Posts Tagged ‘bearclaw’

…it’s their fingers that count!

I just got back from a ten-day excursion to the Caribbean coasts of Panamá and Costa Rica.  I went with Sarah (from Bloodsport!) and Rachel, a resident naturalist.  The entire trip they talked about visiting the Aviarios Del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica.  They had been sold on the idea by this video of a baby two-fingered sloth, recorded on-site.  They said it would be cute.

So we went.  And it was cute.

From L to R: three-fingered sloth, Sarah Wells, two-toed sloth

From L to R: three-fingered sloth, Sarah Wells, two-fingered sloth

Even the bathrooms were endearing, which is always a welcome surprise in rural Costa Rica.


Next to the bathrooms was a “Wall of Learning,” where we learned.  First, we learned that the common ancestor of modern sloths was a huge, terrestrial herbivore.  The sloths’ ancestors took to the trees to escape predators on land, and adopted a laid-back, inconspicuous lifestyle.


Geology Minute! As you can see, the Central American landmass is relatively young. It was formed by the slow collision of the Pacific Plate and the Caribbean Plate. The Pacific Plate slid beneath the Caribbean, and the ensuing underwater volcanic activity began forming islands. Indeed, the landmass known today as the Isthmus of Panama—through which we toiled to dig a canal—was but an archipelago as recently as 4 million years ago.

And second-of-ly, I learned that the animals we call “sloths” belong to two very distinct families, no more closely related to each other than they are to armadillos or anteaters:


But let’s meet some real sloths.

This is Buttercup, and she loves you.


Buttercup is a 17-year-old, three-fingered sloth, and the story of the Aviarios Sanctuary begins with her.

In 1991 the Limón earthquake destroyed the country home of Luis and Judy Arroyo.  They rebuilt it as a boutique hotel, and offered tours of their rich rain forest property.  In 1992, three neighborhood girls brought an orphaned three-fingered sloth to their doorstep.

“We named her Buttercup. Finding very little useful information about sloths, we learned from experience – and a very hefty dose of common sense! Then, another sloth arrived. And another. Before long, we became known as authorities on sloth rescue and rearing – and sloths kept coming. Buttercup became the most loved and photographed sloth in the world.”

I didn’t get to meet Mrs. Arroyo, but I met Luis when he mistook me and my companions for the new volunteers scheduled to arrive that day.   This majestic portrait of the Sloth Godfather hangs in the gift shop, and it says more than I could hope to about a man with whom I spoke only briefly.


Let’s say goodbye to Buttercup for now, and go check on the little ones.


Bye, Buttercup

The sanctuary is home to more than 150 sloths, including more than a dozen babies in warm, fluffy, slowly churning heaps.  Since sloths reared together in captivity do not breed, these babies were orphaned, either in the wild or in captivity, born to dying mothers brought to the sanctuary too late.


This is Fozzy, a two-fingered toddler:

waka waka

waka waka!

Fozzy is about 11 months old, I think, which is toddler-age for a sloth.  I might be talking out of my ass here, but I can’t be that far off.  Sloths reach adulthood around age 3, and they can live beyond 30.  Fozzy is particularly rambunctious; he continually pawed at our tour guide and twice sallied from his crate, languidly craning to bite her arm.


His roommates were chiller:


Sloths are natural-born yawners

So what’s the difference between two fingers and three, besides a finger, smartasses?  Well, I’ll let Wikipedia help me tell you about both.  I hope you learn something.

First, Choloepus hoffmanni, known commonly as the two-fingered sloth.

Two-toed sloths spend most of their time in trees, though they may travel on the ground to move to a new tree, and are excellent swimmers. They are strictly nocturnal, moving slowly through the canopy after dark, munching on leaves. The name “sloth” means “lazy,” but the slow movements of this animal are actually an adaptation for surviving on a low-energy diet of leaves. These sloths have half the metabolic rate of a mammal of the same size. Sloths have very poor eyesight and hearing, and rely almost entirely on their senses of touch and smell to find food.”

Note: While adult two-fingered sloths are strictly nocturnal, juveniles are often awake and active during daylight hours.

Asleep.  What a surprise.

