Saturday, August 15, 2009

:) again

A few hours after I wrote my last post something really exciting happened. Anthony came back from night herping with some friends. He brought back an Imantodes (a slug eating specialist snake). They have huge eyes and are totally adorable. I spent a good amount of time holding it. They camoflauge by acting like twigs so at a certain point they just stop moving and chill on your hand. It's awesome. But the most exciting thing is I got to hold a caiman! Ok, admittedly it was a baby caiman, not longer than 3 ft from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail, but still! It was totally adorable, had beautiful eyes and was very soft. It was also quite calm which was nice, although I was still able to keep a firm grip when it struggled. I even held it without tape on its mouth. (Totally safe though.)

Yesterday was somewhat uneventful. I spent a lot of time up at the tower trying to find lizards with Anthony. No luck. The guides from the resort have started recognizing me, which is funny. I wonder what they'll talk to the tourists about when the sweaty herpetologists leave... It was fun though. As Anthony pointed out, even if you can't find the lizards, you're still in a gorgeous forest. This morning was more of the same. Pretty walk; few lizards. My only worry is that I'll still want to eat as much after I stop walking 7 + miles a day.

This may very well be my last post about Panama. Unless something remarkable happens on the trip home. We leave tomorrow morning. (I fly to Miami w/ Anthony at 7am!) I'll be back in CA by 3:30pm Pacific time. It was a lot of fun, exhausting and at times frustrating for a number of reasons. Still, if any of you ever have the chance to do field work, do it. How often do you get a chance to see motmots and black vultures (like the one running across the backyard right now) as you're eating breakfast?

- held a snake and a caiman!
- the lizards are gone
- I'm outta here!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

throwing things off roofs

Yup. Definitely going to hell.

There's a guy here who's hanging around and taking photos. We have a bunch of gliding species that we've caught over the past few days that we chucked off the roof tonight so Anand could take pictures. I feel sorry for the poor frog (Hyla rosenbergii). He got really tired of jumping by the end. In the beginning though I accidentally gave him too much of a boost and ended up tossing him/ helping him jump into the planter. I really like holding him; he has this cool webbing on his toes and it feels funny when he crawls on my hands. With all the webbing he has a really good grip on my hand. We also tossed a gecko (Tachydactylus) which unfortunately lost its tail.

*potentially gross to certain people alert -- skip if you don't want to read this* I hope you never have the misfortune to assist in the caudal autotomy (aka tail loss) of a lizard. I thankfully did not assist in it this time. Lizards have weak planes in the middle of their tail vertebrae with muscles that end right at the fracture planes of the bone. When the lizard's tail is even slightly caught, it will break off at these planes and the muscles will contract to stop blood loss. It's still not pretty and you always feel terrible for the lizard. Also, the tail wriggles for about a minute after its loss to distract the predator. So not only do you feel terrible, but you have a wriggling piece of a lizard in your hand.

*you can come back now* We also tossed a parrot snake off the roof. These guys aren't actually a gliding species but they do exhibit a kind of cool behavior when they fall. Kris and I (who were doing the tossing) did not know the best way to handle the snake so we didn't do too many trials with it. It's rear-fanged so unless it chewed on us, we'd be fine, but still better safe than sorry. While we're on the subject of dangerous snakes (which parrot snakes are not -- don't worry, Mom), Paul (another field assistant who had the misfortune of being dubbed "Fetus" in Costa Rica since at the time he was under half Anthony's age, even more unfortunately for him, the nickname has stuck and big time) caught and brought back a small coral snake. It's very pretty. And no, I'm not crazy enough to play with it.

Other than that, there was more lizard searching. I was not that successful this morning. That was partially to do with the fact that I was searching by the tower when what I can only assume is every Goodyear employee in the Western hemisphere decided to come by. Ok, I exaggerate but there were at least 50 people on the tower and they just kept coming. Also the hotel people keep asking us if we're with the Smithsonian which makes me think we shouldn't be there. Oh well, only one more field day left anyway. This afternoon was pretty exciting -- we found another pentaprion! We couldn't catch it but we did get good film. :)

So that's it. Tomorrow is our last day in the field. Kind of sad, kind of welcome. I'm happy to be getting back home. These mosquitoes are merciless. 3 bites on my toes and one on the ball of my foot during last night's dinner alone!

