How green? Return the lizard fern river-crossing footprint

We’ve returned to Cloudbridge and it’s life life life life life life life, like usual. Definitely going to miss this place with all its variety of animals, plants, and fungi. Trying to describe any of it is an exercise in art itself and my hat goes off to any systematics and taxonomic scientist. Every day there is a new find followed by a whole load of searching to nail it down. Lou and I decided to take a morning stroll at 3am to Vulture’s Rock, an outcrop halfway up an East-facing slope. As the sun started to rise, Uran, the tallest mountain in view, lit up like an ancient temple with a glistening gem a rest on top. It was an hour or more before the sun made its way over the Chirripo-trail ridgeline and down the slope to strike us. On the way down we spotted ferns that looked like unraveling slippers out of Alice in wonderland, angel-wing shaped fungus fruiting all over a dead-standing tree, and a vibrantly-coloured and scaled lizard hiding amongst the over-grown grass, giving us enough of a glimpse before skittering off into safety.

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Sceloporus malachiticus, (from google)

Life doesn’t appear to understand the distinction between inside and outside. An experience the visitors here find out all too easily at night when crickets jump over your skin as you work at the computer; where sparrow-sized moths fly at your face; and in the case of the office, where a spider claimed the underside of the desk as her maternity ward.

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Spider clutching at her eggs, surrounded by a dense dome-like web

It has been refreshing to sit on the other side of the classroom now that I have returned to university, wondering about as a student instead of guiding wonderers as a teacher. However, the cornerstones of teaching that I learned in English Language Teaching of context, purpose, collaboration, and authenticity are all absent in lectures. This has been frustrating and a struggle to say the least. Fortunately, the professors of the Ecology department at Otago compensate for this by being forerunners in the world for advocating research as a means of learning. This is where I feel those cornerstones have been catered for and is definitely one of the reasons we have been able to make this journey, for without those skills we would surely be making progress like a moth to a lamp. Throughout the last two years, Otago has led us on a path towards self-motivated research, directing us towards measurable questions, assessing data validity, and cautiously inferring answers from results.

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Loopy-looking fern frond

One of the angles that our professor Robert Poulin emphasised in an early ecology lecture was the difference between environmental activism and quantifiable ecology. These are not mutually exclusive but let’s tease them out, anyway. German troops occupied Norway during WWII and killed half the 95,000 reindeer population. By 1960 the population had doubled from its diminished population and recovered to 90,000. The Persian Gulf oil spill resulting from conflict in 1991 accumulated 6 to 8 million barrels of oil out at sea. Birds lose insulating properties of their plumage leading to hypothermia as well as ingestion of oil causing numerous internal dysfunctions, organ damage, and sometimes death from poisoning. Yet many species did not suffer at all, some suffered between 10 – 30 % population reductions, and none came close to extinction. We could campaign about the environmental abuses of these, but to an ecologist that does not make much sense.

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Centropogon granulosus, a hummingbird favourite

What appears on the surface to be a minor difference turns out to be a profound alternative perspective. Severity of impact is one of the key distinctions between the two views. Many ecologists like to use the sick patient as an analogy for the systems researched in the field. Disturbances like the above could be seen as fevers that leave patients bed-stricken for days or weeks. Heavily impacted and urbanized landscapes are the severely sick systems, the life-threatening illnesses that can potentially disable the patient permanently, situations that need understanding of natural systems in order to provide remedies.

 

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Stachytarpheta frantzii, another hummingbird favourite

Oil spills in the gulf can kill a few thousand birds in a year but dredging marshes and filling in mangroves with cement and landfill permanently remove habitat for decades. Sometimes the irrecoverable disasters are the gradual accumulations and seemingly mundane business as usual. The bleaching of coral reefs have a rebound and recovery time (albeit with limitations) but dumping contaminated waste and filling in coral reefs are disturbances that lead to permanent destruction.

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About to find the Hansteinia blepharorbachis’ orange towering flowers on the right

Cloudbridge has been a role model and facilitator of this quantitative research. Encompassing both natural (old growth) and heavily impacted (regeneration and planted) sites, Cloudbridge has a unique ability to study these hand in hand. Cloudbridge arose out of the encroachment of local farmers being pushed further and further up the mountain passes to find grazing land for their livestock and provide sustenance for their families. What they found, instead, were poor soils that constrained most of them in poverty. Once Cloudbridge was bought and established, the initial regeneration technique was to let nature do its thing. However, from the accumulated knowledge of the nearly century-old discipline of ecology at the time, researchers starting manipulating the inputs to alter the direction the forest system was heading.

