Monday, September 26, 2016

The Last Trout Farm in Costa Rica

We arrived in Cuerici on 14 September. After we ate lunch and warmed up with some hot chocolate, we started out on an orientation walk through the grounds. Don Carlos, the farm owner, led the walk. The majority of our tour was centered on his trout farm, which he stated is the last of its kind in Costa Rica. Trout farming in Costa Rica began with the introduction of imported trout to mountain rivers, however gradually died out over time in favor of importing trout from Canada and other Northern areas. As we approached the first of his many trout ponds, Don Carlos began to explain the extremely detailed and complicated process of trout farming and mating.
Upon the arrival of mating season, Don Carlos will check his trout each morning, looking for the females that appear to be ready to lay eggs. When a female is ready to lay, her ovaries will begin to swell and eventually burst. This releases a specific liquid that signals the males to become sexually mature, ensuring they are ready to release sperm to fertilize the eggs. The way Don Carlos could tell if this had occurred in a female was by looking at how bloated and round the female was, and if she attempted to swim upstream out of the main pond. Once he has determined a female is ready to lay eggs, he will very gently pick her up out of the water using a paper towel. He will then bring her over to a separate tub, where he will massage a specific part of her cloaca and stomach in order to prompt her to lay her eggs. Once she begins to lay, he must hold her with her head tilted upwards and her cloaca downwards, in order to ensure that all of the eggs are laid. If the female doesn’t lay all of her eggs, and some remain inside her body cavity, she can get an infection and die, hurting his business and the fish. As the female lays her eggs, he catches them gently in a paper towel, and quickly puts the female fish back into a pond he referred to as a “resting pond” to help de-stress the fish. To top it off, this is all done in approximately 15 seconds, to minimize the stress level of the fish. If a female begins to get too stressed, or if he takes longer than this to complete the process, it can hurt the female and her eggs. Once he has collected the female eggs, he inseminates them with the sperm from the males, and then moves the eggs to another area to grow. After doing this for so long, Don Carlos told us that he could immediately tell which eggs are and which aren’t going to hatch, and that he goes through the thousands of eggs and individually picks out the bad ones.
I was immediately amazed by the complexity of the process and the precision and detail needed to ensure this is done properly so not harm the eggs or the females. I had never imagined how much thought and detail went into trout farming, let alone the egg extraction process. The part that surprised me the most was that the egg extraction and insemination were only the very first step in a complicated process. Once he has the fertilized eggs, he must raise them in very pure and clean water, as water with any organic matter in it can kill the young trout. This is just one of the many more very specific steps before the trout is large and healthy enough to be sold for consumption.
Another topic that Don Carlos brought up was the contrast between his and other trout farms in the North. Don Carlos is fortunate enough to have a natural water spring on his farm, giving him access to pure water for his farm. This allows him to not have to use chemicals or anti-fungal treatments in his water, which other farms often have to do due to lack of clean water. He also raises worms to feed his fish, personally selects the next generation of breeding fish, and does all of his work by hand. He mentioned how other farms use tranquilizers in order to extract the eggs, and often use dyes and chemicals to ensure that the fish are visually up to “consumer quality”, while he prefers to do everything natural and chemical free. I really connected with this and respected his efforts, since changing to a process with more chemicals or with imported fish could possibly be easier and allow him to sell more fish. I have noticed this quality in both of the farmers that we have spoken with so far on this trip, Don Carlos and Don Roberto (a coffee farmer), and it is something I really admire. The commitment to producing natural and healthy products that have low ecological impact is something that I wish more farmers and manufacturers had in the United States. Learning about these farmers and their work has inspired me to try more often to support businesses that are similar in their values to Don Carlos and Don Roberto as well as to think more critically about how and where the products I use are produced, something I hope will continue to follow me.

