Notes from the field: Palo Verde – The last few weeks

I sip my morning coffee as I look out over the wetland in Parque Nacional Palo Verde.

Palo Verde rapidly drying
Palo Verde rapidly drying

Everyday I see the water line retreating, as much as a meter per day. This year in Palo Verde has been exceptionally dry and water has been extremely limited.The rainy season was short and light and many small water sources have dried months before they normally would.

Over these past weeks we have been traveling all over the park in search of water. With the help from my lovely field assistants we have been fairly successful in finding some great netting locations, given the circumstances.

Katherine looking for bats inside a cave nearby.
Katherine looking for bats inside a cave nearby.

We have been near and far, netting at a small (1 x 1m) concrete water hole near the comedor to netting inside of the wetland. We have been netting in bat caves and deep within the forest.

At first, the lack of water was discouraging as I was not catching as many bats as I had hoped and we almost felt like “what’s the point”. However, my first field assistant of the season, Alvaro, changed my attitude when he said to me  “The worst kind of try is to not try.” He was right and this situation was an ideal opportunity for us to try new netting techniques and explore the park! So, that has been our motto throughout this field season and has motivated us to conduct our research in many areas around the park and try some unconventional and sometimes “crazy” techniques, and sometimes it is has paid off. We have been lucky enough to catch one of my favorite bats, the Wrinkle-faced bat (Centurio senex) and film another very special bat Vampyrum spectrum feeding!

Centurio senex
Centurio senex

Every night we have been working hard mist-netting until about 10pm and then we will usually film until 2 or 3 in the morning. It has been exhausting, but rewarding and I wouldn’t have it any other way! I really have to thank all of the people at OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) and the hard work of my field assistants for all of their help. My assistants, who would stay up with me until 2 am waiting for the katydids to emerge for the night so I could feed them to bats or who would spend days repairing (sewing) our mist-nets so we could keep catching bats every night. Without them I could not have kept going this hard for five weeks. Thank you Sergio Padilla Alvarez, Alvaro Cerdas Cedeño, Katherine Díaz and Luis Girón!!!


Notes from the Field: Palo Verde – The first week

Life of Palo Verde: A few of the amazing species we have seen.

Hot. Dry. We are driving down a dirt and gravel road that leads deep into Palo Verde National Park. The dust is so thick that we slow to less than 15 kilometers per hour so we don’t hit anything.

These first few days in Costa Rica, in San Jose, have been stressful, but I let out a sigh of relief to know that at last I was on my way to my field site. I came to Palo Verde to investigate how bats use behavioral manipulation of their nose leaf (in Phyllostomidae) and ears to find prey items. I want to compare if different species use different behavioral movements of the nose leaf and ears when searching for prey. Once at Palo Verde Biological station we settled in and prepared for our first night of mist-netting.

Vampyrum spectrum
Holding Vampyrum spectrum

Palo Verde is a tropical dry forest on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. I first visited about a year ago when I took an OTS course and I knew I wanted to come back because the diversity of bats you can catch here is amazing.

On the first and second night out we were so lucky to have caught a False Vampire bat (Vampyrum spectrum) each night. This rare bat has a wing span of up to 2ft and feeds on insects and other vertebrates. While this species was particularly exciting to catch, we were also astounded to catch more than 15 different species in the first week.

For some individuals, we have been trying to record high-speed video from bats inside a flight enclosure. Like most live and wild animals they seldom behave how you would like them to. There have been many nights we have sat silently in the dark for hours waiting for that bat who will be our star pupil.

Protection from the mosquitoes
Protection from the mosquitoes

At times the field work can be extremely arduous and sometimes very uncomfortable. For example, at night it is 75 degrees with 75 % humidity and I have to bundle up from head to toe to protect myself from the mosquitoes. But, being able to see the biological diversity in this extreme habitat is really something wonderful.

Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) Meeting 2015

SICB is one of my favorite scientific conferences to attend. Amazing scientists from all of the world come together to share their research. This meeting really has something for everyone: ecology, evolution, phylogenetics, biomechanics, as well as much more and most work incorporates multiple fields listed. I highly recommend that all biologists (in any form) attend this meeting at least once in their career.