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Amphibian surveys can be used as ecosystem-health indicators

All this does not entail a return to a natural forest. In fact, from the scientists perspective, this does not make any sense; as ecologist Markus Eichhorn writes, “by definition we can’t make something natural nor should we aspire to do so. Whether an island is occupied by native endemics or filled with the alien species introduced by man, it only becomes natural as soon as we pack our bags and set sail.” Natural does not mean the return of biodiversity, nor of healthy systems, natural simply means left to its human-less state.

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Etlingera elatior

During the beginning of the year at Cloudbridge, two groups of high school students come down for a week each to design and implement a study over a few days. The insights, motivation, curiosity, and inquisitiveness of this bunch encourages the instructors to try and keep up and push them further. Linda has a great break-down of the 2-week stint on the Cloudbridge blog.

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In Darkness We Shall

Over the last ten days Oli and I have been traveling around Costa Rica, periodically having our bank accounts drained by the tourist traps that litter the landscape. Our first stop was Quepos, a town just round the corner from Manuel Antonio national park, a land-marine reserve that harbours a spectactular variety of animals and plants within a small vicinity. Making our way along the trail, the rangers stopped every minute or so to point out animals they had “spotted” in a manner which seemed as if they had placed them out on the trail early that morning. Packed full of animals would be an understatement. Sloths lingered in the bitterwood tree-tops, howler monkeys rattled the forest with their calls, hermit crabs skittered away to then hunker down in dark safety, successive humans repeatedly turned a broken tap to the joke of being yet another that tried, raccoons scoured the litter in search of scraps, capuchin monkeys rough housed amongst the low-lying branches on the beach, an agouti strolled with intent on what it was sniffing out, a turtle scrambled upstream fumbling over the rubble, all the while we downed copious amounts of water to keep hydrated from the stifling heat and humidity.

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Looking down a palm tree from a tree-top lookout

Onwards to the Caribbean! On this coast we laxed out in a little town down towards Panama called Puerto Viejo. A realisation hit me while I was here, the kind you get only upon encountering something that you have learnt about but never grasped or held up to reality. To get there let’s go on a round-about tangent that should make sense once we arrive.

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Pacific gem through the trees

Our research question regarding soil and log invertebrates is an interesting one. Another interesting question to ask is how Oli and I can venture half-way around the world and not have a high expectation of being killed by strangers. As Peter Turchin opens similarly in a recent book “Ultrasociety,” what has forged and propelled human society towards greater and greater cooperation from spending tens of thousands of human hours building cathedrals in northern France near the beginning of the second millennium to spending billions of human hours from multiple countries constructing, launching, and maintaining the international space station. For 90-95% of Homo sapiens sapiens natural history we were hunter-gatherers and extremely territorial, so much so as to not trust and even kill strangers. The data appears to point towards an unexpected theory for our recent ability to cooperate beyond kin-ship circles, not the hydrological theory in which history has been directed by the ever-increasing need to control and secure water, nor was it the great expansion of intellectual and free thought of the enlightenment, nor was it the establishment of human rights, egalitarian movements, and the western revolutions. It appears the leading contestant is war.

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An agouti, picture from anywhere.com

The study of warfare requires one to blur the lines between human and natural systems, observing war as a natural byproduct and natural disturbance. Just as we research bird migration patterns, amphibian breeding behaviours, or fish prey-predation dynamics, war should be viewed through a similar lens of Homo sapiens sapiens evolutionary behaviour. There are many definitions for war but a simple foundation to start with is lethal group-on-group violence, a process not unique unto humans as others like chimps and wolves also partake in it.

There are extensive data sets that validate the violent and warlike nature of pre-agricultural humans. Violence and war are high risk means of supporting the evolutionary goals of survival and reproduction. My kiwi readers will be reassured to hear the “Maori warrior gene” is a myth, but disconcerted to hear genes and hormones are universal human predispositions that interact with the environment and other genes to periodically produce warlike tendencies.