- we threw a snake, a frog and a lizard off the balcony -- no herp is safe from the curiosity of the photographer and herpetologists
- lizard tails come off -- see body for details
- I'm not crazy enough to play with coral snakes
- tourists are not conductive to finding lizards

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Not finding anoles is frustrating. We walked to the very far stream again this morning. 10 miles round trip and we found one lizard. And it's not clear that the cameras were working anyway. It's ok, though, because Anthony came to the stream a little before us and found 25. I feel like a failure. Oh well.

Other than that, it's been a lot of walking and a lot of lizard watching. We went to the other stream yesterday and had more luck (although if the cameras aren't working -- water damage -- we lost that data too). The guy gave us a ride again, though, so it made it a lot better. We continue to climb the Mayan stairs to the tower in search of lizards that I don't think exist. Except that Anthony keeps finding them. The man is a machine.

On the upside, I've been getting a lot of reading done. I think I've read more novels in these 3 weeks than I did in my senior year. This has been a lot of fun but I think we're all ready to go home. Which is good because I go home Saturday.

Anyway, animal list: tamarins :), black vultures, the cutest baby flycatchers, hummingbirds, a mot mot! (these cool tropical birds that make their own tail rackets -- they pluck out part of their tail feathers near the end so that it looks like it bulges at the end), beetles, butterflies and monkeys!

- getting ready to go home; the lizards sense this and have gone away
- Anthony = a beast
- at least I'm reading!

Monday, August 10, 2009

bug bites = the worst; pina coladas = the best

The grass models: because I know you guys were waiting with bated breath. We found 60% of them. In the torrential rains in the 48 hour period they were out, I'd say 90% fell from their original position. It was very annoying. We spent the morning in the blazing sun sifting through saw grass. My skin loves me. We did see a little bird jumping up and down in the grass, though, which was cute.

The afternoon, however, was much better. We were set to do one of our 4 mile each way hikes in the middle of a huge rainstorm and the guy who runs the house we're staying at gave us a ride! It was awesome! We spent the next few hours tromping around in the stream which was a lot of fun. Thankfully I did not slip and break anything. :)

Today, the exciting news is it was our (one and only) day off! Of course we couldn't get our act together to figure out what to do. We ended up sleeping in (7am never felt so late!) and hanging out at the bar in the resort next door. I'm not complaining. :) It was nice to have the day to just relax. Agatha Christie + a nice drink = not bad. While some of us were lounging, a few other people were throwing the pentaprion off the roof. Apparently they glide. There are some really really cool shots. I'm pretty stoked to see them do it again. They spread out their limbs and the hyoid bone (which anchors the tongue) and they can actually glide and maneuver. It's so cool.

- day off! hanging at the resort and relaxing!
- pentaprion can glide!
- grass models suck

Saturday, August 8, 2009

I'm out of cute titles

So the exciting news today is that yesterday we did laundry! Clean clothes!!!! Of course, it proceeded to POUR yesterday and today. I've gotten quite soaked and have kissed goodbye the possibility of wearing dry shoes. Oh well. The only bad part about the rain (which for the most part is beautiful and really cool) is that it likely knocked all 50 models off the grass blades we put them on yesterday morning. My notes as to how to find them are all the same (usually, "on the grass blade, next to the other blade of grass"). Imagine a dense patch of sawgrass that goes up to 1.5m and runs for a km. That's where we put 50 small lizard sized clay models. In other words, we're screwed. I'll let you all know tomorrow how it turned out.

I kind of feel more sciencey when I'm doing the models and random habitat measurements (basically, walk into a patch and measure everything that hits a 1m line at 1m and 2m heights). I certainly look more dorky though. I have taken to draping my tape measure around my neck, keeping a rite in the rain notebook in my pocket and usually some flagging tape hanging out. I look like at any point I might get the urge to fit a suit or tie bright pink bows on everything. Add the sharpie and pencil I keep in my bun and I suddenly understand all the weird looks I got from people driving by.

