La Selva Packing List

In June 2012 I took a two week long OTS course in Beetle Systematics at La Selva Biological Station. I had never done any kind of tropical terrestrial fieldwork before, and was concerned with what to bring. La Selva is an extremely busy field station, but I was unable to find a “What to Bring” list posted anywhere online. For others in this position, here’s my take on it.

La Selva has exceptional facilities- better than any other field station I have visited. The internet is fairly snappy, with wifi in every building. The trails through the forest are very well maintained, and many are even paved. There are multiple washers and dryers on site, which were free when I visited. There is a gift shop, which sells everything from souvenirs, ice cream, and postcards to field guides, mosquito repellent, and laundry detergent. If you like to travel lightly, like I do, this is paradise.

There appear to be two schools of thought on how to dress. I am of the school that a $3 long-sleeve cotton button-front shirt from the thrift store is every bit as good as a $70 hi-tech dri-max(R) blend shirt with zippable armpits from Patagonia. Perhaps this stuff does something amazing, but I am happily at peace with the fact that in the tropics, I am going to get wet, dirty, and torn up, and so are my clothes. For the fieldwork we were doing, I was comfortable wearing boots, wool socks, shorts, and a long sleeve button front shirt.

We were working primarily on well maintained trails, on the forest floor where there is often little sunlight. We were not out in scorching grasslands or bushwhacking with a machete through waist deep water.

A handy-dandy printable PDF of my list is posted here.

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Adios Costa Rica

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(San José) My last day in Costa Rica was about as uneventful as they come- always great when traveling. We packed up at La Selva this morning, and after lunch said our goodbyes and took a bus to San José. What should have been a two hour trip was actually 4.5 hours due to an accident on the winding mountain highway. Not a complete loss because I got to catch up on some work and sleep, but I would have liked a little more time to wander around the city in the daytime. We were all actually a little but disappointed by how perfect the temperature is here, because after two weeks in the heat of La Selva, we were pretty keen on jumping in the hotel pool this afternoon.

Overall, I have nothing but good things to say about my experiences here. Costa Rica is a beautiful place, and the infrastructure for work and tourism here is very well developed, not to mention it is easy to get here from the States. All of these things make it pretty tempting to explore the possibility of doing a project here someday. The course itself was also incredibly informative. I learned so much, and not just from the instructors, but the other students as well. I just hope that my ignorance of beetles didn’t detract in any way from the other students’ experiences!

Home on the Heliconia

(La Selva) Today we finished up and presented the projects we’ve been working on during the course. The class project, a study of the diurnal and nocturnal beetle species, won’t have the data collected until the (large!) samples are sorted back in the states. We also worked in groups of three, and our group chose to investigate the communities of beetles that live inside the flower clusters of Heliconia imbricata (above). Heliconia plants are similar in some ways to bird-of-paradise or banana, and their flowers are clustered inside of bracts which are arranged in elongated inflorescences. The bracts form cups which are perfect habitat for small creatures like insects and their larvae. We found that the beetles were not terribly diverse, but definitely abundant, and the community was dominated by a species of Chrysomelid beetle in the subfamily Hispinae. There were also large numbers of hoverfly larvae, the abundance of which I believe is associated with decomposition of the flowers. We have a small sample size, but if you squint hard enough at the data, I think the trend is there. It would be an interesting project to throw some more data at.

Below: A White-necked Jacobin stands watch over his patch of Heliconia.

Beetle Bling INBio

(La Selva) Today we visited INBio, the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica. Located just outside San José, INBio houses a large research collection of the insects of Costa Rica, as well as public interpretive displays (think natural history museum). We visited the collections to help better familiarize ourselves with the beetle groups we’ve been seeing during our trip, and to help match up specimens that we had collected but were unable to identify to the species level. I have never visited the terrestrial arthropod collection of any museum, but let me say that it was amazing. Just being the presence of that many species is pretty awe-inspiring, but to top it off many of those specimens are gorgeous. A single specimen of a gold or silver Scarabs is impressive, but an entire drawer of them, lined up like a frozen army is incommunicably beautiful. Various descriptions were tossed around: gold and silver plated candies, gold doubloons, or “Beetle T-1000”.

Not just the big stuff is impressive. Many of the folks here are interested in the tiny, unassuming species which go unnoticed and unappreciated, even by other scientists. Holding a drawer filled with specimens that are smaller than the dots on their labels, I can’t help but wonder at how an animal that size does all the same things an elephant does: find food, grow, find mates, etc. Many of these beetles have intricately sculptured exoskeletons which go unnoticed until viewed under a microscope.