Natalie Myers
Occidental College

Plants in the Paramo

I see plants as the constant of this earth. Whether you’re looking at the waxy Labrador tea of the Arctic tundra, the pillowy, billowy branches of a white pine edging a Minnesotan lake, the spikey ocotillo plant in the desert Southwest, or the slimy seaweed on an ocean floor, it’s there: a plant, a conglomeration of cells that’s capable of making its own food from sunlight itself. Having this is mind, I knew that the flora of Costa Rica would be (almost) entirely different from what I was used to in the Great Plains region of Minnesota or the North woods of Maine, but I also knew that they could provide me with a sense of familiarity, of stability, of comfort.
            This was especially important to me since I consider myself a plant person. I’ve spent endless amounts of time in the woods since I could run around and now, after taking Plant Ecophysiology this past fall, I consider them one of the most interesting areas of study. In early September I arrived at the biological station of Las Cruces and was welcomed by endless gardens—so many new plants to look at! Every walk we took, every talk or lecture seemed to include plants. And so these little, big, green, leafy organisms fulfilled their role of being a constant to me, of staying present and therefore stable.
            It is important, however, not to confuse this with a static existence on the individual nor the species level. Plants not only play important roles within their ecosystems—evidenced by the fact that they were a part of almost every conversation—but they also play active roles. In some cases more than others, plants have to overcome extreme deficiencies in some of their needed resources and harmful excesses of the others. One extreme environment that we had the opportunity to study and explore is the Costa Rican Páramo. The Páramo exists at elevations above 3,000 meters and is no easy environment to survive. The day presents extreme heat, and extreme sunlight while those same nights could be below freezing. Learning about this ecosystem reminded me of the desert Southwest, where plants have to shield themselves from sunlight yet still utilize it with whatever water they can scavenge to perform photosynthesis, all the while avoiding shriveling to death during the hot days and not letting the fluid in their cells freeze at night.
            When so much has to be done in completely opposite directions, it becomes clearer how much of a role plants play in their own survival. They do not have the option of running down in elevation to avoid the cold nights or to huddle in the shade only when they have gotten enough sunlight. Plants are more limited than their furry or scaly or feathery visitors in countless ways. Yet in some, they have the upper hand. Plants have access to water that animals don’t through their collective miles of root systems; plants create symbiotic relationships with fungi to sequester nutrients they can’t gather themselves. Once this is in process and as long as they have some sunlight, they don’t need to go out hunting for their every meal, they don’t need to find ripe fruits or an unchewed leaf. They (for the most part) stay where they are and endure, thrive, exist. This means that they have to be incredibly specialized to reap as many benefits as possible from that one spot. Tiny adjustments like leaf angle to minimize sun damage, miniscule hairs on leaves to prevent freezing, or contractile roots to survive frost as well as drought are all not uncommon methods to survive this extreme biome. Plants do much more than is apparent from our viewpoint.
            Sofi Lopez
            Bowdoin College

Exchanging Aliens

Alien species are becoming more and more commonplace around the globe. As our lives become more globalized, plants and animals are exchanged between countries and continents at an ever increasing rate. Often, these alien species, which can become a menace in their introduced environments because of their ecological and economic effects, are relatively benign in their natural habitats. This global movement of invasive species is illustrated by the exchange of two species, shampoo ginger and lantana, between Central America and South Asia.

Shampoo ginger (Zingiber spectabile) was brought to Las Cruces by the Wilsons who planted it, along with thousands of other species from around the world, into their botanical garden. Gradually, the seeds of these plants were dispersed into the surrounded rainforest by the myriad birds that traversed the garden. Of all the dispersed seeds, the ginger was one of very few species that had the physiology to flourish in the forest. It quickly took over the most vulnerable parts of the forest: the edges of the paths and began to out-compete its native relatives. When we visited the research station, the plant had spread throughout most of the secondary rainforest and was threatening to enter the primary forest areas. It was unmistakable: a spiky, fire engine-red intruder that was almost omnipresent in the forest. I found myself wondering what the future of its reign would hold; would an insect herbivore stumble upon its nutritive properties and take full advantage of the large population or would it continue to flourish unchecked? Only time can tell.
Zingiber spectabile. Picture from A Costa Rican Almanac.

