We are doing 4 different research projects simultaneously while in Costa Rica.
1. Observing the different species of birds that attend army ant raids. Some birds are specialized to follow the ants because insects run away from the army ant raid. This makes it easier for the birds to find prey – birds do not eat army ants!
Method: Whenever we come across a raid of army ants pillaging the forest, we set a timer for an hour and identify every species of bird that comes in close proximity to the ants. On this trip alone, I’ve been able to identify 60+ species of birds!
2. Collecting scent samples from army ant bivouacs (aka the home base for army ants). They don’t build nests; they form a collective mass (of ants) under trees or in the ground. They usually relocate every night and move in massive migrations.
Method: When we find one, we set up a scent collecting apparatus Sean thought up using S.P.M.E. fibers (pronounced spee-mee, some weird scientific acronym). The fibers bind to any compound found in the air, and we can send the SPME fibers to be chemically analyzed. With this information, we could determine how/if birds are tracking the army ants by smell.
3. Dominant male behavior in wasp species Mischocyttarus mastigophorus. Males are rarely dominant in social insects; this species of wasps is very laid back and won’t sting you unless continually provoked. The males actually bully the female wasps. We are testing to see if there is some connection between the female’s dominance and their nutrition.
Method: locate a colony of wasps and surround the nest with Halothane fumes contained in a cup until the wasps were knocked out. Mark the wasps with paint for identification, until they can be dissected and analysed.
4. Thermo tolerance of different species of army ants at different elevations. (This is actually the research of graduate student Kaitlin Baudier: she has her own crew collecting extensive data.) Army ants (underground and above) can only live comfortably at certain temperatures. Studying what elevations they exist at could shine more light on their distribution and, over a period of time, could also predict the possible future effects of climate change.
Method: collect raiding army ants and separate them into test tubes and test survival rates at both hot and cold temperatures.
And that is all of the projects we have been diligently working on this summer.
Now for the fun (and much less scientific) stuff.
We went to a field station located in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. There is no Internet, no cell phone service, and no hot water. You can’t get to the station by car; you have to park at the top of the continental divide and hike an hour and a half down the mountain. Don’t forget your snake boots! There are snakes everywhere.
It was AWESOME there. A local couple owns the place and they maintain the entire station by themselves. That includes grocery shopping for a capacity of 40 people, cooking, cleaning, repairs, maintaining all the trails for safe hiking, and chasing away venomous snakes. It was similar to summer camp. There were bunk beds and outside the rooms was a huge porch lined with hammocks overlooking the volcano (that was sadly, always concealed by mist).
My favorite part of the trip was hiking to the waterfall! Our crew stripped down to our underwear and went swimming. The water was freezing and walking underneath the waterfall was like getting hit by a million icy water bullets.
We have seen our fair share of wildlife throughout the trip. I’ve seen multiple monkey species, tarantulas, scorpions, tarantula hawks (aka giant wasps that kill tarantulas and also have the second most painful sting in the world…), rainbow lizards, freaky bugs, butterflies, toucans, etc etc. So many animals I can’t list them all. Life is thriving here. At least, where the animals are protected. There is a lot of deforestation to make room for lucrative coffee and banana plantations. The future of the rainforest here is unknown. Private owners own the reserves, not the government, and they are safe for now, but one wrong management move and the forests could be gone.
Sometimes hiking through the forests we find strangler figs, which are huge parasitic trees that grow on other large trees and basically choke them to death. After a while, the dead tree on the inside of the strangler fig will rot away and the fig tree is left completely hallow. This is perfect for climbing! You can climb up inside the tree to astonishing heights. You have to be careful because the insides of some trees are teaming with spider webs…
We had a humming bird feeder hanging up right next to the windows of our house, but humming birds kept slamming into the glass! One humming bird didn’t see the window and flew straight into it, then tried to fly away but fell into the grass. We ran over and picked it up and put it in a dark cooler to try to calm it down a bit. After a few minutes, its wings were buzzing against the walls of the cooler so Sean took it in his hand and we tried to feed it some sugar water before releasing it. After that, we moved the feeder further away from the house to prevent more collision accidents.
So many cockroaches have crawled into my luggage that I am scared what I will be bringing back with me when I fly to Philly. I have chigger bites all over my body and there are spiders in every corner of the house. Sometimes at night the spiders with webs above my bed will drop bugs on my face while I am sleeping.
Last night, we went square dancing! The Quakers get everyone up on their feet and dancing to polka music on a record player. Afterwards, we went down as a group to a Latino bar. Everyone got beers and cheap tequila shots and we (kinda) learned how to dance like true Latinos! Salsa, merengue; the dancing here is so much more fun than American parties.
With our stay in Costa Rica coming to an end, I know I am really going to miss it here!