Camp Putik

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The oldest Batesian trick in the book

I’m proud to say, a few days ago at Camp Putik, I fell for the oldest trick I the book.  Million of years of evolution and selection pressures exerted by predators have produced many flavors of harmless animals which avoid predation by “mimicking” noxious, toxic, foul-tasting, or venomous co-distributed species.

Thus, back in Kansas, the harmless Regal Frittillary Butterfly (Speyeria idalia) are the same brilliant shades of red and brown as the toxic Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and birds apparently cannot tell the difference and avoid eating them both.  The “mimic” benefits from the predator education on the part of the “model.”

Of course individuals of the mimic species (the harmless beneficiary of this trick) and the model (the species that packs the dangerous punch) are not actually engaged in conscious or active mimicry strategies.  Rather, it’s the predators who are born with innate, evolved, “instincts” to avoid brightly colored “warning” patterns that exert selection pressures by eating the harmless, drab colored individuals and avoiding the brightly colored ones.   Thus, the brightly colored variants disproportionately pass on a greater proportion of their genes to the next generation and, through time, the population as a whole becomes more brightly colored—and “mimics” the venomous model.  This all according to the famous Batesian Mimicry hypothesis of evolution of aposematic coloration.

In any case, last week as we enjoyed a few sips of rum late at night in camp, a brightly colored, banded snake crawled past our feet through the mud.  At a glance, I identified it as a Philippine coral snake (Calliophis intestinalis).  We very carefully captured it with sticks and gloves and only after it was in the bag did we realize we had before us the harmless example of Boie’s Dwarf Snake Calamaria lumbricoides.

I don't mess around with venomous reptiles.  In contrast to what you see on TV, most herpetologists who study venomous reptiles avoid touching subjects, never pin snakes behind the head and hold them in their hands, and in general, don't take chances.  In my book, every snake-wrangling cowboy made famous on the Discover Channel is living on borrowed time; eventually the odds will catch up with all of them. Given that handling venomous reptiles is part of my job description, I’m determined not to be a snakebite statistic…I lost a friend ten years ago to a krait bite in Burma, and I’d rather be safe than sorry.  Meanwhile, I have to admire the exquisitely precise coral snake mimicry achieved by Boie’s Dwarf Snake. —Rafe

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Fungus Among us at Camp Putik on Mt. Hilong-hilong

Camp

From the coast of Agusan Del Norte, Mt Hilong-hilong looks pretty tame.  “Hilong” means “nose” in the local dialect….I guess if you squint, the peak looks a bit like a face in silhouette with a prominent nose.  

Down at low elevation it is hot, arid, and dry near the north coast of Mindanao Island.  The skies are clear, the sun is out; definitely good conditions for trecking up this mountain.

Mountain

Up on Mt. Hilong-hilong, a different story is unfolding.  Below the forest canopy, only a little sunlight reaches the ground.  The forest floor is saturated and in just a few days’ time the comings and goings of 20 field biologists have turned our kitchen (and the rest of the camp) into a frothy soup of brick-colored mud. Eventually our guides attempted to put down a floor of saplings, but I can soon see the poles slipping under the mud….

It’s a good thing that everyone has rubber boots.  “putik” translates to “mud” in Tagalog, so Camp Putik was quickly coined and universally adopted by our field team. 

A few days later my right ear and side of my head has begun to sting and itch incessantly.  Some scaly, itchy thing is spreading around on my neck as well.  As it turns out, I have been infected with some sort of tropical fungus; it’s now responding well to fungicide and showing signs of retreating—but how gross is that?  Can you imagine having Athletes’ Foot on your ear? -Rafe

Five days later, the team departs Camp Putik (with an amazing collection of specimens, several species new to science, and fantastic new data on the startling high resident biodiversity) and heads for the blissfully hot and dry lowlands.  First order of business: wash the mold off everything, do laundry and dry out tents, get as much mud out of our gear as possible, and visit the local university clinic for an infusion of fungicide.  It turns out three more people have broken out in strange rashes and can’t stop scratching.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The oldest Batesian trick in the book

I’m proud to say, a few days ago at Camp Putik, I fell for the oldest trick I the book. Million of years of evolution and selection pressures exerted by predators have produced many flavors of harmless animals which avoid predation by “mimicking” noxious, toxic, foul-tasting, or venomous co-distributed species.

