The situation is exactly as it sounds. We have a fecal mystery on our hands. I climbed into Tree #23 today to retrieve a few cameras only to find THIS:
Rude. I mean honestly, I don’t care what species you are, you have to TRY to drop a deuce on one of these things. There’s just no passive way to get it to land like that. The whole situation stinks of bitter, hostile intention…and poop. The worst part is that I have no idea who it was because this unfortunately happened to be one of the few trees in which none of the cameras captured animal photos. Any scatological experts care to weigh in? I don’t mean to press, but I do need to find out as soon as possible if I’m going to identify the culprit, locate something he/she loves…and poop on it!!!
I collected cameras from two more trees today and was quite surprised to find one of the cameras captured photos of just about every species I’ve seen so far, PLUS one new one! I finally managed to capture an image of a couple Geoffroy’s Tamarins, the smallest primate species on the island. I put the photos from the whole branch together in a video:
The tamarins were particularly exciting because I’ve never seen them on the island before, only on the mainland. They’re a little bit funny-looking and can have some pretty enviable hairstyles, though this one’s is pretty tame. His mom probably made him get it cut because "she's the one who has to look at him" - I know how that goes. Here is a still photo of the tamarins in case you didn’t catch it from the video:
I am very excited to report that we deployed cameras in the last two trees yesterday! This means that we hit our goal of thirty trees for a grand total of 90 camera deployments. At the moment all the cameras are out in the last 12 trees, which I will climb over the next week or so before I head back to the US on April 9. To be honest I’m a bit overwhelmed right now with disbelief and a rare sense of accomplishment - the victories in grad school tend to be small and infrequent, so this feels completely foreign right now. For the purposes of this blog, actually accomplishing what I set out to do makes it hard to think of the stories of frustration, self-deprecation, and backwards underwearing upon which I normally rely. In short, I’m so stunned right now that I don’t even know what to talk about. I think it’s still a bit too soon to do any sort of grand reflection on my time here (I do still have 36 cameras to collect, after all) so for now I will just share some of the highlights of the photos so far.
This is the most casual display of indecent exposure that we have documented thus far. I know that I could probably get away with revealing what is under this box under the veil of scientific documentation, but just take my word that it is pointedly offensive. We are currently working on photoshopping a Bud Light into his hand, if you possess such skills please let me know.
He also thought that he might get a better understanding of what the camera was if he looked at it upside down.
These are some of the best porcupine images we’ve gotten so far. These things are weird-looking. End of story.
Most of the woolly opossum photos we’ve gotten so far have been pretty far away and/or a little out of focus, but these ones really give you a sense of what they look like up close. Also, look how crazy-long their tails are!
Howler monkeys are one arboreal animals that we actually see (or hear!) from the ground far more frequently than they show up on the cameras. This is probably the best series of photos we’ve gotten so far.
I’ll leave it at that for now. As I said, I have plenty more to do here and will hopefully get a lot more photos to share over the next several days. I’ll keep you all posted on what I find!
So, my original plan was to write a post about the progress we have made so far in the field, which I must say is pretty substantial:
Since some of my earlier posts, in which I whined probably more than was necessary about my exhaustion, we have enjoyed a blissfully simple schedule (blissful in many ways, in fact). Two weeks of climbing multiple trees per day with very few days to rest makes the previous week feel like a vacation. When you actually have time to rest your body and only have to work in one tree every other day or so, you no longer feel like you are climbing, but rather lifted by butterflies and happiness…oh my god, I’m going to stop there before I barf in my big red helmet. Long story short, the last few days have been easy.
Today began like most others this week – wake up, breakfast, pack for the climb, etc. The original plan was to shoot a line into a tree that was only steps from my dorm building, set up a few cameras, then return in time for lunch. As a precaution, I did sign us up for the “late lunch” list, but didn’t think it would be necessary and certainly didn’t do anything sensible like pack a lunch to bring with us. First roadblock of the day – the nice, close tree looked like this at the base:
If you can’t see from the photo, the base of the tree has rotted away so there was a hole going to the other side. The tree itself was still alive and probably would have been fine to support our weight, but what if it wasn’t? As I’ve said before, the main priority for this project is to not die, so in keeping with that we decided to go to another tree.
The next tree was further away, but I was happy to find that it appeared in good condition and seemed to have some decent spots to place cameras. We didn’t have a line in it yet, but managed to do so after just a couple shots. From there all we had to do was set up the ropes, climb up, and place the cameras. Easy squeezy.