Two toes = sleep during the day (nocturnal)

Two-toed sloths hang from tree branches, suspended by their huge, hook-like claws, which are two to three inches long. Sloths sometimes are found hanging off trees after they die. Nearly everything a sloth does, including eating, sleeping, mating, and giving birth, is done while hanging from the branches in the trees. The only time that sloths are normally found right side up is when they go down to the ground to defecate, which they only do about once every 5 days.”

Another note: when sloths do defecate, they can lose up to one third of their body weight.  Whoosh!


Sloths have many predators, including the jaguar, eagles, and large snakes. If threatened, sloths can defend themselves by slashing out at a predator with their huge claws or biting with their sharp cheek teeth. However, a sloth’s main defense is to avoid being attacked in the first place. The two-toed sloth can survive wounds that would be fatal to another mammal its size.

The sloth’s slow, deliberate movements and algae-covered fur make them difficult for predators to spot from a distance. Their treetop home is also out of reach for many larger predators. Their long, coarse fur also protects them from sun and rain. Their fur, unlike other mammals, flows from belly to top, not top to belly. This is so that when it rains, and they are hanging upside down, the rain slides off the fur easily.”

Yes, he's sucking his fingers

Yes, he's sucking his fingers

And three-fingered sloths?  I’m borrowing part of the Wikipedia entry for Bradypus variegatus, or the brown-throated sloth, one of several species of three-fingered sloth, and the most common in my area.

It is the most widespread and common species of the group, being found in many different kinds of environments, including evergreen and dry forests and in highly perturbed natural areas.

It is a solitary, nocturnal and diurnal animal, feeding on leaves of many species of trees.

The female of the species is known to emit a loud, shrill scream during the mating season to attract males. It is a cry that sounds like “ay ay”. This scream has been remarked to sound exactly like that of a woman screaming. The male can be identified by a black stripe surrounded by orange fur on its back between the shoulders.”

We did indeed hear that scream, and I was shocked that a docile creature like Buttercup could make such a racket.


Three fingers = active during the day (diurnal)

Note how her neck is twisted in the photo above.  Three-fingered sloths can turn their heads up to 270 degrees, which is helpful when you spend life upside-down.  This remarkable ability is facilitated by extra vertebrae, visible in the photo below.


The Brown-throated sloth has grayish-brown to beige color fur and it is very coarse and stiff. A sloth has a round head and on it there are two eyes, a blunt nose, peg-like teeth, and ears that are not visible. The tail of a sloth is very small.

Over parts of its range, the Brown-throated Sloth overlaps the range of Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth. Where this overlap occurs, the three-toed sloth tends to be smaller and more numerous than its relative, being more active in moving through the forest and maintaining more diurnal activity.”

But that’s not all!  Three-fingered sloths are ecosystems.  Somewhat like the cecropia tree (which is only slightly less mobile) three-fingered sloths host a symbiotic commonwealth of beetles, moths, molds and algae that thrives within their nappy fur.

The algae and mold naturally camouflage the sloth by turning it green.  Insects feed on the algae, including a species of moth, Bradipodicola hahneli, more commonly called the “sloth moth.”  The sloth moth lays its eggs in the sloth’s poop.  The eggs later hatch and the brood flies off to find another sloth.  Miraculous.

The sloths at the sanctuary are algae-free because they don’t get wet all the time the way they would in the wild.  This hardly diminishes their quality of life, as sloths have been known to starve to death in the wild during prolonged periods of rain.  That’s right⎯starve. Sloths need to keep warm in order to nourish the good bacteria in their bellies that help digest the pounds upon pounds of leaves they eat.  If they can’t get warm, they can’t digest their food.  Sloths can starve to death with full bellies.

With the Internets as my witnesses, I anoint you all sloth experts.  Now let me show you my baby pictures:



Sleepy Sloth (VIDEO)

Yes, that's a teddy bear

Yes, he's cuddling a teddy bear



This itsy-bitsy baby sloth arrived at the sanctuary with fungus in his fur, so he got shaved.  To keep him warm, special jammies were made from socks.


That does look cozy.




Sweet dreams.


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That’s my mom humming along a zipline in Selvatura Park.  A guide is with her for extra weight because that particular cable (one of 18) is one kilometer in length.  If you get stuck in the middle of that line, you better have already gone to the bathroom.




