Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Welcome to Santiago, Chile

I came to Santiago because I could. The folks from Duke's Nicholas School for the Environment invited alumni from our program to join them on their field trip to study environmental, social and economic sustainability in Chile. Without thinking hard about it, I said yes. So here I am, blogging after midnight from the lobby at the Ritz Carlton (this is Duke after all). It’s only two days in and already I’m charmed sockless. This is a new world city, mixing in art and archiecture elements of European tradition and Latin contemporary all in a spectacular landscape beneath the towering Andes.

We arrived Saturday morning after a long overnight flight from Atlanta. One might think my regular sitting practice would make me good at sitting itself and one would be wrong: ugh. Not to worry, Ritz and Carlton are here to help. Complete recuperation was systematically accomplished through a morning in the hotel spa’s steam room, sauna, pool, hot tub and roof-top deck.

Considering my definition of a great hotel room is one on the far side of the interstate with some distance from the ice-machine, this place has me a bit unsettled with its big feather beds, world-class spa and young, beautiful men in top hats (not named Ritz or Carlton) opening every door as I approach. Still, I’ll find a way to cope and suspect my sense of entitlement will coincide with my departing flight. Falling asleep on the deck in the bright afternoon sun, I sunk in. The fall weather here feels a bit like San Diego: bright sun, deep blue sky, a little too warm and relief in the form of an occasional breeze.

Sunday we ventured out into Santiago visiting the Pre-Columbian Museum, National Art Gallery and some local markets. We had our first meetings today, including a discussion with the head of a Terram local non-profit focused on environmental policy and social justice, former Chilean President (!) Dr. Ricardo Lagos and dinner with local Duke alumni. Later in the week, we'll be heading up into the mountains for a first-hand experience of Chile's ecotourism. Our group is posting to the Nicholas School's blog so you can follow the official sustainability course there. I'll be more casual here (for I have no course credit to worry on) going deep on all of these amazing experiences, museums, markets, meetings and more, in upcoming posts. Suffice it to say for now that trips mixing education and vacation are the way to go. I’m a delighted sponge and already certain that departing flight will come too soon.

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At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds really cool, Kristin. National Geographic just did an article about Santiago. I like your Blog site, very nicely done. Sounds like you are doing well. If you ever pass through Chicago look me up. Mark K.


Monday, September 01, 2008


At long last, I am pursuing this long-held idea of starting my own software company focused on software solutions for environmental problems. I’ll start out with consulting, add staff and customers and move to independent product development as opportunities arise. And for this venture, I've secured the domain name "PlanetWare.Net"

The mission of PlanetWare.Net will be to bring the power of software technology to the problems of the environment. We build software for a healthy planet. (Of course, at the moment, “we” is refers to the “royal we.” ;) We'll combine software development expertise, experience in natural resources conservation and other environmental issues with a proven ability to deliver world-class solutions for diverse customers.

Our services include development consulting in technology strategy, system architecture, product definition, project management, software development and user experience. Overtime, the company will independently offer software products, perhaps in the area of water resources management, ecosystem services valuation (that is, systematic economic valuation of clean air, clean and plentiful water and other stuff in-tact ecosystems give us “for free”) and environmental systems data integration. Or somethin’ like that.

I've got my first contract and am building the foundation of a small business. What? Am I Scared? Nah! I'm terrified. But thanks to great friends, family, Pema Chödrön and The Buddha, it's all good.

By the way, the image to the left is an early prototype for a PlanetWare.Net logo. Let me know what you think!

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Case for Conservation Information Systems

As promised, I'm beginning a series of posts based on components of my master's research. I'll begin by answering this basic question: why should anyone care? That is, why would we in conservation who have so few dollars to address the enormous need we face spend any money or even time on information systems?

Here's my answer: The game is changing. Conservation of natural systems has moved from a personal value to a requirement for living. Our historical focus on species loss and sprawl must broaden dramatically to include issues as complex and integrated as climate change, water. The Nature Conservancy's marketing department is already on the job: "Last great places" has been replaced by "Protecting nature. Preserving life." On the information side of the house, the conservation comunity must recognize and respond to the need for a new level of scientifically rigorous, defensable information to guide, improve and account for our actions.

Environmental conservation has always had to answer the question, what and how do we conserve? After all, limited resources and compelling alternatives are nothing new. But the more sophisticated answers mean higher demands on information.

Conservation 1.0. In its early form, human conservation of natual systems has focused on the protection of beautiful, "wild" places and the species that compell us. The criteria for conservation was thus subjective, even intuitive. Who needs an information systems for that? We see it, we love it, we protect it. Simple. Protecting a place is straightforward. Protecting a species usually means protecting habitat. So we'll need good ecology and habitat maps. Not so simple, but usally doable given that clear focus.

Conservation 2.0. We've known for a while now that the sixth great extinction is underway, anthropogneic in origin. Translation: massive critter die off, our fault. The Endangered Species Act moved us beyond the "charasmatic" critieria and instead asked questions about species' rarity. Now we're studying a lot more ecology and mapping a lot more habitat in the context of government accountability for the recovery of nature's rare elements. Then E.O. Wilson coined the term “biodiversity” as we recognized the need to preserve the full bounty of nature's creatures and habitats and conservation took up the charge. With more sophisticated analyses of critical species habitat, richness, rarity or irreplacibility we identified "hot spots" that gave us big biodiversity bang for our buck. Uh oh. We might need some serious information systems to help us understand a whole slew of species habitats and their conditions. Who has this data, how do we get it, integrate it (so easy to say, so hard to do), and analyze it?

Conservation 3.0. Present day. By necessity, the conservation agenda must respond to at least five new realities, all with significant ramifications for our information systems requirements:

  1. People really do need nature
    Awareness of the human dependency on functioning natural systems is on the rise and with it the need to explicitly value the services provided by intact, functioning natural systems. This view recognizes conservation’s role in informing tradeoffs in the ongoing human domestication of nature. Valuation of ecosystem services depends on highly quantitative, spatially-explicit, multi-scaled analyses based on both biophysical and socioeconomic datasets.

  2. Global Climate Change
    Suddently, effective conservation depends on forcasting nature's response to a changing climate. Tall freckin' order! We must develop models of biodiversity response to changing conditions at a scale that can inform natural resource management and landscape planning. These analyses themselves must accomodated improvements in prediction algorithms and the granularity and accuracy of input datasets.

  3. No more “go it alone”
    Both assessments and action increasingly require of conservation organizations deep collaborations with each other, partners in government and the private sector. To effect decision making, assessments across the spectrum of conservation subjects, from the condition of individual species to integrated regional land-use planning, increasingly require contributions from multiple organizations and disciplines. Similarly, implementation of conservation projects more and more often involves active participation of cooperating organizations. Effective collaboration depends on information sharing and integration.

  4. Scale Matters
    Conservation biology increasingly recognizes that the geographic scale at which analyses are performed changes the questions asked and answered. As a result, multi-scale assessments are required to effectively inform decision making within a given region.

  5. Account and Adapt
    Finally, the business of conservation is under increased pressure from the donors and the public to account for its spending and objectively measure outcomes of its strategies. Adaptive management specifically requires that we do no “wait for science;” rather measure and respond to measurement of our actions themselves.

