Shot through the (finger) and (bullet ants) are to blame

Shortly after I was stung by a bullet ant, Matt reassured me that “at least I’d get a hell of a blog post out of it!” At the time, I managed a weak smile through the tears, only barely able to comprehend much of anything besides pain. A day later, I write to you victorious! Having survived the pain, which is supposedly equivalent to being shot, I am feeling rather accomplished. 

Late Saturday afternoon, Nathanael, Zach, Annie, and I were feeling good. As collecting measurements became second nature, we spent less time at each Welfia regia palm we sampled. Aiming to collect data on frond color, epiphyte cover, percent herbivory, and palm size for 40 palms that day, one gigantic hymenopteran helped us decide that N=37 was probably sufficient. Reaching up to pull down a frond, I felt the pain shoot immediately through my right pointer finger, spreading instantly to my middle finger and soon my whole hand. I let out a horrible shriek and my fellow group members rushed to help me back to the lab, which luckily was not far away. No one ever said the words “bullet ant,” but none of us had a question in our minds that that was what had stung me. We had been briefed about them upon arrival at La Selva, but reassured that the likelihood of an encounter was low, as no FSP student had ever been stung.

 Bullet ants, Paraponera clavata, which are about 1 inch in length, use their extremely potent sting, which contains poneratoxin, a neurotoxic peptide, to defend themselves and their nests against intruders – even bumbling, well-intentioned intruders such as myself.

 For almost two hours following the sting, I was in agony as the throbbing and burning sensation spread to my elbow. Friends surrounded me through all of the afternoon and evening, fetching buckets of ice water and rolls of toilet paper to wipe my tears, carefully counting the Benadryl and ibuprofen tablets they handed me, and staying with me until the pain had subsided. After a few hours the pain was isolated in my finger again, and by the next morning was only a bit numb and stiff. It turns out I’m one of the lucky ones…for some people the pain lasts 24 hours.

 Next time I burn my tongue or stub my toe, I’ll have a new perspective on the situation. So thanks for that, P. clavata. I won’t be getting up in your business again anytime soon.

Pura vida,



Sampling Welfia palms



Drosophila flies are cool too!

Our second day in Cuerici, I took a hike along the trail up the mountain searching for different moss morphotypes. Before reaching the stream about ¾ of the way up the trail, I noticed a large mushroom patch growing on a fallen log with quite a few Drosophila flies aggregating on top of the mushrooms. I saw that there were males on top of each mushroom and females flying around the mushrooms, occasionally landing and checking out the underside of the mushroom. There appeared to be a dominant male on each mushroom and any time another male landed on the mushroom, the male would aggressively chase the male off the mushroom. If the male refused to leave, the dominant male would physically fight the competitor until he left.

The mushroom patch

This was a tad more unique than moss growth along the trail, so I changed project ideas and tested if these flies were using the mushrooms as a food resource or territory to attract females (since Drosophila sometimes use fungi as a food source and the males seemed to be defending each mushroom as a separate territory). Within a 5 minute trial period, I counted the number of competing males and females that landed on the mushrooms. I also measured mushroom size and captured the dominant flies to see if their body size mattered in determining their dominant role. I saw a mating event on a mushroom but didn’t find any eggs underneath the mushrooms (where the females were going immediately after landing), indicating that the mushrooms weren’t being used as a food resource but, in fact, the male Drosophila were lekking!

Lekking is an unusual mating behavior (not often seen in Drosophila) in which males travel to a specific location to display and females come to watch and choose mates. Lekking is often seen in birds such as Manakins, but it also has been recorded in butterflies and fish.

If you had told me I would come to Costa Rica to study fly behavior and think it was cool, I would never have believed you. But I guess the Biology FSP is full of surprises for students from all backgrounds!



More on hummingbirds

This is our last night in Monteverde, and as excited as we are for Cuerici, I think we’ll all be sad to leave. This cloud forest is one of those incredibly humbling places that make you feel like amazing things are going on around you that you might never see or understand. It’s dense, wet, and lush, and it’s often hard to get your bearings among the vines and countless shades of green. As humbling as it is, though, the secrecy of the cloud forest is also promising –  you’ll have new things to see and discover every time you return!

I actually didn’t get to spend that much time wandering through the forest for my project this time around, though. Adam, Allegra, Emily, and I did an observational study on the thermoregulatory costs of hummingbird dominance behaviors, and we spent a glorious few days watching the tiny, charismatic things forage. Since they’re so small and have such high metabolic rates, hummingbird survival and reproduction depend heavily on how much food they can get. They often perform aggressive displays against other hummingbirds to gain control of feeding areas (the males, especially), but these behaviors can be energetically costly and produce excess metabolic heat that might be risky for a hummingbird at relatively high ambient temperatures. So we looked at whether dominance behaviors would decrease with increasing temperatures (They did!).

Figuring out how to collect any meaningful data on the beautiful blurs zipping by our faces was a challenge, but we were excited to find that Vivek’s wonderful camera (a Nikon D600) could take good enough footage for us to slow the video to 1/4 of its original speed and clearly see every interaction that happened around the feeder. Well, see and hear. We recorded chirps, chases, and contacts (when one hummingbird physically tackled another), and you could hear a little thunk when they hit each other on the contacts. It was incredible to watch them that slowly – you catch a lot more behavioral nuances, and in some cases, you could see every wingbeat!

