Day 7 – Wild Nights Are Calling

View of Casitas Eclipse (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We sleep in for the first time since setting foot in Costa Rica. We soon discover two things. First of all, anything hand-washed in the name of being practical will never dry… ever. Secondly, our next three breakfasts will be to the strangest soundtrack of US music ever compiled. The newest Red Hot Chili Pepper’s track will be followed with Simon and Garfunkel, and then most distressingly by Kenny G.

The Manuel Antonio National Park is a short drive down the road from where we are staying. We park our little mud-streaked Daihatsu near a bus-stop populated with opportunistic tour guides (who will try to maintain the official air of being associated with park,which they are not). This is what kicks off our fateful encounter with Mauricio, who promises that the amount of wildlife we will see in the park will be negligible with what he can show us for $20 a head, money back guarantee if we don’t agree with his conjecture after half an hour into the tour. This will set off a whirlwind of the wildest stories I have perhaps ever heard from one man. Just a seed of truth would delight me.

Costa Rican stink bug (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Mauricio has a rugged Swarovski-brand telescope and tripod slung over his shoulder as he leads us into the park after paying his entrance fee (another clue he is not an officially park-sanctioned guide). Right near the entrance, he alerts us to the presence of a species of land crab that dwells in the rainforest. We soon discover, while overly confident and willing to sing his own praises, he is absolutely spot on about his abilities to point out the seemingly elusive wild-life. He has learned the ranges of animals living within the park and once something of note is spotted within the park, it appears a sort of altruistic exchange of information takes places among the guides.

He points out plants along our route – ones used to weave textiles for clothing or other useful purposes, but mostly he focuses on those plants with medicinal value – anti-inflammatory, cholesterol-lowering – the problems a rainforest can solve with more completeness than modern medicine. Mauricio tells us he was raised in the jungle by his mama before the area was turned into a national park, that his uncle was responsible for the now wide-spread availability of anti-venin for snakes such as the Fer-de-Lance and his visage graces an old version of the 2000 colones bill. He explains all this while we munch on the sweet flowers he hands us from a Heliconia plant.

Golden Orb Spider (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

He begins to tell us about his son who is currently studying in the States (Los Estados Unidos) and about his wife that died from cancer when his son was just two years old. But he also tempers the situation with a tale about monkeys who once dragged his baby part-way down the beach while he and his wife swam unknowingly near-by.

In the midst of his recanting, he sets his scope to focus on a baby three-toed sloth all the while relating the somewhat fantastic story of this animal’s relationship with the Cecropia tree it spends the majority of its time in. The Cecropia tree provides the sloth with lots of alkaloids (a diverse group of chemicals, some having medicinal or even toxic effects. This same group of compounds makes poison arrow frogs harmful.) – a good energy source for the sloth. If a sloth has young baby and has to wander from its tree, which happens rarely, it can leave the young sloth nestled among the Cecropia’s dead leaves, where it is well-camouflaged.

Dead cecropia leaves

However, once the baby is old enough to start eating (at around 6 months), Mauricio tells us the mom will leave her offspring in some other type of tree as it is thought the alkaloid content of the Cecropia tree is too strong for the sloth until he has amassed a more significant body weight. (Read more about both the two-toed and three-toed sloth’s ecology here).

Cecropia trees are also known to harbor stinging Azteca ants that have formed a symbiosis with the tree, often living within its core and pouring out of the tree’s trunk to ward off invading insects or other herbivores, and on occasion, an unlucky human or two. However, the sloth can live and eat in the trees un-vexed, primarily due to another partnership formed with the sloth (Sloths also have an untold number of additional relationships with species of insects and algae that can be found living in their coats.). This one may have to do with the habit of the sloth to defecate once a week or less, by carefully creeping to the bottom of the tree, doing its business, then burying its feces. For lack of a better descriptor, the sloth poo is likely an excellent source of nutrients for the ants.