All of the changes above translate to growing, not shrinking, demands on effective information systems. Conservation must adapt to the changes underway in its core business. The era of intuitive valuation of conservation priorities has ended. Donors and societies must know that their investments in conservation are based on rigorous and informed analysis. We may not be particularly good at this stuff today, but we better get good at it and quick. We risk fidelity to our mission as well as relevancy to society if we do not invest in the information systems capacity required to protect nature and preserve life.

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At 2:02 PM, Blogger Seamus Abshere said...


You say:

Both assessments and action increasingly require of conservation organizations deep collaborations with each other, partners in government and the private sector.

I'd like to point out that social networking technology makes meaningful action by individuals possible by aggregating it. I work for a company that was founded on the idea of allowing individuals to both assess and take action on climate change (admittedly only one part of the conservation equation); see a blog post on our early attempts here: http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/brighter_planet.php.

Looking forward to reading more. Best,

PS. You've got a blog, why not sign up for our 350 Challenge? http://350.brighterplanet.com


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Changing Jerseys

As many of you know, I was enjoying my work at NatureServe. At the same time, starting last June, I began to see through various connections signs of positive change in The Nature Conservancy's approach to information systems development including an improved governance, deeper integration with science, accountability and software development practices. When my friend Dennis Fuze, who is in charge of all systems development there, told me he was hiring for a Director of Conservation Systems Development, it seemed like just the right role. So I jumped into the interview process (intense!) and was offered the job, reporting to same-friend Dennis.

My technology background suited the systems development folks, and the Nicholas School credentials turned out to be instrumental in swaying the conservation science and practitioners… those who will be the customers of the systems development I oversee.

So I got the job and now I’m terrified. Okay, not completely, but I am “excited.” The Conservancy is a BIG organization with all of the accompanying challenges plus a few more. It’s also one that I respect immensely, has wonderful people and unique opportunities. I am thrilled to have the chance to contribute.

Tree frog, Canaima National Park, Venezuela© Ana Garcia/The Nature Conservancy

I have a great team (spread all over the country!) and a challenging portfolio of existing and new projects. I'll continue to work with folks from NatureServe, now as a tough customer. I'm still in the Conservation Information Technology league, I've just switched jerseys.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Purposeful Polymer Paranoia

"I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics."
-- Mr. McGuire, the "Graduate"

Not. We're polluting our oceans with microscopic plastic at an alarming rate. Orion Magazine published this great article in their May/June issue on the disturbing accumulation and durability of plastics in our environment, especially the oceans. “Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated,” says Tony Andrady, “every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last fifty years or so still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment.”

So now I'm adopting and hopefully spreading purposeful polymer paranoia. I hate the stuff, avoid it wherever I can and I hope you will too.

Here's tow easy places to stop using plastic: reuse grocery bags and say 'no' to bottled water. Tap water will do just fine according to this recent New York Times article which also points out that rich folk buying imported bottled water relieves important political pressure on local governments to ensure high quality tap water for all.

Photo by Andy Hughes published in Orion Magazine, May/June 2007


Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Coat of Arms

Everyone needs a coat of arms. Well, maybe not everyone. Okay, I do. Here then is my coat of arms, the symbol and words of my Human Family Values, in neon (of course):

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Conclusions from the Course

Cabo Blanco was mostly about wrapping up papers and having some great end-of-course parties and gave me the opportunity to think on all that I had learned over the this month experience.

I have shared with you so far much of the beauty and intrigue, large and small, of the sites we visited. But in my work and education in conservation, there was much to contemplate beyond an introduction to and appreciation of natural Costa Rica. So, along those lines, here's a smattering of impressions and ideas that struck me...

From a technology perspective, some obvious conclusions emerged. GPS: not there yet and not clear how we get there any time soon. The devices are fine, it's the canopy that's the problem. So unless you can afford an antenae to get your reading above the trees, GPS is just a nice idea. Devices in general, including field text, audio, image and video collection, are coming down in price, but under used by researches because those with sufficient durability are still prohibitively expensive. It rains a ton and if your device isn't waterproof, it's rather useless. Moreover, the degree that technology determines the scope of research projects was clarified. That is, researchers use the tools they know and answer the questions their tools can illuminate. It's easy to see how specialized technology is playing an increasingly important role in biology: gene research being the most striking example. But GIS was rarely used in our course, not because there weren't innumerable fascinating spatial questions to ask and answer with GIS, but because almost all the students lacked familiarity with the toolset. That will change as the tools improve (dramatic improvements await!), but I was struck by the lack of use even among these young and sophisticated computer users. It's nice to be needed. Finally, I continue to see an opportunity for dramatic new organization and infrastructure in bioinformatics. The combination of incredible information overlap, in real data not just metadata, combined with powerful scientific and conservation implications for effective sharing means that there are huge untapped efficiencies. I continued to be inspired by the idea of a sub-internet, a "Bioinformatics Web" where conservation and scientific, especially conservation biology, data is entered, analyzed and leveraged in dramatically improved ways. Bottom line on this topic is that my work at NatureServe seems just the right thing.

As I said in my Conservation Economics post, I was moved by the irony of Costa Rica's acclaimed conservation programs and the realities of continued deforestation. Amphibian declines and ongoing hunting issues clarified the possibility of "empty forests". Secondary forests may indeed be the forests of the future, but if biodiversity declines continue, they will be characteristically quite different.

But it was the economic realities of conservation that I was most impressed by, specifically the need to develop the economic rewards of conservation and reforestation or be prepared for continued degradation. For instance, I was compelled by our discussion with Dan Jansen's and his bias against species-based conservation at the cost of simple acquisition and effective protection of intact landscapes or those suitable to reforestation that can connect intact landscapes. His views were characteristically harsh, but pragmatic. Dan also spoke with us about the accessibility that DNA bar coding may bring to non-scientists. I happen to agree that taxonomy need not be protected by the high-priests of today's taxonomists and that they is enormous education, and conservation, potential in making species identification increasingly cheap and easy.

Here again the theme of integrating local people into the conservation/restoration theme was clarified. Dan's work under INBio to train and employ local experts in taxonomy is a powerful alternative to the traditional, first-world-academia approach used by many conservation organizations. We saw another example the power of local knowledge in Cuerici where Swiss foresters controlled "sustainable forestry" practices. Secondary tree mortality resulting from the selective logging was much higher than the experts anticipated but completely consistent with the predictions of local farmers who know the forest.

In getting to know my fellow students, I was impressed and heartened by their talents and passion for their areas of expertise. I look forward to watching many of them progress to successful careers in science. I was surprised, I must say, by how some of the brightest minds among them seemed relatively unconcerned by issues in conservation. If nothing else, I would think self-interest in the preservation of their own systems would motivate some concerns. The course coordinators' inclusion of conservation and social science issues was thus all the more valuable to me.

I was also struck by the need for environmental education to encourage pragmatism and a system's approach. Even some faculty members took what I considered to be idealistic and unrealistic positions on the case for conservation that simply ignored historical, sociological and economic forces that must be respectfully confronted. In others I witnessed extreme pessimism about those same forces and a sense of helplessness. Both classes of response were recognizable to me from my own history. My experience in Costa Rica has clarified for me at a deeper level the need to stay positive, constructive and holistic in my own thinking and communication. Neither narrow idealism nor pessimism can be afforded.