I had the opportunity to present some of my preliminary research on the morphology of the nose leaves and ears of phyllostomid bats. Take a look at my poster!


Out of OUR Element: Students & Science Communication

Some of the OTS students-bird watching

I wanted to share a link to a National Geographic blog that features the OTS (organization for tropical studies) course I was a part of in Costa Rica.  In this class we had the opportunity to work closely with two great film producers, Nate Dappen and Neil Losin, founders of Day’s Edge Production. Together we explored the different mediums of science communication, particularly photography and film making. Featured in this article, Out of their Element, are the short films our class turned out in just a few days! Through this experience I have learned how much power each of us has through sharing our research experiences and the amazing things we discover, especially if we can do it in a creative way.

Check out- Out of their Element and tell us what you think!

Not your mama’s nose leaves

As I progress through my first quarter as an RA I find myself busy with writing grant proposals, trouble shooting equipment and diving into the black hole of literature on the subject of sensory ecology. There is never enough time or brain capacity for all those papers…

Aside from all that, I have been experimenting with some new methods for my future project. With the help of our awesome lab manager Abby, we have been taking bat heads and producing high quality scans of some of the sensory structures (nose leaves, ears, etc.). Recently, I have focused on scanning the nose leaves of some phyllostomid bats in our microCT scanner. Phyllostomids (Phyllostomidae), Neotropical leaf-nosed bats, are a wonderfully ecologically diverse group of bats of the Neotropics. Phyllostomids are unlike most bats in that they emit echolocation calls through their nasal cavity, not orally, and posses a conspicuous nose leaf on their nares (see first photo). Diet of various species consists of everything from insects, fruit, nectar, vertebrates and blood. Their sensory structures, such as ears and nose leaves, are diverse in size and shape. I am extremely interested in how the variation in morphology, the form of a structure, in this group of bats influences their ecology.

This is really great because I can get 3D models of the structures that I can use to look for differences between species!

Phyllostomus hastatus-omnivore
Photo credit: Maël Dewynter

Check out it!

Artibeus lituratus-frugivore
Carollia perspicillata-frugivore

Cuericí…up on the mountain

Oh dear …I am long overdue for a post.  So much has happened in the last couple weeks.

I just finished up my OTS course and it was incredible, one of the best experiences of my life, hands down.

Lets start with where we left off…Cuericí….

Cuericí is not a place you typically think of when you hear the words Costa Rica.  It is located high in the mountains, around 2600m in elevation.  This was the most rustic of our accommodations in this course, but also the most magical.

We stayed with this amazing mountain man, Don Carlos, whose goal in life is to conserve the natural world on his property and live sustainably off of a small portion of the reserve.  Don Carlos took us up in the mountains and showed us many beautiful things.  He taught us how to identify trees, plants and talked about the natural patterns he observed in the mountains.

We stayed in a wooden cabin, with a wood burning stove.  The sleeping quarters were all open to each other so it really had a summer camp kind of feel.  Each evening we would all gather around the wood stove, socks and shirts hanging above the heat, and share what we had encountered during the day.  We were developing our independent research projects.  Kate Ortenzi  and I investigated the differences in epiphytic communities on two species of oak tree, Quercus bromeliodes  and Q. costaricensis. We were interested in this because moss (Bryophyta) make a significant amount of the epiphytic communities in these high-elevation forests. Additionally, we found out that there are mosses that are endangered and threatened by commercial harvest.  Therefor we wanted to investigate what contributes to epiphytic (primarily bryophyte) diversity and draw some attention to these micro-communities.  In our half day of sampling we got significant results (yes we are that good, mostly due to my partner Kate).  We found a difference in epiphyte community structure between the two species of oak tree.  This is important because to the untrained eye these oaks look eerily similar, but are starkly different in the kind of habitat they create for epiphytes.

Okay enough about the science stuff… I leave you with Cuericí the same way I left it…with a beautiful poodle horse, how it got this way is a science mystery in itself.

