Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Wide Web of Life

During our visit to the University of Costa Rica campus, we had some time to explore a small area outside the Biology building.  As I’m interested in spiders, I had a look around to see what I could find.  Given the incredible biodiversity in Costa Rica, I expected to find a few specimens.  However, I found amazing diversity even in the small area we explored.  On a single tree, both a hunting spider (Figure 1) and several orb weavers (Figure 2) could be found.  It seemed that every structure that could support a web had at least one arachnid resident.  One tree even hosted a small aggregation of spiders (Figure 3), which I had never gotten the opportunity to personally see before.  The sheer number of species that could be found in a cursory survey was simply astounding. 

While I was surprised by the diversity of the spiders in the area, I noticed that despite being thousands of miles away from Kansas, many common traits could be found between spiders from the two regions.  While I cannot say with complete certainty without examining specimens under a microscope exactly what genera some of these spiders belonged to, but many showed morphological characteristics that I had seen in field work in Kansas before.  Micrathena is a genus of spider that has a carapace with characteristic spikes.  A spider with such spikes was living between two of the trees (Figure 4).  Another genus, Cyclosa, was likely represented as well (Figure 5).  These spiders use parts of prey and plants to decorate their web as camouflage, as can be seen in the attached picture. 

Costa Rica has an incredible level of biodiversity and seeing just how many species can be found in an area has been an unforgettable experience.  However, recognizing genera of spiders from previous fieldwork has shown me that while not every country can have as diverse of wildlife as Costa Rica has, you can see some pretty amazing animals in your own backyard. - Eric Becker

Photo album:

Friday, June 19, 2015

Reptiles and amphibians of Costa Rica

Because of Hannah’s broad interest in Herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) and our shared general love for animals, we always pay attention to the fauna around us when we travel to such a biodiverse place as Costa Rica.

When we began our trip in San Jose during our stay at Ave del Paraiso, there were geckos near most of the places you looked. During our drive from San Jose to Manuel Antonio, we stopped at a bridge famous for being a resting spot for multiple crocodiles at a time. It was a very interesting sight to see not only the amount of crocodiles resting so close to a semi-populated area, but also how many people were stopping to attempt to catch a glimpse of them.

When we went further into the rainforest for our stay around Manuel Antonio National Park in the lowlands, there were some geckos, but iguanas were the most likely creatures to spot, even if you were just hanging out by a pool. During our visit to the park we came upon some herpetologists studying the impact of tourism on the iguanas there. This was an intriguing topic, and makes sense to study due to the fact that when walking the trails in the park I came across multiple different breeds of iguanas on the path.  They did not run from me until I was roughly a foot away which is quite a bit closer that I’ve been able to get to lizards in less touristy areas. The researchers' topic also plays into a local article I read about the crocodiles being forced out of their natural habitat and into more populated areas because tourists want to travel to more secluded areas.

As you move to higher elevation there are fewer reptiles to spot immediately but the amphibians in Monteverde seem to be well studied. When we first came to Monteverde we met Dr. Alan Pounds who has done revolutionary work on the extinction of the golden toad, which was endemic to Monteverde until it became extinct in the late 1980’s. This work reflects our continuous need for and marks some of the beginnings of conservation biology. This extinction shows the need for climate change study, which many biologists are dealing with today in all different aspects.  

-Tim Mayes and Hannah Boyd

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Trapping Parasitoid Wasps in Kansas versus Costa Rica

As I mentioned in my introduction, I am working on my own project in addition to the research we are doing as a group.  During our time in Monteverde, I’ll be setting out traps to see if parasitoid wasps in Costa Rica are attracted to a chemical called cantharidin.  Cantharidin is a toxic chemical produced by blister beetles and false blister beetles as a defense (Hashimoto & Hayashi).  Previous similar experiments captured a few of these wasps, but not nearly enough to definitively establish that some are attracted to cantharidin.  At the suggestion of Paul Hanson, a professor studying hymenopterans (ants, bees, and wasps), I started planning an experiment to discover if any could be found.

