Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Edith, the Tarantula

Photo credit: Tracey Funk

On a night hike at the University of Georgia field station, I encountered a hairy friend, Edith. Edith is a Costa Rican Orange-Kneed Tarantula (Brachypelma smithi) that has inhabited a miniature triangular cave for the past year. Female tarantulas live up to 20 years, and occupy a cave or burrow where they wait to ambush unsuspecting prey.

Bradley Hiatt, our night hike guide and a resident naturalist, explained that Edith had been sitting on her egg sac for 6 months. Only one baby tarantula could be found beneath Edith’s wooly legs, the rest left the burrow after their first molt. The male tarantulas pursue females, so they have a lower survival rate than the females who wait in their burrows.

Costa Rican Orange-Kneed Tarantulas are omnivorous and will eat anything, from insects to small rodents. Irritating hairs on the tarantula’s body are used for protection and to catch prey. When attacked, a tarantula will flick the hairs off into a cloud of dust and hairs so it can quickly escape. Edith has been attacked and used these flicking hairs; the evidence is the bald spot on her abdomen. If the tarantula is backed into a corner, it will perform a threat display before biting its attacker with its malicious fangs. This tarantula species’ bite is not lethal to humans but you may have a nasty wound or allergic reaction.

Edith is one of many extraordinary creatures I observed in Costa Rica. Seeing Edith in her natural habitat positively impacted my perception of peculiar or misinterpreted organisms. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

No Rain in the Rain Forest

While researching my previous blog A Dry Rainforest? I learned that Costa Rica is having a more extreme dry season than most and is actually experiencing a drought. To the untrained eye (like mine and most tourists) the forest appears fine; the plants are green and the lack of rain is assumed to be due to the dry season. For those familiar with rainforests, however, the signs are everywhere. Plants have fewer new growths than usual, deciduous trees have lost many of their leaves, and there have been many days with no precipitation at all. The cloud forest in Monteverde, normally a place of constant precipitation even in dry seasons, has received no precipitation for the past five days.
The drought has consequences reaching far beyond the rainforest. Hydroelectric dams generate approximately 82% of Costa Rica’s energy. The dropping water levels caused by the drought result in less water pressure to power the dams, reducing their total hydroelectric power. Costa Ricans must compensate by shifting to fossil fuels, hindering their goal to become the world’s first carbon neutral nation by 2021. It is believed that this drought is the result of a severe El Niño – the same weather system bringing floods to southern California – but the effect is exacerbated by recent climate trends. Global climate change has affected the region by increasing the number of completely dry days during the dry season. Since 2011 the area began experiencing over 100 dry days a year. Ironically, Costa Rica’s forced use of more fossil fuels only exacerbates the issue. If they are to achieve carbon neutral status, Costa Ricans (and the entire global population) will need to find a way to avoid regressing towards using fossil fuels.  


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

6 months of collections management

This past August, I returned to the University of Kansas – and Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute – becoming the new Collections Manager in the Division of Herpetology. August couldn’t have made for a better homecoming, as KU was celebrating 100 years of herpetological research by hosting the annual SSAR (Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles) meeting. The meeting offered a perfect opportunity to connect with so many whom have helped build this division into one of the greatest centers for herpetological research in the country, if not the world.

Over these few first, short months I’ve received nothing but support from students and colleagues, making the transition from student to employed researcher nearly seamless. This support has afforded me the flexibility to take on the responsibilities associated with managing a collection of more than 340,000 herpetological natural history specimens, while simultaneously wrapping up dissertation work towards a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology.

With the aid of a stellar group of undergraduate volunteers, an incredible curatorial assistant, and a cohort of graduate students that are second to none, we’ve been able to close outstanding loans of material that are years and even decades past due. We’ve also accessioned and incorporated into our collections several thousand specimens of amphibians and reptiles from the Philippines, Kansas (US), and Madagascar.  Over the next few months, we’ll be doing the same for recent collections from the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Cameroon. Additional projects on the horizon include continued digitization of specimen photographs, calls, and other ancillary data, and a complete inventory of our tissue and dry collections.

I’m very much looking forward building on the storied history of herpetology at the University of Kansas. From modernizing the use of the collection, to maintaining it’s availability for researchers in the international community, and even contributing to it directly through my own research endeavors, I hope to play an integral roll in the future of herpetology here at KU.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Dry Rainforest?

In class I learned to classify a rainforest as a forest that receives ample precipitation throughout the year. I was confused then to find out that the Carara National Forest, while still a vibrant green, is currently in its dry season. We learned that there are different formations, or classifications, of rainforests that depend on factors including climate, soil, and elevation. Carara, for example, is a seasonal forest because it experiences a wet and dry season.

