My Favorite Photos of the Year

2013 will likely be the last year of my life in which I spend the majority of my time deep in a rainforest somewhere. While I do have a few field excursions planned this year (Peru, Borneo, and Philippines!) I’m determined to have a bit more of a real life here in the US. These last 2.5 years have been an amazing journey and I am thankful I was able to capture some of the diversity I came across through photos.

Here are some of my favorite images I’ve been fortunate enough to take this year.

Leaf Cutter Ant Flower

Printed this one out to decorate my niece’s room. Hoping to have her pro-bug from the start.

 

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Following scarlet macaw researchers into the field allows you to get some wonderful macro shots of their feathers.

 

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This recently molted spider dangling from its molt will forever be one of the most graceful things I’ve seen.

 

 

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Individual caterpillars get lost in an aggregation. All spines as they pass the day on a tree trunk which they climb to feed at night.

 

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The parasitized caterpillar hangs, its parasitoid pupates.

 

Sea lions in Galapagos. Adorable marine mammals everywhere.

Sea lions in Galapagos. Adorable marine mammals everywhere.

 

Tambopata Peru

The scarlet macaw is stunning blue.

 

Tambopata, Peru

This white Cyclosa spider blends almost perfectly into its white linear stabilimentum in its web. A perfect, gorgeous camouflage.

 

 

You’ll Never Guess What Was Living In His Skin.

The bot fly larva.

The botfly larva.

 For photo permissions email therevscience @ gmail.com

Eventually, every tropical field biologist gets parasitized. Working in the conditions we do, these parasites can be intestinal, they can cause lesions, or they can bore into your skin and eat your flesh.

Geoff Gallice is an entomologist who, much like I do, works with butterflies in the Amazon rainforests of Southeastern Peru. We’re practically neighbors when we’re in the field, but apparently there is one thing that his region has a lot more of than the Tambopata region where I work: botflies.

The surgery. © Geoff Gallice.

The surgery. Even the doctors are taking pictures. © Geoff Gallice.

 

As Geoff wrote:

The human botfly, Dermatobia hominis (Oestridae), is a parasite that infects humans, and is found throughout the neotropics. The female uses a mosquito as an intermediary, placing eggs on her underside, which hatch when the mosquito lands on the host to feed. The fly larva subsequently burrows into the skin, where it feeds on interstitial fluid for 8-12 weeks before emerging to pupate.

That’s right. The adult botfly tackles a mosquito, lays eggs on it, and then when the mosquito lands on you the eggs hatch, the larvae jump ship, and start digging (and eating) into your flesh.

About the size of a baby carrot.

About the size of a baby carrot.

 

As an entomologist I’ll admit I’m jealous. If you’re an entomologist who’s been stung by a bullet ant and been parasitized by a botfly you get some sort of badge, or trophy, or stamp of approval from other entomologists because it is evidence that you’ve done your time in the field, and you seriously know how to rough it. While I have had the pleasure of a bullet ant sting, through all my time in the field I’m still lacking the skin boring parasite I could smile proudly about.

This is Geoff’s fifth botfly, having had four previously from work in Panama in 2011 and he currently has four more inside of him that the doctors are taking out this week. Yikes.

Smile for the camera.

Smile for the camera.

 

So if this thing is feeding on you, how do you get it out? The trick is that, like most insects, a bot fly larva needs to breathe air. So one method is to suffocate it using vaseline or duct tape, then remove the barrier and grab it as it pokes out for air. Unfortunately for us, all of those black dots along the side of this human-eating maggot are backwards-facing hooks. So as you pull, it digs in to your skin deeper.

The other traditional remedy is to poison it, using either banana skin sap or by blowing tobacco smoke on it. These unfortunately leave you with a dead maggot inside which can be hard to remove. While Geoff used traditional methods of extraction in Panama, these guys were a bit too large so he went the route that I would recommend: to the doctor.

Botflies in humans have been known to confuse American doctors who assume an inflamed, red, painful mosquito bite is just infected and will prescribe antibiotics. So travelers beware, that swollen mosquito bite that hasn’t gone away since your trip to Costa Rica? Could be a botfly. And the entomologist in me is darn jealous.

Coincidentally, I did a piece with Discovery Channel on this very thing, which you can check out here:

 

More Than Meets The Eye: Twig Edition

‘Twas a twiggy night. We hiked until midnight, and with Troy Alexander by my side at the Tambopata Research Center we were destined to find something cool. And twig-like. And confusing.

Meet strange twig ‘A.’ It stood out to us because it was dangling below a leaf, and seemed to have eggs/larvae/pupae of something on it. We took a few pictures, zoomed in, and still were unsure what was happening. We had to move on in the night so we pondered this twig for a while, weeks in fact.

Strange Twig A

Strange Twig A

 

The twiggy mystery deepened when we met Twig ‘B.’ This seemed a bit clearer at first, but made it no less amazing. This spider hangs its spiderlings on a twig below its web! The twig looked like a collapsed flower or end of a plant that the spiderlings were gathered upon… or so we thought. For a few weeks the identity and true story of this one remained a mystery as well.