Here’s a sampling of the species we saw:

Green-crowned brilliant (juvenile)
Green-crowned brilliant (male)
Purple-throated mountain gem (male)
Purple-throated mountain gem (female)
Purple-throated mountain gem (male)
Green violet-ear
Violet sabrewing (male)
Stripe-tailed hummingbird
The feeder in early evening.

All in all, a wonderful week!

Pura vida,

Becca Novello ’14

Monteverde: the town beneath the clouds

Today I woke up early and ran down the mountain to the little town of Monteverde. It was a lovely run down, except for the nagging thought that every step I took downhill would have to be repeated far more slowly and painfully on the way back up if I wanted breakfast. But I wanted to run to town to see what a Monteverde looked like to the average visitor.

I passed cattle farms, a bakery, several Italian restaurants, and the Monte Verde Friends School (deserted on account of it being Saturday. I would like to take a moment to petition for a “no work on Saturday on the Bio FSP”. Not a chance—science takes no vacations, we have papers to write!)

The Friends School reminded me of the one task I was given by my grandparents before I left home for Costa Rica. My grandparents are both Quakers and nature lovers—Monteverde, they told me, was their dream vacation spot. While our program was there for the incredible biodiversity, apparently a group of Quakers from Alabama was drawn to the same spot in the 1970’s by its cool climate (ideal for dairy farming) and its non-violent, army-free constitution. My grandparents spent a week here sometime in the 80’s, and apparently had made several good friends who they were sure I’d be able to locate and pay my regards to. They gave me a name and an address, which I sadly forgot to bring with me.

As I ran through town, I imagined my grandparents walking the same sidewalk, marveling at the birds and flowers and making new friends with every step. I didn’t pass anyone over the age of 50, so I figured their friend must not be up and about yet. I headed back up the mountain, hoping my grandparents wouldn’t be too disappointed with my failure to complete my mission. I figured I could make it up to them: when I get home, I’ll explain for them the biology of orchid dispersal, demonstrate the water shedding mechanisms of understory plants, and show them my pictures of the Resplendent Quetzal I took in the Cloud Forest Reserve. That’s been my Monteverde experience, and it’s been a dream spot for me as well, although not much of a vacation.


In the cloud forest

Our fifth day here began with a delicious smell coming from the kitchen, which we followed to find French toast, Adam’s favorite breakfast food. Sunshine, new to us in such quantities since we arrived at Monteverde, also greeted us in the morning and stayed around for much of the day. Luckily my group still had some data collection to do, so we could remember what sunlight felt like for a while before sitting down to input our data and figure out what it all meant.

After lunch various papers were edited and adventures were had- a few ventured in the park to see the waterfall, others ran to the continental divide, some just caught up on sleep or work before joining back with their most recent project groups to get ready for our symposium that evening. As my group sat outside to talk about our presentation, a coati (a very cute tropical mammal) interrupted us, attempting to get inside. Amelia bravely fought him off with a chair.

At dinner we discussed the exclusivity of the fear of snakes and the fear of spiders and the universal fear of writing another paper. Then we trekked out to the classroom to hear what each group had been off doing for the past week. We learned about hummingbird aggression, ecosystem engineers in the forest, orchid biodiversity and tradeoffs in leaf inclination (or, as some would prefer to say, declination). The quality and energy of projects pushed us well past the expected time.  Finally we ended so that groups could finish writing some papers and start others until the Internet went down and we decided it was a sign to sleep.


Pura Vida, Santa Rosa

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After turning in all of our final projects at Palo Verde, we woke up early Friday morning and headed to Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa is a beautiful national park hosting, among other beaches, Playa Naranjo- a sea turtle nesting hotspot and surfing paradise. We hiked around 8 miles from the park entrance to the beach, starting in a tropical dry forest similar to Palo Verde and ending in the mangroves near the beach. We were totally unplugged for the weekend, camping near the beach and swimming and relaxing during the day. It was a much needed break from our experiments, but we did get some great lectures on sea turtles, vertebrate biology, and mangrove ecology.


Playa Naranjo was not only a beautiful beach, but also has some crazy biodiversity. Before we hiked in we were warned that the day before a jaguar had hopped onto the hood of the park ranger’s car on that very trail! We were also incredibly lucky with nesting sea turtles – Ryan warned us that they haven’t seen sea turtles on this FSP in the last five years, but as a group we saw 3+ nesting mama sea turtles (Olive Ridleys and Hawksbills) and then stumbled across a nest hatching our first night! It was such an incredibly organic and awesome experience to watch the little hatchlings fight their way down the beach into the ocean.




We’re in the cloud forest of Monteverde now, nursing our sunburns and going out of our minds about this brand new ecosystem- wet, muddy, and cool, with hummingbirds overhead and so much plant diversity I just can’t wrap my mind around it. Today we did some orientation hiking and started brainstorming ideas for our new projects. More on the bromeliads, orchids, epiphytes, and hummingbird projects to come!

- Emily Goodwin ’14


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