…but this tree had other plans.
I won’t get into the details of it as they probably wouldn’t make much sense, but it ended up taking us well over an hour just to get the first rope into the tree. As I climbed up to set the second rope, stomach growling from the lack of PB&J, I discovered that the branch where my rope was set was not super-duper alive. Though from the ground it looked like there was plenty of vegetation, it turned out that was all from other branches. Upon closer in-tree inspection the branch from which I was dangling a good 50 feet off the ground was in fact about as bald as my dad (see photo for reference).
Luckily I managed to set my rope on another more secure branch and then set up Owen’s rope without too much trouble. As I threw my little bean-bag-on-a-string to get to the next branch (this might not make sense, but trust me this is a normal way to do it), it immediately got stuck well beyond my reach. Retrieving this bean bag was critical in order to get to the spot where I could set up the cameras, so I spent the next hour or so trying my hardest pulling, leaning, reaching, and yelling to get it back. I even resorted to use of crude tools, which did not help.
Not one of my more graceful climbs, but I did eventually manage to get the bag back and set up the cameras.
By the time we finally got out of the tree and packed up it was about 3:45 and we still had a 45-minute hike back before we could enjoy our cold, plastic-wrapped lunch. What I thought would be a quick 2 hours in the forest suddenly turned into a 7-hour ordeal. I realize that this is still less than a normal working day, but honestly, how often do you look like this in a normal working day?
Perhaps it was that I got a little too complacent as the field schedule is beginning to wind down. Maybe a little more planning and an earlier start could have made our day less stressful. Or maybe this tree was just a butt face.
While I am definitely looking forward to wrapping up my work here and returning to the comforts and company of home, I have never ceased to recognize the opportunity, both scientific and personal, that this experience has afforded me. I’ve had plenty of good days and handful of bad ones, all of which I will remember for years to come.
I felt and extra surge of relief today when we returned to the field station knowing that tomorrow is one of our coveted days off. So if you need me, I’ll be right here until Saturday:
Oh man, it has been an exciting last couple days. Well, I guess exciting is the word for it…maybe horrifying would be more accurate. First, we went to collect cameras from one of our more tick-intensive sites – the kind of place where you find 30 on you and just stop counting – which unfortunately turned out to be the least of our worries. Because of how the branches were angled I couldn’t really see where all the cameras were from the ground, so as I climbed up my rope I counted one, two, thr…and my heart sank. While the first two remained on the branches just how I’d left them, the third looked like this:
The camera itself had clearly been tampered with, which is often a concern for people who set traps on the ground where poachers or anyone passing by might be tempted to look at, damage, or even steal the cameras. They make specialized locks for the cameras to prevent this, but given that I was setting mine several stories above general view, I did not invest in such security measures. To make matters worse, the mount that attached the camera to the branch had been colonized by ants, so the moment I reached out to retrieve it my entire arm was covered in an angry, biting swarm of devil spawn (I’m sorry if you’re into ants, but they are the devil and I hate them). You can see a clip of them here, but my priorities shifted from documentation to demolition pretty quickly after this was taken:
Clearly awful. I managed to grab the camera and clear most of ants off the mount, my rope, and my all-of-me, and once we got back to the lab we discovered that there had in fact been some foul play! I will be pressing charges and hope to recoup all damages, as the following photographic evidence provides a pretty open-and-shut case for jail time:
We found claw marks all over the camera and I was relieved to find that the camera itself still worked, but who knew kinkajous were such vandals?! While we’re on the topic, another camera captured a series of photos showing a kinkajou staring at, sniffing, and finally peeing on the camera. This kind of thuggery is simply inexcusable! On to the next day…
Walking up the steps to the trail I felt a leaf land on my shoulder and when it didn’t fall off right away, I brushed at it. I didn’t see anything fall but also didn’t feel it anymore, so I kept on walking until I once again felt something leafy, this time against my neck. With a careless flick I sent it to the ground only to discover it was A SCORPION THE SIZE OF MY PALM!
I realize there is nothing in this photo for you to judge the scale for yourself, but what size scorpion is not horrifying, honestly? This is the first time I’ve ever seen a scorpion here. I guess I always assumed they existed, but they were neither on my mind nor my body until this one showed up. Still shaking from that one.