Selvatura Park is a really cool place with loads to see and do, but they pay people to tell you all about that, so I refer you to their Web site, linked above, if you care to learn more.  The Ecolodge makes arrangements for our guests to visit there, and it’s something every visitor should do.  

Something every visitor might not be willing to do, however, is the “tarzan swing” toward the end of the zipline canopy tour.  But how can you know you won’t enjoy being shoved off a twenty-foot scaffold to swoop inches above a concrete platform, unless you try it?  I’m pleased to report that both my sister and mother are qualified to take an informed stance on the issue.  Here’s what they had to say:




Afterward we visited the Hummingbird Garden, where we actually heard the birds humming.  The Nahuatl word for hummingbird is huitzil, an onomatopoeia describing the sound of their wings.  Imagine a dozen enormous bumblebees around you.  These weren’t skittish at all, and I was able to get quite close.


At present count, Costa Rica is home to some 51 species of hummingbird.  14 species are found in Monteverde.  This one is a coppery-headed emerald, and it is endemic to Costa Rica, meaning that it is found nowhere else.  Costa Rica, especially the Monteverde area, teems with such unique fauna.  

She looks to be a female; males of the species sport rich stains of copper plumage.  This difference is an example of sexual dimorphism, a common pattern in wildlife that is especially pronounced in birds.  Obviously one expects some vital anatomical differences between males and females of any species, but whether or not a male gets to appreciate them firsthand hinges on making a good first impression.  A good first impression, in turn, hinges on being physically conspicuous—that is, attractive.  I’m sure this is old news to every living thing on the planet, but it’s a rich topic, full of surprises.  Like this


Below is a violet sabrewing.  They’re big—the males push six inches—but they are not proportionally territorially aggressive in the wild.  In the garden, however, they were rambunctious, driving smaller species from feeders.  This is a male.  The female sabrewing has violet only on her throat, and is otherwise green and gray.  This guy doesn’t seem to fit his own description, either, but this is an effect of lighting and perspective.  The male sabrewing’s coruscating plumage plays the spectrum from B to V, and they don’t hold still very long, even when feeding.  This is the best shot I got.  


Here is a hummingbird nest, discovered on a tour of the Butterfly Garden.  My thumb is for scale.  


The Selvatura Butterfly Garden is a vast enclosure full of flowers and butterflies.  We explored it as a guided tour audience, but I didn’t listen to anything the guy said. No, that’s not true.  I remember only that at the end the poor kid bungled a Costa Rican joke that, due to his poor English and the fact that puns generally don’t translate, made absolutely no sense.


There was a nursery of chrysalises in a cabinet, and clumsy newborn butterflies falling out.


And this is how they’re made.


This butterfly frightens predators by mimicking a snake’s head.


Not a real snake

Not a real snake

That’s all for today.  Butterflies bore me.  Let’s go to the beach.


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Last Saturday my mom and my younger sister showed up at the Ecolodge San Luis.  They have since returned home with sunburns and stories.  I was excited to see them—indeed, it proved to be a week full of novelty—but I am also relieved by their departure.  I don’t know if it’s truly possible to have too much fun, but we must have been close.  Don’t believe me?  My mom held a snake on the first day.  


On our first full day we took a cab up to Santa Elena to visit the Serpentarium, eat lunch at an overpriced tourist trap, and explore the Orchid Garden.  The Serpentarium is exactly what it sounds like, with one invaluable exception: it doesn’t smell like you have actually been swallowed alive by an exhibit.  This is key.  Visitors to the reptile exhibit at the Tulsa Zoo are scourged by a stench so profane that it can only be black magic wrought by the spirits of dead Indians, upon whose pagan graves the blasphemous House of Reptiles surely rests.  It’s distracting, to say the least.

Not to say that the Serpentarium isn’t gross at times; there’s a whole exhibit of pickled reptiles in jars, set against a collage of snake-bite wound photos.  I’ll show you some.  No, I won’t, actually.  They’re ghastly, and definitely worse than any of my cockfight videos that got taken down.  “Sorry” to some, “you’re welcome” to others.  Have some cute instead:


Please don't crap red flower on my white tee

Om nom nom

I don’t really know anything about these two snakes, except that the first is a juvenile and the second is pretty.  I’m kinda burned out on learning about animals for the time being.



