Friday, February 19, 2016

Experiencing the night life of Las Cruces

When I first saw a night hike scheduled for the second day of class I admit I was nervous. I have not spent a lot of time outside at night, especially not with the goal of finding the potentially dangerous creatures we had just learned about in our “Dangerous and Annoying Creatures” lecture the day before. While slightly terrifying to hear I would be spending the next few months among poisonous and bloodsucking creatures, the lecture was also interesting as we learned about the many defense mechanisms and lifestyles that the animals of the tropics have developed in order to survive and compete in the harsh climates of Costa Rica. The lecture also corrected some misconceptions about what animals are actually dangerous to humans. For instance, the species of poison dart frogs that are found in Costa Rica, which literally have the word poison in their name, are actually perfectly safe to handle here as long as you wash your hands afterwards. But I was still a bit apprehensive about actually meeting such organisms face to face in the wild.
Once the time came and we were gathered outside to begin our hike, Mau turned to us, smiled, and pulled a boa constrictor out of nowhere. Before I had time to register how crazy this was and despite learning how dangerous snakes could be only yesterday, my first instinct was to smile and move in close to get a better look at this creature. I’m not sure that was the best response in regards to my safety, but as an ever curious person and questioning scientist, it was the proper response. After that moment, I knew that this night hike was going to be great. We stood in a circle around the snake listening to it hiss, observing its body expand and contract with each breath, and watching its powerful muscles squeeze wherever Mau held it. We watched the snake for some time in a combination of awe at the beauty of its scales and fear in the sharpness of its fangs. Eventually, Mau tucked the snake back in for the night so that it could be returned to the forest in the morning, and we turned on our flashlights to set off into the gardens in search of more animals.
 The first thing that struck me upon entering the darkness was a moth. And then another. And then some more. I realized that they were attracted to my headlamp. A reminder that I was not a regular member of their night world. For I had not evolved the ability to see in the dark or to glow under UV light to warn these insects that I can be dangerous, like the scorpion I found on the base of a tree near the end of the hike. The fact that scorpions use wavelengths of light to communicate which I cannot even see demonstrates how out of place I am in the forest, but also how much I can learn while I continue to spend time here.
I couldn’t believe how many animals I was seeing here for the first time in my life. Another new friend I made that night was a glass frog, which has a clear underside making its organs visible. The scorpion and frog have such different methods of survival, yet their paths cross here in the tropical forest making it a beautiful and diverse area.
While I knew many animals of the tropics are active at night when the temperature is lower, the almost constant “oh look at that” as everyone was searching around me proved just how full of life the forest is at night. After a couple of hours in the forest and many crazy insects, scorpions, and frogs later we left the recovering forest and headed back to our rooms for the night. I was no longer nervous about the forest, but excited to learn from it and its inhabitants and to explore as much of it as possible. The plants and animals of the tropics are so diverse that it is hard to imagine how they all came to be the way they are, existing in this environment, but I look forward to finding out and going on more hikes both during the day and at night to see as much as possible!
Kali McGown
Middlebury College

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