Later in the day we were walking to our second tree, crunching through the thick layer of leaves that cover the forest floor, when Owen let out a panicked “WHOA!” behind me. Apparently I had just stepped on this:
If you’re not snake-savvy (as I am not), this is a coral snake. I imagine your next question is whether this particular snake is poisonous, to which I say once again, when is stepping on a snake of any kind not horrifying?! I did learn recall a little rhyme I learned from TV’s Jeff Corwin: Red touches black, friend of Jack; Red touches yellow, kill a fellow.
LOOK. AT. THE. RED. AND. YELLOW!!!
So to answer your question, YES, this is a poisonous snake, a coral snake to be exact. Also, little Wikipedia-ing revealed that Pfizer, the only manufacturer of coral snake anti-venom discontinued this particular variety in 2010 because of apparently insufficient bites to warrant its production. Awesome.
So, all in all things worked out more or less for the better – the ants didn’t kill me, the camera was fine, the scorpion fell to the ground, and technically I attacked the snake, so that worked out. To whom or whatever has been keeping me out of harm’s way since I arrived – while I appreciate your effort thus far, could we maybe tighten the reins a bit? Someone's clearly slacking, because these last few days have been a little too close for comfort.
Oh, and thank you, television, for being my only childhood source of herpetological education – 100 points for TV.
We’ve entered the busiest stretch of the field schedule. All the cameras have been deployed once, and we are in the midst of collecting them from their current tree, downloading and reviewing the photos, and deploying them in a different tree the following day. Most days we have to climb two trees and a few unfortunate days we have to do three, which is as much a mental challenge as it is physical. I realize I haven’t gotten too much into the details of how the climbing is done, but just to give you a basic idea, here is a video that Owen took of me the other day of one of the more taxing parts of a climb.
Going up and down in the tree is actually reasonably simple and while time consuming, it is not by any means the most challenging part of the climb. Moving laterally once you get into the tree is far more difficult and, as you can see in the video, incredibly slow!
I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people wishing me well and reminding me to stay safe, which is clearly always a priority. We do a pretty good job of staying rested when we’re not in the forest because every part of this work takes its toll on you. Still, in the middle of these couple weeks of intense work, the signs of exhaustion are starting to set in. I am aware of the fact that in the grand scheme of “exhaustion” mine is pretty tame, as I have never raised a child, held down a normal person job, battled severe illness or done anything else that constitutes true exhaustion in the real world.
The problem with exhaustion or fatigue when you are doing things that require such intense concentration is that it is an open invitation for mistakes, which can sometime be costly when you are swinging in a tree 100 feet in the air, an hour from the field station, and miles from medical attention. We’ve been lucky that the problems we’ve run into so far have been pretty tame and we are remaining vigilant to ensure that this pattern continues. Here are a few of the setbacks we’ve hit thus far:
There are probably dozens of other examples to choose from, I do stupid things all the time, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Time for some much-needed rest, we’ve got another big day coming up.
There is a weekly research seminar series here on the island called the Bambi Seminar. I’m not sure where the name comes from and until recently they actually had a picture of Bambi the deer on the flyer for it, but not wanting to suffer the consequences of a legal battle with the Disney corporation the flyers now have a picture of a real deer on them.
Anyway, with the rapid cycling of researchers coming on and off the island the topics are pretty diverse and you get a chance to see what people are up to. I would like to say that I was invited this week to give the seminar, but that would be a lie. I invited myself to speak because I’m not important enough to be invited to do anything…yet!
My talk seemed to go well, it’s so nice to finally be at a place where I can tell (and understand!) a coherent story surrounding my project. Also, at the end everyone signs a copy of the flyer as a very kind way to remember the experience.
I originally planned to post a few of the slides to give you taste of the presentation, but as I was going through to pick some out I realized they really won’t make much sense without me explaining them. So, you’ll just have to wait for me to hit the lecture circuit in a town near you. Tour dates as follows:
April 9, 2014: New Haven, CT
--End of List--
I resisted the temptation to put exclamation points at the end of the title for this post after looking through the past couple posts and realizing that I may be abusing this particular punctuation mark. Though the seed of my soul believes this title deserved them, my blog was starting to look like the insane shrieks of a 14-year-old girl at summer camp, so I decided to dial it back. I used no such restraint in the body of this post, however.