Shampoo ginger is a highly prized medicinal plant in it’s native habitat: the Malayan rainforest. Alien species often are rather innocuous in their native habitats, where coevolved predation keeps their populations in check.

Lantana camara is another example of an alien invader, this time moving in the opposite direction - from Central America to Southeast Asia. It is a Central American shrub which was introduced to India by the colonizing British, who used it to make hedges and attract butterflies. In the South Indian scrub forest where I live its flowers, like those of the ginger, out-competed the native species for insect and butterfly pollinators and it was soon able to spread throughout the scrub forests of the Deccan Plateau. The dense bushes choked off native vegetation and it soon became omnipresent in the forest. Today, it threatens several national parks and has been near impossible to eradicate despite continued efforts. Walking through the forest, it is often the only plant that can be seen.
Lantana camara. Picture from

To me, this global exchange of species is indicative of the huge impacts anthropogenic activities have on every aspect of natural ecosystems around the world. Biodiversity is being disrupted, rearranged with consequences we can only guess at. Efforts to mitigate this movement of species and the upheavals it causes in ecosystems have also rarely worked. Perhaps the only response we can have is acceptance of these changes?

Avehi Singh
Reed College

What's Your Name?

Mau armed us with nets, vials, and plastic bags—the weapons of rookie insect collectors—and turned us loose in the botanical garden. Divided into five teams of two, we stalked various insects through the rows of bromeliads and palms. I was teamed up with Natalie, an aspiring scientist from Occidental College in Los Angeles. We caught whatever we found. Grasshoppers and ants and beetles and butterflies (or were they moths?) and little beady-eyed things with skinny, curly noses and long, mechanical legs. Basically, if it buzzed, we bagged it.
We had a butterfly battle.  A beautiful blur of blue in the sun caught our eye and drew us into a clearing. There we saw a butterfly haphazardly flitting about. An elusive blue Morpho, maybe? I’d never seen one before, but I’d heard that they were a magnificent blue—and difficult to catch. We chased it, but its flight pattern was totally disorienting. It blinked in the air like a bright blue strobe light. Our net slashed the air, always a half second behind it. But we stayed with it and Natalie tracked it to where it was resting under a heart-shaped Anthurium leaf. I dashed at it with my net and sent the fronds a-bobbing. We inspected the net and saw the beating of fragile blue wings. Got it! Gingerly, we took it out of the net, folded it into a wax paper bag to protect its scales, and took it back to the lab to analyze it.
Back at the lab we popped our captives in a freezer for five minutes or so to slow them down. This allowed us to examine them under a microscope. Mau then handed each of us a dichotomous key and instructed us to attempt to identify them.
A dichotomous key is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure book for scientists. Are your butterfly’s tarsal claws forked? If not, skip to step 6 to find out if your specimen is a Lycaenidae or a Papilionoidae! As you wind your way through the key, the story of your insect becomes clear.
Our insect had clubbed antenna, so it was butterfly, not a moth. It only had four walking legs, so it was probably in the family Nymphalidae. So was the Morpho! Its veins were enlarged at the base of its forewings, so it was in the subfamily Satyrinae. From there, we pinned it down to a specific species based on photographs. It was Chloreuptychia arnaea. A small brown butterfly with a reflective blue splash on its hindwings—actually not even close to a Morpho, just another Nymphalid. I grimaced, crestfallen, then laughed off our naive over-enthusiasm for certain charismatic species. We let it go and moved on to our next specimen.
Afterwards, Mau gave us our first assignment of the semester: catch and identify ten insects. Over the next few days, I went out into the garden, armed again with my science weapons and collected more specimens. I followed the various keys to identify Geometridae moths (yawn), Chrysomelidae beetles (ladybugs and friends), Apidae bees (all the friendly bees, really), and Nymphalidae butterflies (brush-footed butterflies). I picked up a lot of technical anatomical knowledge along the way: the tarsal formulae are the number of segments on the foot of a insect; the elytra is the hardened set of forewings that a beetle hides its hindwings under; ocelli are the small eyelets that detect differences in light intensity; the protonum is the hard protective cover that shields the thorax.
Each time I finished identifying an insect, I’d think a little more fondly of it. I felt I could relate to it better because I had a name for it, a way to talk about it, and some idea of how it connects to its kin.  Because I could file my butterfly into a drawer of characteristics known as Satyrinae, I could reach into that drawer and pull out knowledge that has been accumulated about its habits: it feeds on rotting fruit and fungi; it will lay a single egg at a time; its eggs are often parasitized by wasps.
 Naming and identifying transforms the unfamiliar into the recognizable. The first question we ask a new acquaintance is, “What’s your name?” This is how we make friends out of strangers. Now the forest is a bit more friendly and a bit less strange.
But I’d be lying if I ended the story here. Because I think back to our false Morpho and the disappointment I felt when I learned what it really was. Before I identified it, I was excited about it. Afterwards, I wasn’t. Why the about face? The butterfly was exactly the same arrangement of carbon before and after I identified it. It didn’t alter its behavior or its coloration. I just couldn’t file it away into the drawer of characteristics called Morpho.
I’m not sure that my names have any bearing on the external world. The only thing they change is me. My naming had stripped me of my appreciation for what fundamentally was and replaced that appreciation with an awareness of all it wasn’t. I had limited my perception, turned an individual into an idea, a being into a specimen. The butterfly itself doesn’t care the slightest whether I call it Morpho or Satyrid. When it sails over fern fronds, its scales still shine the same.