Moving on!  After the Serpentarium we hiked to the center of town to eat.  We went to the restaurant at the Tree House Hotel.  I do not recommend eating there, simply because the food is expensive but otherwise unremarkable.  

We then walked to the supermarket, where we bought several bottles of wine and a little something for me to share with my colleagues.  Naturally the burden of carrying all of this for the rest of the afternoon fell on me.  That doesn’t sound like much, but I also carry about 25 pounds of gravel in my backpack to keep my daily waterfall treks challenging.  I tell you this only to help explain the absence of photos from the Orchid Garden we then toured, for I quickly grew resentful of every blossom that delayed our progress toward the bench I knew to be at the trail’s end.  

When we finally got there, I sat down, cheered up, and snapped this Motmot.  It’s a fairly common bird here, but impressive nonetheless.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

Turquoise-browed Motmot

When we got home, we hiked the Camino Real.  I was impressed by the girls’ stamina that day.



Well, that does it for the first day.  More to come.  Lots more.

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Today a stow-away ant bit me inside my pants, inspiring me to thrust and gallop across the main lawn, slapping my own ass in a frenzied, lunatic haka.  For Science.

I had visited, as I often do, the same leafcutter ant trails from my first big post.  (No matter how many monkeys and bats this country throws at me, I keep coming back to the ants.)  But this time I had an idea for an experiment that seems, in hindsight, an irresponsibly tedious exploit for a blogger—I really shouldn’t even be boring you with the details—but here we go.

Wait, no.  First, look at this:

What a goofball

This is a leafcutter soldier with its mandibles stuck in the seam of a split twig.  The soldier’s own weight has caused the stick to sag like a falling drawbridge, trapping his face forever.  Divinely, I intervened and gave him a second chance to toil all the way to the grave.  I sure earned my two scoops of raisins today.  Anyway, back to my exciting research:

As more than one person has pointed out to me, the experiment should have consisted of mortal combat between exotic pairings of ants and other living things besides leaves.  Anything but leaves.  So I obstructed each side of a fork in the ants’ trail with a different leaf, and I checked every so often to see which leaf disappeared first.  Let’s go to the re-play:

In this corner, a fern-like specimen!

I'm so sorry, you guys

I'm so sorry, you guys

…And in this corner, a not-fern-like specimen!

Strongest leaf in USSR

Most great fight leaf in USSR

Yes, this leaf had clearly been chewed already.  The whole affair was amateur hour.  Anyway, I’ll just let the pictures tell the story.   At 2:37 p.m. the race was on:



Fern - 3:12

Fern - 3:12


Not fern - 3:12

Not fern - 3:12


Fern - 5:09

Fern - 5:09


Not fern - 5:09

Not fern - 5:09


Fern - 7:32

Fern - 7:32


Not fern - 7:32

Not fern - 7:32

There you have it.  The ants chewed on both leaves a little, but apparently the obstacles didn’t warrant a major diversion of labor.  What does it mean?  I’ll let you decide, because I am so over the task of wringing significance from this particular caper.  Let’s rinse this taste out with monkeys.  I’m going to show and tell about monkeys.  Stay tuned.

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Internet has been restored to the good people of the San Luis Valley, and I can’t believe how big you all have gotten!  

I’d like to thank Thomas for acquainting me with Nannerpus:  

www.nannerpus.com.  I seriously watched him go about fifty or sixty times.  In turn, I want to introduce you all to someone to whom I grew very close during the communications blackout:



Naturepus can illustrate better than I the tedium of more than two weeks without Internet here. And yes, I attached string to his pinwheel tentacles and forced two other interns to make him dance while I filmed.  Naturepus began to fall apart after a few seconds of such treatment, but then, I think we all came a bit undone.

Also, I broke the screen of my laptop.


Profanity fails me

Profanity fails me

Fortunately I’m able to use a second monitor, but I’ve lost the freedom of mobility.  I’ve also been trying to arrange for a replacement screen, but after the professor’s coconut modem broke down I just had to be patient.  There are other things I’d rather be.

After breaking my computer I went into the wilderness to thrash and scream.  Slogging through a kilometer of river and getting smacked against rocks did the trick.  Here are three more pictures from the album titled “Sad Day” on my computer.




