My love affair with the tropics (how and why I became a biologist)

 Our fearless leader
Dr. Larry Gilbert

My introduction to the tropics was in the summer of 1983, when I lucked into accompanying Dr. Larry Gilbert (UT Zoology) and his students on a field course to Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.  Not being a student at the time (I’d gotten a BA in linguistics a couple years before but was working as a secretary on the UT campus), but having some proficiency in Spanish, I was hired by Dr. Gilbert as his assistant and translator since his regular teaching assistant was off making a film in New Guinea. 

After several weeks in Patterson Hall on the UT campus, translating documents and readying equipment, we left for Costa Rica, flying into the capitol, San Jose.  Here our party (5 graduate students plus Dr. Gilbert – Larry to his students – and myself) spent a couple of days at the “Costa Rica Inn” – a rambling one-story labyrinth of a hotel near the downtown area.  San Jose is a typical Central American city, with lots of traffic and pollution, no interesting architecture to speak of…but great ice cream and plenty of activity – and in those days, very safe at all hours.  We visited the Natural History Museum and the local university, picked up some supplies (foam mattresses and rum are what I remember!), and made our flight arrangements.  We were flying in to the park in two 5-seater Cessnas; there was no other access to the remote field site location. 

View of the Corcovado canopy from the plane.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The day arrived and we boarded the tiny planes.  I was quite nervous as I had never flown in such a small plane before, and the pilot warned us that it might be a bumpy ride due to rising air currents as we crossed the mountains.  And Larry joked about the two wrecked planes that decorated the end of the airstrip in the park… 

The flight took about an hour, and it was indeed turbulent.  Finally we flew out over the Osa Peninsula and saw nothing but forest below us, and then the Pacific Ocean beyond. We suddenly turned at right angles to the coastline to land at a tiny airstrip cleared in the rainforest, ending at the beach…and there, indeed, were the two wrecks.  Welcome to Sirena Station of Corcovado National Park!

We pitched tents in the clearing/horse pasture behind the rustic park station building; this would be our home for the next six weeks.  The students included Darlyne, studying heliconius butterflies; Kirk, studying the fish communities in freshwater streams; Jamie, studying howler monkeys, and Peggy and John, new students who had not yet decided on projects.  Two senior students, Peng Chai and Sue Boinski, were already in the park.  Peng was studying bird predation on butterflies.  “Bo” as she was called, was the equivalent of a mountain man, in my somewhat awed view.  She had spent the past several years following troupes of squirrel monkeys to learn about their behavior and mating habits, sometimes staying in the park for over a year at a stretch. In the course of her wanderings she had dodged fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes, and had some (very shaky) video footage of a pair of jaguars lazily playing together, oblivious of their nervous human watcher. 

Fruits of the
Corcovado rainforest.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The Sirena station was a bustling place.  Since in those days (before the gold miner crisis of 1985) it served as the park headquarters, it was the central point in Corcovado for communications and supplies, which were all brought in by plane.  The park director was stationed here, along with about 5-6 park guards.  Other park guards travelling by horseback from the outlying stations came in to pick up their allotment of supplies, or to rotate out for a week’s holiday.  The radio crackled all day long:  “Sierra Papa Norte Dos a Sierra Papa Norte” (National Park Service station 2 to headquarters).  I learned all sorts of things in radio lingo – “Cambio” meant over, “Dos” meant good, “Dos y medio” was so-so, “Tres” meant bad, “un 22” was a telephone call, “10” was crazy, etc. 

The station in those days was rustic.  Electricity was provided by generator only at lunchtime and for a couple hours in the evening.  Running water was ingeniously piped in from a nearby stream.  Course participants and park guards all ate together in a little open-sided building:  generous portions of rice and beans, smaller portions of meat and vegetables, inventive desserts, and drinks made from fresh tropical fruits, all deliciously prepared by Maria, the feisty and attractive cook.

Buttress of a tropical giant.
Photo by Dr. Larry Gilbert.

The first few days Larry led his students and me on long, sometimes wild walks through the forest – up over the steep knife-edged ridges, crashing down through stream beds, slogging along the beach or sweltering through open areas.  What an amazing place!  I was in love with the forest from the moment I saw it.  So many plants – so many insects, birds, monkeys, frogs, snakes, etc.  But especially plants.  It was like being in the most amazing botanical garden.  Here things I’d only seen as houseplants grew rampantly everywhere.  Ferns were not just ferns but trees.  And trees, with their huge buttresses as big around as a house, towered into the canopy.