Folks who know me can probably guess how difficult it was to get me out of there.

Above: A frozen platoon of Scarabs.
Below: The ostentatious and the obscure.

On the various contrivances by which beetles are captured by coleopterists

(La Selva) I thought I’d write a post about the ways in which we’ve been acquiring beetles. Of course, one method is to wander around actively searching for beetles. This can be slow, but I find it to be the most interesting because you get to see the beetles in their natural habitat and learn a little bit about what they do (e.g. which plants they associate with). The beetles can either be grabbed by hand, captured in a net, or sucked up with an aspirator. An aspirator is a small hand held device consisting of a vile, rubber stopper, and tubing. The user places his or her mouth on one piece of tubing, and sucks insects into the vial using a “kissing” motion. The other active collection method I’ve taken a liking to is using a “beat sheet”, which is essentially a simple kite. The kite is held under some branches, and the branches are whacked with a stick, causing insects to fall onto the kite, where they are then aspirated.

Passive methods of collection like traps that use a bait (or light or nothing at all) seem to yield far more insects, but the information about what the insects are doing is mostly lost. I explained on June 8 that we have been using flight intercept traps to get an idea of which beetle species are active during the day versus those that are active at night. Our traps have captured quite a few specimens, most notably some small but iridescent red-green scarab beetles.

One of the coolest collection methods, though, is sort of halfway between passive and active. Every night we hang a big white sheet with a UV and mercury vapor lamp almost touching the sheet. The light draws in the insects, but they are alive and must be actively collected. Of course a huge number of moths come to the light, but hundreds (thousands?) of other species can be found there as well, including lots of tiny beetles. Some nights the light sheet can be a pretty crazy experience, with insects flying everywhere (occasionally a moth will find it’s way into a person’s mouth) and lots of unique species. I sometimes have the impression that aside from some of the small flies and bugs, most of the things on the sheet are singletons and every individual is a different species. This is also how we have attracted one of the huge species of beetles (>4″), which drew blood when I tried to help remove it from another student’s shirt!

Above: A light sheet attracts a huge number of insects.
Below: A few of the moths attracted to the light sheet on a single night.

Veragua

(Veragua) We left La Selva at 8 on Monday morning to drive to Veragua rainforest. Veragua is a privately owned park geared towards ecotourism and research. This is the low season for tourism, and so the park was empty except for us. There are some small exhibit buildings, a gift shop and cafe, and a canopy tram that was all eerily empty. One of the other students (Nathan Lord) pointed out how much it felt like the beginning of Jurassic Park. (Note: I really wanted this post to be titled “Welcome to Jurassic Park Veragua”)

Despite the regular rain from a passing tropical storm, we did some really great field work at Veragua. The first day we walked down a creek while sampling along the riverbanks. There is a surprising number of beetles to be found living in the interstices of the streamside grit! We also went beetle hunting along a trail by a river, which was some of my favorite collecting so far. There were really cool beetles everywhere, but I think the coolest find of the day was a beetle species that does its best to blend in with Army Ants. You can actually distinguish them from the ants, but they have a distinctly ant-y look to them, and secrete pheromones that make them essentially invisible to the ants. A group of us sat next to a column of ants that was moving the colony and picked off some specimens of the beetles as they passed.

Above: The Red-eyed Treefrog is a Costa Rican icon, though this is the only one I’ve seen.
Below: Oophaga pumilio is a dart frog who is well known for its many different appearances (biologists call this polymorphism). In La Selva these frogs have blue legs (see photo from June 8th), while at Veragua they were completely red.

A Lazy Sunday

(La Selva) Today was quite a bit more mellow, mainly because I was dead tired. With all of the spectacular things around, you really get the sense that any time spent NOT in the forest looking around is a missed opportunity. On top of that, even walking between buildings is a chance to see something really interesting, day or night. Even lying in bed, I find myself listening intently to the intricate bird, frog, and insect calls. This makes it hard to focus on sleep, lectures, and lab work. However, I have no trouble maintaining my focus on food, as the meals here are great!

Field work today consisted of a check of the flight intercept trap at 6AM, a brief collecting trip for our group project, and deploying traps for my individual project. We also had a systematics lecture which covered the weevils, an “amazingly huge” family of beetles, as instructor Rich Leschen put it. This evening, we are preparing for tomorrow’s trip to a site near Limón, which is closer to the Caribbean and a few hours drive from here. The purpose of this trip is to assess the beetle diversity of that area by collecting as many species as quickly as possible. We will spend three nights there, and it should be lots of fun!