Oh, I have another picture from from “Bat Day.”  


L to R: Carrie, Leigh, Alan (Chino), Rachael, Me, Scott, Johan, Katy

L to R: Carrie, Leigh, Alan (Chino), Rachael, Me, Scott, Johan, Katy

Here I am with some staff members outside the bat house, staring into the sun.

I have to go work in the kitchen now, but I have a disheartening volume of fun experiences to publicly revisit.  So hang tight.

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Ok, so I’d been hoping to make a big deal out of the Camino Real trail and craft vignettes of life-and-death struggle along the way, but I’ve got new pictures that don’t need much creative backup to make them count.  I’m going to rush though the rest of the Camino Real stuff, and skip ahead to the events of yesterday and today.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Camino Real II: Let’s Get This Over With, Already

Okay, I left you all with a picture of a huge leafcutter soldier utterly dwarfing a couple of worker ants.  It is indeed a rare ant that dwarfs anything, but size isn’t everything:

Dunking your boss at the company picnic will never be as cathartic as gangster-stomping the life out of him with your frenzied work buddies and then dismembering his carcass with your own two mandibles.  For most of the ants in this picture, life couldn't get any better.

Dunking your boss at the company picnic will never be as cathartic as gangster-stomping the life out of him with your frenzied work buddies and then dismembering his carcass with your own two mandibles. For most of the ants in this picture, life couldn't get any better.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that individual ants are totally expendable; the survival of queen and thus, colony is all that matters.  Ants dies in the line of duty all the time.  But I was intrigued to learn that when there is a surplus of soldiers (who presumably consume a massively disproportionate share of the food) a pheromonal signal is dispersed (presumably by the queen) that tells the workers to gang up and murder every soldier they see.  Terrifying.  I thought about this for a while and brewed all sorts of brilliant but nebulous insights from which I’ll spare you; not everything has to be a goddamn metaphor and besides, I’ve got better material piled high.

The last thing I really want to share is the Strangler Fig, which I will not henceforth capitalize.  The strangler fig is a hemi-epiphytic tree.  Allow me to break that down.  An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant.  Its roots, if it has any, aren’t in the ground.  A few epiphytes are parasites, but the majority just use other trees to get a leg up in a tough environment and do no harm.  The fig is hemi-epiphytic because it eventually puts down roots.

The strangler fig isn’t a true parasite, although it is known to the Costa Ricans as matapalos: “tree-killer.”  Unlike a parasite, it doesn’t directly rob the “host” tree of resources–it’s more like a nightmare competitor.  Strangler fig seeds are dispersed by mammals that eat the fruit and deposit them, with fertilizer, in the treetops. The poo-born(e) epiphyte sprouts in the canopy, slithers down the trunk of the helpless tree, and swallows it like an anaconda.


This horrifying spectacle of creeping claustrophobic doom has traumatized me more than any plant should, but once the victim finally croaks and rots away, the remaining structure is a marvel:


Look up:


Way up:



The first photo appears in the brochure I’m making.  You’ll recognize the tree when I eventually post the finished brochure, but you’ll also likely notice that it’s been relocated.  Anyway, that’s the fig I’ve been raving about.  You may now rave amongst yourselves about its photographer and his stupendous blog.

Okay, enough trees.  I’ve got a digital menagerie of exotic mammals, plus a spider, just for you–all wild, and all nude!

This morning I didn’t even make it to breakfast before I saw a couple of white-faced (cariblanco) capuchin monkeys horsing around in the forest surrounding the campus.


This is the only shot I got off before they swung out of sight, but it wasn’t the last time I saw monkeys today.  But we’re in chronological order here, and I before I saw more monkeys I visited La Casa de los Murciélagos (“the bat house”–it’s not formally capitalized), which is an abandoned house full of bats. Check out bats, Michael!


According to Chino (one of the naturalists) there are two different types of bat in this picture.  Moving on (I’m at the center of a blackfly and mosquito feeding frenzy out here on the balcony, where the wireless signal is strongest), here are more bat pics.


Snuggle Bats -- the newest merchandising offshoot of the William Bearcloblaw Law Blog

Snuggle Bats -- the newest merchandising offshoot of the William Bearcloblaw Law Blog


Good stuff, huh?  After this we stopped by the pigs, which were kinda cute, but not worth any real fuss.  However, I have a standing invitation to the next slaughter.  I’ll post “before” and “after” pics then.  Oh, and “during.”

