Bugs, bugs, bugs!

I love arthropods. Perhaps to an unhealthy degree. But I realize that many people do not (and for the record, they are wrong), so I am trying to contain my enthusiasm to a single post. There may be a part II later, though.

Look, he’s showing off Hope College colors!

First, a small dose of unsolicited education: bugs, insects, and arthropods are not the same thing; they are categories with varying levels of specificity. An arthropod is anything that sports an exoskeleton, segmented body, and jointed leg pairs. Insects are arthropods that have all of the above and three-part bodies, three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and a single antennae pair. Bugs, more technically called Hemiptera, are a particular kind of insect that has sucking or piercing mouthparts, membranous or only partially hardened wings, and doesn’t undergo full metamorphosis.

For example: an aphid is a bug, insect, and arthropod. A beetle is an arthropod and insect, though not a bug. A lobster is an arthropod, but not an insect or bug. The takeaway here is that if you see a creepy crawly invertebrate, say, “what a beautiful arthropod!” and whether it’s an aphid, a lobster, or anything in between, you’ll never be wrong.
Or you could just keep on calling everything bugs, because taxonomy is ridiculous anyway.

We’re now staying in Wilson Botanical Gardens, part of the Las Cruces Biological Station in—you guessed it—Las Cruces. The garden plants are thriving and beautiful, but even more exciting are the creatures they attract! Get ready to see lots of photos, both from Las Cruces and our Palo Verde stay.

Let’s start off with something cute and charismatic! This little guy is a scarab beetle, probably in genus Chrysina (called the Jewel scarabs) based on those bright colors. He’s related to the June beetles that fly into your face during the Michigan summer, and is every bit as bumbling and friendly. Here, he’s helping me cram for an exam.

Now for something completely different. I know this tailless whip-scorpion looks like something that crawled out of Tim Burton’s nightmares (and has a fearsome name to match!), but it’s harmless. It is a member of order Amblypygi, a name that literally means “blunt rump.” This refers to their lack of any sort of tail (or venom) like their scorpion cousins. You are only in danger of a pinch if you stuck a finger into its little claws, called pedipalps. These guys come out at night to hunt other insects and defend their territories, and adorn many of the trees in Wilson Botanical Gardens. The star of this photo measures about seven inches across, as pictured. I don’t know how long he’d be with straightened legs, but some specimens can get up to nearly 30 inches in legspan.


This is a (very uncooperative) blue morpho butterfly in the forest at Las Cruces! She refused to open her wings for me, so I was unable to photograph the brilliant iridescent blue scales on the dorsal (top) side of her wings. I promise they are there, though. In the meantime, you can admire her drab brown forest camouflage and pretty eyespot collection.

(Disclaimer: I do not know how to sex butterflies, so I just pick a gender and run with it)

Army ants! Likely Eciton spp., given their proliferation here. The little black-bodied gals are workers, and the pale giantesses are soldiers. Males are identifiable by their wings.
This video isn’t sped up—they really do keep that busy! Instead of confining themselves to a hill, army ants lead a nomadic lifestyle. For much of their life cycle they aggressively forage en masse during the day, and make their bivouacs (yes, that is the scientific term for temporary hills) each dusk. The name “army ant” comes from that mass foraging behavior, which looks a bit like waging war on the forest.

It’s a cicada! This guy is a Hemipteran, a true bug. These photos are of the same cicada, about forty minutes apart. Look at that handsome devil sclerotizing (inflating and hardening) his wings. It’ll be another of couple hours before his colors dim to the mottled greens and grays of a mature adult. These guys are harmless vegetarians who feed on sap in all parts of their life cycle, which can last from 2 to 17 years, depending on the species!

Fun fact: that brown exoskeleton they left behind after moulting is called an “exuvia.”

The first time I watched one of these swoop between trees, my classmate came up behind me and asked what bird it was.
This is Tropidacrus dux, a giant Central and South American locust. Their wingspan averages about seven inches across, and they are so often mistaken for birds that hunters are known to shoot them out of the sky by mistake. Poor things.
See that bright red flash when it flies away from my hand? This fellow’s crimson wings are a great example of deimatic coloration, which startles and disorients predators who are after a tasty grasshopper snack. Or perhaps more of a banquet, in this case.

This unhappy camper is a Harlequin beetle (Acrocinus longimanus). They have a beautiful, if somewhat seizure-inducing, pattern of black, red, and yellow on their backs, and I would absolutely recommend looking up a picture.

