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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Even the Wildlife Isn’t Real

This interesting story (Wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer shows that animals are often set up to succeed) just came out in the Washington Post in response to environmental film maker Chris Palmer’s new scandalous (you can tell this word has various degrees of seriousness for the average reader) tell-all about the fakery that goes on in capturing the natural side of wildlife.

I was a little distraught to find out my own idol, David Attenborough (I will forever observe interesting moments of animal behavior in nature with an astute British man’s voice narrating the action in my head) has even indulged in staging a moment of coital bliss between a pair of scorpions in a studio. However, one would have to be a bit thick (and I mean this in the nicest way possible) to realize the scene in Blue Planet where they show deep sea fish and plankton zipping about involves souped-up sound effects. First of all, the nature of sound in the sea means we hear ocean audible in a very distorted manner, but I hardly think minute little ctenophores sound like 80’s influenced sci-fi spaceships.

But perhaps the most horrifying part of the article is this little clip:

“The lemmings that plunge to their deaths in the 1958 Disney documentary “White Wilderness” were hurled ingloriously to their doom by members of the crew, as a Canadian documentary revealed.”

I will not be able to watch an animal documentary for a bit yet without thinking there may perhaps be an over-worked wildlife cinematographer roughing up the baby seals before the next take so they look nice for the camera…

And on the same type of note, the photo featured above was taken by wildlife photographer José Luis Rodriguez, recently stripped of his National History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year title. Tiger Woods ain’t got nothing on being a wildlife documentarian….

NHPR peers at Great Bay under the Microscope

New Hampshire Public Radio’s show “The Exchange” recently featured the Great Bay area and discussion concerning it’s current state and ecological health.

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Full disclosure – I admittingly have a great deal of personal interest in this topic considering: a) I’m from NH and have always loved the coast and its associated regions b) I’m a marine and freshwater biologist/ecologist by training, and c) I worked for the NH Coastal Program, part of NH Dept. of Environmental Services as an intern for six months.

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Great Bay is a large tidal estuary with many significant rivers serving as tributaries. The region is home to a significant variety of wildlife and yields a variety of important ecological habitats.

(To learn more, check out links and information at the SaveGreatBay blog)

Last year the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership (PREP) released a report about the health of the local region using several environmental indicators. The basic gist of the report was that the system is in decline in part due to increases in things like pollutants and excess nutrients making their way into the estuaries, often by way of stormwater runoff. (Read the report here)

This feature on “The Exchange” examines the intrinsic value of a region like Great Bay, how it’s being impacted, and what can be done to address the damage.

Access the audio of the program featuring NHPR’s environmental reporter Amy Quinton, Ted Diers, director of the NH Coastal Program (part of the NH Dept. of Environmental Services), and Judith Spang, Democratic state representative from Durham.

You’ll hear about some interesting solutions to storm water runoff from pervious pavement to oyster restoration (to see a successful oyster project currently helping to clean Boston’s water, click here).

So check it out and perhaps weigh in with your own thoughts.

Also, perhaps peruse Prep’s recently released Piscataqua Region management and conservation plan.

I Like My Frogs… Small

A teeny new species of frog was discovered inside a Bornean (from Borneo) pitcher plant. So not only did the discovering scientist find something novel and undescribed, he found it petite. Nothing piques the public’s interest like micro-sized animals. Unfortunately this frog, who grows to the mere pittance of a half inch in length,is not currently the smallest frog species known to us. That distinction belongs to the Cuban Eleutherodactylus iberia, which can comfortably sit on a dime.

With big discoveries this small, just imagine what we could be missing…

AP says Northern Lights Possible

A recent news release from Associated Press indicates residents ranging from Maine to Michigan should keep an eye turned toward the sky this night and next (August 3rd/4rth) for possible Northern Lights. There’s been some recent sun activity (i.e. storms) that means us more southern folks may actually get to enjoy this primarily far northern phenomenon!

See AP press release in the Portsmouth Herald here.

Shrimp Go Into the Light

A recent study in aquatic toxicology studied the effects of several well prescribed anti-depressants on the behavior of shrimp. One in particular, fluoxetine, better known as Prozac significantly altered the shrimp’s behavior, causing them to move towards rather than away from light right into the awaiting maws of predatory shrimp-eaters. In scientist speak, this movement towards or away from light stimulus is called “phototaxis” (on a complete aside, another more bizarre photo-response is the photic sneeze effect where bright light causes someone to automatically sneeze. I like the mental picture of a mass of little sneezing shrimp…).

These kinds of studies are gaining more import because of the types of chemicals ending up in aquatic systems. Much of what we put into our bodies is never completely absorbed and ends up in the sewer system which consequently often ends up in other water-based ecological systems (sewage is treated for things like excess nutrients but we couldn’t possibly screen for all the possible chemicals sewage may contain). So materials like caffeine, medications we take, etc. are now outside of our superficial human realm and in the larger natural environment, with detrimental if not even bizarre effects on wildlife including sex changes in fish.

To find out more, read the sciencedaily feature here.