Before I move on to the main attraction of adorable tree-dwelling mammals, I’d like to share with you a spooky invertebrate I saw last night.  Walking from my bungalow to the main building, I noticed a bright, blue-green glint ahead on the gravel path.  Something was definitely reflecting my headlamp.  Anywhere else I would have written it off as broken glass.  But I live in paradise, so I knew I was looking at something beautiful and precious and SWEET BABY JESUS, IT’S A PREGNANT SPIDER:

"I am the Night Spider.  We'll be seeing a lot of each other in your dreams."

"I am the Night Spider. We'll be seeing a lot of each other in your dreams."

You just want her to crawl across your tongue, dragging that sticky egg sac.

Back to today: after our escape from Bat House (As marketing intern I’m making an executive branding decision to capitalize this attraction) I observed that the San Luis river looked particularly appealing on what was a very warm and sunny day.  Chino said he knew of a good spot downriver for swimming.  I and several other interns resolved to go swim after lunch.  It was an interesting trip (Chino had to carve a fresh path with a machete) and a good time, but the pictures are on other people’s cameras.  I’ll post those when I get them.

The day was already a glittering victory by the time we started hiking back to campus around 2:45. By 2:48 we were surrounded by capuchin.  There seemed to be one in every tree, and they were all watching us closely as they swung and leaped through the canopy.  They were hard to snap because they wouldn’t hold still, but I managed to get a few good shots.


Unfortunately this next pic is slightly out of focus, but you can tell that the monkey is at least as concerned with me as I am with it.


There was also a mother monkey with a baby clinging underneath, but I just watched.

Then, just as the last monkey loped out of frame, someone noticed that the monkeys passing through one of the trees had roused a couple of kinkajou that apparently had been holed up in the trunk. They were painfully cute:



One skeptical kinkajou

"Epiphyte With Yawning Kapuchin #6"

"Epiphyte With Yawning Kinkajou #6"


I’m not even going to bother writing about the capuchin or kinkajou right now (because I don’t really know anything) or the experience, because it was one of those “you just had to be there” instances.  I didn’t fall to my knees and weep at the majesty of Creation, but it’s tough to articulate just what was so neat about having this wholly new experience fall from the sky (one of the monkeys peed).  These are creatures we read about or see on TV, but I, at least, had never really believed that they were real in the sense that I might just happen upon a horde of monkeys on my way back from a swim.  If the kinkajou had also served me free drinks, this joint would have Southern Hills Country Club whooped hands-down.  But SHCC is still my Happiest Place On Earth for now.  One more kinkajou pic:


Thanks for reading, everyone.  I love having an audience and your positive feedback is a drug. Mallory likened me to Mrs. Frizzle, which, alarmingly, did not ruin my day.  In fact, I may start calling this (only half-ironically) The Magic SchoolBlog.  But let’s see if we can’t top that.  Keep reading, subscribe, set up Skype times if you want–some things don’t get blogged.  My Skype handle is WilliamBearclaw.

I think next time I’ll give a bit of a campus tour, introduce the staff and other volunteers, and do a “Day In the Life of William Shipley” bit.  Buenas noches.

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Hola amigos.  I know it’s been a while since I rapped at ya, but business has been piling up.  I’ve been working on the brochure among other tasks, and generally keeping busy and active.  This means that the daunting backlog of cool experiences and pictures is only getting thicker, because the mail never stops, Mac!  So if I don’t burn some blogfodder off now, I may never get through it.  So I hope you’ll forgive me if my commentary isn’t exhaustively detailed in every instance.  Here goes:

For starters, I’m so over this place.  I haven’t seen one rainbow all day; until now the campus has been lousy with the bastards.  Today it’s just sunny and clear.

Here–see for yourselves:


I don’t know how much more I can take.  Every day the nefarious wildlife and exotic tropical weather patterns of Costa Rica contrive to kill my buzz.  Yesterday morning, for instance, I set alone out to photograph a particular “strangler fig” specimen for the brochure I’m assembling.  Instead, I found a snake:



He was cute, but not so cute that I forgot I was wearing sandals.  Sr. Serpiente was as far as I went on the Camino Real trail today.