These fellows are a famous example of commensalism, which is a type of interaction where one species benefits, and the other is unaffected, for good or ill. Specifically, Harlequin beetles unwittingly ferry little pseudoscorpions around, which feed on mites around the forest (and sometimes underneath the elytra, the colorful hardened forewings of the beetle).

This specimen squirmed away shortly after this photo was taken, and managed to take a pretty good chunk out of my professor’s hand before he flew away. Thank you, Professor Mau, for the blood that you shed on behalf of our education.

Meet the queen of wasps, Polistes. This thing is a little over an inch long, and is sporting the biggest stinger I’ve ever laid eyes on. Polistes wasps are valued by farmers because of their relatively low aggression and high predatory habits, which keep caterpillar populations down and crop production up.

The insect of interest is the one on the left, a member of family Reduviidae. I almost didn’t include this fellow, because blog posts are supposed to be upbeat and there is nothing upbeat about him. But he is extraordinarily interesting, so here we go.

This is Prince Charming, the kissing bug. There is a reason he is sealed tight in a bag, far, far away from my skin. You see, kissing bugs carry around your friendly neighborhood microorganism, Trypanosoma cruzi. These sweet little kissing bugs get their kicks by sucking at the blood in or near your lips, and then defecate in the same area. If their feces (and the Trypanosoma cruzi in them) make it into your bloodstream, congratulations! You are a proud owner of Chagas disease. Eight to twelve weeks later, it’s chronic. The good news is that symptoms usually don’t present until twenty years later, when you abruptly die of heart failure. Yay.

Luckily, the kissing bugs in this area tend not to defecate on your face. So, while they may snack on your lips, you probably won’t get the disease. And we have mosquito nets for a reason; these fellows are much too large to make it through the fine mesh.

A post on Central American arthropods wouldn’t be complete without a tarantula picture. Here’s one I saw near my room in Palo Verde! These guys have a bad rap, but most New World tarantulas don’t have particularly potent venom, and you would only be in real danger if you have an allergy. Their first line of defense is the urticating bristles (irritating hairs) on their abdomens, which they fling at you if you’re particularly annoying. They also stridulate (make hissing sounds by rubbing their legs together) and slap at you with their forelegs before they resort to biting, so there is plenty of warning. The females are pretty playful, and will often submit to a little handling without fuss.

I leave you with a photo of this adorable little moth friend. She landed on my leg as I walked past a light in the gardens, and we immediately became best friends.

Say hi to some of your local arthropods for me! They deserve a little love.

All the best,
-The Crazy Cat(erpillar) Lady

Peak Experience

Everything is smothered in moss and lichen. I’m pretty sure it would grow on me if I stuck around long enough.

After the last couple of weeks at Palo Verde National Park, we packed up our sunburns and headed off to a new location. Destination: Cuericí Biological Station, high in the Talamanca mountain range of Costa Rica. Much of the area is a recently restored montane oak forest, courtesy of landowner Don Carlos who works to strike a balance between forest preservation and sustainable rainbow trout farming.

Look at that idyllic montane trout farm. Look at it.

Most people don’t seem to have strong feelings about grass. I do. Travel brings many challenges, but the biggest challenge by far, for me, has always been leaving behind the springy green grass of my home in Wisconsin. It was an unspeakable joy to arrive at Cuericí and feel soft grass underfoot once again… even if my bare feet put me at the mercy of the local vipers.

In addition to the grass, Cuericí boasts other similarities to the Midwest. The chilly conditions and extreme temperature variability encourage the same plant adaptations as areas with high seasonality. Glabrous, waxy leaves help plants conserve moisture under high-altitude sun, rosette-shaped growths trap heat in the face of chill winds, and shrubby growth forms persevere in the rocky, low-nutrient soil. Many plant families common in the temperate zone also populate high altitude tropical environments.

Because of that, this week I walked through an oak forest! In the tropics! I’ve never felt more at home whilst being so far away from home. The leaves of Quercus costaricensis are not as deeply lobed as the Quercus velutina I know, but their shiny coating and loud crunch underfoot are the same wherever you go. Unlike at home, the oak trees here sport brilliant red bromeliads and are draped with large webs of moss that subsist on atmospheric moisture from passing clouds.

Have you ever seen a more tropical oak forest? No, no you haven’t.
Fun fact about tropical trees: they don’t have rings! Rings are a product of seasonality, since trees grow at varying rates through the four seasons in temperate zones. That isn’t the case in the tropics, so you get trees with blank trunks like this one. Good luck figuring out its age!