Meet Twig 'B,' with spiderlings!

Strange Twig ‘B,’ with spiderlings! Is it a dead hanging flower?

 

But science is surprising, and surprised we were. Troy looked at the images of Twig ‘A; various times realized that the ‘twig’ the pupae were hanging on was no twig at all- it is a deflated, dead caterpillar! As you can make out in this picture (and in the larger above image after editing it lighter), the dangling twig is in fact a caterpillar, with the prolegs and head capsule visible. That makes the larvae with nets around them a parasitoid of some sort, which have emerge from the caterpillar to spin their cocoons.

Caterpillar

Not a twig but a dangling, deflated caterpillar.

 

One twiggy mystery mostly solved, one to go.

On to the spiders. After searching I found that the spider is in the family Uloboridae, known for being one of the few groups of non-venomous spiders, and in the genus Miagrammopes. To capture prey, they simply wrap them extremely tightly in silk rather than envenomating them. Reading on in this paper, I discovered that they so-called twig I thought the spiderlings were resting upon is actually a constructed egg-case made entirely from silk and covered in green silk- yes, green, and yellow too in this case! This is likely to make the egg-case, especially when the spiders haven’t hatched, look like a budding flower or terminal stem. I had been tricked.

So our twiggy mysteries were pretty much solved- though the spider is quite likely a new species and the parasitoid larvae remain unidentified.

At least now I can sleep at night, knowing that if we come across another set of odd arthropods hanging on a twig I should start by never trusting the darn twig.

Works Cited:

Lubin, Y, Montgomery, G, & Eberhard, W 1978, ‘Webs of Miagrammopes (Araneae: Uloboridae) in the neotropics’, Psyche, 85, 1, pp. 1-23, Agricola

Failure of Correa’s Ecuador and Yasuni ITT

As has been widely reported this week, Ecuador will soon start drilling for oil in Yasuni National Park, dissolving its ‘ITT’ plan to protect it with international funding.

As someone who has worked extensively in the Ecuadorian Amazon this is very upsetting, and here are my thoughts.

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Yasuni National Park is one of the most biodiverse rainforest in the world, with an incredible diversity of flora and fauna and a rich native culture. It unfortunately also is sitting upon billions of dollars worth of oil.

The Yasunia ITT plan came down to this: if it is a world treasure of biodiversity, the world should help pay for it. A lovely concept, and a potential blueprint and way forward in which countries with struggling economies could get the international support to afford to keep their wilderness wild, and not destructively use it for the resources within.

The billions of dollars in funding they were looking for never came through, here’s probably why.

This is how ITT should have been presented to the world by President Correa:

“We deeply care about our rainforest, we’re willing to do whatever we can to protect it and develop ecotourism, join us in this fight.”

Here’s how it was actually presented:

[with gun to head of  Yasuni]
“Pay up, or else we pull the trigger.”

It wasn’t just the very vapid plea for money, it was the fact that their plan for what they would do with the money was not well thought, transparent, nor allowing of investor advice from the beginning.

After a couple years of failed fundraising they finally did a more proper study to show the benefits of the proposed plan.

I went to the presentation of this report in Quito, hosted by the UN, and it was quite clear in the report that a) the project would absolutely be beneficial for Ecuador and boosting their economy via ecotourism and b) the unspoken: there seemed to be a very slim chance that they could make investing foreign governments confident in their ability to actually pull it off and use the money wisely and transparently.

It was clear while working in the Amazon that the government did not really care about the rainforest, and what ecotourism could do to its economy as it has done to places like Costa Rica.

“Our government, our president tells us, no, mandates us that this is a petroleum country!”

These are the exact (translated) words of the PetroAmazonas (state run oil company) representative who came to speak to our local town, Puerto Maldonado. His nationalist rant was clear, the data they presented to the townspeople on how the oil prospecting they were proposing would damage the environment was not. Most notably, the incredibly misleading graphics and absurdly wrong environmental impact data (i.e. “our study shows only 52 species of plants in the nearby rainforest reserve” while I could merely glance outside the town hall and see over a hundred species).

While we were fortunate in being able to communicate to the town that the information they were getting wasn’t accurate, it left me with a cloud over that ‘hope’ thing I had for the Amazon region of Ecuador. Imagine all of the other Amazon towns that are getting the same speech, the same pressure, the same money dangled in front of them.

Roads, helipads, and runways have already been developed in Yasuni for the oil companies to march on in. These roads were ‘secret,’ but locals and environmentalists knew about them as they were clearly visible from plane and helicopter rides.

Protecting such a large wealth of forest is not easy, for sure. I also understand what income oil can provide the people of a struggling economy, for the short term, at least. But this was such a wasted opportunity by the government. Ecuador is such a fantastic place to visit, and has so much to offer in the ways of tourism (Costa Rica can hardly compare on diversity and native cultures).

If this were well planned from the start, it could have been a wonderful reality. Instead, Yasuni may end up being a part of our history. The photos, the scientific specimens, the blow-dart guns, the stories, may all end up in a museum I’d take my future grandchildren to, to try show them what the true loss of a world treasure is like.