Sitings: I am now noticing that Rufous Tailed Hummingbirds are common near the dining hall, along with two or three other species of hummingbird. During lecture, I was distracted by a Keel Billed Toucan just outside the classroom. I should also note that I am seeing far more things than I have time to even mention in the blog- the diversity here is truly unbelievable. For example, I have seen five species of snake in as many days- not too shabby!

Above: An orchid whose flowers emerge directly from the leaf surface.
Below: This interestingly shaped wasp nest has a texture resembling brie.

Don’t Blink

(La Selva) Things have really gotten into a rhythm now, which is nice when doing fieldwork because it gives you a little bit more of a sense that you know what to expect. Today we collected more for our project, which entails walking around in the woods seeing lots of stuff.

I continue to see a huge number of things I have never seen before, including something that was very high up on my list- an Eyelash Viper (Bothriechis schlegelii). These small snakes can be banana yellow or mottled green, and though I’ve been expecting to see the green morph, it is so stunning to see a uniformly bright yellow snake against a leafy background at night. A real highlight of the trip!

You may have seen the segment of BBC’s Planet Earth which captured the black with iridescent blue Superb Bird of Paradise (Lophorina superba) male displaying for a female. The male makes a loud clacking noise with his wings while hopping side to side with his plumage held out. Well, there are no birds of paradise here, but today at lunch I heard a sound very similar to that coming from the bushes not 10 feet from my seat. It was a small, sparrow sized bird called a White Collared Manakin jumping among a bunch of vertical stems, clacking his wings. This was an immature male getting the hang of the dance, but I’d say he does a pretty good job. VERY cool!

Below: A Collared Araçari (Pteroglossus torquatus) just outside the classroom.

A Walk in the Woods

(La Selva) A really fantastic day because it was our first real day of field work on our independent projects. We are a class of nine students, and are conducting different research projects as a class, as groups of three, and individually. The class project is an extension of studies that have been conducted at two other sites in Central and South America. We are using flight intercept traps (“FITs”- below) to assess the difference in beetle activity and species groups between day and night. These traps consist of a long sheet spread between two trees, with pans of soapy water beneath it. Beetles (and other insects) bump into the sheet and fall into the soapy water, where they drown. The water is soapy to break the water tension so that even small bugs fall into the solution rather than just float on top. Even after our first sample collection, we can see that we will be getting some interesting results.

I’ll discuss our group project more in another post, but today we went collecting for that, and wandering around in a neotropical rainforest with two entomologists is just about as awesome an experience as one can have. We found flies with their eyes on stalks like a hammerhead shark (below), beetles with larvae that look like flatworms, a really cool wasp nest, and tons more. I am of course taken by even the stuff that bores them, like the more typical beetles, katydids, and cicadas. More than the fact that I get to put a name (at least to the family level) for any random insect in the forest, it is nice to get a sense of the biology and relationships of organisms that you couldn’t even get from a field guide.

Blue Jean poison dart frogs (Oophaga pumilio) are absolutely EVERYWHERE. If you were to walk just a few yards without being careful, you’d certainly crush one. Luckily, they are brightly colored are hard to miss. In fact, their abundance and conspicuousness makes them tempting as a future study system! I’m still keeping my eyes open for Dendrobates auratus, which is supposed to be found here on occasion. Other sitings today included a nice view of a pair of Rufous Mot Mots bringing food to their nest.

First Day of Class

(La Selva) A kind of slower day, being that we spent a lot of time in the classroom and learning logistics, rather than doing a whole lot of fieldwork. A significant part of being a good coleopterist (a person who studies beetles, whose scientific name is Coleoptera) is being able to obtain them, and coleopterists have come up with a multitude of clever ways to do so. Aside from just pecking around here and there under logs and leaves, one can obtain a large number of species by using traps, sifting debris, or whatever, and part of the object of the course is to familiarize us with those methods. So, we had a lecture on collection methods, a lecture on taxonomy, a demonstration of some of these methods, and then deployed a class experiment using those methods. I’ll say more about that in another post.

Sitings: Tonight, another student caught a praying mantis that mimics a twig, I saw two species of toucans (Keel Billed and Chestnut Mandibled [above]), lots of great butterflies and moths, and a turkey-like bird called a Chachalaca (really fun to say). No snakes today, but after I posted last night, we saw a Bird-Eating Snake (Pseustes poecilonotus) just outside the dorm.