been a lot of fuss about it here. People are watching the games, or listening to them on the radio, but there isn’t much celebration or discussion after the fact. I think that’s mostly due to how few people are at the station at any given time—there are usually fewer than eight of us. And people who sign up to work two-week stints at field stations with seven other people are usually pretty quiet.

We’ve had several biology courses stay here over the last two weeks, and they’ve been the most vocally and visibly invested. Watching the Costa Rican and United States matches was nearly mandatory, one course brought a large Costa Rican flag along, and students and faculty alike have congratulated staff members on the team’s wins. (I don’t understand the logic of the last, which is one reason why I like living under that rock.) One of the students was arguing that if Costa Rica made it to the finals (unlikely), they should drop whatever they were doing and go back to San José, while others speculated on the riots that might ensue from a Costa Rica vs. US semi-finals or finals match (very unlikely at the time, and impossible now). All of which made me appreciate the advantages of sticking out the World Cup someplace with only seven other people.


Hoping for rain June 30, 2014

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June 13, 2014


When you’re hoping for rain, every change, no matter how momentary, becomes a sign. That the day is still or windy, sunny or cloudy, thick with mosquitoes or not, all these things, singly and together, become possible signs that rain is coming. This morning dawned not just cloudy, but misty, and I hoped that that might mean that it would rain. It did, but only just enough to wet the dirt.

It hasn’t rained for the last two weeks, and it’s starting to show. I didn’t notice at first, because everything is still almost overwhelmingly green, but once you start to see it, you can’t help but constantly notice it. It’s easiest to see along the sides of the east-west dirt road that is my collecting route through the forest.

PV14 06-14-14 (9599)


The same plant species grow on both sides of the road, but it’s difficult to tell, because all the plants on the left side are wilted from too much sun and too little water.

Something about tropical weather, or maybe being marooned at Palo Verde, makes everyone exceptionally passive about the weather. Despite the fact that I’m eagerly awaiting the rain, it only just occurred to me that I could look at a weather forecast. So I put Bagaces (the nearest town as the car drives) into The Weather Channel website. It predicts a few more days with little chance of rain, but very good chances at the end of the 10-day forecast. Here’s hoping.


Postscript: There was no rain within that 10 day period. I didn’t keep checking the forecast, so I’m not sure if it changed, or if Bagaces, which is a ridge and 30 km north of us, got rain but we didn’t. I guess I could check the observed weather on The Weather Channel website, but what’s the point?

Call for (audio)book recommendations June 25, 2014

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Counterintuitively, my “field season” routine  involves spending 1-3 hours a day in the field collecting caterpillars and 8-10 hours in the lab taking care of them and collecting data.  Most of that time in the lab is spent on tasks monotonous enough that music only keeps my attention for a few hours at a time.  But too much of my attention is required to listen to something requiring responses (like Spanish lessons).  Thanks to my public libraries, I can borrow audiobooks online, so that’s what I started doing midway through last field season.  Killing two mosquitos with one swat, I did my work and also made it through Moby DickThinking Fast and Slow, and Volume I of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative , as well as quite a few other books of various lengths.

Since I’ve just finished Volumes II and III of The Civil War, I’m looking for recommendations.  Someone’s already suggested I listen to Game of Thrones, but other recommendations, fiction and nonfiction alike, would be greatly appreciated.  Just leave a comment or send me an email.

Guy talk June 25, 2014

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June 6, 2014


Another US graduate student is staying here for a week, and he also has very limited Spanish. At lunch today, he had a conversation with one of the station workers who speaks very little English. He was explaining to the grad student (in Spanish) that he was a grandfather four times over. The student responded in Spanish with double entendres about what he (the student) had been doing, or would like to do, with the man’s daughters. Why this was a bonding experience instead of incredibly offensive I don’t know (maybe he only has sons), but they both seemed quite happy with their mutual heterosexual badassness.

Although when the student tried to call someone a “badass” in Spanish, the guy in question looked horrified and pointed, a bit frantically, at one then another of the women sitting next to him. I suspect that “You are a badass” came out as “You have a bad ass”, but I can’t be certain. I hope so.

“I’m a snake! I’m a snake!” June 23, 2014

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One thing that many humans, including biologists, find fascinating about caterpillars is how many of them look like other organisms or objects. There are caterpillars that people think look like sticks, leaves, flowers, bird droppings, moss, and snakes. Of course, humans are also the animals that invented Rorschach tests, so it’s an open question whether these caterpillars also fool animals with less imagination or less reliance on color vision.

Consider some caterpillars that have “eyes” and “faces” and might be trying to pass as some sort of snake:

Caterpillar "faces" from Janzen, D. H., W. Hallwachs, and J. M. Burns. 2010. A tropical horde of counterfeit predator eyes. PNAS 107:11659-11665.

Caterpillar “faces” from Janzen, D. H., W. Hallwachs, and J. M. Burns. 2010. A tropical horde of counterfeit predator eyes. PNAS 107:11659-11665.

I find some of these caterpillars more convincing than others, although the authors argue that a caterpillar-hunting bird that sees the “eyes” of something that might be a predator and sticks around to figure out if it really is a predator is probably not going to survive. After all, the bird only has to be wrong once.

But there are some caterpillars that are fairly convincing snakes. (Or snake heads—caterpillars just aren’t long enough to be whole snakes.) This is one of them, although as far as I’m aware, it doesn’t look like a particular snake:

Papilio astyalus pallas (Papillionidae -- the swallowtail butterfly family)

Papilio astyalus pallas (Papillionidae — the swallowtail butterfly family)


One reason it’s so convincing is because whenever someone bothers it, it does this:

PV14 06-05-14 NIKON (267) - CROP



All that’s missing is a hiss.

Hand wash only June 19, 2014

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June 4, 2014


Due to the limited amount of water available at the station, no short-term visitors are allowed to launder their clothes on-site. This policy has to be relaxed for long-term researchers. Last year, whether because of more water, inadequate supervision, or sympathy for the first-timer, I had free access to the laundry room, which I happily made use of every 10 days or so.


This time, when I asked about the key to the laundry room, I was told that I could arrange to get my clothes laundered, for the princely price of $7 a load. I’m not sure whether that price reflects water scarcity, labor scarcity, their monopoly, or some combination of the three. I decided that machine washing could wait until the situation was more desperate—after I’d been here a month, say. In the meantime, I’d wash my clothes in the laundry sinks outside the laundry room.


Here’s how you hand wash clothes at Palo Verde:

1. Rinse any dirt out of the sink. (They wash the bags they use to handle small crocodiles in these sinks. Those bags get very muddy.)

2. Plug up the sink with a sock.

3. Fill up the sink with water and clothes, until there is one layer of clothing covered by water. If the water isn’t looking nicely murky by this point, you’re washing your clothes too soon.

4. Mix some soap and water together in a bucket. If you didn’t bring bar soap (I didn’t, because the showers all have soap dispensers), “borrow” some detergent from the laundry room.

5. Add the soapy water to the clothes and mix well. Let sit approximately 30 minutes.

6. Squish and scrub the clothes. For especially stubborn stains, use the scrub brush. It probably won’t get them out, but at least you can say you tried.

7. Remove the sock-plug and let the sink drain. Rinse each article of clothing until the water you squeeze out doesn’t look milky and you hands don’t feel slippery or burn. Then rinse one more time, because soap plus sweat does not equal fun.

8. Wring out everything as much as possible. Then wring it all out one more time. These are khaki pants, cotton shirts, and wool socks. They hold a lot of water.

9. Hang the clothes on the covered laundry lines. Allow between six and twenty-four hours for drying. (Afternoons are generally overcast, if not actively rainy, so most of the drying happens during the sunny mornings.)


What I find amazing about all this is that it actually works—even if it doesn’t get the stains out, it removes enough sweat and dirt that the clothes feel clean when you put them on again. At least until you start decorating them with mud, mosquito guts, and caterpillar frass again.

Assistance June 15, 2014

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On May 29th, my field assistant arrived at Palo Verde. I met her when she was working here last year for the station director, and I knew we had two things in common. Neither one of us is Costa Rican (she’s Nicaraguan) and neither one of us is anywhere near bilingual.


These two facts create a few logistical problems. The simplest way for a biologist to enter Costa Rica is on a tourist visa. For US citizens, that lasts 90 days, but for Nicaraguans, it’s only 30 days. So she will stay here for 30 days, leave the country for two or three days, and then come back to work with me for another month. This is definitely harder on her—taking two eight or nine hour bus rides to get back to where you needed be in the first place is no fun. But while she’s gone, I’ll have to do both our work.


Next, the language barrier. This has been ably addressed by the bilingual graduate student/station naturalist and by Google Translate. Both of us have improved our language skills a bit already, but when there’s so little shared language, that’s much easier to do when there is an unambiguous reference (e.g., a numerical display). So both of us know our numbers very well now, as well as some project-specific terms, but we’re a long way from chatting.


In some ways, the difficulty with explaining how to assist me wasn’t translation, it was articulating all the procedures and systems I worked out last year. Despite what I thought, I hadn’t listed out every single one of the many, many steps to be performed once a caterpillar was found. Or mentioned that I record dates MM/DD/YY instead of the Latin American (and admittedly saner) DD/MM/YY. Or planned how to divvy up the lab work as well as the field work. Those were just some of the many details I hadn’t thought about when I said “oh, I’ll hire a field assistant for this summer”.


But after a couple of days of working together in the field and the lab, with the graduate student going with us into the field so she could figure out what she needed to explain, we were able to start working separately. We’re being extremely productive (we’re getting more than twice as much done as I did last year), and I’m glad we’ve been able to go our own ways more, especially in the field. While I consider being alone with my thoughts in the field one of the great things about field work, being alone with my thoughts and another person I’m not having a conversation with is just stressful. When you work with someone else, the conversations and companionship are usually another great thing about field work. Silence enforced by a lack of language doesn’t feel companionable, it feels pent-up.


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