Not only is war fascinating in the extremes of the human condition but it is also interesting in that it is not an agricultural construct. The rise of the noble savage in the 1940s through 70s downplayed the natural propensity of human warfare before the neolithic and instead created a state-based and agricultural basis for warfare. This train of thought no longer coincides with what the violent data tells us in fields like zoology, archaeology, psychology, sociology, history and anthropology. The emerging field that intertwines all these disciplines, cultural evolution, is one that uses mathematical models and tests them empirically against vast data sets that have been amassed over the recent decade from the explosion of collaborative and technological capabilities. One of the compelling results from recent research shows that competition amongst groups is a destructive force whereas competition between groups is a creative and productive force, a result businesses should take to heart and reflect on in the cases where they promote and facilitate competition amongst their employees. The cooperation reached by societies, wrenched upwards by war, can then be secured by a variety of social institutions which can be all too easily unraveled like was the case for Afghanistan post 1970s.

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Black-sandy beaches on the northern reaches of Puerto Viejo

Theories about the emergence of cooperation aside, I brought it up for when I was wandering the beaches of Puerto Viejo I kept being reminded about the certainty that oceanographers have about the speed that sea level is rising, a speed expected to increase in pace due to the many positive feedback mechanisms that are modeled to kick into action serially. Next to a beach-side resort lay many middle-aged men and women soaking up the sun, dunking their feet in the waves that came wafting in under their lounges to stop on the brink of the jungle. After the initial beach-side dune, the land drops away and most shops, houses, accommodation, and farms lie on this low flat plain. Scary.

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Arthrostemma ciliatum

Scary as it is an extremely difficult situation to find, develop, manage, and implement a response to. As I was discussing previously, the scientific endeavour is one fraught with uncertainty, yet to make any clear decisions and responses communities need to come to a consensus about how many resources are going to be delayed for their short-term benefits and invested in their long-term resilience. This is not simply a scientific question with a quantifiable answer but one where cooperation beyond the kin, beyond the town, beyond the city, beyond the state, to our brethren across borders and overseas is going to play a critical role.

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An iridescent bee that landed on the laptop

Just like any challenge we face, there are things both under our control and out of our control. Crossing the river to bath under a waterfall the other day, Fredie, Lou, and I had control over our route, over our successive steps, but did not control the flow of the river, the placement of the rocks, or the temperature of the water. The same applies for the strategy we decide to employ to foster resilience against the approaching climatic chaos.

In Light Ought You

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“No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.” Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, X.16)

We are starting to pile up some good film time for our documentary and the other day we shot some more interviewing Tom, the director of Cloudbridge, and Linda, artist and Tom’s wife. After the interviews and some time chatting away with both of them, I was reminded of Marcus’ quote. Tom was inspired by the ambition of the original founders of Cloudbridge, Ian and Genevieve. At the end of a winding road, amongst a collaboration of paddocks and pastures, these, I almost want to call them pioneers, saw vision of what forest could return and flourish along the slopes of such a picturesque valley. With the reserve as home-ground for research and reforestation, Tom and Linda use it as a platform for education and activism. Through collaboration, connections, outreach, funding, and community involvement, the impact of Cloudbridge extends well beyond the boundaries of the reserve to shape the lives of Costa Ricans, Americans, Europeans, and now even some Kiwis. Another thought that echoes this life of engagement and recognition lies in the words of Seneca that ‘if philosophy is the practice of a wise life, its truth cannot be learned apart from its embodiment.’ Linda expresses conservation reforestation and human liberty and action through her acrylic and collage, housing her work in her gallery that is a must-come-see.

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Every one enjoys crossing the river

 

 

We welcomed some fresh researchers from the GBI programme last week, coming to continue work on the camera traps, butterfly surveys, and bird counts. They gave a bird presentation the other day, inspiring Fredie and I to go out searching at 17:00 as the sun started setting. Not surprisingly, we encountered no birds but came across a car-sized stump crawling with a spastic horde of harvestmen, an inert anole, a springy caterpillar, a hoo-hoo-ing owl, a demon-like spider caught red-handed with a spun-beetle, a flower in disguise of the vampire squid, and an annoyingly loud giant pulsating cricket. The joys one can find in the jungle twilight.

Wow, a Brugmansia! Fredie roared fearlessly  as she spots the size of a flower hanging down. I reminisce on the similarity with the deep-sea vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis)

The plant traits never cease to impress me as I wonder through these forests. The other day Oli was setting up his tripod on the edge of the river waiting for some kayakers to come down the main drag. While he was doing some smooth-as rubber-band camera panning I was having a fine time contemplating some of the plant forms littering the riparian edges. One tree arched over the river with outstretched branches; to think of the overbearing strain on these extended limbs with so many vines, epiphytes, mosses, leaf litter, animals, all doing their best to stay attached and retain their place. Other trees seem to eject themselves like antennas out of the soil, thin as beer cans but storeys high; how would you fare playing wizard staff to the same extent. The kayakers shot through the section while we were making lunch and so we missed out on capturing one of them break their nose; “worth it,” he exclaimed to one of the staff here.

