Impressions of Bocas

Our last field trip was to the archipelago of Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean side. This trip was one of my favorites because Bocas will soon be my new research area, and the lectures and field activities were very rewarding.

For our first snorkeling immersion we visited, with Aaron O’dea, one reef where the main component was some patches of Acropora cerviconis. The population of this species, which once was relatively common from Florida to Venezuela, had been collapsing since the 80’s due to different threats like disease outbreaks, mainly of white band disease, algae overgrowth and human impact. This decreasing of this species happened to be around the same time of the mass mortality of the sea urchin Diadema antillarium which is an algae grazer in reefs, and usually is helpful to create space for coral recruits.

Picture via Flickr

From my perspective, the reef in that particular immersion didn’t seem very healthy. There were only a couple of patches where other fish could be seen swiming with the few damselfishes found throughout the reef.  This made me think a lot about the “shifting baseline,” a concept that usually crosses my mind due to the all the environmental changes that are happening now, and also about how fast these changes are happening, and what we can do to preserve or restore the coral reef ecosystem, so that we may share it with generations of humans, fishes, sponges, and sea urchins to come.

Picture via Flickr

Later during the same trip Nancy Knowlton mentioned something that I think is very true and meaningful. A lot of times we believe that the big players like climate change and acidification have already taken over, and do not place much importance on what can be done on the local scale. If we take a look, there is a big difference between ecosystems where human activity is taking place and areas that are more “pristine,” even though climate change is affecting both. I think this is beautiful, because there is an opportunity for the consciousness of the biggest player, which happens to be us, to effect a change.

Thanks for reading!


Eavesdropping on nature

One of the two core themes of the Integrative Tropical Biology course is that detailed and intimate understandings of the natural history of a given model system are essential to be able to ask meaningful questions and apply modern technologies to experiments in that system. In biology, there seems to be an increasing trend toward more and more complex and technical conclusions made about systems, based primarily on laboratory or bioinformatics studies alone. As our technological capabilities keep accelerating, I think that there will be an increasing need for scientists who understand the basics of natural history and ecology, in a broad sense. These types of people will be essential to keep our conclusions grounded in biological and ecological relevance.

Understanding natural history begins with keen observation of the natural world. Daily attentiveness and curiosity must be cultivated. An excellent example of a scientist who embodied these talents is the late Thomas Eisner, an entomologist and chemical ecologist extraordinaire. In his astonishingly illustrated reflections on a lifetime of discovery, For Love of Insects, he writes in the afterword that many of his discoveries were made by “eavesdropping on nature.” He would then follow his observations with slight manipulations of the system, to see how a perturbation might lead to ideas for controlled experiments.

Bullhorn acacia (Vachellia cornigera) spines and foliage

On 12 January 2015, on a course field trip to the Smithsonian canopy access crane at Ft. Sherman, our group had ample time and space for making observations as we walked on the gravel road and peered into the ruderal vegetation along the edges. One plant encountered on the walk was the bullhorn acacia, Vachellia cornigera. Known as cachito (“little horn”) in Panamá, this small leguminous tree is an oft-cited textbook example of a myrmecophyte. Wanting to get close enough to see if I could smell the alarm pheromone of the protective ant, Pseudomyrmex ferruginea, and watch the hordes emerge from their hollow stipular spine domatia, I approached with caution. After seeing the ants, one of the first things that I noticed on the acacia was a caterpillar resting on a spine, in a still posture with its body held erect from the spine (see photograph below). The ants would occasionally contact the caterpillar, but did not seem even to pause and sense its presence. Intrigued, I decided to remove the medium brown larva from its perch and place it on foliage to see if that would elicit an aggressive response from the ants. To my surprise, the geometrid (I now knew the family by the caterpillar’s “Earth-measuring” gait), inched along rapidly, immediately back to one of the nearest spines. The ants did seem to respond with increased activity, but when they encountered the caterpillar, they merely antennated the body of the larva and moved on. The caterpillar returned to a resting state. From this, I wondered what the caterpillar was doing in the acacia. Was it an herbivore? Was it providing any benefits to the ants? How did it avoid being attacked by the ants? Did it have chemical signatures that the ants might be recognizing as self semiochemicals?

Geometrid larva on acacia spine

In the few minutes that I spent at the tree, while enduring several ant stings, I happened to notice two other arthropods in the tree – a scarab beetle (I think likely a ruteline) and a salticid (jumping) spider. I was surprised to see the scarab feeding on the acacia leaflets, and apparently tolerating ants that were swarming on it. Could the ants not penetrate its smooth, tough exoskeleton? What about the spider? It was resting on the Beltian bodies at the leaflet tips. I had heard of a fairly recent report of a “vegetarian” jumping spider, but the one that I saw did not appear to be Bagheera kiplingi. Unfortunately, my hiking partner and I were already far behind the group and we could linger no longer. Our observations would remain only observations and extrafloral fodder for thought for the time being.