Manuel Antonio - lizard (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Mauricio describes the emerging problem of Columbian drug runners approaching guides and other lookouts to start serving out as lookouts for them on beaches. Mauricio claims skills as a pilot at a nearby airstrip and says he works for the police in the evenings after his days serving as a park guide. He continues his tales while pulling down a cluster of maroon fruit from a nearby tree. Eating them is a similar process to eating the mamon chin I mentioned in an earlier post. You must bite into the outer skin to get at the tangy fruit inside and suck on it to avoid swallowing the pit. He only knows it by the name “uva”, spanish for “grape.” He hands us small slices of lemon from trees growing right near the sand and explains the salt content of the fruit changes during the dry and rainy seasons. He tells us he and his mama used to leave little dishes of lemon juice out to evaporate and would use the sea salt left behind.

He continues to point out more wildlife, including lesser white-lines bats, golden orb and arrow-shaped spiders, and smooth-billed anis. He carefully pulls down a leaf to show us a tarantula with her spiderlings menacingly nestled in the base of a leaf. Even while leading us out of the park at the end of the tour he is advocating for more local experiences, including trying ceviche from a trusted vendor on the beach – a mix of fresh shellfish, onions, and a local version of cilantro, all marinated in citrus juice which helps to mimic cooking the raw seafood. Costa Ricans often eat the mixture with hot sauce, ketchup, and mayonnaise added to the broth.  There are also men walking the beach with machetes and coconuts, ready to hack off the top and hand you a straw so you can enjoy the milk inside. One of these men is a very tall and skinny man who has the lowest voice I may have ever heard. Mauricio tells us this man once worked in television in has native country of Mexico due to this very trait.

Tarantula and spiderlings (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We will come back later to swim at a beach bearing the park’s name – Playa Manuel Antonio. It’s a stunning white sand beach. When we ask a local if there are any shells around, he points us to the hollowed-stump of a tree likely downed during some previous storm and crawling with a colony of rather large hermit crabs. My objective of snorkeling around the near-by rocks is quickly left by the wayside as I lose my snorkel not 5 minutes after wading out into the waves. I have never swam in the Pacific and the water is bath-tub warm and very saline.  I also however, have never experienced the sheer engine of energy behind these kind of waves. It is high tide and with just our feet in the surf, there are several occasions when a large wave will pull us under, scrape us along the bottom, and hold us there, never letting us go until it once again ebbs back out to sea. My pockets quickly fill with sand and it becomes evident that if I wish to snorkel or dive in Costa Rica, I will have to book a boat trip or two during my next visit.

We are exhausted. We just manage to take advantage of the hotel’s 50% off Sundays at their restaurant, the gato negro (the black cat) and fall into a dead sleep for the next four or five hours rousing only enough energy afterwards to stumble back into the gato negro for dessert. As we head back to our little villa, we hear the strangest cries emanating from a little owl perched on a nearby tree and are reminded just how wild everything here really is…

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He didn’t even have a chance – Sea lion attacks octopus

In yet another interesting nat geo crittercam reveal, a sea lion was captured eating a large octopus. This and other video footage proves the animals utilize the seabed as a feeding ground rather than focusing on pelagic (open ocean) species of fish. This helps verify that the designation of marine parks which protect seafloor habitat will serve to benefit sea lions.

The Coconut Crab – Lessons in the Big and Marginally Dangerous

So, let’s start this all off by showing you the picture that piqued (I fear this far too subdued a word) my interest:

Snopes.com has listed the authenticity of this photo as “partly true” as they haven’t been able to authenticate the origins of the photo, but as I’ll explain, it’s well within the realm of believability.

These guys are known by multiple names including coconut crab due to their ability to crack coconuts with their claws to access the meat inside, robber crab due to their alleged propensity to steal shiny objects, as well as palm thief. Their range is associated with coasts of the Pacific and Indonesian Oceans.