There were some side lessons on leadership. My course coordinators struggled a bit to maintain good science content and keep logistics in order. Without going into too much detail, I can say that the course provided a small microcosm for the study of leadership and group dynamics. I didn't envy the coordinators' leadership challenges especially logistics in a foreign country and a bunch of opinionated students with sometimes conflicting needs. The experience gave me countless examples of the idea that leadership is best thought of as service ... and hard work. I particularly emphathized with the lonliness that leadership can sometimes bring, specifically the need to let go of being understood and even liked.

In these blog entries, I can see an evolution in my understanding of Costa Rica, natural systems and tropical biology research. What I will remember about Costa Rica is the combination of its natural beauty and conservation realities. What a fantastic and fun (!) experience.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Swimming at Cabo Blanco

As a fitting end to our two month course, we went to the beach. Cabo Blanco is a secluded reserve on the southwest corner of the Nicoya penninsula where the forest meets the ocean. We spent four days at this beautiful site here doing our final field work. The snorkeling was fantastic and gave us a great opportunity to do underwater research projects.

My team worked with James ("Jimmy") Liao from Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Jimmy has done some amazing work (cover of Science Magazine!) showing how fish optimize their swimming motion by slalmoning through areas of turbulance in streams. They change the cadence of their swimming strokes to 'bounce off' regular eddies or vortices caused by obstacles or other fish. In doing so, they use much less energy versus a normal swiming stroke.

Jimmy worked with our team looked to explore another (simpler) aspect of swimming biomechanics: fish morphology and potential correlation with habitat types. Paul Webb in 1984 proposed a "functional-morphology plane" that describes fish as cruisers (think tuna), maneuverers (think angel fish) or accelerators (think grouper) or some combination of the three.

We categorized the fish just off shore from Cabo Blanco as one of the basic three types and tested for coorelation to two different habitats: one closer open ocean and the other more protected and spatially complex. We did find a correlation between cruiser morphology with the habitat closer to open ocean and also between manueverer morphology and the more protected and complex environment. The project gave us some interesting exposure to concepts in evolution and specialization in the context of marine environments.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Conservation Economics

Monteverde's cloud forest is truly sublime with its distinctive dripping moss. The area has become one of Costa Rica's most famous destinations for ecotourism. In ironic support of that purpose, it's extremely hard to get to: the dirt road is long and jaw-crushingly filled with pot-holes. By this "neglect", the town of St. Elena and the Monteverde Reserve are discouraging day trippers from San Jose. You have to want it; you must commit. And if you do you'll spend more money and speak more favorably of it to your (wealthy) friends.

Founded by Quakers from the US in 1951, early ideas about ecotourism and its ability to make the economics case for conservation were developed here. Unlike most of Costa Rica's protected areas, the Monteverde Reserve itself is privately owned. In order to protect both the forest and visitors' experience of it, the Reserve limits visitors to 120 at a time into this 10,500 hectare property. The price of admission is $12, steep compared to most protected areas, but my sense is that travelers, especially Americans and Europeans, would pay more.

But should Costa Rica convert its economy to ecotourism? It's not an easy argument. Much of Costa Rica may not be interesting to tourists. Small rural communities, pastures, farms: these are not the places tourists flock to. Moreover, compared to agriculture or ranching, tourism is ephemeral. An international economic crisis renders a tourist economy vulnerable whereas the need for cows, banana, pineapple, rice and sugar cane remain.

Over the course of this trip, the irony of Costa Rica has become clear to me. Hailed as a model country for ecotourism, deforestation continues. Celebrated for its visionary park system, most of the parks are inadequately staffed and aren't valued by their surrounding communities. Traveling this landscape, dominated not by forest but by pasture and farms , it's hard not to see that assigning existence value to primary forest is a luxury of the wealthy. Since most of Costa Rica is accessible, even if by crappy roads, every parcel of forest that does remain must justify itself economically to those that own it, manage it and live on or around it. We're closer to the situation in which every tree persists because someone decided it makes some economic sense for it to do so versus a belief in its value as habitat (for monkeys, ants or birds) or its inherent tree-ness.

We spoke with some folks with Fundacorps, a sustainable forestry initiative sponsored in part by World Wildlife Fund, while at La Selva. From those discussions, it became clear that Costa Rica's carbon credit system isn't financially competitive with most other land uses. Furthermore, it's possible to log a forest and then invoke the carbon credit system for several years, then, when you're ready to harvest more trees, turn it off again. That may work well for sequestering carbon, but it doesn't incent the preservation of primary forest and all the biodiversity therein.

At as for the value of biodiversity itself, Merck Pharmaceuticals invested heavily in the protection of biodiversity in Costa Rica to enable "bioprospecting": the mining the forest for tomorrow's chemical compounds. As a consequence, INBio, Costa Rica's national biodiversity institute, was funded to inventory the nation's biodiversity. But Merck's investment didn't pay off. Productivity from synthetics research in the lab outstripped that of the primary forest. Merck has withdrawn most of its funding and INBio now struggles to stay viable.

For those who do see value in the forest's existence, the task is clear: find real economic value that actually pays the bills. That may be ecotourism, carbon sequestration or more abstractly insurance against catastrophe (similar to a diversified financial portfolio, a diverse species portfolio increases nature's chances of recovering from or avoiding disaster). But the value must be real and turn into hard currency for those who have the fate of conserved lands in their hands: local communities, local governments.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006


2nd to last stop: Monteverde Biological Station. The cloud forest was beautiful, the weather was refreshingly cool and the local economy provocative for me about the viabiliy of ecotourism as a way to sustain biodiversity. The station has excellent trails up into the cloud forest and the Monteverde Reserve (photo above with Jimmy in awe) was easy to get to. A wild hummingbird exhibit was just next door to the reserve.

Yet what most struck me about Monteverde was what I didn't see: frogs. We were joined by Allesandro Catenazzi, a professor of herpatology so I was excited to do more work with frogs. But as I mentioned in the posting on our Dendrobates Pumilio project, the amphibian decline has hit all of Central America hard, especially the montane forest species. So my hope of trapsing along streams to find these little jewels of nature was thrwarted, probably by the chytrid fungus.

I did, however, get a chance to visit the somewhat artificial but deeply rewarding Monteverde Frog Pond. This collection of large terrerariums hosting mostly lower montane species gave me satisfaction of seeing these marvelous creatures, even if not in their natural environment.

While I'd love to claim credit, the photo above was taken by a previous OTS student, Ingrid (didn't get a last name). This is Agalychnis callidryas, the red-eyed tree frog. It's actually doing quite well comparatively. The Global Amphibian Assessment ranks it as "Least Concern."


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Rincon de la Vieja

During our stay at Palo Verde, we took a day off. First day off in six weeks. Folks were getting cranky. So the coordinators organized an excursion to Rincon de la Vieja, "haven of the old woman", a volcano about two hours away. It was a magnificent hike to the top of the volcano that began in one of the most beautiful primary forests I saw in all of Costa Rica. In this first picture, Maya, myself and Cynthia take a moment to mock the "Pirate's Code", that is, "if you can't keep up, you'll be left all by your onesees."

Of course, we all made the hike easily. I'll leave it at that and let the pictures below tell the rest of the story.