Squirrel Monkies are common
near Sirena

After a week or so of our introductory walks, the students settled down to their research projects.  Since I wasn’t a student and didn’t have my own project, I helped some of the others where I could.  I soon was spending most of my time with Kirk, helping him census the fish in the many small streams that cut across the peninsula – streams so clear and clean that we drank out of them.  I learned a lot about fish that summer!  At night, we all sat in the little screened porch behind the radio room, burning candles and mosquito coils while we read or wrote up our field notes, or listened to one of the students give a status report on his or her project.  Larry often regaled us with funny stories of his past students…considerably embellished over the years, I am sure!

 Tropical leaf-footed bug

All too soon the summer came to an end, and we had to leave the park and head back to Texas to begin the new semester.  We packed the tents and our supplies into coolers to keep out the mildew.  Said our goodbyes to the park guards and to Maria.  Cleaned up the area we had taken over as our evening “lab.”  While we waited for the planes to arrive I took a last walk up the Claro trail to a ridge where, sitting on the buttress root of a huge strangler fig, I could see over the forest and out to sea.  What an adventure it had been!  What a lot of amazing biology I had learned!  Nostalgia for the place swept over me – but I heard the drone of the plane and had to rush back to camp.  We boarded the Cessna, and as it rumbled down the bumpy airstrip and began to lift into the air, I thought – if the plane crashes on the way back, I will die happy.  I have just spent the most amazing summer of my life.

I ended up becoming one of Larry’s students and spending several more summers in the park and elsewhere in the tropics.  However, that first experience stays with me as one of the real highlights of my existence on this earth. 

 Ornate flower of a tropical passionvine
 Red-eyed treefrogs.

Buggin Around in Costa Rica

Hey bug fans! In mid-March, Laurie and I had the opportunity of a lifetime! We were able to travel to Costa Rica and visit a butterfly farm that is one of our largest and best suppliers of tropical butterflies. I know we’ve kept you in suspense for long enough, so without further ado, here’s how it all went down…

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
 Laurie and I at the Liberia Airport

Laurie and I arrived in Liberia right before noon on March 13, 2008.  We descended the stairs from our plane and were immersed in the 90 degree weather. We were both excited, ready for an adventure, and a little sweaty. After about an hour waiting for the rest of the group, and a few refreshments, we were on our way to El Bosque Nuevo. El Bosque Nuevo is a butterfly farm nestled in the heart of a tiny town called Santa Ceciliana in the Guanacaste province of Northwest Costa Rica. Every other week we receive a beautifully packed shipment of healthy butterfly pupae from them.  This is really a wonderful project because 100 percent of the proceeds go back to preserving the rainforest! You can find out more about El Bosque Nuevo and their preservation efforts by clicking here.  It was definitely an interesting ride to the farm, and as Laurie and I would soon find out, paved roads in this part of Costa Rica were way over-rated! We arrived at the farm and met our conference mates. These were all very fascinating people who work at butterfly houses all over the country. Being around them really makes people like Laurie and me feel a lot less weird! My first thought upon arrival (and after counting all of the attendees) was, only one bathroom?? Luckily, there were actually two bathrooms. We were fed a wonderful meal, socialized for a bit, then it was off to bed. Open air rooms, bunkbeds with mosquito nets, and a chorus of snores that drowned out the nocturnal songs of the forest.The next day we were up bright and early for a breakfast of Gallo Pinto, a traditional Costa Rican meal consisting of rice and beans from the previous day, and eggs.

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
 Laurie and I ready
for our first hike

After breakfast and converstaions, we started on our first hike. The forest was dry and insect life was a little more scarce then usual, but we really hoped to see some cool wildlife. We traveled deep into the forest, spotting a few interesting things here and there, when someone in the group thought they heard a noise. We followed the noise as it got louder and louder, it was the roar of a dominant male holwer monkey that sent chills down our spines. We thought it could have been miles away, but someone happened to look way up above us, right into the faces of the small troop of Howler Monkeys. With that awesome sight came the end of the trail and we headed back only to stumble upon our first amazing insect! It was a Helicopter Damselfly. A HUGE damselfly with neon-yellow wing tips that shimmered as it glided though the vegetaion around us! What a great first hike.