The other exciting thing, and probably more exciting in an absolute sense is that we found an Anolis pentaprion!!!! This is a very cryptic anole that we searched for for 6 weeks in Costa Rica and every day and night in Panama. And we found it and we caught it!!! (And by "we" I mean "Anthony" but I was there... ) Anthony even got another one last night!!! It was so exciting. We also got to watch an awesome lighting storm from the observation tower. (We then realized that sitting on a metal tower that reaches above the forest canopy, on top of a hill, during a lighting storm was probably a bad idea.) Combine the pentaprion with two other Losos lab teams finding rare anoles (including two individuals of a species that hadn't been seen in 30 years) yesterday and I'd say yesterday was a great day for lizard people.

Other than that, we saw some really awesome capuchins up close yesterday. We also saw parrots, heard howlers and saw tons of frogs. They're all over the place after the rain. I still haven't seen a sloth but a bunch of people have. Maybe soon. :)

- we found a pentaprion! (aka the anole we've been searching for for 8 weeks in the field now)
- we did laundry!
- I look like a total dork when I'm decked out for the field, and it's not just the mud and the field pants.
- I'm in for a bad morning tomorrow as I search for 50 needles in a 1.5m high, 1km long haystack.
- I'm apparently converting to metric.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


First, let me say I'm ecstatic for a reason that has nothing to do with anoles. My mom's cousin is married to the sister of one of the journalists that was trapped in North Korea. I'm almost crying with joy that Laura and Euna are back with their families. Huge shoutout to the Clintons and Obama.

Ok, back to the lizards...
Yesterday was a fun time. 18 km along a road that has no sidewalk. It was quite a hike and we got honked at a lot but ultimately worth it. I think. We found a few aquatic anoles (different species than the day before). And a guy with a machete asking us what we were doing. He was a little creepy. Also, I am a terrible person. We found two anoles mating and after making 10 minutes of lizard porn, (we were told to get 10 minutes of behavior, whatever it is they're doing) we didn't have time to wait for them to finish. (An hour before lunch and 9 km to walk.) So we caught both of them, pulled them apart and put them in separate bags. Between that and the gecko tossing, I'm probably going to hell, a hell full of pissed lizards. On the upside, we did see a couple armadillos, an eagle (I think -- it was backlit) and a lobster on the trip. On the downside, we have to walk back there tomorrow.

I have mentioned before that there are bugs here. I apparently forgot that when I went out into the forest at dusk to put down predation models. Maybe the lizards hired the mosquitoes to take their revenge. One of the first clay models we put down actually got torn to pieces by a mammal, which is pretty exciting. Always nice when you actually get results from experiments. :)

Last night we went crocodile hunting (in the Steve Irwin sense). Note: not even DEET and long sleeves can prevent mosquito bites when you're hanging out in a swamp at night. We didn't catch any crocs or caimans while I was there. (After all but two people left, they got a caiman.) We may go again, though. Anthony has promised to find a small one for me to hold. Not sure if I'll do it. :) We did see to cat-eyed snakes on they way though. They're beautiful little snakes. It was also nice because it was basically the first group night herping outing we've had. The mix of personalities on the trip is pretty hilarious. We would make a great reality show if we actually talked during meals (usually just an effect of the exhaustion).

Anyway, yay for Laura and Euna! Hope you're all well. In the middle of another torrential downpour. Hopefully it'll stop some time. We need to do laundry like whoa and there's no dryer...

- Laura and Euna are back from North Korea! (No, this does not have anything to do with lizards.)
- saw an armadillo, lobster and eagle; might not have been worth the walk
- croc hunting often means being hunted by mosquitoes
- rain

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Aquatic anoles

This morning we had a very long walk. I think it was about 10 miles round trip. Thankfully mostly flat. We went to return the aquatic anoles that Anthony caught. The stream was gorgeous. Unfortunately I got in a little deeper than I wanted. In an hour of walking in a river, you're bound to get wet. Thankfully the cameras and my backpack were fine. Also, we did not see a croc in the stream, for which I was very grateful.