My sense of scale wass thrown by the intensely clear air, long vistas and surreal landscape. For instance, those little dots on the left rocky ridgeline are fellow hikers

The mouth of Rincon de la Vieja



At 2:22 AM, Blogger Ben said...

nice pictures, we did the walk last februari, very windy!
grtz from belgium


Friday, July 14, 2006

Palo Verde

In the northern province of Guanacaste, the Palo Verde Biological Station sits just above an extensive marsh. The Tempisque river runs through the marsh and low mountains border all sides. We were warned of intolerable heat and mosquitos in this tropical dry forest, but I found neither particularly bothersome (at the time our of our visit, much of the US including DC was suffering an intense heatwave: I think we were much more comfortable than our friends back home). I was delighted by this station, perhaps because of the familiar dryness to my home state of New Mexico, but moreso because of its remoteness and extensive natural vistas.

We were joined at Palo Verde by Xavier Basurto, a social scientist working on conservation from the University of Arizona. Xavier works on community-based management of natural resources, an approach that I find both practical and heartening. I was so inspired by his description of the theory and framework for successful community management of common pool resources that I commondeered another student, Michelle, to work with me on an independant project to apply the principals to water management issues in the Tempisque River Basin. While the scope of our project was too small to allow a thorough examination of the the issues, it was a valuable excercise and one that I hope to pursue in other venues, both because of the importance of fresh water as an increasingly scarce resource and because of the justice and practicality I sense in the community managment approach.

On a walk to the river one day, we came across a troupe of howler monkeys lazily eating fruit from the trees over our heads. Here's one sunning himself, letting mango digest.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Black Mangrove

On route from La Selva to the Palo Verde Biological Station, Jorge Jiménez, the director of OTS, joined us for an excursion into his research system: Costa Rica's black mangrove forests. Living at the intersection between salt water, land and sometimes fresh water, mangroves find their niche by adapting to the challenges of salt, flooding and toxins. In the picture below, you can see the trees' pneumatophores rising out of the ground like spikes. These appendages to the root system take in oxygen in the context of submerged soils. When completely flooded, black mangroves effectively "hold their breath" and have finite capacity to do so.

Mangrove vegetation occurs in 'zones' and in our short walk, the vegetation dramatically changed. We followed Jorge out to the submerged areas of the forest, discovering our inner primates while climbing across the elevated roots seen in this picture below.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

Tropical Forests = Carbon Source?

In the CO2-cycling machine planet Earth, tropical forests are on our side. Scientists have been telling us that climate change, caused by fossil fuel emissions, is mitigated by CO2 uptake of plants in the process of photosynthesis. But plants also emit CO2 in the process of respiration. Researchers at UC Davis recently reported that respiration appears to be essential to the growth of plants, perhaps in order to convert nitrate into a usable form, nitrogen. So when we talk about tropical forests as a sink for CO2, we're really saying that they absorb more CO2 than they emit. But under what conditions might this balance change?

My teammates on our "Biomass of Lianas and Trees" project
at La Selva, the site of Debra Clark's research

Debra Clark spoke to us one night about her research on long term tree growth at our host site, the La Selva Biological Station. It was a fascinating and rather disturbing talk where she emphasized the preliminary and unconfirmed nature of her findings ("Hubris, man!" was her call to scientists and politicians alike). Results from the TREES project show slower growth in years with higher temperature and decreased rainfall and that in the same time periods forests may have been overall sources, not sinks, of CO2. With increased warming and drought forecasted for the tropics, the result is that forests may actually contribute to climate change in a positive feedback cycle. At risk of sounding like Debbie Downer, the feedback cycle could be further exacerbated by increased fire and tree mortality.

Again, Clark's findings are highly preliminary, but we can say that the role of tropical forests in offsetting anthropogenic emissions is unclear. Based on what we do understand, the conservative course of action is clear: get moving! Change our priorities and create the economic incentives sufficient to end deforestation and dramatically curtail fossil fuel emissions.

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At 10:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Kristen,

Sorry for being such a slacker and not checking your blog out over the summer!



Thursday, July 06, 2006

Origins of Flight,
Mean Ways to Fight

Besides leaf cutter ants, we’ve been introduced some of the, ahem, totally cool biomechanics of certain ant species. For instance, Robert Dudley from UC Berkeley gave us a lecture on flight mechanics. That’s right: flying ants. Think about it: arboreal ants (them that live in trees) can easily fall long distances from the branches of canopy and when they do, will they fall to their deaths or will they have evolved the ability to control their decent. Indeed, flying hind legs first many ant species not only control their decent but effectively steer a landing on the truck of the tree from which they fell and simply walk back up the tree to resume their activities. Wow. A collaborator has video footage of the gliding ants at this site. Such controlled decent is found in many species and researchers now hypothesize that the origins of flight began not from the ground up but instead from the high branch down. The hazard of falling from trees thus may have spawned the evolution of flight.

Our own Andy Suarez, who happens to be a lot of fun, has done some interesting research into another area of ant biomechanics: "trap jaw" ants. These are ants that sport huge mandibles spring loaded to close at a rate of 50-60 meters/second. That's the fastest motion known in nature. Trap jaw morphology as evolved at least five times in ants, the most famous being the genus Odontomachus. Not only used to capture and crush absolutely helpless prey, trap jaw ants have been shown to use their unique abilities to escape attack. An ant in despiration will place their mandibles against the ground and fire the release which, because of the enormous force in comparison to their body weight, hurles them into the air and, if all goes well, out of harms way. Andy showed us some truly amazing slow motion video of this last phemonmeon. His collaborator's web page has more infomation if your interest is peaked.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006


To put it midly, these are interesting times for frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians. On a global scale, amphibians are in decline. My own organization, NatureServe, was involved in an international effort to assess the state of amphibians and the news was not good. Nearly one-third (32%) of the world’s amphibian species are threatened, representing 1,896 species. By comparison, just 12% of all bird species and 23% of all mammal species are threatened. As many as 165 amphibian species may already be extinct. In Central America and other regions, frog species in particular are being devastated by the chytrid fungus. At the same time, La Selva as a site plays hosts to impressive amphibian diversity and as a biological station has a long history of amphibian research. So it seemed appropriate to direct one of my independent research projects while at La Selva to some investigation into frogs, these gems of species, this "charismatic microfauna."

I interested another student, Anna from the University of Indiana, in the idea of studying Dendrobates Pumilio, one of the poison dart frogs. D. Pumilio is a wonderous species: besides the beautiful red and blue coloring, they exibhibit interesting reproductive behavior. Males establish territories and call females to them with a distinctive “eh eh eh eh eh eh” sound. Males actively defend their territory against males of the same species first by issuing an “encounter” call distinctive from the mating call and, if the intruder isn’t deterred, engage in physical combat. The resident male usually wins the battle and the territory is his. After mating with a male, the females lay eggs in the forest leaf litter. Males have been shown to guard the eggs until they hatch, afterwhich one of the parents will carry each tadpole on its back to a separate bromeliad plant high in the tree canopy. At this point, female returns daily to lay unfertilized eggs as food for the growing tadpole.

Anna and I decided to conduct an experimental study on the communication mechanisms of D. Pumilio, auditory, visual and behavioral. Our species was easy to find at La Selva as males continuously announce their presence in form of mating calls and of course distinctive coloration makes both males and females relatively easy to spot. As part of the territory defense, we hypothesized that males would respond first to the sound of a competitive male intruder, then to its image and finally to signs of aggressive behavior. Seems pretty intuitive, sure, but this is OTS and we only have a few days to design, execute analyze and present our study. To test our bold idea, we needed to separate these communication mechanisms and compare them individually and in various combinations. Our plan was to choose an actively calling male and present him with one of these combinations of simulated sound, image and interactive behavior and measure his responses.