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Plants growing on trees in the family piperaceae (I think)

As well as taking in the variety of plant and animal forms around the place, I have been able to relapse into botanic enjoyment, wandering around sloth-paced through the tracks with a gaze large and broad, perception strong, sight weak. Oli and I have collected and recorded a decent amount of soil and invertebrates so are now in data science mode. Instead of gunning it up hills to grab some bags full of soil, morning walks have been rather leisurely and curious dawdles. It’s been a good opportunity to put my phone’s camera to the test as I begin compiling a presentation for the botanic society back in Dunedin. Also really good time for listening to audio-books. One that I have been listening to recently is Churchill’s recount of the path that allowed WWII to rise from the ashes of WWI. I’m in a quoting mood and this one of Churchill doesn’t need much context because of the badass prose he is able to muster:

“The governments simply cannot make up their minds or they cannot get the prime minister to make up his mind. So they go on in strange paradox; decided only to be undecided; resolved to be irresolute; adamant for drift; solid for fluidity; all powerful to be impotent. So we go on preparing more months and years, precious, perhaps vital to the greatness of Britain, for the locusts to eat.”

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Set before the storm

With twenty people merry, cherry, and hungry, we were all eager to please with dishes we had planned for days in advance. Tom and Linda hosted the crew along with a bunch of local friends for Christmas dinner.

Countdown

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Emerald toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus) from reddit

As opposed to a fortnight ago when we were graced with the capuchin encounter, today we were lucky in a different sense. Oli decided to join us this time and was not impressed when after 2 hours the scenery was still young unremarkable successional forest. The trail was walled with ferns needing a cut back with the machete, along with steep muddy slopes requiring deft footwork, all amongst what seemed a hot clearing most devoid of any wildlife. This changed and soon Oli was with camera in hand when we ventured into the old growth where moss droops from the branches, lichens cover the bark, and fungi fruit from unlikely outcrops. Beth spotted a 3-foot snake resting in the middle of the trail, allowing us a gander at its features before slithering back into the brush. I was caught off guard by a chorus of yodels coming from down the bank followed by a few pairs of emerald toucanets fluttering between the trees.

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Keeping memory cards dry ain’t the easiest up in the clouds

Just like a fortnight ago, we were on our way up the hill to change out some camera traps. On the other side of the river our chew cards had been gnawed to bits by the opossum but the ones we chucked up at the top of this hill had no marks at all. It’s possible there are no opossum up here or that none of the animals around this area like peanut butter. On our way along the ridge-line we saw some fresh scat, a decent chunk of it at that, and upon reaching the camera, as Beth and I were crouching down to collect the data and reset the trap we heard a deep purr with a rumble to it. Beth thought it may have been me but as I asked her whether she heard it or not that thought passed her mind. ‘What was behind us,’ I thought as I turned around expecting a jaguar to be prone and ready to pounce.

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Jaguar (Panthera onca) from the camera trap at Cloudbridge

“DK doesn’t do light reading,” Oli exclaims as we chat about books at dinner, and with titles like ‘War and Nature,’ ‘Strategy and Game Theory,’ ‘How war made humans cooperate,’ I can’t really contest, lol. Although I referred to Costa Rica disassembling her armed forces in the about page, she participated in the two world wars and also had a short civil war in the 50s costing the lives of around 2000 people. The Costa Rican forests, in these three cases, came off unscathed, but that is not usually the case for forests during times of war. War can bring many detrimental effects to forest systems including malfunctioning institutions that can’t support conservation efforts, over-harvesting from militants and refugees, deforestation for preparations like on many islands in the Pacific during WWII, destruction from intentional attacks, and all with gradations of severity and lasting duration. Vietnam has become the pin-up case for forest destruction due to war.