Earlier in the summer, I set several traps in prairie areas of the KU Field Station, but a cloud forest in Costa Rica is considerably different from the grasslands the traps were originally designed for.  A few elements had to be changed from the original trap to be better suited for the new environment.   The initial traps were inverted funnel traps made of 2 liter soda bottles with cantharidin-impregnated filter paper as bait.  An inverted funnel trap works on the idea that many insects will be able to climb into a hole, but will fly straight up when trying to escape.  Having a small hole allows insects to enter, but prevents them from leaving.  The bottle was made into a trap by cutting off the top where it starts to curve, then putting it upside down.  In both locations, I put alcohol in the bottom of the trap to kill whatever insects landed in the bottom and then preserve them until they could be collected.  Traps were attached to a wooden stake with waterproof duct tape to ensure they would stay upright.

The big difference between the traps was how I dealt with the issue of keeping the bait dry.  I was told that filter paper holding the bait could not get wet.  In Kansas, I focused on minimizing the problems caused by water getting the traps.  To keep the bait dry, I suspended it from a wooden dowel put through holes in the side of the trap.  With the bait in a safe place, I only had to prevent the trap from flooding.  To do this, I made a few holes slightly above where the alcohol was and covered it with mesh to allow any excess liquid, likely rainwater, to drain out.  In Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to prevent rain from entering the trap at all.  To accomplish this, I made several rain covers using garbage bags, duct tape, and twine.  This allowed me to suspend the bait with a strip from a ziplock bag and some tape.  The advantage of this method is that I can put the bait directly under the hole in the trap, which makes it more attractive to insects.  These traps can be seen in Figure 1.

One thing to note is that with the exception of the bait, all the materials used in the traps can be purchased at a grocery store for a few dollars.  Science experiments don’t have to cost a fortune to carry out.  A few household products and a little bit of preparation can answer plenty of questions.

Further Reading:
Hashimoto, K. and Hayashi, F. (2014) Cantharidin world in nature: a concealed arthropod assemblage with interactions via the terpenoid cantharidin.  Entomological Science 17: 388-395.

Image: Insect trap set-up used at all three sites in Costa Rica (Photo credit: Eric Becker)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Mountain in the Cloud

Currently, we are staying at the field station within the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The reserve is covered in hiking trails that snake across the mountains in every direction. The southernmost path will lead you to the continental divide. This geographical feature spreads from the northern Alaskan shore to the southern shore of Argentina, and is comprised of various mountain chains. We are most familiar with the Rocky Mountains which make up the American portion.

The name continental divide is derived from the transactional nature of the mountains. The continuous chains of mountains separate the Americas into two watersheds which empty either into the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. The patterns of weather throughout the Americans can be attributed to the moisture rolling off each side of the divide.

Tuesday morning the group walked the trail to the continental divide. The hike was about 2 kilometers (that's 1.24 miles for those back home), and took approximately thirty minutes. For the majority of the hike, we traveled through dense cloud forest, but once we approached the top of the mountain the canopy gave way to wind sculpted shrubs and stout trees. Without the protection of the larger trees, we felt the full power of the trade winds. The bellowing winds sprayed our faces with rain at 50-65 kilometers an hour (about 30-40 miles an hour). The winds pulled the clouds over the mountain tops, and spilled them into the valleys.

Apparently, we were quite lucky to experience such forceful winds. Trade winds normally occur in December when the rainy season gives way to the dry season. The strange weather could be attributed to the shifting weather patterns Monteverde is currently experiencing.   


Images: top, Panorama of the Continental Divide; middle, Alex at the Divide; bottom, a clowning Jake holding Tim, who is playing the part of Rose in Titatic.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Costa Rica 2015 blog: Introducing Emma

My name is Emma Overstreet and I'm in my fourth year at KU. I'm currently majoring in Genetics, but I have broad interests in organismal biology and particularly entomology. I love travelling and hiking and am always looking for ways to spend time in nature. While in Costa Rica, I hope to broaden my knowledge of ecology and appreciate the incredible biodiversity the tropical climate has to offer, while gaining useful insight into the process of field work and research.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Mischievous Mammals of Costa Rica

Despite the fact that my group’s research focused on insect communities in plants, I witnessed a variety of mammals throughout my time abroad. These animals ranged in familiarity from incredibly common to previously unseen. However, many of them shared the unique nature of being wild, making their behaviors unique to the unexposed eye.