He was cute, but not so cute that I forgot I was wearing sandals. Sr. Serpiente was as far as I went on the Camino Real trail yesterday.

Okay, I’m going to drop the ironic complaints schtick; it’s just not sustainable.

The consensus among the resident naturalists is that I saw a “chunk-headed tree snake.”  They spend most of the daylight hours chilling motionless and vine-like in trees to avoid detection by predators (large mammals) and prey (mostly sleeping lizards) alike.  

I saw a lizard, too, but he scurried away before I could digitally imprison his soul.

Even though I didn’t find the fig tree I was looking for, I’ve got a picture of another one, taken Saturday on a six-hour tour of the “Loop” trail.  I’ll get to that adventure deeper in the post; I’m working backward.


This morning I went on a hike with the resident naturalists along the same trail, and I got my tree, which you’ll see when we get there.  I’m going to recap the hike along the Camino Real (~”Royal Path”) and show you some neat stuff.  



This is a cecropia tree.  It is a pioneer species, meaning that it is an aggressive grower that fairly shoots toward the sky when- and where ever there is a break in the forest cover.  

In tropical environments like this, the abundant sunlight so thoroughly nourishes plant growth that it can get pretty darn dark under the canopy.  This competitive ecosystem encourages creative adaptations for survival that range from inter-kingdom symbiosis to cutthroat tree-on-tree murder. The cecropia is an example of the former.

The cecropia does a fine job of growing like a weed on its own (up to four meters a year!) thanks in part to the continuous growing season fostered by the nearly year-round sunshine.  In the Northern Hemisphere, where different seasons actually bring different temperatures (except in Houston) trees grow for part of the year, and then hibernate, sorta.  That’s why one can measure the age of a tree by counting the rings within its trunk; each band represents a one-year cycle of growth and dormancy. The cecropia wears its rings on the outside, and they reflect vertical growth rather than horizontal swelling.  “Get tall fast” is the name of the game here.  

But it’s hard out there for a tall, skinny tree with no thorns or poison to protect itself from parasites and destructive animals.  So the cecropia (or so some native folklore probably has it) struck up a deal with the Azteca ants.  The ants run a sort of protection racket here: the cecropia tree produces valuable nutrients in little patches under the leaf stems that the Azteca ants covet.  The ants live in the tree and defend it from other would-be snackers and even competing plant species.  The ants clear the surrounding forest floor of other growth, and if you knock on the cecropia’s trunk, swarms of belligerent ants answer and tell you in no uncertain terms to get the hell off their manicured lawn.

Speaking of ant property, I have for you today a picture of leaf-cutter ant Rome, whence all leaf-cutter ant roads are blazed


Sorry about the crappy shot; my camera slurps up batteries like crawdads, and I had to conserve juice for the fig tree.  The complex of tunnels beneath these impressive hills can reach as deep as 20 feet!  20 feet!  Apparently they burrow ventilation shafts too because ants need oxygen after all, in miniscule increments for millions of tiny ant-breaths.  Remember how I told you how the ants cultivate a special fungus in their porridge-pile of leaf mush and poop?  I learned today that the fungus strain they eat is so ancient that it is no longer found anywhere else but in the ward of the leaf-cutter ant.  Every so often, a queen ant bequeaths an ember of fungus to another queen-cum-Prometheus, who sets out to start a new colony.  And this system has endured for eons, while the original fungus went extinct in the wild.  Neat, huh?  Ants.  Wow.

Oh, in my first post about ants, I incorrectly identified large workers as soldiers.  There are five strata in the leaf-cutter ant caste culture.  The teeniest workers are called minima, and they care for the fungus and sometimes also do leaf duty.  Above them toil the workers, who do most of the leaf-cutting and road-clearing.  Drones and queens are up top, of course, but in the middle are the soldiers, which I learned are impossible to confuse with any other variety because they look like this:


This ant steps on other ants

This ant steps on other ants

Silly me.

Ok, that’s enough.  I’m calling it a post for now; maybe I’ll do more tonight, but this is clearly going to take forever.  I have learned that I should post every other day, at the least, unless absolutely nothing is going on.  And there’s always something.  Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of the Camino Real, and graphic images of tree-murder.

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