I know I just posted the other day, but yesterday I had possibly the best day I’ve ever experienced in Panama, so I had to share! Below is a is an email I sent as soon as I got back – please excuse all the capital letters and exclamation points. I swear I’m not a tween-aged girl, I was just excited.
***Disclaimer – my photojournalistic talents leave much to be desired, so none of the images in this post are actually mine. Sorry, but you would thank me if you saw the photos I tried to take.***
I just got back from the forest and had the BEST DAY EVER! Seriously, this may have been the best day I've ever had in Panama, and it almost didn't happen. I was really tired this morning and thinking about just taking another day off from the field to rest, but I got myself up and twiddled my thumbs for a little bit before finally committing to walking a short bit of trail to look for a few more trees.
On the very first trail I saw a few capuchin monkeys running around in the trees above me! The capuchin populations have been low lately and this is only the second time I've seen them in all the hours I've spent in the forest, so that was really special.
I turned onto the next trail that I've been meaning to get to all week. As soon as I turned I noticed a big pile of brush and fallen branches right next to the trail. I thought I heard something, so I stopped and listened to the tiniest little growling sound that was right in the middle of the brush pile! I didn't know exactly what it was, but it was definitely a cat. It was like in The Lion King when baby Simba is trying to roar at the hyenas! I wasn't quite sure whether it was an adult version of something small (i.e. an ocelot) or the baby version of something big (puma, jaguar). The latter is pretty unlikely as there isn't known to be a breeding population of pumas on the island and I think there has only been one jaguar documented in the 90-year history of the island, but still. Just as I was contemplating this, I heard a...
I nearly soiled myself! Luckily I was wearing dark-colored underwear, so even if I had, no one would ever have to know…
Turned out it was just a howler monkey above me, but in the midst of thinking about cats, that was not where my brain went. After I collected myself, I decided not to press my luck and kept going, not wanting to disturb anything. Later on when I got back to the research station I told the resident mammal specialist about it and said that it was likely a baby ocelot. What a discovery, right?! They set up a camera near the area, so hopefully they’ll get some mom-and-baby photos soon!
I went a bit further down the trail and stopped to write down all the things I had just seen. When I looked up there was the PERFECT tree for my project. I am only looking for one species and I’ve been having a hard time finding them in certain places on the island, so this was a valuable find research-wise. I started taking measurements and marked it on the GPS, when I saw a PERFECT-ER tree right nearby! So I walked over to that one and it truly was amazing - all sorts of great branches and that connected to other trees, big limbs to climb - everything! But then I took out my binoculars and looked at what I thought was a termite nest only to find - AFRICANIZED KILLER BEES!!! Well, actually, I wasn’t completely sure at the time, but I talked to a bee researcher when I got back and he said that there are basically three types of bees on the island:
1. Stingless bees that are docile but have formic acid in their saliva, so if you do happen to get on their bad side they can still do a lot of damage.
2. Native honey bees that are pretty much your average bee (i.e. not something to mess around with).
3. Africanized honey bees, which have invaded the area and are extremely dangerous if you disturb them! I have heard some horrific stories (one in particular from my climbing instructor) about these guys and I have no intention of ever having such a story of my own to tell.
Here's a quick NatGeo spot they did on Africanized Bees - the scientists is from the Smithsonian here in Panama!
Conclusion: No go. No matter what kind of bee it was, I don’t want to go anywhere near them. Oh well, cross that one off the list.
I was heading back on the last trail of the day and found the PERFECT-EST tree! I walked over to take measurements, but just as I was about to put the measuring tape around it, I saw it was covered in bullet ants!!! You may not have heard of bullet ants before, but they are exactly how they sound - terrible. I actually got bit by a bunch of them the first time I came down here and it was insanely painful. They have giant mandibles and I think they also have formic acid in their saliva, so it burns for a long time after they bite. Cross another perfect tree off the list :-(
When I was almost back to the station I heard some spider monkeys running through the trees above me, and I looked up just in time to see a monkey literally SOARING right above my head! Limbs stretched out, tail flailing in the air! It was almost like I was watching it in slow motion. So amazing.
When I got to the dining hall they had beets at the salad bar for the first time since I've been here! I. Love. Beets. I'm gonna be pooping magenta for a couple days, but it's totally worth it.