For sound, we started with recordings of the mating call of a few sample males and an encounter call we downloaded from the web, combining them into a single hour long recording. Ours would be a frog with endurance. Lacking a better playback device, we took a course laptop in a plastic bag with us into the field (shhhh!). For image, fortune smiled upon us: another study was going on at La Selva into bird predation on our same species and that team gave us some clay models that gave a pretty good visual impression of a single individual. And finally for behavior, we used a small mirror, the idea being if the sound and image pulled a resident frog in, we could observe the frog interacting with its own dynamic image. We conducted a total of 14 different tests of around 15 min each with various combinations of image, sound and the mirror and measured responses from the resident male.

The first thing we learned is that frog habitat makes for excellent mosquito habitat: we donated a lot of blood while trying to stand still for 15 minutes at a time. That aside, our much basic hypothesis seemed to be valid. The most successful configuration in terms of generating responses was that of sound combined with image followed by sound alone. In one particularly exciting instance involving both sound and image, the resident male approached the model and circled within a few centimeters many times, returned the (more aggressive) encounter call, and seemed “puff” itself up by standing taller on its front legs when approaching our clay model. Our sample size was too small and results to varied for our study to be taken seriously, but it helped us develop an interesting protocol on which a more complete study could be based.

Finally, we found a cool program on the web that proported to provide semantic translate D. Pumilio calls. We ran some our recordings through the program and found an interesting section in which the translation came out as this: “eh eh eh eh, eh eh eh eh ... Rooooxane. You don’t have to put on the red light….” That joke might not work well here on my blog, but it killed in our final presentation to the course.

Here's a female crawling around on Anna's shirt. Don't worry, their poison is only toxic to small preditors.

This was a delightful project because our subject was so engaging. It was all made bittersweet by the knowledge that this species, like so many frogs, may not be long for this world.

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At 8:08 PM, Blogger Lab_FROG said...

The fact that us Africian Clawed Frogs are immune to that fungus just shows that we are superior to other frogs. Their females should just accept us as mates instead of being like that human female EPA scientist & lesbian in that movie Frog-g-g!

At 8:19 PM, Blogger Lab_FROG said...

For paranoid types (a loose term in these Bush Administration years), Lab_Frog, being a unique species because of genetic experiments on the International Space Station and currently living at his secret lunar base, has no intention of attempting to mate with human females. Too unlikely to be genetically combatable and too far.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Ant Farmers

Andy Suarez specializes in biological invasions and ants and this was great news for those of us interested in invasive species as well as members of the Social Insect Mafia: the 4 boys in our group who study ants and bees. Since the course began, the Mafia has been educating us all with the fascinating world of social insects. One of the flagship groups in this world are leaf cutter ants, genus atta and acromyrmex. The more I learn, the better I understand the Mafia’s fascination.

Small leaf fragments seem to creep across the forest floor of their own volition, shimmering in sun flecks. Look closer and you will see that they are being carried by ants vastly smaller than the leaves themselves. In the photo below, you can see them walking near the edge of the sidewalk:

These are the leaf cutter ants and the leaves they carry are not for the colony members but for the fungus they grow deep within the colony nest. In this mutualism, the fungus is fed fresh leaves and other plant material and kept free of pests and molds. In turn the fungus is consumed by the colony. To additionally defend the fungus garden, the ants carry on their bodies a specialized bacteria that produce antibiotics. Leaf cutter ant fungi-culture, including this three-way mutualism, likely evolved over 50 million years ago making it the most ancient form of agriculture known to exist in nature.

If the practice of agriculture doesn’t grab you, try this: a mature leaf cutter ant colony may contain more than eight million members specialized into five primary morphotypes all with specific roles and whose behavior is communally directed. The heavy lifters that cut and carry leaves back to the colony are members of the mediae caste. A closer look at individual leaf fragments will reveal minors riding on the fragments, inspecting them for potential dangers to the colony. Of course this adds to the already considerable load born by the mediae. The trail between food source and colony home can be several kilometers long and is patrolled and maintained by majors, the significantly larger soldier ants. Living out their lives entirely within the colony are the minims that tend the growing brood and are the gardeners of the fungus crop. Finally, there is the single queen who produces the various morphotypes in response to the colony’s requirements as determined by, get this, her diet. It has been shown that the colony will change the content of her diet in response to a deficiency in a particular morphotype. In turn she will produce more of the required type.


Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Virtues of Inbreeding

At each site, we’ve been joined by guest faculty members from various institutions. Larry Kirkendall from the University of Bergen and Andy Suarez from University of Illinois joined us at La Selva. I’ll return to Andy’s research in another post. Larry is doing research on the bark beetles of La Selva and gave an intriguing lecture on inbreeding in evolution. Turns out sexual reproduction carries significant costs to a species. The least technical of these including the shear energy it takes to attract, court and mate, exposure to disease, the limited net contribution of males to reproduction and the fact that the most successful genes are always being diluted with less successful genes. Inbreeding (as well as asexual reproduction) avoids these costs. In some bark beetle species, for instance, mating takes place prior to dispersal so the costs of courtship are extremely low. Of course the downside of inbreeding is that genetic weaknesses are passed to all individuals and extremely difficult to overcome. Larry has learned that these bark beetle species, as well as many other species that inbreed, have passed through a narrow evolutionary window wherein their populations found a sufficiently successful gene recipe to enable long term survival in the absence of genetic mixing.

After one or more initial lectures faculty members lead subgroups in field projects in their area of expertise which are in turn presented back to the full group. The result being we are all exposed to the faculty member’s area of expertise from a variety of angles. It’s a great way to learn.


Friday, June 30, 2006

La Selva Biological Station

For a full ten days our home has been the La Selva Biological Station. This is the premier station for OTS with a long history of published ecological research (over 250 paper a year) and several cornerstone long term projects. One of Conservation International’s five sites for Tropical Ecological Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) is here as well as Arthropods of La Selva Project (ALAS); CARBONA which is looking at forest as carbon stocks; Digital Flora, a electronic database describing more than 60% of La Selva’s plant species; ALAS, a large-scale inventory of arthropod diversity in a lowland tropical rainforest and TREES, a 22 year tree-growth and mortality project. I’ll come back to this last project in a separate post. The appeal to researchers is clear: primary forest (having never been cleared or even logged) is abundant and accessible via extensive bike trails, internet access, reasonable facilities, etc. We're finally in the lower tropics: its hot and I've never experienced the kind of rain where the sky really does seem to open and pour water on the forest.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Death of an Oak

Tree falls have significant impact on forest dynamics: returning nutrients to the soil, completely changing the light availability to the forest floor around them and wrecking havoc on the neighborhood of other trees and lower reaching plants. In the lower tropics, it takes an average of 137 years for the forest to refill the canopy gap left after the fall of a mature canopy tree. Here in the highlands of the Tamanaca, it’s likely to be much longer as these oaks may only grow ½ a meter in a decade.

