Saturday, October 8, 2016

Scientific ANTics

It’s a pretty average night with a slight breeze blowing through the forest. I’m going about my work, just trying to bring my leaf back to the colony, when all of a sudden a giant beam of light appears and giant metal spears grab me and my friends and pull us into the air... After hours of sitting in a clear plastic cage, a giant appears, grabs my friends one by one and starts decapitating them… Excerpt from “Nightmare at La Selva: A Leaf-cutting Ant’s Tale.”
Now that isn’t a real book, but if it was would you buy it? This past week I’ve been working on my independent project, which involved killing many leaf-cutter ants in order to study them. As I went along I often thought about my project from the ant’s perspective and wondered how they would tell this story. The reason I thought like this was because during our stay at La Selva we heard a talk from the station director, Carlos de la Rosa, who challenged our class to think bigger than just the scientific community when publishing our results. While most people publish their work in scientific journals and then are done, we need to figure out how can we get our findings out there to the general community and how can we make them care. This is important because if the general population doesn’t care, conservation doesn’t work.
Now, I’m not going to be publishing a horror story on my independent project, so I guess my only chance to tell the story of my independent project in an approachable manner is through this blog. So, here is what you should know about my independent project.
Leaf-cutter ants are amazing creatures that help shape the forest. They cut leaves in order to grow a fungus, which they then feed to the queen and larvae. They need a lot of leaves to grow this fungus, and they can cut every single leaf off of one tree in a single day! Now the reason the forest isn’t completely bare, with leaf-cutter ants running wild is due, in part, to phorid flies. These flies help control ant populations by killing some of them. They hover over the ants, and once they have selected an ant with an ideal head size, they attack the ant and lay an egg in it’s head. Eventually this egg hatches, eats the ants head, and kills the ant in the process. While you and I might find this cool, ants don’t think this is cool, so big headed ants avoid dying by looking for leaves at night when the flies aren’t active.
But, scientists already know how all of this works, so my partner, Jocelyn, and I needed to come up with a new question regarding this relationship if we wanted to study the ants. *insert final jeopardy thinking music here* Finally, we decided on looking at how this relationship changes on the forest edge. Some of the reasons the forest edge is different from the interior forest is because there is a lot more wind and sun, which leads to less humidity, and also different plants grow there. It also means that phorid flies can’t live here. So, Jocelyn and I predicted that, during the day, ants would have larger heads on the edge of the forest and smaller heads on the interior; hence the “horror story” where we caught a bunch of ants and decapitated them. Once they were decapitated we were able to accurately measure the head size, and we found that *drumroll* we were wrong in our predictions! Ant head size isn’t significantly different between the interior and exterior. Now, even though this information does not support our prediction, it helps show that either it takes a longer time for ants to change their behavior to send out large headed ants during the day, or that the ants travel so far away from their colony into the forest to collect leaves, that they end up encountering flies anyways. And that is the gist of our project.
Now if you are thinking, “wow. I could totally do that.” You probably could collect ants, but do you have the patience and passion for this work? Over the course of 5 days working on this project, Jocelyn and I spent a combined 20 hours in the field finding 14 colonies and collecting 1140 ants, 85 hours in the lab measuring the head size and tibia length, and many uncounted hours coming up with this question, doing the analysis, and doing the write-up. Aren't science conclusions interesting once they explained in an easy to understand manner? But man, collecting data is tedious. Before I wrap this blog post up, here is one final fun thing we learned during this project: when you use the wrong magnification during ant measurements (and thus the data are not accurate), you have to disregard over half of the data in your project, and stay up extra late to make up for it, making your project that much more tedious. Yay science!
Rachael Lewandowski-Sarette
Northwestern University

