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.
Lima (sea level) to Cusco (3400 m) to Wayqecha (3000 m)…..Quite a change in one day! We were off and running in Cusco with quick stops at the grocery and hardware store for last supplies before heading to more remote areas. Our drive on the winding Manu Highway (a gravel road) to the Wayqecha Biological Station was super dusty. It turns out that it has not rained in these cloud forests for over three weeks. A short dry season usually occurs in August-September so this drought was unusual. The clouds have been coming in over the Amazon Basin, but dropping their moisture at lower elevations. As in Kansas, a dry season means reduced insect activity. Our first 3-hr trail walk today through cloud forests turned into a botany exercise since I point out the forest structure, physical characteristics, and plant composition. We go slowly, testing our fitness at this elevation; the students are breaking in their new clothing and shoes. I aim to introduce the forest structure and its plants, to learn some familiar plant families and some rare/unusual ones—Orchids and ferns, mosses and lichens, Proteceace, Bamboo, Solanaceae, Rubiaceae, Selaginellas, and tree ferns. The filmy ferns (Hymenophyllaceae) are just one cell thick, transparent and rely on damp conditions; well, they were crispy ferns, dried and dormant, awaiting rain. We got far out on the trail, when the clouds rolled in and poured! The intermittent canopy slows the drips, but we were still quite soaked by the time we returned to the station buildings. We might be huffing and puffing on the first walks at this elevation, but we had a glorious morning of botanising. And the filmy ferns are happy again.
On day two of our adventure in Lima, Peru, we were exposed to the fascinating history of various different cultural practices performed by a variety of Peruvian nations. One of the most intriguing of these practices that we learned about is cranial trepanation, in which the skull of the human being is intentionally deformed. This process is performed during early infancy when the skull is the most pliable.
While visiting the Museo Nacional Arqueología, Antropología y Historia de Perú in Lima, we learned about this practice of the pre-Incan Paracas nation (750 BC-100 AD). The museum displays skulls that have undergone three different types of cranial trepanation. These variations employ a variety of methods and result in a different head shape. One type, called tabulate modeling, utilizes a wood panel placed at the nape of the neck and projected upwards; a rope keeps the wood panel steady. It results in an elongated skull that extends upwards. The second type of modeling we saw is trepanning, which also produces an elongated skull. The third type is bilobular results in a heart-shaped, rounded skull that is produced by a very specific method of wrapping cloth.
Researchers strongly believe that this process was used in the Paracas culture as a means to delineate the social status of an individual. However, very little else is known, such as what does each separate shape say about the individual’s specific status? Our tour guide Fernando Benaducci Otayza (who was INCREDIBLY knowledgeable and passionate about Peruvian history!) had the opinion that head binding must have been performed on people of lower classes because it is an incredibly painful process (so, punishing?) with various neurological repercussions. I am encouraged to think the opposite, though simply because the process of head-binding requires a lot of planning and attention for an extended period of time; it makes more sense to me that this time could only be afforded to those of a higher social standing. After all, “beauty is pain” is a cultural saying that has reached just about every corner of the world.
However, the intrigue isn’t so much in whether or not I am “right” or the tour guide is “right”, it’s in the mere fact that there is an elaborate cultural process that dramatically changed the lives of the Paracas people and continues to baffle us to this day. -Sarah
My biggest surprise in Lima is its architecture. Lima is a city of 9 million people (as big as Chicago). As you can imagine, this means buildings are narrow and tall, but very close together. The layout is very beautiful, with many bright colors and a variety of modern, traditional, colonial, and Peruvian styles.
This combination is spectacular in Lima’s downtown. The cathedrals are my favorite buildings, even though I am not very religious. Peru’s population is around 86% catholic; therefore, churches are extremely important here. The extravagant churches reflect this. Not only the outside of the churches are beautiful, but the inside as well.
Our group was very fortunate to climb into one of the biggest cathedral towers at St. Dominic’s Monastery. Six stories of stairs led the top of the tower; each level had a different display about the history of the church. These displays consisted of a level with pictures, a photo booth, bells, tiles, and pews. My personal favorite was the penultimate story had different giant bells hanging from the ceiling. When we finally reached the top of the tower you could see miles and miles away over the city in every direction – absolutely breathtaking!
Today outside of the archeological museum [National Museum of the Archaeology, Anthropology, and History], Paige and I witnessed a small but festive parade. At first I assumed they were celebrating a holiday we didn’t know of, but as we got closer, we realized it was a parade for a Catholic elementary school’s “Family Olympics”.
Each grade came marching down the street in different brightly colored sections, with their parents beating drums, blowing whistles, and throwing confetti into the air, chanting when they reached the middle of the street where the nuns were watching. This concept of the family Olympics reminded me of an event my elementary school did with our families called the jog-a-thon.
I found it interesting that they held a parade for something as simple as a school’s family event. People who were just out on walks with their dogs even stopped to watch the children go by; there were people on stilts and someone dressed as Elmo showed up too. I really enjoyed watching the children and their parents marching down the street and chanting, playing in unison, and having a great time. I would have loved a school celebration like that when I was in elementary school.
We are about to embark on our second week of fieldwork. Students have had the weekend at home to do laundry and regroup before we head off to Barber County and the Alexander Ranch. I’m told that this will be the first KU party to visit the ranch in 40 years.
Our hope is that with a little rain we might also be among the few to ever hear a chorus of the Red-spotted toad in Kansas. Our second stop will be Baxter Springs in Cherokee County, home to a number of salamanders found nowhere else in the state.
Last week was a great success. I’m so proud of the students! Many are pre-health care students headed for careers as nurses, doctors, and physical therapists. Perhaps unlikely participants in a field biology course, but here they are catching lizards, snakes and frogs. While handing a prairie king snake at the end of last week, one student remarked “If you’d told me a week ago that I’d be wrangling snakes for a photo session, I’d have told you that you were nuts!” Yet, here she was, pillowcase held over the snake on a picturesque rock set against a landscape of sandstone, mixed grasses, and desert plants at Wilson State Lake.
Our most exciting finds last week were the abundance of Collared lizards in central Kansas, the grass-swimming Glass lizard (which has no legs), some “horned toads” (really lizards), and two 5’ long Coachwhip snakes. Who knows what this week will hold.
-David McLeod, instructor
Most of our frogs have come from the permanent pond on the Konza property. We have found four species here: northern cricket frogs, Cope’s gray tree frog, leopard frogs, and bullfrogs. We’ve also found a red-sided garter snake and one particularly unhappy common snapping turtle, shown above.
-Matt Jones, graduate student in geology/vertebrate paleontology.
I don’t know when the last time was that KU offered a field Herpetology course. Months ago it was decided that this would be a good year to correct for this absence. Our goal: to collect local amphibians and reptiles from different regions of the state to bolster our genetic resources at the BI.
On May 19th, 12 would-be herpetologists set off on a grand expedition across the state. First stop—Konza Prairie Biological Research Station in the heart of the Flint Hills. This unique tall grass prairie ecosystem reserve boasts a diverse community of amphibians and reptiles, amazing views, and is home to a herd of about 300 bison.
Our first two days at Konza have been outstanding! Next stop—Wilson State Lake in the Smokey Hills region of Kansas (Russel Co.)
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.