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Oli has a great ability of capturing the cloud-like feel in the reserve

The two Indochina (Vietnam) wars from 1946-1954-1975, with the US joining in 1965, saw the southern forests, themselves, become the deliberate target as a strategy to strip the enemy of their supplies and shelter. On my travels through Vietnamese countrysides, my first thoughts on sight of these forests were in wonderment about why the US even bothered. Later I found out that the Mongols, conquerors of Russia, Persia, the Caliphate, the steppe, and China were not even able to come out victors against Vietnam. Good luck to any one else. The US chose a different strategy and instead of fighting guerrillas at their own game, they decided to drop 10 million tons of explosives on Southern Vietnam, alone. With a high percentage of these not detonating they remain in the ground as deadly remnants that still haunt the forests to this day. The common 240 kg shells literally rained across 70,000 km2 of South Vietnam, leaving craters 8 m long and 4 m deep, obliterating the flora and fauna, and damaging nearby life with shock-waves and shrapnel. To put that drop-zone area in comparison, Costa Rica is only 51,000 km2, Cantebury is 44,000 km2, Otago is 31,000 km2, and Auckland is 5,000 km2.

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Pinterest supplying some quality historic photos

In addition to bombing the Vietnamese out of the jungle, the US deployed companies of 20-ton tractors called “Rome Plows,” a brute-force mob with the intention to scrap away the vegetation and expose the subsoil, mechanically eroding 3,250 km2 of South Vietnam’s land area. Just to top things off, from 1967 to 1969, operation Ranch Hand was conducted, sending squadrons of planes to spray swathes of forest (more than 30,000 km2) with growth regulators, causing destructive proliferation of tissues in plants or killing them by dehydration.

Four-ship formation on a defoliation spray run. (U.S. Air Force photo)
The systematic destruction of the South Vietnamese forests. Wikipedia has this photo of a four-ship formation on a defoliation spray run. (U.S. Air Force photo)

When scientists flew in to study the destructive after-effects of US military practice in Vietnam, the only available pre-war baseline data were economic conditions. There were no means of determining how the water regime had changed, how soil processes were disturbed, how the flora and fauna communities were altered, how any of the ecosystem processes recovered or how severely damaged they were. It would be another few decades before scientists could perform rigorous assessments of war when the atrocities of Rwanda and the Gulf wars ravaged the 90s.

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Rome Plows in action, from Fred’s page

Building a reliable catalogue of pre-disaster, during-disaster, and post-disaster assessments is one way of strengthening community resilience against severe disturbances and the ever more foggy view the farther one peers into the future. With precipitation patterns changing, with glaciers continually retreating, with soil fertility degrading, with urban communities rapidly expanding, with sea level rising, with conflict affliction recurring, it is crucial to possess a credible backdrop upon which to strategise. The access that places like Cloudbridge provide researchers is exactly this; the opportunities to document pre-disaster data and reference points for relative future assessments.

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Merry Christmas from a lichen katydid (Markia hystrix)

Dominical Tangent

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The last time I saw the West Coast I was cycling it in 2014

Up here in the mountains the temp ranges from 12-25 degrees these days, whereas three hours down at the coast in Dominical it sits at a nice 25-30. Last weekend was definitely a calming and needed weekend getaway. Upon shutting your eyes to sleep at night, if you start visualising skittish ants, squirming centipedes, sluggish caterpillars, or slithering worms, it’s probably time for a break. Some described Dominical as Florida in the 50s and with the surfing ‘mericans, laid-back locals, fruit stalls, taco joints, sun-bathing tourists, multi-lingual background chatter, coconut trees, palm-rows, colourful birds, and abundant reptiles, 50s Florida sounds about right.

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Iguana bathing beside our breakfast table

Walking along the seaside market street, having just seen an iguana run out from the brush, skittering across the dust and gravel to stop poised below the tree, we got wondering as to why the only giants of south America left are the crocodiles and alpacas. Some friends were surprised at how recent the last glacial period was, and the fact that we are still in an ice age*. Researchers over in Adelaide have found evidence that humans were one component that combined with other factors leading to the decrease of megafauna populations. Although these stunning creatures were barely able to persist alongside humans, it was only when the glaciers retreated and the climate warmed around 12,300 years ago that a lot of the South American megafauna went extinct within a hundred years.

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The Smilodon, or saber-toothed-cat was one of many megafauna to go extinct

The discussion moved onto whether the current climatic changes are human-induced, how life may fare in such conditions, how humans may cope, and in the end leading to the accusation that I am a climate change denier. Nice. Oh, how uni students like to enjoy the beach! “99% of scientists believe in anthropogenic climate change, so you should.” 99% of scientists denied continental movement and they also believed the sun to be only a few million years old, so, no thanks. Appealing to authority and appealing to majority are both excluded from my skeptical handbook for good reasons. I am not denying climate science at all, but I am not going to believe it because “science” or because “lots of scientists” do.

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Toucan taking a break from fruit-munching outside the hostel.