Conservation and Privilege

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Photocredit La Selva forest:
La Selva Biological Station is situated at the very tip of a massive green corridor that comprises the second largest tract of lowland rainforest in Caribbean Costa Rica. To me, it is a constantly astonishing place, with a staggering diversity of plants, insects, birds and mammals. There are sloths on the bridge, caiman in the river, toucans outside the classroom and enormous ctenid spiders in the forest.
The station demarcates the last frontier of this forest and is the buffer between the forest and the town of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. Just outside the station, the Dole company has established a vast banana plantation that employs people from local towns around the area. We were given a tour of this plantation and as we walked through the orderly rows of bananas, I was struck by the contrast between the plantation and the forest we’d walked through the previous day. The plantation contained orderly rows of banana plants with all but the smallest weeds obliterated, each with its own water pipe. Each fruit was covered in a plastic bag to protect it from the elements and ravages of insects. In contrast to the magnificent sprawl of the forest, here was order and mechanism.
All my biology classes had trained me to have a strong negative reaction to the plantation. To me, being in the forest was infinitely preferable to the monoculture of the banana plantation. The forest is a haven for biodiversity, harboring animals and plants embedded in complex cycles of biotic and abiotic factors. It controls the microclimate without the area and contains untapped medical and edible resources. The way I see it, preserving the forest is important for the economic, social and environmental health of the region. Cutting it down to make plantations like the one we toured is a huge waste of this potential.
As my initial reaction died down, I began to ask myself whether I was truly qualified to make a value judgement between the forest and the plantation. While I am familiar with the scientific reasoning behind conserving the forest, I am also completely removed from these landscapes and not dependent on the land for my survival. I suspect that this was true for many researchers working in La Selva. Yet, the opinions of the scientifically educated elite are still considered more relevant to policy than local knowledge and local opinions.
What does La Selva look like to the people of Sarapiqui? Their access to it is highly limited and the work done here is largely irrelevant to their lives, although the station director Carlos De La Rosa is working to change this. It does function as a source of income for several local people, but very few get to experience the payoffs of the research done here. Perhaps then, it looks like a bubble inhabited by rich gringos, largely inaccessible.
The plantation, on the other hand, is a source of income for the community. It also employs women along with the men, which could empower them. More people from rural areas like Sarapiqui are leaving agriculture behind for jobs in the cities, in search of a better life. Plantation work may be the first step in this process for them. However, it comes with its own set of problems including low job stability and the health consequences of the high fertilizer and pesticide use. Regardless, choosing between the plantation and the forest would be a lot harder for the local people than it is for me.
This situation, to me, illustrates one of the greatest challenges of modern conservation: reconciling the need to protect forests with the needs of local communities. It seems a rather unfair battle, as most conservationists come from places of privilege and their opinions are given more weight than those of the less privileged local communities. Although there may be many points of agreement between the two parties, there seem to be many more points of contention. These disagreements are often exacerbated by the privileged nature of science and the often dismissive attitude of conservationists.
This friction may explain the continual failure of most conservation efforts. Perhaps if conservation is opened up and discussed openly with communities, and if conservationists make efforts to check their privilege, these programs stand a better chance of working. Climate change is affecting most people’s lives, in both large and small ways. Examples include loss of land through sea level rises, inflation and erratic weather patterns. More inclusive conservation programs can help secure a better future for all of us.
Avehi Singh
Reed College

The Dichotomy of Scientific Research

Eight a.m. consisted of me going through the same checklist that I went through every morning. “Do I have my laptop, jacket, lunch, lab coat….. am I forgetting anything before I walk to lab?” This previous summer I took an internship researching in a toxicology lab and it was a fantastic experience. I would start work at 9, make sure the C. elegans were transferred or egg prepped, and then get into whatever part of the experiment I had going on that day. This was my first time doing research and it was everything that little 7 year old Tanner imagined it to be. White lab coats, sterile gloves, large and expensive machines that I only had a slight idea what they did. I was studying arsenite induced mitochondrial toxicity and was working in a comfortable air-conditioned lab 40 hours a week. I was introduced to different strains of C. elegans, assays, statistical programs, and lab equipment. Everything fit into place to what I imagined doing scientific research would be. After 12 weeks of this, I had come to the realization that it was almost everything that I wanted in a future but it was still lacking and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. As I packed and got all my equipment ready for my study abroad with OTS I started to imagine what my life was going to be like for the next few months. During this daydreaming of working within the rainforest, I realized that living in a lab was too detached for me. I’ve had a deep love for the environment all my life and while the work I had been doing had broad, important implications, it didn’t feel connected and cohesive enough for me.
            Two months into OTS and boy did my image of what scientific research was change. Our independent project was looking at the relation of 2D:4D ratio to predator avoidance and reproductive investment in Hemidactylus frenatus. Our night would start out at 7 pm and involve me swinging an 8-foot broom around, knocking off geckos from buildings while Natalie or Kiersten caught them in their nets. After about two hours of this, we would individually take pictures of their feet and test their predator avoidance. When we finally got to bed at 4am we would wake up just 4 hours later to start the dissections. Measuring and dissections would take until 6pm, where we stopped for dinner and then prepped for another night of catching. It was as exhausting as it was rewarding once we got the results of our project and saw that there was a correlation between 2D:4D and escape distance in males. What I learned most about this project wasn’t about the geckos but was about how varied scientific research was. It completely broke my mold of what I thought of when I thought of research. I traded my lab coat for rubber boats, goggles for a broom, and nematodes for geckos. Our group would work tirelessly, with no air-conditioning, running after geckos that escaped, and studying larger behavioral and physiological characteristics of these organisms. I don’t believe that this dichotomy between lab work and fieldwork is mutually exclusive from one another because, in fact, there was a lot of overlap between the two. I had come to the realization that this was the missing part to what I was looking for in a future career, the fieldwork aspect. I want to be able to go into the field, collect my own samples, and bring these back to a lab and do research on them. I want to be involved and connected to my environment, not removed. This thought excited me and looking further into this, I talked to a Ph.D. student in the lab I work in back at school. She goes to Latin American and collects blood samples from people in small villages and brings them back for study. While my interests lie in different areas of study than hers, I want my future to encapsulate a similar model involving doing fieldwork, collecting my own data from the field, and then using this in a lab. 
After my summer internship I was feeling unfulfilled about my future in scientific research but this independent project helped me realize that all I was missing was incorporating a field aspect to my work.

Tanner Waters
Duke University