If you climb even higher, the forest turns to large stands of bamboo, and then to páramo. Páramo, or “alpine tundra” exhibits all of the high-altitude adaptations to the extreme. Few woody plants can grow so high, so the páramo consists mostly of grass and rosette-shaped herbaceous plants. It’s a bit like a rocky prairie, but less fun for acrophobiacs.

We’re only here for a week, but I think I’ve fallen in love with this place. The hot chocolate is incomparable, the stars blaze brilliantly in the night sky, and the happy farm dogs are my new best friends. It’s still college, though; I’d better be off to study for my next exams! I’ll leave you with a few more photos.


Salvia leucantha, I believe. You know it gets cold when even the plants sport fur coats.
Sky, rock, and shrubs. Páramo.
This is a prime example of a rosette growth form in the páramo. Believe it or not, this little guy is in temperate family Rosaceae, along with apples and plums.
The view is alright, I suppose.



Mud, Glorious Mud

Today, the classroom was a mudpit. And a most pretty mudpit, at that. We spent the better part of the day hiking through a mangrove forest occupying the brackish swamp where the freshwater Tempisque river meets the salty Colorado gulf.

We took our first quiz of the semester whilst sitting in a semicircle on fallen trees in a glistening mud lake. I tried to keep the thick, dark silt from smearing on my paper as I hastily scribbled down everything I knew about mangrove conservation, and was partially successful. I wonder if cleanliness will have any bearing on my grade?

Aside from their aesthetic appeal (who doesn’t love a giant combination jungle gym and mudpit?), mangrove forests are incredibly important sources of shoreline protection. Their positions along the coasts allow them to serve as living barriers between tropical storms and inhabited land, both as windbreaks and flood shields. Shoreline erosion, too, is curbed by their snarled masses of roots, which function as a living subterranean net. They also provide a unique habitat for crabs and fish, and, by extension, a tasty hunting ground for raccoons and coatis.

On the way in, we did some crocodile-spotting along the river! There were several American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) floating lazily along with the current or sunbathing on the sandy bank. I never thought the day would come that I’d share my classroom with these fellas, yet here we are. They’re a smidgen too distant to spot in this photo, but I wasn’t about to get a close-up—no matter how broadly they smiled for me.

We also saw plenty of friendlier fauna, such as…

Crabs! The mangrove forest was swarming with them. Though I wanted to gawk at our surroundings, I tried to keep my eyes on my feet lest I crush someone’s dear crabby wife or child. We mostly saw fiddler crabs, various members of the Uca genus, recognizable by that single dominant claw which the males use to battle each other for the attention of the ladies. Mangrove crabs are as important as the trees; their burrowing helps to mix oxygen into the anoxic soil, thereby aiding decomposition, and they also function as tiny lawnmowers by munching on seeds and seedlings.

These slightly terrifying things clawing their way up from the mud are called pneumatophores, and are essentially the lungs of the mangrove trees. These specialized roots have lenticels, pores that function as a point of gas exchange between the tree and the atmosphere at low tides. The silty mangrove mud is too fine for atmospheric gasses to penetrate, so plant life has to get creative.

Stilt roots help the trees stay upright in the mangrove mud, as well as provide another point of gas exchange. It’s hard to tell from this photo (I wasn’t eager to pull out my phone for very long in a giant sludge lake, so the pics are what they are), but those roots arc well above my head. As we walked deeper into the mangrove, the roots overlapped to form thick, muddy webs for us to crawl in and around. It was a bit like trying to squeeze through a laser maze, but infinitely more filthy and slippery. In a word, heaven.

Another Semester, Another Campus

My morning began with a beautiful hike through the tropical dry forest here in Palo Verde National Park, Costa Rica. It’s surprising how quickly that became a normal part of my routine; between the nature walk lectures, the field research, and the insect identification assignments that force you far afield in the name of homework, my days have become linked to the outdoors from start to finish.

       My morning ended with me winded and massaging sore muscles after wildly sprinting away from an angry horde of white-faced capuchin monkeys. Twice. That’s not exactly a normal part of the routine, but in retrospect it was as delightful an encounter as it was hazardous. It certainly revitalized my prayer life for a few seconds.