Though you may be mighty, there are a number of ways to loose your life as a large canopy tree. On the other end of the spatial scale, you chief risk is micro and macro-organisms that will literally eat you from the inside out and outside in. Fires are extremely rare here but several have started in the last 100 years from neighboring farms and residents allow them to burn. The resulting fire damage can open a wound at your base allowing for disease and decomposition of your bark. Placement of your roots is critical, especially if your life began, ever so long ago, as a seed on a steep slope. In this circumstance, you will cling to the forest floor by the high anchor point of your root system and if something should compromise it, such as the root system of a neighboring tree, death is certain. The death of a neighbor also poses huge risk for when it falls, if it doesn’t take you out instantly, it can take off on of your branches, creating an opening for those that would feed themselves and all their progeny on your insides, all the way to your roots, eventually unearthing you too.

Most trees decompose through their core, usually because their core has been compromised. In this case, all that they were becomes food for the forest itself. If, however, a tree falls with its core in tact, especially in less moist microclimates, it will loose bark and cambium but retain that core for a very long time. We saw some trees in the forests of Cuerici that were almost shiny with wear and hard as rocks, fossilized where they fell.

I’ve teamed up with Laura Vary, a fantastic botanist, to look at tree falls and succession here in the cloud forest at Cueraci. The section we’re focusing on is dominated by a native bamboo, Chusquea, and two native species of oak, Quercus copeyensis & Q. costaricensis. Our aim is to describe a community succession pattern on a single species of oak based on age of the tree fall, light availability and health of the tree when it fell. Central to our study is the knowledge of our host here at Cueraci, Carlos Serano, whom we all call “Don Carlos”. Pictured below, he has helped us to find, age and diagnose a set of fallen oaks. From there, we catalog the set of plant (and possibly fungus) species present and look for patterns. Having no idea if any of this will amount to anything interesting, our day was nonetheless fascinating. Don Carlos shared his deep love and knowledge of the forest with us and showed us a monster tree fall: the death within the last 30 days of a thousand-year old giant. The fall of this single tree, pictured at the top of this post, took at least four others with it and left an enormous and precious light gap in the midst of otherwise tight canopy.

The next day we had an even more immediate experience of this phenomenon. Standing on the fallen now horizontal trunk of this enormous tree, we were stunned by a sudden cacophony of cracks, pops, followed by crashes and thunder from the ground. Over my left shoulder I glimpsed a large tree just beyond the clearing fall away to its death. I looked back at Laura as we both erupted with amazement. We waited 10 minutes and approached the scene tentatively in case the full domino effect of this newest tree fall had not yet played out. We arrived to find fresh dirt covering everything in proximity to the tree’s root system. Here’s a picture of the freshly fallen and the remnants of an unlucky neighbor.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Bees at Paramo

The first two days here at Cuerici were spent in the Paramo, the Costa Rican equivalent of our alpine regions: the highest elevation, all above treeline. There we were led by Kathleen Kay, a guest instructor on this part of our course, in a “faculty field project.” Kathleen led us to a field wherein at least 5 plant species shared a single pollinator, bombus epiphiatus, a species of bumble bee. Our challenge was to explain how these flowering plants effectively maintained population isolation: how they avoided degeneration into hybrids. We broke into groups interested in pursuing different approaches to the question; my group focused on the combination of flower and bee morphology to see if there was a prezygotic (before fertalization) mechanism at work that was based on the shape or size of the bee and the various flowers. The idea was that bees would choose flowers that “matched” their body size and shape and thus avoid cross pollination between flower species.

Here’s how we did it: braving the cold and rain of the Paramor, we caught bees pollinating each of the four flower species in butterfly nets and iced them for ten minutes or so (which effectively immobilizes them without really hurting them), allowing us to subsequently measure the area of their thorax. We then took some basic metrics on each of the four flowers. I will interject here that a chief challenge of OTS course field work is short time frame. In the matter of a few days, we must develop a research question, design our approach, execute, analyze and present. We’ll repeat this furious process many times at each site, hopefully gaining some amount of proficiency. Intermixed in this fury are non-stop lectures and field walks. The time constraint for projects is thus completely unrealistic with respect to actual (publishable) field research so what we’ll often end up with is a result that says this: our results were inconclusive.

So it was especially surprising that our bee/flower morphology matching exercise ended up with a statistically significant result. There was a clear difference in the size of the bees that were visiting 2 groups of similarly sized flowers. That said, there were a number of problems with our study including a small sample size: only 10 samples of each of the four bee pollinators. Also, our results showed differences across 2 groups of 2 species each but we couldn’t explain why the 2 species within groups weren’t cross pollinating. Another team was looking at the actual pollen on flowers under a microscope and showed that cross pollination was actually occurring between at least two species. Our overall conclusion was thus inconclusive: some yet unstudied mechanism is retaining species integrity, perhaps at the molecular level within styles or even post-zygotic (after fertilization). That’s it, write it up and on to the next project!

Sidebar: Meet some of my classmates. At the top of the post, that's Tawny who studies invasive species ecology at UC Davis. We're sharing an interest in improving our nature photography skills while on the course. My "Bee Team" follows including Javier who studies social bees in Bogota, Columbia and can lead a lovely salsa, the amazingly bright Annika, a plant specialist and Tawny again in the back.



At 5:32 PM, Anonymous Calling said...



Tuesday, June 27, 2006


We left Las Cruces in style, a rather cushy bus. Bus rides are the place for these youngsters to recover from the "final night at a station party" so sleep and iPod rule the day. The Interamerican Highway is impossibly narrow for two cars going in opposite directions, not to mention a semi and a bus... ours. I choose to look away and trust, but I shutter to think of Holli and I renting a car after the course and braving these roads, knowing what I know now.

Departing the bus, we switched to jeeps and finally arrived at our destination high in the Talamanca mountains. “Don Carlos” is the owner and manager of this 350 ha parcel and small station in the sky, our home for 7 days. Carlos’s family managed the property for forestry but his innate curiousity in nature and exposure to travelers with a conservation focus eventually instilled in him an impressive balance of necessary use and protection where and when ever possible.

Our surroundings are dramatically different from the relatively lush accommodations of Las Cruces. We sleep in a large bunk room in tight quarters and the lab/work building next door has absolutely no connectivity (thus the lapse in my postings). The socially intense environment is completely offset by our isolated surroundings. Primary cloud forest is just out the front door and the reliable afternoon rains pounding on the tin roof are surprisingly soothing, a delightful reminder of my childhood summer afternoons in my family’s rustic cabin in the Ruidoso, New Mexico.

Don Carlos makes excellent use of the intact core of fallen trees, so all buildings at the site are made of beautiful wood. Nights are quite cold so we gather around a huge fire place (wasn’t this supposed to be the tropics?) for evening lectures on the basics of vascular plants, plant breeding systems (challenge: mature and have sex all while being stuck in the ground your whole life), the fascinating social systems of leaf cutter ants or a rather dry stats review. Much of what I learn, I learn from my fellow students. I’m inspired and humbled to join them on this course and together experience Costa Rica’s diversity. This picture was taken on one of our first walks at Cuerici as the late morning mist rolled in.

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Friday, June 23, 2006


While still in Las Cruces, the course coordinators organized a side trip to Las Alturas, about 1.5 hr drive away to visit the operations of ProCAT. ProCAT is a small NGO founded by Jan Schipper (formerly of WWF) focused mostly on conserving jaguar and jaguar habitat. I was especially excited about ProCAT because of their effective use of technology including camera “trapping”, population modeling and GIS. They’ve done quite a bit of experimentation and improvement of a camera trap design. Their most recent iteration imbeds a small digtal camera and motion sensor in a small box (see picture) and will capture whatever “walks by”, day or night, and will last for several months. Using strategically placed camera traps and a well developed understanding of territory dynamics, they’ve been able to estimate jaguar density and the abundance of prey. In conversation with Jose Gonzalez, I learned that ProCAT happens to be investigating NatureServe Vista to assist with identifying conservation priorities. If it works out for them, what satisfaction I would derive knowing that my efforts could assist them with theirs.