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Howler Monkeys

The first day really set the tone for our visit at El Bosque Nuevo. We were shown the extent of their reforestation efforts so far, as well as the day to day workings of the farm. We continued to see wonderful things, including Arenal, an active volcano, and even a day at the beach with a beautiful sunset followed by stars you could actually see. We also had continued luck with spotting some great wildlife. Since it was the dry season, the insects were not quite as abundant, but we did manage to find a cute little metallic grasshopper, a really scary bullet ant, and a huge weevil which had been attracted to one of the butterfly traps. Finally, to my delight, we saw a large, unusual katydid (my favorite) on the last night of the trip, yay!

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
 Bullet ant – Look at that monster!

After 4 incredible days at El Bosque Nuevo, we said goodbye to our new friends and headed off to our next destination, Cano Negro. Here, we saw a different kind of habitat. There was a lagoon complete with cayman and a host of different bird species, and a secondary rainforest where we saw more howler monkeys. That night, we relaxed in a room with a hot shower, air conditioning, and soft beds!  The next day we were on the road again, heading for Chichagua, which I would recommend to anyone traveling to Costa Rica. The property was in the middle of a breathtakingly beautiful rainforest packed full of wildlife! This habitat was home to more insects and we even saw one poison dart frog! In the morning, we shared our breakfast with some collared aracaris (beautiful toucanettes) and made our way back to Liberia to catch our plane home. This was definitely the trip of a lifetime! Laurie and I were just tickled to see blue morphos flying by us, in their native habitat, along with many other residents of the Butterfly Center. It was a beautiful experience for us. I could go on forever but I’ll leave you at that. We have so many more pictures and if you’d like to see more, just click here! Well, I hope we’ve painted a lovely picture for you all. I hope you’ll come back and see what’s happening in our buggy world!

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Our Bungalow in Cichagua

Butterflies Complete Me

ecuador-073.jpg

Well, hello everyone! My name is Laurie, and I am one of the Entomologists at the Cockrell Butterfly Center located in the Houston Museum of Natural Science. 

I hope everyone will enjoy this new blogging adventure we are starting here. There is so much stuff we want to share with you, so keep on checking back and hopefully you won’t be disappointed. 

A little bit about myself before we get started . . . I grew up in Spring, Texas just north of Houston and was always that little kid that wanted to play outside.  My older sister was totally into nature, so of course that rubbed off on me.  I don’t really remember loving bugs, but they never really bothered me, except the cockroaches.  I am no longer afraid of cockroaches, but we will touch back on that subject at a later date! 

I went to college at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.  I graduated in May of 2002 with a Bachelor of Science in Biology.  College was so much fun and I was very fortunate to work for a few professors who were Entomologists, which is when I started to absolutely love bugs! 

I got a job at the Museum in May of 2004 by a stroke of good luck.  One of my college professors knew Nancy and had heard that the Butterfly Center was hiring.  I knew the moment I walked in this place that this was the place for me.  Where else would I have been able to work and play at the same time?

My first few weeks working here were such an experience.  I was thrown right into the world of exotic butterflies, which I knew very little about, but was so intrigued.  I never thought I would be the one people track down to ask “What is that new butterfly?” or “Why is this butterfly doing that?” 

Another highlight of my job is our outreach program called “Bugs on Wheels” (BOW) that Erin and I run.  We take some of our favorite bugs to schools and teach kids all about them.  It’s amazing to see the smiles and wonder on these kid’s faces when they actually get to touch a bug!  Erin and I are both going to keep you posted about our crazy BOW life.

 

Creative Commons License photo credit: kevin.j

The world of butterflies is always exciting and every day here is a new adventure.  I will be blogging more about the newest, weirdest, funniest, and most popular butterflies here at the Butterfly Center very soon.

Please stick with us as we blog away about the goings on and happenings here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. From bug babies to fun events, we will always keep you on the edge of your seat!  Check back soon because we can’t wait to write about our recent trip to a Butterfly Farm in Costa Rica!