Travels

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Isla Murciélago

Over the past few months, I’ve been occupied mainly with counting, weighing, and scanning leaves. Ecosystem ecology is a non-stop thrill!! However, I’ve gotten the chance to do some traveling both within and outside Costa Rica.

In July the whole Powers lab decided to take a trip to Isla Murciélago, a small, remote island a ~3 hour boat ride off the coast of the Santa Elena peninsula. Not much lives there aside from ctenosaurs, rats, and hermit crabs, but the snorkeling is fantastic. Or more accurately, it used to be… several red tides have claimed almost all the corals. With sufficient protection from the Area de Conservación Guanacaste (more info here and here), the reef may regenerate.

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Last week I took a visa run to Nicaragua, the largest and perhaps most diverse country in Central America. A week was nowhere near sufficient to explore more than a small corner of the country, but I had a fantastic time and would recommend visiting Granada to anyone. It’s a beautiful colonial city with amazing cafés, no fewer than three Irish pubs, a good archeological museum, and amazing views of Lake Nicaragua (no swimming, though… the lake contains both caiman and bull sharks!)

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A church off the Parque Central, Granada

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Obligatory tourist monkey shot

I also got to check out Isla Ometepe, a volcanic island in the middle of the lake. My new knee made it 9 km up the volcano!

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A view of Volcán Concepción, Isla de Ometepe.

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The view from the volcano!

Although I was just a few hours across the border from Costa Rica, Nicaragua felt incredibly foreign to me in a way that CR does not. Nicaragua is poorer than its neighbor to the south, but culturally much more diverse (parts of the country are even English-speaking as a legacy of the British slave trade). Propaganda for the FLSN (Sandinistas) is everywhere, with banners proudly proclaiming that Nicaragua is ‘Socialist, Christian, and unique!’ In contrast to Costa Rica, where the vast majority of tourists are American, almost every traveler I met was European. Considering the awful legacy of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, perhaps this makes sense. Nonetheless, everyone I met was incredibly friendly, and I got the sense that many Nicaraguans are rightfully proud of their amazing country. I can’t wait to go back!

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Leaving el campo (temporarily!)

Last week I was visited by some of my favorite people in the entire world – 75% of the Hawkes lab showed up at Horizontes! We had a great time, despite the fact that I almost killed them with heatstroke on a hike that turned out way longer than expected.

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Hiking through Horizontes

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Cabuyal, celebrating the fact that we survived a 5 hour hike at 95 degrees.

Unfortunately, the length of the hike badly exacerbated a low-level pain in my left knee that had been bothering me for weeks. After visiting three Costa Rican hospitals,* I decided to fly back to the States for a diagnosis. It turns out I have a rare condition called osteochondritis dissecans, which is a very fancy way of saying that I won’t be walking for quite a while.

*Hospital Cima – 5/5 for rich tourists needing botox and teeth whitening; 1/5 for people with actual medical problems

Liberia public hospital – 0/5 – don’t even ask

Clínica Biblia – actually ok. 4/5, would visit again! Wish they had an X-ray, though.

Because I doubt that most people are interested in hearing any more about my femoral condyles, I probably won’t update this blog until I get back to Costa Rica. I hope that occurs sooner rather than later -it’s been three days, and I already desperately miss my jungle adventures. On the bright side, I have excellent doctors here in Minnesota, and I’m anticipating a full recovery!

Adventures with sea turtles

This weekend, the Horizontes team went to Cabuyal beach to volunteer with The Leatherback Trust, an organization that monitors and protects sea turtle populations. The Trust carries out most of its research on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, where many turtles – including the endangered leatherback – have important nesting sites.

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Cabuyal beach

 Scientists and Volunteers at TLT have several main objectives: tagging adult sea turtles to monitor population dynamics, hiding nests from poachers (who are incredibly active, taking up to 90% of eggs at some sites), and ensuring hatchlings travel safely from shore to the sea. Volunteers also monitor the location, depth and temperature profiles of successful turtle nests, to ensure that beaches maintain suitable habitat for future mothers.

On Friday we participated in a beach patrol, which typically run from 9 pm to 3 or 4 am (although some are much longer.) Unfortunately I have no photos to share, since any form of artificial light – even a camera’s LCD screen – is completely prohibited on the nesting beach. We got to see a black sea turtle (a Pacific morph of the green turtle) lay her eggs! It is amazing to watch these huge and prehistoric animals struggle awkwardly along the sand, then glide smoothly towards the horizon once they finally reach water. It was also a privilege just to be on a completely light-free beach at night: the stars and bioluminescence in the water were equally bright and equally beautiful.

Back at camp, conditions are pretty primitive. There is no electricity or refrigeration, so volunteers are running on little fresh food and even less sleep for periods of months:

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The turtle camp. Cooking and clean-up duties are assigned based on the outcomes of domino and card games. An unlucky hand meant I made the gallo pinto and washed up afterward!

In the morning, we helped excavate an old nest to quantify the number of turtles that hatched successfully:

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All in all, this organization does incredible work. Be sure to check out the link above! And to make up for the absence of sea turtle photos, here are some other egg-laying animals:

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White-fronted parrot

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Double-striped thick knee and her eggs. These birds make pitiful nests!

Critter round-up: weird reptile edition

It’s been a good week for spotting interesting reptiles.

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A skink – apparently a member of the most diverse family of reptiles. I had no idea there were that many skinks in the world!

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Blind snake

This little guy may not look like much – I almost mistook him for a worm at first. But this is actually a member of a very basal lineage of snakes: fossorial, eye-less, and tail-less. Their natural history is fascinating – for more info (and much better photos) check out http://thesmallermajority.com/2014/02/01/mozambique-diary-blind-snakes-of-gorongosa/.

Houseguests

In Costa Rica, you don’t need to go out in search of wildlife… it comes to you! For example:

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Bats under the eaves!

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Frogs in the kitchen sink!

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A tarantula in my laundry basket!

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Anoles in the office supplies!

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Horses in the front yard! Quit eating my study species, horse! (This awesome photo courtesy of JP).

For marine protected areas, half measures don’t count

A sobering study is out in Nature this week, which quantifies the benefits of marine protected areas worldwide: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature13022.html. The authors found that 59% of the marine reserves were ecologically undistinguishable from non-protected areas. There is a silver lining to their findings, however: conservation benefits were greatly enhanced in protected areas that had been well-designed. In marine reserves that were large, isolated by deep water, and completely closed to fishing, the biodiversity of large fish doubled in comparison with unprotected areas. These findings emphasize that conservation isn’t simply a matter of slapping a ‘national park’ label on an ecosystem and walking away. Protected areas need to be planned carefully and monitored regularly to ensure their success.

You can read more about the study here: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/02/07/3260781/marine-protected-areas-working/