Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Gut microbes in the NYT!

The illustrious Carl Zimmer had an excellent short article on gut microbiology in the NYT while I was gone! If you're at all curious about the larger context of my work, this is a nice illustration.

Plus, it starts with a heartwarming story about poop transplant!

Monday, July 26, 2010


I'm back home, and (predictably) back in the maelstrom of societal obligations that typifies our sedentary agricultural lifestyle. How I miss the jungle!

Except for the mosquitoes. Here's a snippet from an article I'm skimming in Nature:
Elimination of mosquitoes might make the biggest ecological difference in the Arctic tundra, home to mosquito species including Aedes impiger and Aedes nigripes. Eggs laid by the insects hatch the next year after the snow melts, and development to adults takes only 3–4 weeks. From northern Canada to Russia, there is a brief period in which they are extraordinarily abundant, in some areas forming thick clouds... 
Mosquitoes consume up to 300 millilitres of blood a day from each animal in a caribou herd, which are thought to select paths facing into the wind to escape the swarm.
Good grief. For the metrically challenged, that's a hearty glass of wine, or about 2/3 pint...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Heading home!

Well, it´s been a whirlwind trip, and I´ve got a lot to unpack (including a big bag of moldy clothes). But tomorrow I hop on a plane back to my normal reality. It´s truly been a blast.
For anyone tracking my progress (mom), my flights have changed yet again -- I´ll be taking AA7725 from Lima to JFK on the 22nd / 23rd, then AA4676 to Logan on the 23rd, arriving at 12:25.
Until next time!

Thursday, July 15, 2010


For some reason it's been bitterly cold in the jungle for the past two days. Known as a friaje, it's brought the fruit-eating bats in to the monkey lab, where they have a bunch of bananas hanging around to stoke their tiny little metabolic fires. Here's Lina (who, in her pre-entomological days, studied bats in Surinam) holding up one sad specimen, genus Carollia

Tall trees

Some of the trees here are really, really tall. It feels pretty special to stand next to them, especially those with huge buttressing roots like this miraculous specimen. Unfortunately for me, the ants I'm trying to find hang out up at the tops. 

Right now, that means to find them I generally walk around looking for freshly fallen trees, then go around snapping twigs and hoping. This sounds pretty ridiculous, but somehow it works. I even found a few Procryptocerus doing this the other day, which were way up there on my wish list. 

Hopefully in the next couple days I'll get to climb one of these beauties!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Too much cool stuff here -- a change in plans

I just can't get myself to leave!

I was going to have to pack my stuff up today, set an alarm, and then get up well before dawn to catch a boat downriver. Then it would have been so long, Amazon -- back to Boston I'd go. What a bummer.

Instead, the last three or four days have been full of attempts to extend my stay. This turns out to be tricky, since (1) I made the decision on Friday afternoon, (2) I would have to catch the Tuesday morning boat to make the Wednesday flight, and (3) my travel agent doesn't work on the weekend. I left them instructions to go ahead and purchase any itinerary that got me into Boston between the 20th and the 24th, so long as it cost less than a given amount to do so. 

So I spent the day with baited breath. After a lovely day of getting rained on in the field, I checked my email, and things looked good -- my travel agent had found me a new flight on American for a total of about half my threshold price, all told. I wasn't sure that they'd actually done the change yet, though, so I sent back a note for confirmation. Then things got hairy. 

Somehow, in the forty minutes it took for me to read and respond to that email, the new flight was no longer available. "We'll check again tomorrow and get back to you," the email read. Apparently, my so-called travel agent (alternatively: agent of misbegotten hope?) had read neither my explicit instructions to go ahead and reserve the itinerary nor my detailed explanation of why 'tomorrow' wasn't going to work.

In desperation, I sent another email pleading for fast action. To their credit, they got back to me relatively quickly with a completely new ticket within the hour. Unfortunately it was about double the cost of the previous option -- but with twenty minutes left in the white collar workday, my options were getting mighty slim. So I bit. Faced with a choice between packing it in and another ten days in the jungle, what would you have done?

For interested parties, my new itinerary has me leaving from Puerto Maldonado at 2:35PM on Thursday the 22nd, and arriving into Logan at 10:10AM on Friday the 23rd on flight NK610. 


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

More OMG Jungle Action

Today was climbing trees and seeing a FLIPPING ANACONDA. Unbelievable. This guy likes to hang out in a little oxbow pond (a 'cocha') not dissimilar to the one in which we went swimming the other day. The first order of business was bailing out a wooden double canoe with a bucket. Then we were paddled out by the incredible Antonio, who also managed to spot this beautiful snake amidst the grass. You can't really get the scale from this photo, but this guy must be at least 16 inches in diameter and about 26 feet long. Also pictured are Gabe, Greg, and Leena, fellow Ant Team members. 

Monday, July 5, 2010

The jungle

I took a stroll through the forest today, looking for recently fallen trees. Since Cephalotes tend to like being way up high in the tips of branches, sometimes it's easier to let the tree come to you. 

There's a sort of numbness I feel sometimes when I'm traveling. Maybe it's tiredness, maybe it's loneliness, maybe it's my brain's relentless return to serotonin equilibrium; whatever it is, when it sets in, everything starts feeling just sort of normal. Hundreds of bugbites? Normal. Giant inch and a half long ants with the most painful sting in the natural world? Fact of life. Spiders bigger than my palm crawling around the bathroom floor? Abjectly terrifying, yes, but nothing to write home about (as it were). 

That's about how I was feeling when I set off into the forest this afternoon. 

This mood lasted about five hundred yards, at which point there were monkeys. 

Monkeys. As in, vaguely human-looking mammals with prehensile tails and goofy foot thumbs. Monkeys, like they have in cartoons and nature documentaries, hanging out in trees and making chirpy ook noises. A dozen or so monkeys, in two flavors, watching me watching them. 

Quite suddenly, the realization worked its way through my heat-addled brain that I was looking at actual monkeys and that made sense because I was IN THE FREAKING JUNGLE. The rest of my walk was a wonder -- the rainforest is life overstimulated. It's absolutely incredible to be here, walking through a few square miles of forest that's home to more amphibian species than you'll find in all of the USA. And parrots. And anacondas. And monkeys. I spent the rest of my walk in varying degrees of distraction.

Then I came back to camp and did my laundry. 


And for visual illustration, here's another Pachycondyla glamour shot. I told you they were badass. 

Don't play with knives

Had a bit of an accident the other day involving a very sharp knife, my hand, and a trip to the medic in a mining village ten minutes down the river. Oh well -- I wasn't using that thumb, anyway.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Rio Madre de Dios

24 hours and five Cephalotes species! Incredible. Working on identifying them -- one may be C. persimilis, which is fairly common in the cerrado (it seems smaller than I remember, though); and one is C. atratus, which is pretty much everywhere. The other three are definitely new, and awesome! My money is currently on C. spinosus, C. simillimus, and C. cordatus; but I'll need some more time at the scope to be sure. 

Also, in the past 24 hours I swam in an oxbow lake (in the Amazon!), played futeball for the first time since I was, like, ten (ten-year-old me would probably have been more of an asset to my team), and saw a giant armadillo. 

Not in Kansas anymore.