ProCAT also conducts extensive interviews with the local communities about what drives jaguar hunting. Locals, including indigenous community members, are apparently hesitant to discuss the subject with outsiders for fear of retribution, so ProCAT has developed a number of subtle techniques including using an indigenous tribe member as part of their staff, asking women what they cook, and asking men when the last time they saw a jaguar was. Based on this information, they develop their educational information and work with national park administrators to aid enforcement of laws, taking extra care to ensure that locals willing to talk to them suffer no retribution.

Finally, ProCAT is involved with regional conservation efforts including a multidisciplinary project to link terrestrial, riparian and marine conservation on the carribean side to restore and protect the watershed and the coral reef at its outlet. I was thoroughly impressed with ProCAT’s methods and professionalism, mixing the best of modern tools and techniques with clear grounding in local ecology and human communities.

Jose, Jan and the ProCat staff treated us to a beautiful and inspiring day.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Holy Bat Cave

After an hour on the bus and a 2 hour hike, we finally arrived at a bat cave, still in the general region of the Las Cruces biological station. Arranged by our course coordinators well in advance, we were well prepared with helmets, headlamps, and schooling on life in the dark. What followed was a four hour venture into the blackest black I’ve ever experienced. The bats were too many to count but all were benign to our presence. As we walked into the cave, the level of vegetation dropped dramatically. Miraculously, 20 meters into the cave, seedings emerged but in vain for lack of light. About 300 meters into the cave, we came to an underground river. This was no stream but a serious river. At this point, several members of our group decided that was enough black dank slimy cave for them and headed back. Yours truly, albeit with some trepidation, went forward with the majority of the group … into the river. It was relatively shallow most of the time, but a few times we actually had to swim (say 10 meters). I’ve never explored a cave in any serious way in my life so this was the farthest I’d ever been from light and fresh air. I admit some nervousness at various points, but it was also exhilarating. At times we walked in water up to our hips with no more than 3 feet of clearance above our heads then crawled through tiny spaces where you might have to wiggle a bit to make it through. I felt were in excellent hands between our coordinators and the cave guides (always near by and quite “buff”). The full group made it out of the caves exhausted but completely in tact. All in all not much in the way of ecology, but it was exciting and a welcome diversion from the daily grind of independant research, faculty field projects and lectures. Alas, I have no pictures from within the cave as I didn't want to risk loosing my camera to the moisture, the river, or the guano. This shot of one of our guides ("Batmen") was taken by a coursemate just inside the cave.



At 5:35 PM, Anonymous International said...



Monday, June 19, 2006

Ecology in the Field: Bromelania!

The second day here at Las Cruzes, Peter tasked us each individual to a 20 minute walk around the immediate area to conjure up a set of ecological questions at various scales: individual, population, community, and landscape. Beyond that structure, whatever came to mind was allowable in this game of organized wondering. Within moments of my solo walk, I came upon this lizard (not my picture), ameiva festiva, Costa Rica’s only whipped tailed lizard, I later learned.

I remember coming upon whipped tail lizards in New Mexico as a kid, many missing their tails. So I ended up spending my full 20 minutes with this one lizard and instead of thinking about how I could catch it, like I did when I was a kid, I started asking questions about its diet preferences, how much it had to eat to maintain such high metabolism, etc. I wondered how the lack of a top predator in the ecosystem (jaguar) has effected is abundance, does its range include some of the habitats undergoing restoration and how might it contribute to that restoration. I won’t bore you with all of the questions, but the one I settled on to bring back to the group was a curiosity about the way the lizard’s metabolism, ability to hunt and mate was affected when its tail was sacrificed. The lack of tail might compromise its movements in significant ways and at the same time growing back that tail takes energy itself. Limited resources would be allocated differently but would the lizard be more or less conservative in its hunting and might it forgo mating-related activities altogether? Many of these questions if not all are surely answered in the scientific literature, but I found the exercise both enlightening and quite a lot of fun.

The walking exercise is now being put into practice at a different scale: we’ve broken up into teams and pursuing a single research question. My team in particular is trying to establish whether the microbial community in a bromeliad is facilitated by the plant itself in some way. Does that sound fascinating? Well, like all things, you get close enough to it and it absolutely is. Totally fascinating. I’m on the sub-team that’s ironing out the experimental design. Our aim is to both describe the micro community in terms of richness and abundance of species and then conduct an experiment where we compare a bromeliad plant (neoregelia carolinae) to a “cup of water” to see if there’s something about the plant itself that facilitates community development. All in 3 days of work.

So far, our plan is going well. We’ve identified a total of 30 individual plants to work with (conveniently located here in the Wilson Botanical Garden) and described the community composition in a set of 10. For the experimental component (a manipulation of nature to make a point!), we extracted the contents from center column of the other 20. In ten of those we filtered the contents through tight mesh to remove the micro-community and returned the remaining water, with its “natural” chemistry, to the plant. In the final ten plants, we removed the contents and replaced it with rain water. Here’s one of my teammates extracting the water-based community from one of our experimental bromeliads.

We next set up a set of controls: plastic cups interspersed in the field of bromeliads. We cut holes all to give them a comparable volume to that of our average bromeliad and then broke them into groups containing either rain water, rain water with a “swish” of the filtered bromeliad water (to control for limitations in extracting all of the community from the bromeliad plants), or filtered bromeliad water as in the plant treatment above. Then we let the whole experiment “cook” for several days.

Yesterday was spent at the microscope. I haven’t looked through a microscope in any kind of serious way since high school! But there we all were with micro community taxonomy texts on hand separating and counting ostracods, mites, branchipods, midges, nematodes, copepods, mosquito larvae, and sorts of tiny spiders, ants, bees, flies and even a cricket. Moving from the microscope to the computer we are in the midst of analysis to compare the biodiversity (measured in our case as “evenness”: the number of difference species and abundance of each species) in each of the treatments. If our hypothesis holds out, we should see more diversity in the plants versus the cups and more diversity in the “naturalized” water over the plain rain water in both plants and cups. Here’s one view of our draft results, a “rank-abundance” which gives a graphical view of both richness (number of different species) and abundance (number of each species). Turns out there was too much variance between the results from each treatment type for our study to be considered valid, but we did see a pattern in the direction of evenness for the cup treatments and species dominance in the bromeliads.

My teammates have brought extensive expertise to bear on the project. It’s going to be interesting when I have to do an ecological study all on my own in a few weeks.

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At 11:17 AM, Anonymous Kyra said...

I am really interested in the whipped tailed species. Is it true that this particular species is all female and all they need is stimulation to reproduce rather than actual penetration? I read this on Yahoo and have been researching and cant find any information.

At 11:06 AM, Anonymous Bromeliad Plant said...

Those are some wonderful pictures of Bromelania. I'm also wondering about whipped tailed species question that kyra asked.

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Bromeliad Plants said...