On the way to and from the stream we saw some cool things. We saw a trogon (its family includes the quetzal, seriously, google image it; it's gorgeous), howler monkeys, capuchins (who only threw little stuff at us), a bunch of butterflies (including morphos) and a bunch of frogs. There were a number tourists. Kat and I walked back to the start of the road we were on with a couple. Turns out they were from Cambridge, MA. Small world. (Sidenote: yesterday when walking away from the observation tower, I heard a guide saying, "And these are the scientists. They are walking..." I felt like I was in a zoo.)

For now we're hanging out while Kris analyzes the clinging ability of some lizards before we return them. There's another guy staying here who's a photographer. He showed us some of his photos. Pretty fantastic. He's going to come with us to throw another Tachy (gliding gecko) off the tower.

- long walk, but it had monkeys! and lots of water!
- tourists are still weird
- about to throw another gecko

Monday, August 3, 2009

What do field biologists do at night?

Answer: be equally nerdy if not nerdier than they are during the day.

It rained all yesterday afternoon which meant tape analysis for me. Analyzing tapes consists of watching the footage which was (usually) boring to film over again. Plus many of the movements the lizards make are less than a split second so you watch the clip over and over again to determine when exactly it started and stopped moving. Very annoying, especially when they jump off camera. Still, it was nice to give my feet a rest.

Anthony's afternoon was slightly more interesting. He found some aquatic anoles (they jump in teh water and swim away when scared), wrestled a croc (and managed to take a photo of himself on it) and a HUGE boa constrictor. I am not that hard core. We later challenged him to catch an agouti in the backyard. I don't know which is funnier/sadder, Anthony's Mr. Miyagi like attempts to catch the flighty rodents or the fact that it was one of the most entertaining things I've seen in a while.

We also went to the convenience store in town. There were 5 us all in khaki field pants or shorts walking down the street shoulder to shoulder. We looked like the Jets' nerdier second cousins. It was worth it. There is really nothing better than a cold Snickers bar when you're sitting in 80 F weather with 100% humidity. We then walked back to the house and watched Planet Earth. (With David Attenborough, obviously.) Hence the title of today's entry ('s hard to come up with original titles).

Today was more of the same -- up to the observation tower, film the large skittish anoles. We caught two and some tourists took our pictures with them. I'm going to be a big star. I just know it.

- tourists continue to be weird
- Anthony is either a baller or certifiably insane
- more lizards

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hi all. This is going to be a short post because there's not a whole lot going on. Currently we're in the middle of another thunderstorm. They're really quite impressive, especially to an Angeleno like me.

I forgot to mention before that there are a lot of frogs here. Kat, one of the postdocs on the trip, caught a dendrobates auratus, also known as that little green and black poison frog. It's very cute. We've also seen a lot of brown things running around the forest, especially right after it rains. I think my favorite frogs, though, are the tungaras. They're rain frogs that hang out in puddles and call to one another. Their call sounds like an old space video game or movie. It sounds kind of like when jedis would shoot at the death star in the old star wars movies. It's a great addition to the usual sounds of the forest.

The search for lizards can sometimes be frustrating. Kris and I spent a good 4 hours around the observation tower looking for lizards. We eventually found 4 individuals of the species we wanted but that was basically a miracle. The guy who works at the tram that the resort guests take to the tower has tried to help us several times. I think he's concerned for our sanity. Every day he walks by and asks us if we've seen anything and we almost never have. Oh well. The joys of field work. I have however seen a lot of spiderwebs. I always associate spiderwebs with old abandoned buildings. It's funny that here the spiders will build them overnight across paths that are used every day. I've walked into quite a few. Thankfully I haven't gotten any in my mouth as others have.

Anyway, things are quiet here. Hope you're all well.