So, we collected cameras from our second tree, and it was a rather challenging tree to climb. I actually don’t even know how I got the cameras up there in the first place. For all our efforts in this difficult climb we were rewarded with a pretty amazing experience. When you walk around the forest you can always hear howler monkeys in the general vicinity, but as I made my way into the crown of this particular tree, I found myself surrounded by monkeys on all sides! Throwing the goal of the climb to the wayside momentarily, I whipped out my camera and immediately started snapping photos and recording video…for about 12 seconds. I forgot to change the battery, and my heart sank when I saw the flashing red light of death on the screen. Yet another photography fail on my part. Ever the hero, Owen was able to swiftly pass his camera up to me, so I managed to get capture a bit of the scene. Please ignore the sound of my panting, but I don't know how to cut it out of the video. Plus, I was basically holding a reverse plank while dangling from a rope, so I would argue the panting was, while embarrassing, reasonably excusable.
As I sat in the tree, with howler monkeys all around and some capuchin monkeys a bit further off, I started thinking about what I was seeing. It’s hard to read animals’ expressions, even when they are fixedly staring at you from the neighboring tree. The difference between “What’s this guy doing up here?” and “Get out of the way, I need to get home!” is probably pretty subtle. Monkeys are all over the island, and maybe my presence was confusing enough to attract their attention long enough for me to notice them. But, I couldn’t help thinking that if such a thing as a canopy highway (a path that gets used over and over again by different animals, even different species) does exist, was I sitting right in the middle of it?
The rational, scientific skepticism that has been hammered into my head over the past few years tells me that I am projecting, that this is all just wishful thinking because deep down I hope that canopy highways do exist. Long gone are the days of lengthy, descriptive accounts of what researchers observed and “felt” they were seeing – at least in scientific journals, that is. Testable hypotheses, empirical evidence, and repeatable results are (as they should be) the name of the game these days. I realize that my hopeful speculation clouds some of my ability to scientifically reason in a situation like this, but the urge to explain my surroundings is sometimes stronger than my ability to remain completely objective.
I had nothing to go off of beyond my hunch that I was perched in some sort of ecologically significant location in the trees, and the story the cameras seemed to tell did nothing to contradict these feelings:
OH. MY. GOODNESS. Right?!
Look at everything going on there! I could hardly contain my excitement when we looked through all these photos. Just to break things down, the species you see include the following:
If you’re not familiar, kinkajous are related to raccoons and are reasonably common here, though because they are nocturnal (active at night) and arboreal (live in the trees), they can be hard to spot. They also make horrible pets, as Paris Hilton can attest. These ones seemed to be a little concerned about getting past the camera, but they eventually mustered the courage and jumped over.
Here’s a better photo of this guy from the front. I say “guy” because, well, if you look closely in the video…yeah, it’s a boy. Jackie Willis, the Barro Colorado Island mammal expert, said that people sometimes find them when they are looking in tree hollows and that she’s found their remains in owl pellets! I can’t imagine those quills would feel any better on the way back up as they do on the way down. Apparently they are reasonably common, but rarely seen. If Wikipedia is any judge of things (which I blindly believe it is), there doesn’t seem to be all that much known about them - the page is practically empty!
I know I’ve already gone on about sloths so I won’t get into it too much here, but doesn’t it look massive compared to everything else?! Once again, I never thought I would be startled by a sloth, but his appearance was definitely alarming.
White (and angry)-Faced Capuchin Monkey
This one was clearly not impressed with Big Brother watching over him. His angry crusade against my camera actually ruined the remainder of the deployment, but I feel like it was worth it. For all the people who have asked me whether the monkeys mess with the cameras – yes, they do.
Alright, that's all for now. We're heading out to collect more cameras tomorrow, so hopefully there will be more to share. I don't want to jinx anything, but I'm so happy with our success thus far, I really hope we can keep that going!
Much to my surprise, the first collection day was actually schedule for today, not tomorrow. We grabbed the first three cameras and, as the title indicates, SUCCESS! I’ll cut together an actual video showing the entire process of a climb at some point, but for now, here is what I captured of the first collection. Also, be warned that the camera work might make you a bit queasy. Even though I have a Go-Pro that I should be able to strap to my helmet, I have yet to install it. So, all the climbing shots are from my regular camera, which I held in my mouth.
Here are a few of the photos. I was SO excited to see that we actually got some animals. Also, all three are species I’ve never managed to get on my cameras before! It’s just the first of many, but I’m so glad that I’ve got at least something to show for all our effort so far. The sloth isn't super easy to find, but see if you can spot it!
We finished placing cameras in our 12th tree yesterday, which means all the cameras we have available to deploy are out in the forest. Collections begin on Monday and I’m feeling a bit anxious about what they will show (if anything!). Keeping fingers, toes, legs, and arms crossed – enjoy your weekend!