La Selva… I thought I was in love with Palo Verde

Day/Night 1 in La Selva.  I was so sad to leave Palo Verde and the amazing faculty we got to work with there, but alas I have to experience as many ecosystems as I can, right!?  So the move from a tropical dry forest to a tropical wet forest was astonishing.  I went from wetlands and acacia forest to travel to a prehistoric time.  La Selva is everyone’s romantic picture of what the rainforest is like.  Trees tower powerfully, yet hang in a lethargic manor.  The rainforest has a polar vibe, it is thriving, moving, a most complicated machine, but at the same time encourages a slow paced existence.  Maybe it is the overabundance of life that forces you to stop and smell the flowers, the bugs, and the trees!

I felt so safe in the dry forest, sure there are things that go bump in the night, but here there is so much more. Just walking from dorm to the comedor you might step on a venomous Fer-de-lance! Another thing to watch out for are the bullet ants, who are aptly named.  These one-inch ants delivers a bite that packs the same punch as being shot, so it is best to avoid them!  The Machaca is an unusual sight, this insect is large, white-ish and has a hollow protrusion on it’s head that looks like a peanut.  The legend in Costa Rica goes if you have been bit by the Machaca, you need to make love within 24-hours of the bite. Oddly, enough there are no consequences, just an incentive.

Last day in Palo Verde

My first bat!  Micronycteris microtis!

A fairly odd couple

Add caption

Sloth! Choloepus hoffmanni to be exact!

So many colors

A peaceful moment

Three peas in a pod. I mean three Machacas in a pod


Remnants of a bat tent 

Palo Verde

This is my first time in a dry tropical forest, well it is my first time in Costa Rica, and I was unsure what to expect.  When I first came here I had envisioned a swampy, lush, towering mess of a flora and fauna.  This was my silly romantic view of what the tropical jungle was like.  Here at Palo Verde we are experiencing the dry season, which I am thankful for because the mosquitos are bad enough.  I have fallen in love with this place in such a short time.  At first glance it looks like a habitat you may encounter in the states, but a little bit hotter.

When I opened my eyes I couldn’t mentally grasp the diversity around me.  I have seen the COOLEST insects I have ever seen, the most incredible mammals, such as coati, the wrinkle face bat, howler monkeys and so much more!

Last night we went to a watering hole and although the volume of group  probably scared away most of our mammal friends, we saw snakes of various species, eels, amphibians, owls, etc.  For how loud we were being the forest was still full of movement from animals that weren’t threatened by our ungainly journey through the brush. Next time I will visit this place with a quieter foot.

Bat Scan

This week I attempted to use our laser scanner to create a 3D image of one our museum bats.  While running the scan was fun and great practice, the actual 3D image came out horrendous! Some things I thought of afterwards…

1) I was particularly interested in the ears of this bat and I realized the specimen I picked was way too small to get any resolution

2) As cute as this little guy was, his fuzzy fur made scanning and aligning multiple images pretty rough.

Next week I shall get a better scan!

When the bats come out for dinner

Welcome!  I have started a blog in the hope of documenting some of the great things I get to experience at the University of Washington.  I am a new graduate student and I have a passion for morphology in many fields functional to ecological.  I love to draw and take pictures and one of my goals for starting a blog is to remind me to set aside more time to do such activities.

Firstly, I wanted to catch up on some of the important events that have happened in my life this last couple months.

I am part of a new research lab at the University of Washington, I am both new to the lab and starting at a brand new lab!   I have been adjusting to learning about the wonders & diversity of mammals (coming from a rather fishy background) and incorporating a suit of new technology from laser scanners to CT scanners.  Access to this technology is a wonderland for a functional morphologist, like myself.

First things first, let’s go all the way back to October. Our lab was featured at a donor dinner  and all of our lab members talked about some specialty area of research in the lab.  One of our undergrads talked about skull shape in carnivores, our lab tech discussed our awesome CT scanner and the graduate students talked about bat diversity both tropical and temperate.

 The table.

 Elena and her carnivores from bats to leopards!

We went a little batty…