The first thing I noticed of familiar life in Costa Rica is that the country is filled with presumably ownerless dogs. These canines frequently follow any stranger for kilometers in hope of receiving affection and food. While it’s often medically advisable to avoid petting these unkempt mutts to avoid the parasitic worms they may potentially harbor, it’s admittedly difficult to resist their adorable begging for attention. Another familiar animal I encountered was a cat ambitiously hunting a sizable lizard. Raccoons also participate in their typically mischievous practices of scavenging through beach-goers affects.  

As for unfamiliar encounters, the bulk of my experiences occurred at a tourist attraction park. At this spot, our group enjoyed observing all three of the monkey species that live within the park — howler monkeys, white-throated capuchins, and squirrel monkeys. Upon seeing a pack of capuchins jumping through the trees, a single mother began to intimidate me away from her baby.

Later, at the Monteverdi Cloud Forest Reserve, I was awoken by the not-so-soothing sounds of the rainforest, those being the noisy antics of other howler monkeys and capuchins.  Howlers are named for their characteristic vocalizations which are territorial displays. Unfortunately, they often choose to begin this behavior at five in the morning, persisting for over an hour. On a different day but at the same time, a capuchin decided to climb the balcony and roof of the reserve, banging on the door for some unknown reason. 

While these animals often act unpredictably and strangely, it was exciting to observe so many creatures that common to Costa Rica.


Photos by Vickie Grotbeck.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Social Acceptance of Differences

Imagine walking down the street. You notice several people giving you sideways glances or double-taking as you go by. You see older people glaring, and others seem to think you look like a side show attraction. You have tattoos and piercings that are quite visible and people don't seem to know how to act when they see you.

Now imagine this: you are walking down the street. Everyone is in a hurry to get where they need to be or are talking joyously with their group of friends. You can walk for a great distance and no one really gives you a second thought. The group that you are in stands out as a bunch of gringos, but no one is overtly rude by staring.

The first scenario is a typical day for me in the United States. The second is my experience in San Jose, Costa Rica. While back home people seem to judge me for my body modifications, here they don't seem to really care, which is surprising to me because I was expecting it to be worse here, in a very Catholic country.

Several people have tattoos in Costa Rica, but facial piercings are a tad more scarce. Either way, the crowds of people you pass in the street seem more interested in going somewhere than to be bothered by someone who looks different. It is a pleasant change from how Americans act.



Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Batty Biology

Costa Rica has approximately 110 out of 1,100 species of bats. Out of all the species of mammals in Costa Rica, bats make up approximately 50% of the mammals found in the country. 

There are several different types of bats, classified by their diets. Found only in Central and South American countries, there is Desmodus rotundus, or the common vampire bat, which is a sanguivore, meaning they consume blood. There are also nectarvores, which eat the nectar of nocturnal flowers and are major pollinators. Fruitivores are fruit eating bats, and finally, carnivore bats, which eat frogs, insects, fish, and even other bats. Costa Rica is home to all of these kind  of bats.

In 2006 renowned bat biologist Richard LaVal opened the Bat Jungle, a world-class bat exhibit. The attraction includes a microphone that can pick up on ultrasonic sound waves, allowing their guests to hear when the bats echolocate, a bat cave with 100 bats. They have  feedings scheduled throughout the day and have a small bat that cannot fly that guests can see up close and personal.

Scattered around the reception area are several posters with lots of bat information, ranging from common misconceptions to skeletal structures of popular bat species.