Thus, back in Kansas, the harmless Regal Frittillary Butterfly (Speyeria idalia) are the same brilliant shades of red and brown as the toxic Monarch Butterfly (Danau plexippu) and birds apparently cannot tell the difference and avoid eating them both. The “mimic” benefits from the predator education on the part of the “model.”

Of course individuals of the mimic species (the harmless beneficiary of this trick) and the model (the species that packs the dangerous punch) are not actually engaged in conscious or active mimicry strategies. Rather, it’s the predators who are born with innate, evolved, “instincts” to avoid brightly colored “warning” patterns that exert selection pressures by eating the harmless, drab colored individuals and avoiding the brightly colored ones. Thus, the brightly colored variants disproportionately pass on a greater proportion of their genes to the next generation and, through time, the population as a whole becomes more brightly colored—and “mimics” the venomous model. This all according to the famous Batesian Mimicry hypothesis of evolution of aposematic coloration.

In any case, last week as we enjoyed a few sips of rum late at night in camp, a brightly colored, banded snake crawled past our feet through the mud. At a glance, I identified it as a Philippine coral snake (Calliophi intestinali). We very carefully captured it with sticks and gloves and only after it was in the bag did we realize we had before us the harmless example of Boie’ Dwarf Snake Calamaria lumbricoide.

I don't mess around with venomous reptiles. In contrast to what you see on TV, most herpetologists who study venomous reptiles avoid touching subjects, never pin snakes behind the head and hold them in their hands, and in general, don't take chances. In my book, every snake-wrangling cowboy made famous on the Discover Channel is living on borrowed time; eventually the odds will catch up with all of them. Given that handling venomous reptiles is part of my job description, I’m determined not to be a snakebite statistic…I lost a friend ten years ago to a krait bite in Burma, and I’d rather be safe than sorry. Meanwhile, I have to admire the exquisitely precise coral snake mimicry achieved by Boie’ Dwarf Snake. —Rafe

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Fungus Among us at Camp Putik on Mt. Hilong-hilong

CampPhilip

From the coast of Agusan Del Norte, Mt Hilong-hilong looks pretty tame. “Hilong” means “nose” in the local dialect….I guess if you squint, the peak looks a bit like a face in silhouette with a prominent nose.

Down at low elevation it is hot, arid, and dry near the north coast of Mindanao Island. The skies are clear, the sun is out; definitely good conditions for trecking up this mountain.

Up on Mt. Hilong-hilong, a different story is unfolding. Below the forest canopy, only a little sunlight reaches the ground. The forest floor is saturated and in just a few days’ time the comings and goings of 20 field biologists have turned our kitchen (and the rest of the camp) into a frothy soup of brick-colored mud. Eventually our guides attempted to put down a floor of saplings, but I can soon see the poles slipping under the mud….

It’s a good thing that everyone has rubber boots. “putik” translates to “mud” in Tagalog, so Camp Putik was quickly coined and universally adopted by our field team.

A few days later my right ear and side of my head has begun to sting and itch incessantly. Some scaly, itchy thing is spreading around on my neck as well. As it turns out, I have been infected with some sort of tropical fungus; it’s now responding well to fungicide and showing signs of retreating—but how gross is that? Can you imagine having Athletes’ Foot on your ear? —Rafe

Five days later, the team departs Camp Putik (with an amazing collection of specimens, several species new to science, and fantastic new data on the startling high resident biodiversity) and heads for the blissfully hot and dry lowlands. First order of business: wash the mold off everything, do laundry and dry out tents, get as much mud out of our gear as possible, and visit the local university clinic for an infusion of fungicide. It turns out three more people have broken out in strange rashes and can’t stop scratching.