 

A Clever Use of Spines

 

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A circumscribing line of setae around this twig make a difficult wall to pass as an ant.

Many moths incorporate the setae (hairs) of the caterpillar into the cocoon in some way- often in the form of a weaving them with silk into the protective case around the pupa.

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Note the protective ‘walls’ of hairs above the forming cocoon.

 

But the method used by this species takes some serious planning.

At the bottom, you get the forming cocoon and pupa, with the caterpillar still inside. But as you go up the twig you find multiple ‘walls’ constructed out of the caterpillar’s hairs all woven together to prevent predators like ants from climbing down.

The process of making this would have been truly something to watch, as the caterpillar literally takes the hair off its back and carefully weaves them together using the silk gland located just below the mouth.

As I figured out what the hairs were doing, I literally said aloud, to myself,
“How are there so many cool things here!” The Amazon never ceases to amaze me with the unique adaptations we find out here every day. Seriously.

Amazon Spiders, Up Close.

My last two years in the Amazon have left me fascinated with a group I used to largely pass over: the spiders. The Amazon is home to thousands of remarkable species, and I’m taking full advantage of my time with a Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens to document those here in Tambopata.

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The doily-like web of Argiope savignyi.

 

Phoneutria peru banana spider

The closest I will ever get to a wandering spider.

This is just like that scene in Spiderman where they kiss upside-down right? Araneus sp.

This is just like that scene in Spiderman where they kiss upside-down right? Araneus sp.

 

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Looks like a face holding his arms up. The dorsal view of the Araneus spider above.

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Argiope spider.

 

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Argiope sp. So webby.

 

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What better way to make a giant web than to do it communally?

 

Tambopata Peru spider web doily

Another beautiful Argiope savignyi web.

Things with fur and four legs.

You heard right. A blog post dedicated to mammal sightings.

Today has been particularly spectacular. We encountered some truly rare creatures today while traveling up the Tambopata. Due to shallow water we had to hop out and push the boat twice, but I’d push the whole way if I knew we’d see these:

Tambopata wildlife peru

Only showed us the rear end.

To see a jaguar is about as cool as it gets. This is my 6th ever, and 5th in the last year working in Tambopata. To glimpse one of these secretive, powerful beasts is a rush, and our boat ride was just getting started.

Tambopata wildlife peru

“NOM NOM” -Neotropical River Otter.

Most of the guides here have only seen the neotropical otter once or twice in their lives. That is years of going up and down this river every week. That makes it even more rare than even the wild bush dogs or short eared dogs that are a staple of hard-to-see Amazon wildlife.

There was something ottery in the air, because not thirty minutes past that we saw a pair of giant river otters bounding along the shore. To see one in a river is truly something special: despite being called “river” otters, their range is generally restricted to isolated oxbow lakes due to decades of humans hunting them for their pelts and habitat disturbance. Knowing that there are some amongst these rivers gives me hope that new pairs can be forming in areas besides the known otter families of the oxbow lakes in this region.

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Look at the size of that giant river otter tail.

 

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They would stop and play even as they ran from our boat.

Updates soon regarding things with more than 4 legs and with much less fur.

Galapagos: Get Here.

I recently returned from my first visit to the Galapagos and was simply blown away. The wildlife encountered, the landscapes, the seafood, all incredible.

Galapagos Islands Darwin

A baby Galapagos tortoise. Some day, 250lbs.

But what struck me the most was how the place is basically a giant, interactive school disguised as a bunch of islands. The guides taught our group themes ranging from plate tectonics to evolution to adaptive radiation. Tortoise breeding centers had set conservation goals and interactive displays which showed what true conservation really takes to accomplish (time, effort, research, money, and communicating with locals).

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A male marine iguana leaving the sea.

 

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For conservation, controlling invasive species and human impact is the name of the game. Entire volcano tops once covered in ‘Darwin Bush’ are now completely covered in invasive Guayaba trees. The good thing is guayaba jam is delicious, so I like to pretend that by eating that jam I’m saving Galapagos, one fruit seed at a time.

There seems to be a triumvirate of power constantly working out a balance: ecotourism, fishing, and the national park service. Ecotourism industry wants more access to areas, more infrastructure in towns. Fishing wants to fish. And the National Park Service wants to keep some areas restricted.

 

It was clear that the Galapagos is a community that deeply cares about protecting the island and its resources, but struggles at times to use available knowledge to make the right call. As with many conservation programs around the world, it is a work in progress and based on conversations with locals I feel confident it will continue to improve.

A lava lizard.

A lava lizard.

While I’m prone to the land-based organisms, it was impossible to ignore the incredible marine life that would literally walk and swim right up to you. I was able to watch marine iguanas and green sea turtles tear seaweed off submerged rocks along the shore. Dive and spin and ‘play’ with baby sea lions. Swim through a channel with a dozen reef sharks below.

We even caught a brief glimpse of a humpback whale and spotted a rare fur sea lion, which to be honest looks more like a giant marine bear mouse than a sea lion.

A fur sea lion (aka mouse/bear/seal).

A fur sea lion (aka mouse/bear/seal).