Dirty work

This week, I’ve been setting up plots to measure soil CO2 flux. To do so, we install collars that fit the Li-Cor 8100A, a machine that can measure gas fluxes in situ.


This is harder than it looks, since we’re working with heavy clays that are very dry – think brittle cement. After digging a hole of the appropriate size, the soil needs to sieved through a 2 mm sieve before we replace it in the collar.


If we’re on top of our game, we can get about six cores installed in 3.5 hours. But the leaf-cutter ants’ digging skills put us to shame – check out the size of this mound!


Several tons of dirt, in homogenous 1-mm aggregates, excavated by millions of Atta ants.

It’s definitely the most impressive colony I’ve ever seen. And speaking of dramatic insect encounters, witness this amazing battle that took place the other morning in our kitchen:


Never a dull moment in the field!




Weekly critter round-up

Some of the amazing animals I’ve seen in and around Horizontes this week…


Black ctenosaur


Boat-billed heron


I’d love an ID on this gorgeous snake if anyone knows who it is…


Paper wasps


Gratuitous scenery shot… this is the waterfall on Sendero Saltillo

A tour of the field house


This is my new friend, the frog who lives in our shower. I will spare you photos of the rest of our extremely primitive bathroom… you’re welcome.

I would like to dedicate this post to Sun Country airlines, who turned a blind eye to the fact that four out of my five giant suitcases were over the weight limit. Thanks guys!

The move-in is finally complete and the house looks great! Here’s a little tour of the cabina where I’ll spend the next twelve months.

When I signed on to this post-doc position, the house looked like this:


As you can imagine, I had some trepidations about moving in. But six months of hard work transformed the ancient farmhouse into this:


Check out the awesome porch! I foresee many cerveza-fueled ping pong games taking place on this porch in the future.

I spent all day yesterday cleaning the common area in what used to be the farmhouse proper. It is now my brand spanking new biogeochemistry lab. You can tell because I wrote ‘lab space’ on some masking tape to indicate where Science will be performed:


Originally, Cafe Baghdad’s ‘kitchen’ consisted of a fire pit with a malfunctioning chimney. But now we have an adorable kitchen and dining area, complete with a distiller to make DI water for our lab:



We have a minor frog infestation in our kitchen sink… to paraphrase Mitch Hedburg, it is the cutest infestation ever.

My bedroom comes with a scenic view of the bodega next door. I absolutely love the curtains – they were hand-made by my advisor:


That concludes the grand tour! Prepare for an onslaught of animal photos over the next few days. Taking photos is very convenient since all the local iguanas, tarantulas, geckos, etc. have been making themselves at home in Cafe Baghdad as well.

Free trade agreements and conservation don’t mix

Recently, a great friend of mine recommended nakedcapitalism.com, which explores the ways in which corporate interests and the finance industry manipulate political systems. Although the blog focuses mainly on economics, the content has inspired me to entirely re-think the way I approach conservation and other environmental issues. By now, the dictum that conservation must take place in a market-oriented context is perhaps (overly) familiar to many of us. Aside from the inherent issues associated with the valuation of ecosystem goods and services, this approach is troublesome because it often pits local stakeholders against transnational corporations. The obvious power imbalance in such situations is illustrated very well by the recent West Virginia water crisis: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/01/14/3158011/west-virginia-political/

There are many good reasons to question market-driven approaches to conservation, but perhaps the most fundamental objection is the incompatibility between neoliberal economics and environmentalism. For illustration, look no further than the giant Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement that contains ‘a binding international government system’ that would allow transnational corporations to flout local labor and environmental regulations in their pursuit of profit. The negotiations are being conducted in secret, but Wikileaks has obtained some documents that shed light on just how awful this deal would be for job security, internet freedom, etc. etc. The most recently leaked documents indicate that the TPP would gut environmental regulations (read more here and here). Despite the secrecy of the arbitrations, the Obama administration is trying to ‘fast track’ the TPP so that Congress can approve the agreement quickly, without the ability to make any amendments.

Conservation efforts by NGOs are pretty much worthless in the face of this deal, which would permit corporations to sue governments for prospective profits (not even actual profits!) lost due to ‘burdensome’ environmental regulations. It is unbelievable that such a hugely influential agreement could be rammed through Congress with a simple up-or-down vote. If you care at all about environmental issues, I’d urge you to learn more about the TPP (and contact your representatives!) at www.exposethetpp.org


A week from tomorrow I leave for Costa Rica, where I’ll spend the next year studying how tropical forests respond to climate change. I will live and work at the Estación Experimental Forestal Horizontes in a converted farmhouse known affectionately as ‘Cafe Baghdad.’  (The name derives from its original…. ‘rustic’ appearance, though it has since been refurbished.) Horizontes promises to be an incredible place to do research, but it presents a few logistical challenges; for one, I’ll be building a biogeochemistry lab pretty much from scratch.  This means I’ll be racking up some pretty terrifying luggage fees trying to fit all this on a plane:

Photo on 1-16-14 at 3.50 PM

Luckily, Horizontes is located near the aptly named ‘Do It Center’ in Liberia, so there will be easy access to miles of PVC tubing and duct tape – essentials for any field biologist. As long as I can fit my snake boots somewhere in my suitcase, I should be good to go!