The seasonal changes in Carara are not due to Earth’s axial tilt, like the seasons we are used to in temperate climates. Instead, the seasons are a result of wind patterns over the mountainous continental divide. During the summer strong trade winds drive clouds from the Caribbean side of Costa Rica over the continental divide to the Pacific side. On their journey up the mountains the clouds lose much of their precipitation and create a rain shadow effect in Pacific forests like Carara. In the winter, the trade winds die down and allow clouds from the Pacific side to rise up over the central mountains, thus beginning the wet season.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A Great Place to Swim…Once

En route to Jaco from San Jose there is a bridge over the Rio Tarcoles made famous from the large population of American Crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) that gather down below. The bridge has become a popular ecotourist stop, and after going there I see why. The bridge is just wide enough that people can exit their cars and walk alongside the road. We counted 26 enormous crocodiles in the water below us!

The reason for the large population is unclear, but their presence is evidence of the respect Costa Ricans hold for the environment. The crocodiles thrive because they are protected by the Costa Rican government. In 2012, a law was unanimously passed to ban all sport-hunting in Costa Rica. Not only was this the first law of its kind in the Americas, but it was also the first bill in Costa Rica to be proposed by popular initiative. Because of the widespread value Costa Ricans place on their environment, there is a large public movement to protect wildlife. The petition for the law submitted to Congress had 177,000 signatures. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Hiking in Carara National Park

On Tuesday morning we traveled to hike at Carara National park, near Punta Leona. Our nature guide for the day, Maurice Vasquez told us about his line of work and its required education. Maurice has worked in the park for 18 years. He explained the challenging path to become a nature guide in Costa Rica. Certified guides have a unique I.D.  indicating they received proper training in Costa Rican biology and culture, environmental and social ethics, communication, first aid, and education. This impressive array of communicative skills was gained while working toward a post-bachelor's degree in a biological field for three years, which is required to become a guide. Maurice told us he is fluent in Spanish, English, German, and French. He explained that he attended university in Hamburg and took up German there. Maurice's dedication to his career and to wildlife was contagious, and he stopped and taught anyone he could while on the trails. I think he is the embodiment of Costa Rica's motto "pure life." He really seemed to embrace the astounding biodiversity of the country with pride. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Introducing Xiaomin Zhou

Hello! My name is Xiaomin Zhou and I currently study Molecular Biosciences at the University of Kansas. I am participating in the Costa Rica field biology program for the unique opportunity to expand my class-based Biology background with new experiences: living in the ecosystem, observing the live plants and animals, learning about species interactions, and the classification and identification of characters. During this course, I hope to gain insight into fieldwork and field research to broaden my understanding and appreciation of biodiversity, while exploring the tropical environments of Costa Rica. I also look forward to learning more about Central American culture because I study the Spanish language.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Introducing Tracey Funk

My name is Tracey Funk and I am a freshman at KU studying Biology.  I have always been interested in ecology and enjoy spending time outdoors. Participating in the Field Biology program in Costa Rica will give me an opportunity to develop my research skills and experience true fieldwork. I am especially looking forward to seeing a cloud forest firsthand and learning more about the dynamics in the unique ecosystem. My favorite aspect of ecology is exploring the relationships between different organisms. While in Costa Rica, I hope to compare and contrast the relationships in tropical ecosystems to those in the prairie ecosystems I am familiar with in Kansas.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Introducing Shannon "Nikki" Pelkey

My name is Shannon Pelkey, but I go by Nikki. I am a freshman at KU studying Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Organismal Biology and Environmental Studies. I also am interested in becoming fluent in French! Hopefully this trip to Costa Rica will give me a chance to explore the Spanish language and gain experience in field research, biology, and conservation. I chose this study abroad trip to experience a new culture and learn the basics of being a biologist, so I can get a glimpse of my future career. I am inspired by nature and people, and I feel like we have not lived in harmony with the earth for some time. I want to educate governments and people in conservation and sustainability so that we do not drive ourselves off this planet we are destroying. Although space travel would be extremely cool, I would rather have a future more like the television series Star Trek than the movie Interstellar! This time spent in Costa Rica will hopefully give me new knowledge and experiences so I can gain skills and make a few good memories along the way.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Introducing Luke Schletzbaum

I am Luke Schletzbaum from Overland Park, Kansas and I’m a Junior majoring in Organismal Biology. Some of the things that inspired me to enter my field are habitat loss, species conservation, and science education. I chose to go on this field biology trip with Dr. Chaboo mostly due to the location and the ability to conduct fieldwork in a location renowned for its incredible biodiversity. Over the course of the trip I hope to gain experiences locating and obtaining specimens and how to categorize and prepare them for study. 
When I entered KU I heard many things about how great the study abroad program is.I waited until an opportunity intrigued me, and this was the one!