Whip-tailed lizard females have the ability to reproduce through parthenogenesis and as such males are rare and sexual breeding non-standard.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Art of Ecological Research and Strangulation

Yesterday we walked through secondary forest with an assignment to identify interesting questions we could imagine researching in just a few days. Lots of fascinating forest ecology stories were told including the delicate mechanics of orchid pollen exchange, but the focus was on the development of research questions. Having no background in research, this was for me a wee bit of a challenge, but this first step in question development seems to be about pursuing any given wonderment with a mixture of rigor and imagination. What I have less of is the knowledge to inform my wondering… having a sense for the fundamental dynamics that, in a given context such as this secondary forest, will give rise to questions about how those dynamics might manifest or how certain phenomenon might be explained.

So for instance, what forces drive variation in activity level in the monkeys of Costa Rica? Now a bit of context: Howler monkeys are relatively sedate, spider and the white faced monkeys have intermediate mobility, and squirrel monkeys are highly mobile. And now some theory: resource availability, competition, maybe even reproduction (we’re back to sex again!) all might play a role. So what specific questions might I ask to understand the variation? I might hypothesize that it has something to do with resource availability (variation in diet) and, perhaps further, specialization of diet from competition. Now I can survey the populations and observe eating habits directly or indirectly (say through their poop! Or should I say “scat”). I might also create an experiment to directly test my hypothesis, changing the normal patterns I observe in some decisive way that lends itself to illuminating measurement. I see the logic and beauty in this approach, so fundamental to knowledge but so new to me in such an elementary form. From there, the software developer in me is comfortable, if only conceptually, with the engineering problems of experiment design and execution: think of ways to answer the questions, define a design, look for and address potential defects, all the while being ready to change strategies when necessary. I can see that there's an art to experiment design, one that takes talent and dedication to develop.

And now to the art of a strangulation. Along the walk we came across a huge strangler fig (family moraceae, genus ficus) a plant with an amazing strategy for establishment. The parent strangler fig produces fig fruits that get eaten by, oh, say, by a spider monkey. The seeds, if all goes well, find a happy environment in the niche of a tree in the canopy and germinate, dropping roots from the canopy the forest floor, possibly far below. Where before nutrients were extracted from the host tree and growth was slow, the fig now sustains itself on ground nutrients and grows quickly in a lattice around the trunk of the host tree, upwards towards the canopy. The host and the fig now compete for precious light and ground nutrients, but the fig also “strangles” the host, constraining its nutrient flow and growth. Eventually, the host dies and rots inside the lattice structure, providing further nutrients for the victorious fig. I imagine there might be cases where the fig is overly ambitious, killing its host tree before it’s fully established and able to maintain structure, so there is perhaps an art to the timing of the kill. On our walk yesterday morning, we came across an example of a successful strangulation: a hollow tunnel to the sky where the host once lived.

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At 10:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mwah hah hah. Our evil plan to bring you over to the science division is working.

Glad you are having fun and learning. Say "hi" to Peter for me.


At 12:26 PM, Anonymous glo9520@yahoo.com said...

Hey Kristin - Are you able to reach this communication vehicle now? What happened to your computer and if you get this, how in the world did you restore it?
Loving and MISSING you!!!


Monday, June 12, 2006

Plant Sex

So much that's fascinating about probably any ecosystem is the variety of strategies employed by organisms for reproduction. And of course the alluring details of each species' strategy.

Today was our first walk through the forest... er, I mean the outdoors. We're currently at Las Cruces Biological Station which is the home for the Wilson Botanical Gardens. So this morning we toured the Botanical Gardens. Tomorrow, primary forest.

This was a fascinating walk, however, all on its own. Most of my fellow students are specialized in some taxon or dimension of ecology. Laura, for instance, studies plant breeding systems: plant sex. Much of what we talked about today was reproduction strategies.

By the way, this will be my general format for blog entries: a general description of interesting activities, and a narrow focus on just one of a gazillion concepts or descriptions. And if, by chance, I get something wrong, feel free to use the "comment" link below to correct. After all, I'm here to learn! All that established, here is a bit of what I learned about heliconias and sex.

Heliconias is categorized into those that generally occur on the forest floor and those above and by their leaf shapes. They are pollinated mainly by hummingbirds some of whom have curved beaks co-evolved for particular heliconias flower morphology (cool word: "shape"). Heliconias chooses red for it flowers not so much because hummingbirds like it, but because other pollinators don't. Insects cannot see into the red portion of the spectrum so by choosing red and orange to attract pollinators, heliconias increases its chances of luring a pollinator that recently has or is about to visit a member of the same species. Turns out hummingbirds aren't especially attracted to red, but instead are simply fast learners: try different flowers, find one that works, remember and favor that color.

Here's the view from the room that my roommates and I share at this, the most plush of the OTS biological stations.



At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Greg Nace said...

So good to hear from you Kristin. It seems like you are already having memorable experiences in the tropics. Don't think I told you, but I spent a month there at Las Cruces. I organized a five person internship to help Bob Wilson map and inventory his extensive plant collection. Like the frogs, he saw that there were endangered plants in areas of Costa Rica and Central America and tried to collect them before they were gone. Much of the work was done using his own money. Glad it still exists as an OTS field station.
Have you seen any of the giant
beetles that are about the size of half an orange?


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Frogs and Marriage

Today was about travel and tomorrow will be some business with the Organization for Tropical Studies itself to discuss their IT infrastructure and strategy.

On the plan ride over, I read a story from the NY Times site about a small group of scientists on a frantic errand to Panama to save frogs. Their analysis showed that the chrytrid fungus that's been wiping out frogs worldwide was on a trajectory towards a frog hotspot in El Valle, a dormant volcano. Other research, by the way, has linked the spread of chrytrid to global climate change. So flying in the face of conservation logic (without regard to the lack of understanding of exact habitat requirements and reproductive behavior) they desperately grabbed frogs by the hundreds for shipment back to Zoo Atlanta. Capturing as many different species as they could, shooting for 20 males and 20 males from each species, they managed to successfully bring 600 frogs through customs in their suitcases. Sure enough, not 90 days after this Noah's Ark mission, the fungus arrived in El Valle and has begun wrecking its havoc. Researches predict 90% of the frogs will be lost within 90 days.

Unrelated (I know I'm supposed to be tuning this stuff out, but give a girl a day or so!), in a 48 to 49 vote, the US Senate came frighteningly close today to passing a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Global climate change or banning gay marriage (and I do mean "or"!)? What shall we focus on?



At 7:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lets change to bad climate around banning gay marriage. I miss you!!!! sm


!Pura Vida!

"Pure Life" is a saying among Ticos. Yes, every breath I breathe deeper as I open myself to what comes. Pure, rich, true, even when that truth is far afield from my projections of the ideal. I have been thirsty to go deeply into nature. Now begins the drink, drink of knowledge and experience.

I'm definitely in the tropics. The air is moist (cooler than I expected and much less humid than DC can get… oh but just you wait). The green of the hills that surround the city is surprisingly luminous. And of course tropical trees are everywhere within the city. After reading more on the plane about various tree species and the fierce completion for light, I consider the trees here in the city may be quite lucky specimens with delicious light aplenty.

Our first day of orientation was modified so that we could partake of the country's obsession that day: World Cup Soccer. In the opening game, Costa Rica played Germany, the World Cup host country. Costa Rica did better that expected, loosing an exciting game 4-2. We enjoyed the game like most Ticos: gathered around big screen TV's at a local club. The celebrations after each of CR's two goals were ecstatic. Here's one such moment: