A friend of KU Herpetology in the Endowment office would like to know if we have any thoughts on the identify of the snake whose shed skin was found by some kids heading into a hole near her garage. The sender notes that while the images are reasonably well-lit and in-focus compared to the photos we usually receive that the basket weave chair may have been included to challenge us. Best guess wins a point in the KU Center for Herpetological Accuracy's Annual herp identification contest.
On Thursday, July 10th, KU Herpetology curator Rich Glor hosted a field trip by undergraduate students in the Kansas State Summer REU program under the direction of Drs. Bruce Snyder and Ted Morgan. The long-running K State REU program is analagous to KU's own REU program in ecology and evolutionary biology and has seen completion of a range of interesting undergraduate projects and publications, many relating to biodiversity science. The members of the K State proved an impressive and engaged group with plenty of good questions.
Ever since Steve Goddard, KU’s Spencer Art Museum, introduced me to Sunprints during our 2011 field class at the CICRA Biological Station, I have incorporated this art/science activity with subsequent classes. Sun-printing, developed by 19th century artists, uses the sun’s UV rays to make prints of objects on photographic paper. [UC Berkeley sells convenient kits].
After a morning of tough high-elevation hiking and a rich lunch of quinoa soup, we needed a quieter diversion. My kit had 15 sheets, enough for my KU students as well as others conducting research here. Each person collected some leaves and flowers and spent a few minutes designing their layout. Then we got to “printing”, essentially exposing the plate to sun for ~4-6 mins.
The end-product is beautiful and frame-able. Indeed, some appeared in our 2012 Spencer exhibition, http://www.spencerart.ku.edu/exhibitions/39-trails.shtml. This fun art/science exercise opens various discussions, e.g., about sunlight traveling down through forest layers* and leaf morphology**. No winner of our competition was selected since we could not agree on a single most beautiful plate from so many.
– Caroline Chaboo
* John A. Endler. 1993. The Color of Light in Forests and Its Implications. Ecological Monographs Vol. 63, No. 1, pp. 1-27.
** AP Coble, MA Cavleri. 2014. Light drives vertical gradients of leaf morphology in a sugar maple (Acer saccharum) forest. Tree Physiology 02/2014; DOI:10.1093/treephys/tpt126
During our eight-day stay at the Villa Carmen Biological station, four days were a wash-out. The unusual weather, with rain there and drought here at Wayqecha, is being explained by the locals as probably due to this being an El Niño year. What is a researcher to do with time to sit around? We finally can flesh out our data (digital or notebooks), have time to explore the station’s library, or chat with other visiting researchers. Inevitably, one gets a little desperate for rain to stop falling in the rainforest. The students are glum and I am anxious.
Set-backs crop up: an important piece of equipment borrowed by another researcher is missing; humidity affects one computer; other trap batteries are not charging well on solar panels, so one student must switch project plans; a student gets a minor cut but requires stitches at the local clinic (US$3/3 stitches); and inevitably, two students get the stomach bug. Today was the last collecting day; we took down traps and I sorted the equipment to return to KS and those that will stay for next year’s fieldwork. More bad news – my export permit won’t be ready until Tuesday, after I fly out on Monday night.
Fieldwork isn’t always smooth and I have no choice but to keep calm and carry on. -Caroline Chaboo
Of course, the last day at Villa Carmen is the day the sun shines. It is supposed to be the beginning of the dry season, yet we have had rain everyday. Only two days were dry enough in the afternoons for me to enjoy a sampling period. I had one full day of sampling without rain at the beginning of our stay here, and then there’s today.
Today is packing day, but I was able to sample for a few hours this morning. I am surveying the diversity of orchid bees, Euglossini. Some species are a beautiful metallic color; others are fuzzier and yellow and black striped. This is KU’s 4th season to survey these bees in this corner of the Amazon basin*. The males collect pheromones from volatile compounds, such as eucalyptus. It’s unknown if they do this for mating behavior or another purpose. I apply various scents to cardboard squares, as baits to attract the bees. Once they are distracted by the scent and hanging out at the bait, I net them, document the bee and scent in my field notebook, and retain the tagged specimen for lab study. It is surprising how sophisticated is their eyesight. I swear they see me and hover at the bait, sometimes, staring directly at me. Today, they loved the purple verbena in the garden.
Euglossini, Orchid Bees, are known to pollinate orchids and many other plants. Around here they are also pollinators of the Brazil nut tree, an important indigenous tree. We commonly eat Brazil nuts in party nut mixes. Since there aren’t any orchid bees at Wayqecha, one begs the question, “What pollinates the amazing number of high-Andean orchids?”
In the field, you never know what environmental conditions you’re going to get. It’s one of the things I love about it and one of the things that people, who prefer to work in a lab, hate about it. -Carey Bowen
*See Niemack, R. S., D. J. Bennett, I. Hinojosa-Diaz, and C. S. Chaboo. 2012. A contribution to the knowledge of the orchid bees of the Los Amigos Biological Station, Madre de Dios, Peru (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Euglossini). Check List. 8(2):215-217.
Yesterday I learned to collect beetles with a method called beating. This involves a sheet (fabric or nylon) on a wooden or PVC frame and a stick (e.g., a broom handle) to collect insects from trees and bushes. You hold the sheet under the branches with one hand and hit the vegetation with the stick with the other hand. The insects fall from the plants unto the sheet, and you can then quickly collect them by hand or using an aspirator. It sounds pretty simple, but for a first timer it is not so easy. Being 5’1” tall, it was a little difficult for me to reach some of the overhanging tree branches. Having a long beating stick made for some awkward moves. You also need to be quick to catch the insects before they recover from shock and fly away. Beating needs a lot of practice. Overall, it is an interesting to way to collect insects and also get some personal aggression out at the same time.
One of the biggest surprises for me on this trip was how different Wayqecha, the first field station, was from my expectations of the rainforest. That’s because Wayqecha is in a cloud forest: high in elevation (3000m), cool, and relatively dry. However, we still got soaked on our first hike when the area received its first rain in three weeks.
When we left Wayqecha, we travelled down the Kosñipata valley from the clouds to the tropics, spotting waterfalls along the road and dense vegetation that grew more vivid in its green color. At Villa Carmen, the second field station, I really felt like I was walking into the jungle, as this area fit my expectations of the rainforest.
While I had prepared for the heavy humidity and higher temperature here, I wasn’t ready for it after living in the comfort of Wayqecha. It took me several days to adjust. But the much greater density and diversity of beautiful plants, flowers, and insects make it worth it.
The almost daily rains required a change in routine as well. Sometimes they come late morning or early afternoon, giving us a siesta period to rest after lunch before returning to fieldwork around 2-3 p.m. Other days a downpour begins in the middle of the night and continues until late morning, which limits us from hiking the trails until the afternoon. We wake up too early here for my taste, so I’m not too upset about the extra rest the morning rain provides.
There’s a chase through the jungle in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” that incorporates the giant, terrifying Siafu ants. It’s over-the-top and kind of silly seeing them essentially devour one of the characters; but watching actual footage of them in a nature documentary, working as a horde to eat an animal, now that’s scary. However, it’s not until you’re actually in the jungle and the forest floor is covered in ants that will bite you to hell that the panic sets into your heart.
But not all the ants here are intimidating. Right now I’m looking at a busy mass of tiny black ants going to town on a dead fly on my cabin floor. The first day that I saw three or four groups like this in my room I freaked and stomped them out like Godzilla, but now I let them be. Observing leafcutter ants on a trail is actually inspiring to see, as creatures so small carry materials so much bigger than them and work together with such efficiency.
But the frightening ants have left a more lasting impression on me. A few days ago as we walked on a trail deep in the jungle, we came across the notorious Bullet Ant, which is longer than a fingernail and has the most painful bite (of any insect here?). Professor Chaboo was bitten by one a previous year and said the pain sears like a bullet wound for 10-15 minutes. We took a few pictures as it sucked sap from a tree, until it began crawling down toward us, and we knew it was time to move.
Shortly thereafter, we entered what we’ve dubbed “The Gauntlet.” Rains from the night before flooded some underground ant nests, so the trail was covered in roving ant colonies. One stretch was so fully lined with ants that we were afraid to simply walk through it, so we each composed ourselves before making a terrified, expletive-heavy dash across it. As far as I can tell, I made it through without ant bites, but my ankles fell victim to the merciless chiggers instead.
This past semester, I took a class with a professor who specializes in mercury in the environment. This exposed me to various research projects about mercury in the Long Island Sound, USA . I learned that there are variations in the natural abundance of mercury in the environment and that humans have increased this level via various industrial practices. Connecticut, where I attend college, is a prime area to study the cycling and effects of anthropomorphic mercury in the environment because of this area’s historical contribution to the hat-making industry. In the 1800s and early 1900s, liquid mercury was used to mat fur pelts that were manufactured into fashionable hats. Due to the neurological effects of mercury, the saying “Mad as a hatter” was born.
A large group of professors and students from Duke University Department of Public Health visited Villa Carmen Station this weekend. Their project in medical entomology and environmental toxicology examines gold mining in this part of Peru to see if there is a correlation between the environmental mercury concentration and the mercury concentration in residents’ blood, hair, nails, and food intake. Historically, mercury is a key component in gold mining. The global increase in the price of gold has resulted in a recent escalation of gold mining in this area, and possibly, an increase in the environmental mercury concentration. With these data, the Duke team will compare incidents of malaria (and other diseases) to see if mercury makes individuals more susceptible to infections. Their project is an example of how environmental mercury research is of interest to many different scientists from different disciplines around the world.
Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians. After taking a herpetology class last semester at KU, I became more interested in these animals. At Villa Carmen I have gotten to see many herps. The station has four tortoises in their small court yard and many frogs are active at night. von May & Catenazzi (2014)* recently showed that Manu National Park has the highest diversity of reptiles and frogs in the world.
One of my first days here, I saw a lizard from my favorite family, Varanidae commonly known as monitors (e.g., the Komodo dragon lizard is the largest in this family). It was walking down the trail but I did not get close enough to determine a genus or species. On Saturday, a small caiman was under a little bridge over a stream near the dining hall. This was amazing as I had never seen a wild caiman before, only in zoos. While beating (a method using a sheet and stick to collect insects living on shrubs), I saw another monitor and two more lizards on the path, but they were still too quick for me to get close.
For someone interested in Herps, Villa Carmen is a great place to observe and study them.
*von May R and A Catenazzi. 2014. Biota Neotropica