After one long week of no bat sightings, we finally to got to see some bats. Our tour guide impressed me greatly. He was very well informed on current bat information. During the tour he told the group about the white fungus issue happening in North America and about the nearest information on how scientists are finally able to treat bats with it. This information was released about two weeks ago, so it was very current and a good thing to share when touring with a group of biologists. Our guide took us into the bat cave, which was amazing, and held a flashlight on the bats for us to get pictures of them. He even feed them so our group could see them dive in for some watermelon chunks.

After we left the bat cave he brought out Oscar, the little bat who couldn't fly, and allowed our group to pet him to feel his tiny body shake from his rapid heartbeat. As an aspiring bat biologist, this tour was the highlight of the trip so far.



Photos by Vickie Grotbeck and Kayla Yi

Monday, June 15, 2015

Applied Education on Location

liverwortsSo many people go into classes and don’t retain any of the information because they don’t care about it. They do not think that they need to know it.  I felt that way when we learned about plants in Principles of Organismal Biology, but being in the cloud forests of Costa Rica have shown me so many things that we learned about, such as liverworts and ferns.  

This experience has demonstrated that entomologists need to know a good deal of botany.  We had a seminar by mammalogist/ecologist Erin Kuprewicz about her work with mammals and insects and their interactions with plants, titled "Seed Hoarding, Seedling Survival and Forest Dynamics."  She needed to know a great deal about the plant life cycle for her study.  This study abroad has given me a new respect for other disciplines that many people had previously dubbed unnecessary for their own field.

Carlos Garcia-Robledo also gave a seminar titled "Climate Change, Invasive Plants, and the Colonization of Novel Plants by Insect Herbivores."  He brought up a phone application called LeafSnap (there is also a LeafSnap UK).  This app is so cool. What you do is take a picture of a leaf and using 16 points (like a fingerprint), it will identify the species of plant!  It will also connect your location to the plant so that they can see where these plants are!  They have used it to track migration of plants across North America.  

One side note:  Tomorrow we are going to the beach!  Many of us have never been to the Pacific Ocean before and one of us has never been to any ocean before. I am looking forward to the beach and his reaction!  We also got to watch Jurassic World (for only $4).  Apparently, the islands are actually (fictionally) off the coast of Costa Rica. I nearly cried at the beginning because it was so beautiful and amazing (the same reason I cried through most of How to Train Your Dragon 2) and because I was actually there!!!  This place is incredible and full of nature.  There is a creek running through the University of Costa Rica campus and a family of sloths living there!  (Dr. Chaboo tried to trade them for KU squirrels!).

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Insect Vaqueros: The Herding Ants


When most people think of herding, an image of a cowboy walking a herd of cattle across an open plain often comes to mind. The insect world, however, has a far more intriguing example of herding.

Despite having been in Costa Rica for only a few days, several groups of herding ants have been discovered in the various sites that the group visited. Looking from an outsider’s perspective, there seemed to be nothing more than a small size group of animals nestled together under the branch of a tree. Upon closer inspection however, one can truly appreciate the naturalistic relationship between the herding ants and their “cattle.” While out on the University of Costa Rica campus, the first group of herding ants was uncovered (see photo at left, by Kyle Clark). The animals being herded were the larval( or nymph) form of Florida, burrowers that dig into the branches to suck the nectar out of the tree. Because the branch contains high amounts of water, the bugs that are absorbing nutrients from the branch release a large volume of sugar filled urine. As these larvae suck out and secrete the excess sap for the ants to consume, the ants patrol the branch, protecting their herd from danger. The larvae continue to eat, the low nutrition-to-liquid ratio quickly leads to an excess of sugary liquid that develop around the animal’s rear. The patrolling ants can then “milk” their cattle, consuming the nectar off the larvae’s body.

The following day, the exact same interaction between more herding ants and aphids were observed on the stem of another small plant (see photo by John Kaiser, below). This "ant herding" interaction between the two species is a text book example of mutualism because both the organisms benefit greatly from the others exisistence and production. Relationships like these are truly fascinating to us because it shows how two organisms can co-evolve to survive and be successful! - Kyle Clark and John Kaiser