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.

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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.