The cult-like culture that has developed among some scientists who applaud science as our new Saviour is not too dissimilar to dogmatic religions or destructive regimes of the past. Alongside mythology and philosophy, science is just another means of understanding the world, deserving no extraordinary or special status. “But science has methods, peer-review, and systems that make it reliable.” Again, sorry, but no. The replication crisis that has arisen in the past decade has shown that nearly 70% of scientific studies can not be replicated by other researchers. Not only that, but the methods between disciplines and across time vary extensively**. The “scientific method” is a historically violated concept that has no pragmatic relevance to the progress of science. The methodical manner to which evolution was discovered bears few similarities to discovering the moons of Jupiter or the structure of DNA.

Science is a human-built institution with in-built systems designed to smooth out logical mistakes and perceptive limitations of us all. In the eloquent words of Jacob Bronowski:

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.

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“No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power” -Dr Jacob Bronowski

In fact, this is arguably where science expresses itself most beautifully. For four hundred years we still haven’t found out what gravity is. Astronomers are still debating the origins of the moon. Whole fields have tossed and turned for the question of language and mind. The mechanisms of evolution are still under scrutiny and refinement, and human ancestry is still being pieced together. Yet none of this is demoralising for the scientist. I take every possible chance to quote Bronowski, and here again he articulates it perfectly:

Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.
  • *For some context, an ice age is when there are extensive ice sheets on both poles and alpine glaciers. The current ice age we are in at the moment began 2,600,000 years ago. Inside these ice ages are glacial periods (cycles within cycles) where extensive glaciers cover the continents. These periods coincide with the variations in the Earth’s orbit around the sun that occur on massive time scales beyond the scope of human lifetimes and so the the last glacial period was from 110,000 to 12,000 years ago. In historical perspective this ended long, long, long ago, around the same time that China domesticated rice. In a natural history perspective it feels like a mere pendulum sweep. Geologists think in ‘mya’ (millions of years ago) so 12,000 years is a mere breath.
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This skeleton of a 4-ton giant sloth is just as big as modern elephants, another extinct pleistocene beast.
  • **Methods came out of a time when thought was applied to systematising the scientific process so that it could find out facts like a recipe. Unfortunately, science is a much messier process than methods would allow. Upon contemplating the existence of such methods, what would the rationale be for their justification?

Rain forests, what?

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Jenn and Freddie found some sour fruits

Freddie, a fellow researcher has chosen to work on dung beetles around the reserve and has set 20+ traps in order to get an idea of what kinds of beetles are roaming around. We cruised along to set up some of them alongside the track out of sight of tourists. The trap is simply a bottle, cut in half, and placed so that the lip is level with the ground. Any ground-dwelling animal simply falls in to a hole filled with water and soap to be collected the next day. This survey method allows one to determine what insects are present/absent in the area. Freddie is setting up these traps along transects in different types of forests that Cloudbridge has around the reserve including planted forest, regenerating forest, and old growth forest. When the survey is done she will be able to compare what is present/absent between these sites.

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Oli setting up a pitfall trap with bait.

Cloudbridge categorises her forests by region of common history, as noted above. There is a broader, global perspective of categorising the natural environments based on the amount of rainfall and temperature. The world can be divided into 16 vegetation types with this method, each a kind of ‘biome.’ The biome of Cloudbridge is a tropical moist broadleaf forest (so although planet earth has an episode on “jungles,” there’s actually no agreed definition for such an environment). This forest type tends to be along the equator and usually has low nutrients, high sunlight, and high water inputs, forcing evolution to create specialists through competition. A couple of weeks back I mentioned the concept of co-limitation in ecology. This is one of the reasons for the high level of species richness in the tropics. Because there are a bunch of species, some may only exist on one mountain-side, one beach front, or one river system. Taken further, this entails that tropical forests in one country have totally different combinations of plants and animals from another. The amazon birds are not the same as those in Borneo; the monkeys in Costa Rica are not the same as those in India; the plants in Singapore are not the same as those in the Congo.

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Global distribution of temperate and tropical moist forest biomes

Automobiles, just like ecosystems, are complex systems, containing many parts, processes, and functions. The differences between a toyota rolla and a nissan bluebird are many, and in most cases in the rolla’s favour. The seats, the steering wheel, the doors, the wing-mirrors, the pedals, the headlights, the engine size are all designed in a different manner. But there are some fundamental similarities like having four doors, having a roof or having a piston engine. Are these differences and similarities consistent with all automobiles, though? What about if you chuck an RX-7 in the mix, or a motorcycle, or a tractor?