They are considered the largest land-dwelling arthropods, apparently pushing the size limits of terrestrial organisms with exoskeletons. I did a little digging and it appears there are two possible reasons for this. The most cited reason is the oxygen content of the air.  Animals with exoskeletons have a tougher time with gas exchange through their hard shells and need to devote a fair amount of surface area to the deed. The bigger they become the harder this task becomes (See this ScienceDaily article for more on this). While I’m not sure how valid the second conjecture is in this particular case, I found the suggestion that the weight of the exoskeleton eventually becomes too much to bear for large land-bound crabs as compared to aquatic species. This is certainly true for animals like whales that start to suffer from their weight on land when stranded, I’m just not sure how much this is true for coconut crabs. They can have leg spans reaching up to 3 ft which is one reason that 1st startling picture seems possible (although I found quite a bit of arguing online about several elements of the photo that might suggest it has been photo-shopped, not the least of which includes the unlikelihood of this species to be roaming around during the day as it tends to get too hot for them).

They are definitely considered generalists and will go after a large variety of food. It seems this means mostly fruit and plants but apparently also means turtle hatchlings, rats, and sometimes dead things. I can’t relay the horror I feel at the citation in the wikipedia article indicating coconut crabs may have eaten Amelia Earhart’s body or at least dragged her bones off. It can at least be said then, that coconut crabs can hardly be called discerning creatures.

As adults, these animals have no natural predators save the locals who savor them as a delicacy as well as an aphrodisiac. This little crab fetish has actually given the crabs worldwide protected status. As perhaps a karmic payback of sorts, there have been cases of food poisonings from dining on the crabs related to their occasionally toxic diets.

So don’t say I never taught you anything…

Tree Kangaroos – Another Unsuspecting Recipient of Crittercams

Tree kangaroos are just one of the latest type of animal to be subjected to critter camerization. While there may be some stunned and confused tree kangaroos walking around initially, the act of attaching cameras to these fuzzy mammals may give researchers some insight into their behavior. The critter cams used for this specific venture were developed and provided by national geographic. See the video describing the research below:

There are approximately 12 species of tree kangaroo, but the focus of this particular effort is the Matschie’s Tree-kangaroo, resident of Papua New Guinea, and as described in the related article, decidedly similar in appearance to a plush toy. They are considered critically endangered, but are targeted by conservation efforts that include locals who highly value these animals.

And Whatever You Do, Don’t Look Him Straight In The Eyes!

So, this animal certainly falls in the category of animals strange enough that you believe they’re a product of tall tales and photoshop. Although, in some sense, I suspect some photos of this animal could have some “enhancement” in order to make them a bit creepier. At least, it helps me sleep more soundly at night…

So the focus of my ramble? The satanic leaf-tailed gecko:

satanic leaf-tailed gecko

So, as you can probably tell, this is yet another example of an organism who really knows what it means to master the art of camouflage. Also, I didn’t find much on the origins of it’s common name (it’s scientific name is Uroplatus phantasticus, and it’s also at times commonly called the eyelash or fantastic leaf-tailed gecko), but my guess it’s it has a whole lot to do with this:

gecko mouth open

Some of the most striking pictures of this little freak of nature can be found on Nick Garbutt’s photography site, specifically his photo album from Madagascar.

So yes, this strange lump of leaves hails from Madagascar, a place that I’ve wanted to visit since I was about 11. Madagascar sits off the southeast coast of Africa and hosts some of the most intriguing species of organisms in the world. It is often referred to as the eight continent (or the 7th, little did I know that there are several models concerning how the continents are defined and so it’s yet another supposedly steadfast fact I am now uncertain about). According to a press release on the KEW Garden’s website:

“Madagascar is home to more than 10,000 plant species and 90% of Madagascar’s plants occur nowhere else in the world.”

Island ecology is always interesting because the isolation of an island can allow organisms to evolve independently of those occurring on more connected bodies of land (see this great web article for a more in-depth discussion about evolution on Madagascar).  But Madagascar seems to have a stranger assortment of animals than most, including this little guy, the streaked tenrec:

streaked tenrec

While  new species are still being discovered on a regular basis, they are fast threatened by activities of people living on the island along with the increase of tourism.

I was going to suggest that you visit the Madagascar Wildlife Conservation website, but their home page misspells Madagascar as “Madagaskar”; and unless that is an alternate spelling, the jury is out! They do however host what seems to be an interesting peer-reviewed journal.  You might also check out the website for Madagascar Biodiversity and Conservation, and wildmadagascar.org