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Interactions: A vital component of the systems

According to the Oxford dictionary, interaction means reciprocal action or influence and a particular way in which matter, atomic and subatomic particles affect one another. As the end of the OTS Grad Course-2015 gets closer this concept used in community ecology reminds me that the emergence of life, the biological diversity and the human race itself shared the interaction component, we are interacting and reciprocally transforming each other.

Mixed green at La Selva

Mixed green at La Selva


As living organisms, we play an important role determining the presence or absence of other living organisms, a caterpillar feeding on a plant to obtain energy can exert a negative pressure across years resulting in deleterious effects on that plant species, but enabling at the time that subsequent generations of butterflies keep flying around the forests. The plants on the desert can shape the landscape providing shelters under extreme climatic conditions and creating fertility islands between the dry and harsh conditions that prevail, life islands. The limited resources represent a source of competition, another possible way of interacting not as nice as the previous one but again, necessary, and necessary to create the amazing diversity that my classmates, and now my friends, we all have seen during our trip in Costa Rica. The outcome and the mechanisms of the biotic interactions is what ecologists have tried to disentangle for many years.

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Leaf Cutter Ants


Fortunately there are so many organisms and much more connections that will still providing questions. As the days progressed in this course, I realize that we all were influencing each other lives and changing cultural perspectives, teaching and learning other languages, watching our friends working hard in the field and knowing this persons better, the outcome of this journey is hope, happiness, beloved friends and a strong impulse to keep goint into tropical ecology. ♥

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Hearing the forest through the trees

Since most of my work focuses on palm oil, which is a major driver of deforestation in the tropics, I get very excited about any tool that helps us understand how human activities such as land use change are affecting tropical forest organisms.

Audio recordings can be a great tool for assessing biodiversity. Experts can use audio recordings to identify the presence of certain species by their unique calls. But even without identifying individual species, the diversity of the acoustic frequencies used by animals in a forest and the patterns of the sounds that are occurring can tell you a lot about an ecosystem.

One way scientists have used acoustic data is to identify differences in animal species composition (or the types of animals that are occurring) by looking for differences in the “soundscapes” – or the patterns of sounds that are occurring – in different areas. Researchers have found that even in areas with similar numbers of species, landscapes with different types of animals will also have differences in the patterns of the sounds being used (Gasc et al 2013).

Here’s an illustration to help explain how differences in species composition can be detected by differences in the soundscapes.

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In both of these forests, the total number of animals is similar, but the composition of species is different. In the forest on the left, only red, orange and yellow animals occur. On the right, all the animals are blue, purple or green.

Since there are similar numbers of animals, you might expect these forests to be similarly noisy. However, since different species are occurring in each forest, they are also likely to make slightly different types of noises, at slightly different times of day.

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Even if the red birds in the first forest are very similar to the blue birds in the second forest, there will likely be differences in the frequencies and patterns of their calls. Yellow and green frogs will also likely have differences in their calls, as will the red and blue beetles. When you analyze all these sounds together in a soundscape, we can see that sites with different species compositions also have different soundscapes.

Acoustic data is relatively easy and inexpensive to collect, so soundscapes have a lot of potential as a tool to help us compare species composition between different forests or show how species composition is changing in one area over time.

Citation: Gasc, A., Sueur, J., Pavoine, S., Pellens, R., Grandcolas, P., 2013. Biodiversity Sampling Using a Global Acoustic Approach: Contrasting Sites with Microendemics in New Caledonia. PLoS ONE 8, e65311.

Peril via pineapple

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For some time now, I’ve had the perception that Costa Rica is the model nation when it comes to neotropical forest conservation. It seems like almost everyone has gone on vacation to a beautiful forested area in Costa Rica, seen a tree frog or a sloth, and posted pictures of it on Facebook. Places like La Selva Biological Station are known as the premiere research stations in the tropics, hosting prestigious researchers in its luxurious accommodations and large protected area. My perception was especially skewed given the conditions of my research site, which lies in a ‘paper park’ in Ecuador where gunshots from hunters can be heard frequently.