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One of the old growth forest giants overlooking the valley.

Not only is it likely that the species in Costa Rica will be dissimilar to those in NZ, NZ is not a tropical moist broadleaved forest. So, Oli and I decided to create a question that transcends these limitations of differences and ask one that seeks to find a common characteristic of forest systems. As our results will only be relevant for the particular studied forest system, we hope to make the link between these systems by conducting the project in both Costa Rican and NZ forests, determining whether this process is likely to be a common characteristic.

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One of the many awesome beetles Freddie has caught already.

We can’t just use Costa Rica to make these inferences as it is very difficult to make generalisations or predictions with one sample size. For example, earth is one sample known to have life but we cannot say for certain that all planets support life or that life exists outside of earth. However, if we were to find life on another planet in our solar system, the chances of life existing on other planets or in other systems in the universe, greatly increases.

Capuchin Encounter

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View up the valley with Mt. Uran in the distance

There was an intermittent reward for the 3 hour up hill climb I did yesterday with Beth and Oscar as we made our way to maintain the distant trap cameras on the edge of the reserve near the top of a mountain after an hour of steep scrambling up slippery litter-covered and root-lain ground. The reward was a troop of capuchin monkeys, numbering a dozen or more, some swinging off into the dense growth, some closing in to check us out.

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These kinds of encounters prompt a feeling that one might have heard in documentaries or passing conversations, something along the lines of a unique experience or connection, “when you swim with whales or dolphins it’s as if they peer into your soul.” Similar untranslatable experiences have been described by astronauts who get the opportunity to hold continents with their gaze, emphasising the unity one feels when seeing the one earth for what it is without arbitrary borders and petty politics that seem to strain the fabric of communities. A similar experience caught my attention when staring eye-to-eye with a curious capuchin hanging from a branch a mere 10 metres away. The unity here was of shared experience across arbitrary distinctions of life (species). If a 30 – 50 cm capuchin can arouse such an encounter, I cannot imagine what troop of chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, or gorillas could enkindle.

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Beth & Oscar setting up the camera trap in moss-coated vibrant bush

The camera traps work on a triggered system. While attracting animals with scented cloths on the end of sticks in the ground they stroll passed the sensor, setting the camera to start recording. The conservation groups on the Otago peninsula donated some chew cards that we have installed opposite these cameras, too. By filling the slots in the card with peanut butter, banana, papaya, and other foods, animals chew into the card to consume the treats and leave a distinctive trace from their bite-mark. Installing them next to the camera traps means we can cross-reference the bite-mark to the animal so that volunteers can distribute them around the reserve and discover what animals are lurking without having to visually confirm their presence. Cheers to the Otago peninsula group for providing us with a sweet as idea like that.

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Our research passports were accepted and so Oli and I are now official visiting scientists. This means we have the permission to collect all the bugs. Bugs, bugs, bugs. We had a velvet bug day this week. Velvet worms come from a very ancient lineage of animal that has its roots 540 million years ago in fossil records. A misconception about phylogenetic (life-tree-relationship) ages of animals is that once they diverge from close relatives they stabilise until the present day, a misconception as evolution doesn’t just stop; evolution is a constant battle and governance for competition and resources, a probable reason for economics being one of biology’s parents. The Tuatara, another example, is the only remaining species of the order Rhynchocephalia which flourished over 200 million years ago (in comparison, the primate order is only 55 million years old, and the human species < 1 million). But that does not mean the tuataras of today are the same as those that diverged. Adding to the velvet day was a velvet ant which is actually a family (multillidae) of female wasps who mimic the morphology of ants and who possess a tremendously painful sting, giving them their common name of cow-killers.

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Velvet ant

First week in the bag.

Only one week down and we have already been exposed to a plethora of astounding life forms. When chatting about different habitat sites around the reserve, Jenn, the resident biologist, noted that the bank between her house and the classroom was planted a decade ago. A decade ago those trees were 15 cm high, now, 15 m high! Welcome to the tropics, I guess.

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The classroom and 15 yo planted trees on the left.