-more rain
- lizard hunting can be frustrating
- frogs are cool
- spiderwebs are not

Saturday, August 1, 2009

monkeys and lizards and haunted houses oh my!

I realized that I have yet to describe exactly where I'm staying. (Other than a house with no phone on a street with no name.) I'm not actually being as hardcore as it sounds. We have air conditioning in the room and 3 lovely meals every day. Every morning there are agoutis (large rodents -- they're actually quite cute. Think a cross between a guinea pig and a small deer.) that eat breakfast just outside the porch where we eat breakfast.

So on to the fun stuff. Yesterday we didn't go out in the morning because of the torrential downpour. Yours truly being the brilliant Harvard grad she is left her hiking boots out in the rain for almost the entire storm. Thank you; thank you very much. Thankfully I am also a shameless overpacker so out came my "man catching boots," rainboots with a somewhat art deco, camo feel. A tourist complimented me on them today as I was looking for lizards. Sidenote: now, not only are the lizards a tourist attraction but I am too. A couple of tourists passing by asked to take a picture of Kristen, Shane (another field assistant) and me. Other than looking like the Italian flag in our white, red and green t-shirts respectively, I have no idea why they would want a picture of us. Moral of this story: as anyone who's spent longer than 10 minutes in Harvard yard knows, tourists will take pictures of anything.

Back to the animals... I forgot to mention that on Tuesday Kris and I ran into a troop of capuchins. Those of you who read my emails last year will probably remember that despite being cute, most monkeys are actually evil. These ones thankfully did not throw any crap at us (figuratively or literally) but did yell at us. I've also seen 2 species of toucans, several swallows, agoutis, iguanas, black vultures, scarlet rumped tanagers, morpho butterflies (they have this beautiful iridescent blue color on the back of their wings. When they fly through the forest it's just this beautiful blue glint flitting through the trees. Sorry, that came out way too "I'm poetic" than I intended it to) and huge spiders.

Last night was pretty fun. Shane is interested in gecko population structure so we went out to catch geckos on the walls of the buildings around town. I might have mentioned in my last post that Gamboa used to the main site of canal operations. As canal traffic dropped, the town also shrunk, leaving a number of abandoned, somewhat creepy buildings. Last night a few of us went to find geckos in an abandoned school for customs workers. Between the front door that creaked as we pushed it through the cobwebs covering the doorway, the holes in the floorboards, the broken desks, the spiderwebs, the bats, the long hallways, the mazelike connections of rooms and Shane's beatboxed replica of every horror movie soundtrack, I was pretty sure I was going to die. Obviously I didn't but I am quite impressed with myself and the power of peer pressure that I managed to make it up to the third floor. Remind me never to do that again. On the upside, we got the geckos!

Night is actually the best time to see some herps and other animals. A few nights ago Anthony managed to hurt his hand pretty badly trying to catch a tamandua (a small arboreal anteater). He did so successfully but not without several huge scratches to his hand and a fair bit of blood loss. [Note: if any of you are ever in the position to catch an anteater, beware the front claws. Actually, don't try it. Leave the poor guy alone.] I did not attempt to catch any mammals last night, but we did get anoles. This kind of feels like cheating because they sleep on the tips of leaves and blades of grass. The idea is that the leaf will shake if anything attempts to get it from the ground. Evolution has not yet caught up with the herpetologists. The anoles were really adorable -- some of them didn't even wake up when we caught them; most of them went right back to sleep when we put them in the bag.

This morning was uneventful except for the bizarre tourists who took a picture of us. Other tourists have marveled at our appearance when we arrive at the observation tower. (Our mode of transportation: walk up a gigantic hill or a set of stairs that rival most ancient temples. Theirs: ride a gondola.) We didn't find anything but that won't stop us from looking. Hope you're all well. -Hannah

- tourists are bizarre and will take pictures of absolutely everything
- I went into a haunted house and came out alive
- anoles are much easier to catch when sleeping... and probably a little cuter too
- it rains in the tropics
- monkeys are still generally evil, but not every monkey is evil