       To put it mildly, this semester isn’t quite like any I’ve experienced before. On a typical day, I emerge at 6:00am from my bed’s mosquito net (my new favorite possession), take a bracingly cold shower, wade through the swarms of black iguanas on my way to the dining hall, and devour a delicious plate of rice and beans. After that 6:30am breakfast, my classmates and I attend lectures on biodiversity, local research, local culture, and participate in other scheduled program materials which integrate the classroom experience with the Great Outdoors (believe me, the capitalization is due here). Even on the days when we remain inside, classes are frequently interrupted by the little house geckos that somehow sneak inside and run up and down the walls behind the lecturer. Nature is thoroughly inescapable, and I could not be happier.

       I sleep and wake with the sun, eat healthy and locally grown food, limit computer and internet use, and generally find myself keeping a more responsible schedule here than I ever have at Hope. I expected a semester abroad to be stressful and different, and while it is certainly the latter, I think I will emerge with a better appreciation for natural rhythms and simple living (i.e., I am embracing my inner hippie: fear my return).

       Returning to the academic side of things, this semester is highly research-focused, and we’ve started off strong with a couple of studies already having been designed, executed in the field, analyzed, and written up. I will be (co-)designing and leading a project with my own group in a few weeks, and – spoiler alert – I hope to write a rather extensive post about the research aspect of this program. The work is hard, but rewarding.

       Now that I have this routine down, it’s time for a change. In the morning we’re off to Estación Biológica Cuericí for a week, where the páramo is and the internet isn’t. ¡Hasta luego!

Note on the video below:
The male iguanas here are hilariously full of themselves. They swagger around and do little lizard push ups and emphatic head bobbles to demonstrate dominance to all the beautiful ladyguanas, or anyone else who bothers to watch. One fellow decided to put on a private show for me. I’m mostly flattered, but also a bit concerned that I’m attractive by lizard standards.

Though it’s the dry season and many trees have begun leaf drop, something beautiful is in bloom everywhere I turn.
Sometimes the science escapes.
This is a flower produced by Pachira quinata, a large tropical tree. The wacky multistaminate design is perfect for smearing pollen all over bats’ faces when they lap at the nectar sacs in the ovary at the flower’s base. The scent is more pungent than floral, as bats tend to prefer mushroom-like scents.
The TA wasn’t kidding about the sunsets here. They’re pretty spectacular over the marsh.
Check out my filthy hands! And when you grow bored of staring at those, take a look at that little anole in them. I think I’ve found heaven. Photo credit: the incomparable Emily Arendsen.
Black iguanas are the local black squirrels. These skittery little (or sometimes quite big) critters scatter before you in droves wherever you go. Their claws dragging across the metal roof at night are quite the lullaby, too. This one is part of a long-term behavioral study, so he’s been given a house name by the local researchers.
This is a Crescentia alata flower exhibiting cauliflory, a fancy botanical term for when the flowers and fruits shoot right off the trunk. It’s pretty neato.

Que será será

I have always been that kid who reads the syllabus online before the instructor goes over it in class. I’m the kid who buys all the textbooks early to get an early start on the reading. I’m the kid who has her course schedule printed out and memorized well before the start of a semester. Education is my life, and I pride myself on being over-prepared.

But this semester, I could not be further removed from that element. There is no semester schedule or program itinerary provided to the students, so every day is spent waiting on the word of the program leaders about what we will be doing. We did receive and review this semester’s syllabi today—so I have an idea of what to expect—but much of the next four months remains a mystery, revealed only in tantalizing tidbits a day at a time. It’s unlike anything that I have experienced before, save perhaps in early childhood.

I can already tell that this semester will stretch me in more ways than I knew possible. I had an inkling of that going in, but somehow I assumed that the immersive homestay, or the close quarters at the remote field stations, or the rigor of the long days conducting field research would be the most challenging part. I’m sure those will all bring challenges of their own, but for the time being, I’m learning how to comfortably not know everything. It’s surprisingly liberating.

Here’s a quick country map. We’re in San José at the moment, but we depart for Palo Verde Biological Station (in the northwest) bright and early tomorrow morning. I hear that it’s famed for the sunsets. I can’t wait!
Our hotel is a beautiful blend of rooms and gardens. I’ve spent much of the last two days investigating the exciting and unfamiliar plant species.
Passion flower! I believe it’s Passiflora edulis, a vine which is not native to this area but is often cultivated for both its tasty fruit and pretty ornamental properties.
Mimosa pudica, or “sensitive plant.” A light touch is enough to make those little leaflets fold along the stem in a thigmonastic response. See the real-time video below!
There was a steady stream of leafcutter ants spanning about ten feet of a sidewalk in San José, but this fellow was the only one moving slowly enough for my camera to focus. Sluggard.


Sunset over San José viewed from the roof of the hotel.