Tom Jackson
University of Virginia

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Tropical Insects

In New York City, insects are rarely a welcome sight. The densely populated, industrialized, heterogeneous island of Manhattan allows for few species other than cockroaches, silverfish, and pantry moths. During the summer prior to my arrival in Costa Rica, finding one of these critters only evoked disgust within me, and every encounter ended with me scraping squashed bug remains off of the bottom of my shoe. In the city, bugs only exist as a nuisance in need of extermination.
In Costa Rica, insects are a completely different story. With over 1,000 different species of butterflies alone, insects make up the majority of Costa Rica’s extremely diverse collection of known species. Insects here embody a wide range of colors, patterns, shapes, and sizes; so far I have seen insects ranging from the size of the tip of a sharpened pencil to the palm of my hand. Phenotypic characteristics range dramatically not just in terms of looks, but also in sound, and, (sometimes unfortunately), smell. While the scent of a dung beetle may be exactly what one would expect, the sounds that insects produce can be quite surprising; one cicada we caught made a buzzing sound so loud and alarming that I could have mistaken it for a chainsaw or a motorcycle. In general, though, the insects here collectively produce a rhythmic and soothing hum that is much more welcome than the sound of a lone cockroach scuttling across my apartment floor.
Due to my prior negative interactions with insects, I was definitely hesitant when I was first learned about our assignment to collect and identify 10 insects at Las Cruces. However, like any good Sarah Lawrence girl, I approached the project with an open mind and began to look more closely at the insects around me. When I returned to the lab with my new captors, seeing them under the microscope revealed the hidden charismatic features of each insect. Ants turned out to be adorable with the way that they carefully cleaned their antennae after I removed them from the freezer. I suddenly felt sorry for the beetles that I turned upside down as they grasped for a surface to cling to in delirium. Working with insects, I began to sympathize with my former foes, and upon completion of the project, tenderly returned each individual to the location where I found it. While I might not be handling any cockroaches upon my return to New York, I can definitely say I have a newfound respect for the entire Insecta class.

Jocelyn Zorn
Sarah Lawrence College