As expected, the astounding array of slithering, buzzing, and twining organisms means there are a bunch of dangers to watch for. Our manager Frank cautions of dangers:

“Take care crawling through the undergrowth as wasps plunge towards your face.
Bee swarms cannot be thwarted, just run. For every one you kill he has ten friends.
Snakes hang about in the trees and in the grass, most are harmless but we have vipers.
The track is very steep and slippy, but if you slip, don’t lunge for branches because there are bamboo stems with rings of thorns that will put holes in your hands or there may be caterpillars covered in poisonous thorns.
Ant colonies have nasty bites and there are tarantulas about that hide in little holes in the side of track banks.
If a storm comes in (Hurricane Otto, 24.11.16) trees start falling by the dozen, so get out of the forest.”

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One of the more remarkable finds was Nyssodesmus python, a millipede (literally “thousand-foot”) that secretes cyanide as a defence mechanism. Unlike it’s relative, the centipede (literally “hundred-foot”), millipedes seem relaxed, smooth, and worry-free, content with burrowing through the dirt feeding on dead wood and leaves. They have a mesmerising stride, capturing your attention like the footwork of a marching army, where their limbs follow one another ever so slightly delayed making it appear as if the body were simply surfing on waves of feet across the terrain (highly recommend youtubing that shit).

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Nyssodesmus python, a local millipede

Ecology has a concept that is quite important to keep in mind when traversing through these complex and dense systems. Let us say I challenge you to cross a desert and present you with equipment to help you on your way, a week’s worth of food, a well-fed and well-rested camel, navigation charts, a compass, camping stove and tent, durable and cool clothing, but only a cup of water. If you don’t find a spring, how long will a cup of water last you in 40 C temperatures?

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The concept of co-limitation is one that describes functions and patterns to be limited by the lowest needed factor. A sports saying that echoes this concept rings something like “a team is only as strong as its weakest player.” No matter how much food you have, no matter how strong your camel is, one can’t merely stroll through a desert without water. How does this affect ecological perceptions? In the cloud forest that we are staying in it is wet, and I mean real wet; everything feels damp and nothing dries. It’s in the tropics so there is sun all-year-round. Possible limitations left are finding a meal that doesn’t want to kill (food), finding a hole in the canopy (sunlight), and capturing minerals, nutrients, and stabilising against erosion (soil) among others. No matter time or place, there is always a factor that holds the team back, one aspect of evolution is maximising the efficiency to which life forms can compensate for this limitation or using it as an advantage against opponents.

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Bunch of mosses, an ancient lineage of plants appearing up close as a mini-jungle.

Arrival

And, we are here!

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View from our dorm, overlooking the valley and Cloudbridge’s classroom

We set off slightly delayed because of the NZ earthquake but had smooth flights from there on out. It is always mind-blowing the distance the Pacific Ocean wraps itself around the earth, taking us 13 hours to get to LA. What a joke of a place that is. We had the day till our next flight so spent it out at Venice beach marveling at the chaotic, unfriendly, spastic locals. By the time we got to the airport the whole world started to become a hazy blur of a dream, popping in and out of sleep, popping in and out of security points, constantly having to remind myself that there were no dodgy items in my luggage; oh the joys of traveling.

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Looking forward to enjoying hammocks in the jungle…

San Jose felt like an American export. Thought Costa Rica was going to be on par with Vietnam price-wise; I was wrong. It was almost the same as NZ or America. We stayed a couple of nights at a pretty sweet hostel to get ourselves adjusted before heading into the jungle. If you’re walking through the streets and find a man in a carnival jokers hat wielding a machete, what’s happening? Football, of course. The dramatic change in atmosphere in San Jose is astounding where on one street it could be rich gated community and one over it could be a dingy street with a bunch of crack-smokers lined up. Not our best experience of the capital and glad to be out of there.

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Crazy bulk-armed spider

Once we bused three hours over some precipitous passes through the mountains to a small jostling little town, San Isidro, we started to feel a little more comfortable and at ease. We grabbed some last-minute gear that we needed for our experiments and then made our last leg in a local bus winding up and up and up through a cloudy, rainy, forested valley.

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Oli enjoying a coffee and durry in the peaceful atmosphere of San Isidro

The first few days have been centred around organising our projects and planning bits and pieces. As the science-saying goes, an hour in the lab saves three in the field. Last night we headed out for a good ol’ bug hunt, tubbed some of them up and then spent a few hours today photographing them in the lab. We found a palm-sized spider chilling in a banana tree, stick insects that could substitute chop-sticks, leopard-patterned moths, spiky caterpillars (see pic), buff-armed spiders (see pic), thumb-sized beetles (see pic), frogs perching on leaves, creepy looking centipedes (see pic), can’t wait to see what else lurks out there.