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At Cabo Blanco, this view of mine was challenged by Alberto Torres, the resident park guard, who informed us that Costa Rica is actually struggling as a nation with protecting its protected areas. He told us stories of his patrols, where he and a few other guards fight to keep poachers out of the park’s boundaries. The looming danger confronting Costan Rican forests was corroborated by Carlos de la Rosa, the station director of La Selva. He told us about his deep concerns for La Selva due to the encroachment of drastic land use changes around the station. The free trade agreement between Costa Rica and China includes the export of agricultural products such as bananas and pineapple, which are land and pesticide intensive.

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While my initial viewpoint was starting to change, I wasn’t totally convinced…until I saw the pineapple plantations myself. Our science communication video was told through an interview with Carlos de la Rosa, and it focused on the magnificence of La Selva and the issues the station faces. In his interview, Carlos talked about these banana and pineapple plantations. To tell a good story, we realized we had to get footage of these plantations. Our wonderful driver Carlos ventured with us to the nearest pineapple plantation – a place filled with spikey plants, blood sucking flies, and trucks filled with pesticides. Dole Food Company signs riddled the road sides, warning us to not enter the private property. We went in anyway, and got great footage, making us aware of the threats that tropical forests in Costa Rica face.

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I now understand that no country is immune to the effects of global capitalism and consumer driven markers. As consumers, we make choices every day that impact natural areas near and far. Personally, as someone who strives to conserve tropical forests, Carlos de la Rosa’s words resonate with me still and I hope they will speak to you too:

“…we should realize how important and how effective individuals can be…every individual has the power to change the world…we are the ones that have the power to destroy a great portion of the life on earth, so we are the only ones that can fix it…and we start with that individual.”

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My enchanting ecological journey… fabulous!

The other day a wise man asked me “What has been the most memorable experience you have had in the OTS course?”.

In the beginning I didn’t know how to answer.  Many cool things have happened to me during this month and a half.

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But after giving it a little thought (actually, a lot), everything became so clear. What I value most of this course is the people. Everyone is a collection of experiences and I’m glad I had the chance to become part of them.

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With that said and now that everyone is happy wit my blog post, I want to thank The Banditos (Alex Chase [aka El… … … Bebé] & Timothy Perez [aka The Spark]) for making possible the real memorable experience I had in the course. You guys took care of me, made me laugh, did a good job on the projects, and over all things… you stayed true to The Banditos way of living. Long live The Banditos!

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Lastly but not least, I want to thank Carlitos (the driver, the friend, the helper, the dish cleaner, the one with the stories…) and Andrés Rojas (you can be a Bandito if you want… we welcome you). This course wouldn’t be what it was without you.

To everyone else I’ve met in the OTS graduate course… Thank you!

Passionately and sincerely, Michel.

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Chasing Frogs (and Toads)

Of all of the amazing memories that I have of this trip and of Costa Rica, my favorite ones by far are those of wandering through the forest in search of frogs. Days spent working on our independent project looking for poison dart frogs Dendrobates auratus and Oophaga pumilio through La Selva will always be with me. I vividly remember the Ranitas scream when we found our first green and black poison dart frog (thanks of course to Vili luring them with her “here froggie, froggie, froggie” call).  And of course, I will never forget my first sighting of Rhinella marina (which was so huge that it looked like a small rabbit). Till next time Costa Rica!

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Photos courtesy of Vilisa Moron Zambrano

Telling you my Perspective!

Summer OTS Tropical Biology graduate Course 2015! This time just flew away so fast. I want first to say thank you to everybody in the group, you all are amazing! I learnt with you and from you a lot! I am sure we will meet each other at some point again.

I am from Cusco- Peru. A megadiverse place in the world. However, Costa Rica has captured my attention. It is a beautiful country and I want to share my impression of my some of my favorite places.

  1. La Selva Biological Station. I love this place!la selva

Braulio Carrillo National Park extends down to La Selva through a forest corridor that descends in elevation from 2,906 meters at Volcán Barva to 35 meters above sea level at La Selva!

It is one of the more useful places in the world for researchers. Tons of studies come from this place. Actually over 240 scientific papers are published yearly.

So this is a tropical forest and this may be the reason that it is my favorite place! Tropical forests are very diverse and this is not an exception! 5,000 species of vascular plants, of which more than 700 species are trees….Yeah plants! Plants! Many plants! Yeah this is my main interest: plant community assembly!

However, in this plant community world, animals have a big role as predators or dispersers, etc… So I need to tell you something about animals.  I read some years ago about it in a natural history book but now my first time in Costa Rica, I saw it! So, the animals that call my attention at la Selva were the howler monkeys!! I almost say red howler monkey because I am used to that in Peru! See the picture below! Yeah both of them are Howler monkeys! Both of them to my ears sounds the same when they howl in the morning or when is raining! They are amazing!  The red one is from Peru in Manu National Park and the second one is from La Selva Biological Station. This also happens with spider monkeys, but backwards! They are black in Peru and reddish here in Costa Rica. In the case of capuchin monkey they are the same in both places.

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Another important thing that I learnt being at la Selva is how much science communication matters in the workshop that we had there. It was just a start and I know that we need to improve this skill because it is how we can share with regular people all over the world why it is important to conserve the forest and why we are studying all these different things. They cannot care for and understand it if we do not try to explain why we love it. So I am so excited to be learning it!!

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2. Cuerici biological Reserve: The lovely mountain!

This is a mandatory place if you are visiting Costa Rica! At 2600 m is the Oak cloud forest. This is an exceptional forest, where there are many ecological questions to be explored! This is a place with huge diversity of fungi and lichens that you can see posted below on this blog! What I found impressive is the slow rate of decomposition that this forest has. We saw trees that fell down many years ago (Don Carlos has the register about when they fell down) and they are still in good condition. Ecological processes happens differently in the more regularly studied tropical forests like La Selva Biological Station. Picture4

3. Cabo Blanco. Let’s go to the beach!

It is an absolute Natural Reserve in the Nicoya Peninsula. This is one of the first protected areas and National Park in Costa Rica. It has a majestic forest scene contrasting with the pacific ocean. It is classified as moist tropical forest and we found some Ceiba trees that were very impressive. What I found interesting is the crabs (Gecarcinus cuadratus) that act as herbivores of seedlings of this forest!

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I am glad of this experience! Thank to you all…Picture22

Pura Vida! Tuanes mae!!

The Soundscape Costa Rica

How vivid is the impression produced by the calm of nature, at noon, in these burning climates! The beasts of the forests retire to the thickets; the birds hide themselves beneath the foliage of the trees, or the crevices of the rocks. Yet, amidst this apparent silence, when we lend an attentive ear to the most feeble sounds transmitted through the air, we hear a dull vibration, a continual murmur, a hum of insects, filling, if we may use the expression, all the lower strata of the air…These are so many voices, proclaiming to us that all nature breathes” von Humboldt 1852.

Every soundscape that springs from a wild habitat generates its own unique signature that contains incredible amounts of information. Today, I would like to share some of that fascinating information with you in detailing the soundscape of Costa Rica.

Humboldt nearly 160 years ago wrote, “At the period of our voyage an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants said, and the fact is worthy of observation, that they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the [now extinct tribe] Atures.” Von Humboldt meticulously recorded the phonetic descriptions of the Ature phrases spoken by this old parrot. By doing this, he preserved some precious and notable features of a unique but now “lost” group of people.

During the OTS course, while visiting different sites I perceived that each ecosystem produced vibrant natural sounds that resemble an animal orchestra of insects, amphibians, birds and mammals. I listened to this ensemble of sounds at dusk, which I am sharing with you now in these recordings.

The soundscape is the signature of voices of the natural world, and as we hear them, we’re provided with a sense of place, the true story of the world in which we live. In only few seconds, a soundscape reveals an array of information, providing insight into many perspectives ranging from quantifiable data to inspiration.

And our ears tell us that the whisper of every leaf and creature contributes to the essence of our lives, which may indeed hold the secrets of love for all things, including humanity itself.

Each landscape produces unique sounds, reminding us as human beings that we are in some way connected to nature.

This is a song….A song for someone…This is a song…A song for someone”-U2 song for someone 2014

Going Batty!

Wow! This has been a great summer, and I can’t believe the course is almost over. I’ve experienced and learned so much that it would be really hard to distill my thoughts into one post. Instead, here are some pics of bats :), courtesy of expert wildlife photographer Alex (of Los Banditos Photography).

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This is Dermanura watsoni, one of many bats of Costa Rica known to roost under leaf tents. It’s a little tree-tent-engineer! We caught this little guy here in Las Cruces, during a bat workshop led by Dr. Gloriana Chaverri. After presenting on her fascinating research on social groups of Spix’s disc-winged bat (Thyroptera tricolor), Dr. Chaverri took us into the forest and taught us the proper ways to catch and identify bats. Here we are trying to determine if this bat is an adult or juvenile by checking the amount of cartilage still present between its finger joints:

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Check out those blood vessels! The patagium (membrane between the body, arms, and fingers) contains a complex network of muscles, nerves, and blood vessels, and it has “wrinkles” that allow it to extend and stretch while in flight.

This workshop was especially important for me and Alex, because we wanted to collect some bat guano for our Las Cruces Independent Project (scroll down to see Andrea’s post on bat biogeochemistry). It turns out that bats are small and thus produce small “guanos”, so we spent the next couple of nights netting lots of bats with the help of Gloriana, Paula, Vilisa, Diana and more. We converted Diana, Vilisa, and Meredith’s back porch into a bat lab:

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Alex and I also searched Las Cruces for tree hollows that serve as bat roosts. We found 5 probable roosts and 1 confirmed, although we didn’t know it until we took a much closer look at the photo:

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It’s been a batty week at Las Cruces, but it’s not the first on this trip! As a parting note, I give you an Ectophylla alba from La Selva. Paula and I caught several (in like 20 minutes) near the labs. (Photo courtesy of Tim of Los Banditos Photography.)

ectophyllaThanks!

Katie Stanchak

The Santana Lab, University of Washington Dept of Biology

Microorganisms for the win!

I will just preface this by saying, “I am not a mycologist”.

With that said, I am a microbiologist, characterizing the mechanisms that drive bacterial diversity. Now, studying microbial ecology is a bit different than traditional ecology. You do not have the wonderful experience to capture your study organism in the field, or see a glorified mating ritual. What you do get, is the excitement of seeing a successful next-gen PCR run come back clean, ready to be sequenced. Or the fascination of processing terabytes of sequence data for down-stream analysis. Further, the fieldwork, at least for me, is almost nonexistent. Now, don’t get me wrong – I live for this field. I love processing data and find that how microorganisms dictate almost all broad-scale ecological processes to be utterly fascinating. To this day, I am blown away how large of an impact these litter bugs can have.

So, when I first ventured into the field down here in Costa Rica, I was expecting to see insects, the coolest frogs ever, and, most excitedly, large mammals. To my surprise, I did happen to see a lot of insects, however, they were not the most welcomed ones – mosquitos! However, in all seriousness, these giant primary tropical forests almost appear desolate. You have this amazing biodiversity of plant species, but, to the untrained eye, there is really nothing else to see. You rarely see a howler monkey grace you with its presence in the tree canopy, nor do you ever see the elaborate and beautiful snakes that are indicative of the tropics. But, as you look more closely, an entire world begins to unfold.

At the smaller scale, there is an entire world to be seen. You have colonies of leaf-cutter ants marching through the forest, harvesting leaves for its fungal garden. There are dung beetles carving out its delicious meal, ever ready to present its glorified treasure to a mate. And as you continue to examine this world, you come across one of the most interesting branches of life. Fungi. This clade is responsible for the vast portion of decomposition in terrestrial systems. Without fungi operating at the level that they do, life would simply not be the same in the tropics. The soil here is very nutrient poor, and most of the usable nutrients are locked in living biomass. Because of this, the turnover rate by fungi (and of course bacteria!) to recycle these nutrients is essential. I told you it’s cool that microorganisms dictate everything!

Of course, this information is not new, nor was it to me before I set foot in Costa Rica. However, what I didn’t expect to see was the morphological diversity that was on full display in all its glory. I would have never thought that a decomposing log in the middle of the forest would captivate and demand my attention. But these logs in particular, are the playground for these eukaryotes. There are clonal colonies of these fungi creating a vast and integrative network of mycelium, culminating in the production of these beautiful mushrooms. Beyond the decomposing logs, you see mushrooms sprouting up aboveground, evidence of the potential for these organisms to grow beyond belief. What few people seem to realize is that most fungi form these mycelium mats, creating giant organisms of massive size with the ability to become the largest organism in the world!