Anyway, just wanted to fill you in while everything is fresh in my mind. Hope you’re having a good day!
There you have it, folks! Ocelot kittens, killer insects, monkeys everywhere you turn, technicolored feces…what more could you want?! Hope all of your weekends are going well. I’m planning to start setting up my first cameras on Monday, so I have a lot of prep work to do before then, but I’m so glad to have had such an exciting day to remind me why I’m here.
Take care, more posts coming soon!
Crap I Found in the Forest!
I checked around and no, the seeds from the giant pod are not toxic. I'll let you know if I die, though.
One of the first questions people ask me here or at home is what exactly I do when I come down to Panama. The answer to that question has been slightly different every year (this is my fourth trip down here), but it has all been leading to this current trip. The basic premise of my research is to study where animals move in the canopy of the rainforest and why. Repeated use of the same pathways has been documented for several monkeys and a few other arboreal (tree-dwelling) animals. I often refer to these pathways as “canopy highways,” which conjures up an image something like this:
In reality, it’s still unclear whether it is individual branches that are used over and over again, certain trees that align into a path, or just general areas of forest that are easier to move through than others. In order to investigate this question I started thinking about what is required for an animal to move through the forest canopy. The answer is actually pretty simple – in order to get from one place to the next without touching the ground, you need some sort of above-ground structure. By mapping the three-dimensional structure of the forest in relation to routes that animals have already moved, I thought it might be possible to characterize the type of forest structure that is most suitable for use as a canopy highway. For this, I turned to several of very generous collaborators, who provided data on the movement patterns of three different monkey species (howler, capuchin, and spider; pictured below).
Another collaborator also provided three-dimensional forest structure data collected by airborne LiDAR (basically the laser version of RADAR). The video below shows a visualization of these data.
After a whole lot of reading, thinking, troubleshooting, coding, pleading for help from my labmates, reading, fighting back tears of rage, I finally produced a few models that mapped areas most likely to be used for movement based on forest structure that look something (though not exactly) like this:
In this image the low, medium, and high probabilities of use are represented by green, yellow, and red, respectively.
Now I essentially have a map that I think shows where animals are least likely to go and where they are most likely to go based on the structure of the forest. This in itself is a feat that at one time I never thought possible – I’ve never had much of a knack for programming and had to learn how to use all kinds of new software, but alas, it happened! The goal for this trip is to test how well the model works in real life, a step that is often not taken in the ecological modeling world. I am setting up cameras in areas of predicted high, medium, and low use and to see whether my predictions actually line up with reality. It might work, it might fail miserably, but at this point I’m just excited to have the opportunity to try it out. It has been a long haul so far and there is certainly a lot of work ahead of me (I’m hoping to install cameras in 20-40 trees in 10 weeks!), but I’m excited to keep you all updated as the project progresses.
I’ve spent most of my days so far walking through the forest looking for trees to use (the Prospecting Phase, as I called it in my proposal). I’m planning to start climbing and installing cameras early next week. Wish me luck, I’ll keep you all posted!
Though all my on-camera experience to date (see below) has indicated a complete lack of charisma on screen, I have decided to post weekly video logs. Here’s the first one, hope you enjoy it.
Kevin’s IMDb Profile:
TV: In a riveting 1996 interview regarding the national excitement surrounding the Atlanta Olympic Games with KARE11 News, I revealed: “I…umm…umm…like gymnastics!” and “I…umm…uhh…don’t remember when I started!” in the squeaky, manically enthusiastic voice that simply refused to change until almost college. Reviews: Mind-blowing - unless you can find a copy of it, in which case please erase it from the universe.
Fake TV: Mock interview about my own project (i.e. something I should know) at Stony Brook University. Reviews: How do you insert a “vomit” emoticon here?
--End of List--
Here’s a quick video I made from my trip last year. Many of you have probably already seen it, but if everyone clicks on it 500 times I’ll be a YouTube sensation in no time! #cancelyourplans #famemonger
Having the spent the past year pondering what I would like to include on my research blog, I thought it was about time to actually start it. For those of you who don’t know me my name is Kevin McLean and I am a Ph.D. student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. I am currently in Panama doing my field research the rainforest canopy. I’ll use this blog to explain what I’m doing, document the process of my work, and most importantly let you all know that I’m still alive!