Fungi extend beyond the limitation of decomposition; and can have potential detrimental and pathogenic effects to all forms of life. Most interestingly, is the story of the zombie fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis), as described by Alfred Wallace in the 1800s. I had the privilege to witness the effects in all its glory on a trip to La Selva. This fungi infects social insects (in my case, the mighty bullet ant) by using enzymes that have been deposited within the fungal spores to breakdown the armor that is the exoskeleton. Next, the fungal spread within the insect causes a truely unique and horrifying effect. Inevitably, the insect becomes a puppet, fully manipulated by the fungal pathogen as it reprograms the ant’s entire social behavior. The obediant and systematic social insect that has developed over eons of evolutionary time is disrupted within just a few days. The ant leaves its nest or foraging trail, abadoning its family, to find a suitable habitat for its newfound master. The ant then climbs onto a stem and secures its place on the underside of a leaf, using its giant mandibles to fixate its location. It is here that the fungal pathogen shuts down the ant altogether, muscles atrophy and the infamous fungal ‘death grip’ is in full effect. The mighty ant, who is capable of lifting thousands of times its own body weight, is left helpless and paralyzed on what will eventually be its final resting place. The hyphae continue to spread throughout the ant, eventually killing its host who, at this point, has served its full purpose. Eventually, fruiting bodies grow out of the head of the ant, releasing spores from this advantageous position high up on the leaf of this plant. These spores disperse and are ready to fall onto the next unsuspecting ant brigade, starting this fascinating process once again.

Zombie fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) fruiting body erupting out of a bullet ant (special thanks to Bernal Carranza and Alex Wild)

Zombie fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) fruiting body erupting out of a bullet ant                     (special thanks to Bernal Matarrita [Univ. of Costa Rica] and Alex Wild)

In conclusion, microorganisms are awesome! The more you learn, the more convinced you will become, I guarantee it. Since I cannot take photos of bacteria (which equally have a number of amazing stories), I settled for fungi. I could not stop from taking photos of the vast diversity of fruiting bodies – some smaller than a pencil point, while others were as large as a person. Below you will find some of my favorites, most of which I have zero idea what they are (all input will be much appreciated!). To conclude, I am not a mycologist, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying and appreciating the unique stories and beauty each of these little guys has to offer! PURA VIDA!

Thanks for listening!

-Alexander Chase

at the Martiny Lab at University of California, Irvine

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A bit of MacGyver-ing

I’ve a lifetime association with MacGyver. That show about the special agent/forces guy who fights evil by combining common materials into ingeniously simple means of saving the day. I didn’t watch the show directly, but my dad did. He’s been MacGyver-ing things in, around, and on our home for as long as I can remember. I was frequently his helper, and while I can’t claim to have directly inherited his intuition, I did develop a fascination with the process.

Fortunately for me, as a behavioral ecologist-in-training, MacGuyver-ing has become an increasingly large part of my life. In fact, the prospect of piecing together intuitive solutions to sudden, pressing problems is one of the main things that pulled me into the field in the first place. In my brief time, I’ve cobbled together leech traps and made cafeteria trays to feed caterpillars to paper wasps in nest boxes, but when Andrés Rojas and I came across this creature:

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We knew something else was in order.

This amblypygid (also known as a whip spider or tailless whip scorpion, a type of arachnid) is absolutely SLATHERED in the pupae of parasitoid flies. Flies that (as described by Carlos Viquez and Luis F. De Armas [2009]) lay their eggs into the amblypygid’s egg sac, which then hatch into larvae which eat the amblypygid’s eggs, and then, mimicking the behavior of the whip spider-lings, climb onto the amblypygid’s back. The fly larvae then pupate, emerge, and spread the love/misery. I’ve seen photos, but to see this in person was, well, horrific and disgusting and fascinating all at once. Hopefully you feel the same.

But, what are we to do with a find like this? Well, try to capture it and rear the flies for identification, of course! That’s where some MacGyver-ing comes in, courtesy of Mr. Rojas (our esteemed OTS course TA). Behold his creation:

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I can claim to have helped a little, but the credit goes to Andrés. Our subject is cozily housed in a rice container filled with leaf litter, covered with a trail map to keep it dark (because amblypygids are nocturnal). The hand-sewn net at the top is held up by a trail flag and fastened by clothes pins. Since most insects travel towards light, we expect the flies should, er, fly upward into the net. We’ll see what comes of it! Hopefully we’ll have a batch of horrid parasitoid/parasitic flies to ID soon. I’m confident in this MacGyver-ing venture. And I expect it’ll inform future ones.

-Tyler B. Corey