Peru 2011

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why Mosquitoes

Why mosquitoes?  Of all the amazing and beautiful rain forest animals to study, why would anyone want to work with this lowly, annoying bug that drives us crazy while sitting on porches on summer evenings?  They spread disease, too.  Why would anyone want to mess with that?

True.  Mosquitoes can spread disease. That is itself a reason to study them.  They have been responsible for countless deaths throughout the centuries and, sadly, continue to be responsible for millions today, mainly in the world’s tropical zones.  Malaria alone causes nearly one million deaths each year.  

As a student of biology, I have learned through my courses that the world’s “maneaters” and “creepy crawlies” often get a biased treatment from those that may not be so familiar with them.  I hope to change that perspective a little bit.  Yes…even the “lowly” mosquito gets a little love here.

I remember when it surprised me to learn that not all mosquitoes suck blood.  Both males and females feed on plant juices and nectar.  Given that they feed on nectar, they act as pollinators.  Some may not feed at all.  It is the female that takes in blood, and she does this to lay eggs.  Blood provides iron and protein, which allows her to lay a batch of eggs larger than what would otherwise be possible on a diet of nectar alone.  Of course, being a bloodsucker has its drawbacks – Bzzzz…SLAP! –, and many species of mosquito don’t take in blood at all.  The mosquito genus Toxorhynchites includes unusually large mosquito species – none of which suck blood.  Their larvae are actually predatory (unusual for mosquito larvae) and feed on other mosquito larvae, earning them the nickname, “mosquito hawk.”  In fact, this behavior of mosquito larvae-eating has earned them the honor of being introduced into regions where the disease-carrying species, Aedes aegypti, lives.

My project asks two questions: What species are there? Where are they going?  The first part is pretty straightforward, as I collect specimens around CICRA to get an idea of what mosquito diversity is in this area.  So far, much of the diversity information comes from the areas around Iquitos, Peru, a city located in the northeastern section of the country.  Being located in the southeastern portion of the country, CICRA is a good location to sample the diversity at the opposite end.  

The “Where are they going?” portion will be tackled at the KU Natural History Museum after the specimens are identified and mounted for examination.  All life forms require certain biological parameters for them to thrive (ie. temperature, rainfall, soil content, etc.) and the regions where these parameters exist can be mapped.  This provides a picture of potential habitats for any species.  We can then track how these parameters change in response to things like climate shifts and urbanization, and therefore the change in a species distribution.  If we know that areas of a wet habitat will become dry in response to climate change, for example, we can track the potential shift in distribution of a species that requires a wet environment.  As portions of the rain forest become urbanized – such as by the construction of the transatlantic highway – it affects the distributions of its inhabitants.  This has additional consequences to human health in the case of disease-carrying mosquitoes, as an increased human presence means more opportunities for infection and for outbreaks to occur.  Such outbreaks of diseases like yellow fever and malaria (mosquito-borne diseases once eradicated from Peru) have sprung up in recent years.  These are reemerging diseases.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tree Form

tree drawing

The last few days have been the most interesting. Daily walks have familiarized us to the rain forest, and we now know where to look for certain types of bugs, birds, reptiles, etc. All of us have a far better understanding of where certain insects might live within a rain forest, and we can really look for what we want. I’ve been looking for insects. A caterpillar, an ant infected with corticepts, a weevil, leafcutter ants, army ants, scarab beetles, and butterflies have all spent time at the business end of my camera.

The days have been capped by evening talks. Caroline, Dan (a postdoctoral fellow in the Chaboo lab) and Steve gave talks on their areas of study, respectively, chrysomelid beetles, wasps, and art exhibitions.

Dan introduced us to the Hymenoptera group (ants, bees, and wasps) and spoke about their evolutionary history, how their bodies function, and how they behave and reproduce. One group of wasps tends to favor a parasitoid behavior – piercing another organism and laying eggs in it, which develop within the host and ultimately kill it. Like in the movie “Alien.” The wasps here are absolutely beautiful, decked out in blue and green iridescent plates. Their lazy buzz always raises my hopes of getting a photograph.

Caroline spoke on chrysomelid beetles and their role in the rain forest. She spoke of having to change her research question because of the rate of habitat destruction in this part of the Amazon. She is sampling beetles at many elevations, from the Amazon to the Andes, tracking if species move or go extinct as global warming pushes ideal habitats further and further up the mountain.

Steve gave a talk on his experience with creating art exhibitions, focusing on Trees and other Ramifications, an exhibit that involved collaboration with KU’s Biodiversity Institute, which oversees the KU Natural History Museum and its employees.

We talked a great deal about how the disciplines relate. Art and science are both ways of seeing and ways of searching for Truth. Much like the artist, the scientist must employ creativity in both the formulation of research questions and in the collection of data. Yet the scientist and artist are not only similar in how they go about their work. Their finished products also tend to be similar. Steve brought up the fact that scientific theories often have a beauty to them, a certain elegance that tickles the mind much in the way that a painting, print, or novel would.

Science also informs art, and its fingerprint can often be seen in the systematic way of creating art. Just as a systematist organizes groups of species, trying to make sense of which is most related to which, so too do artists take disparate concepts, ideas, themes, and characters, and make them understandable, connecting them and putting them in context.

Trees have come up again and again, renowned symbols in both the arts and the sciences. In art, they often represent life, relation, family, and connectedness. In science, the evolutionary tree dominates the research landscape, guiding what biologists do and how they make sense of their field.

While we discussed trees, I posed a question to Caroline and Steve that essentially asked if it could be that the form of the tree is something that we simply enjoy. Do we use it to describe the world because the tree form makes sense to us? Is it something that we enforce upon the world instead of the tree being a symbol that accurately describes evolution?”

Steve said, “I think that’s what many artists, like Mike and Doug Starn, are trying to tell us.”

“Our ancestral roots lie in the trees, after all,” said Caroline. “Primates love trees.”

Steve continued, “You can see this in many works of art, for example in an 1802 lithograph by William Delamotte that shows people and a few dogs resting among the roots of an ancient oak.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

No Stinger, No Problem

During our second full day out at the CICRA research station in the rain forest, a few of us went out with Caroline and Dan, her colleague in her research in Amazonia Peru, to the area where they collect data.  Dan walked Joe, Tom, and Caroline, and I around the plot, showing us what has happened since Caroline’s last visit. Dan told us about the various insects he has spotted within the 1 Hectare plot (100 meters by 100 meters).  While doing this, he showed us a hive of Africanized bees (killer bees), different wasp nests, and an enormous bee hive, about 3 feet long by 2 feet tall, with some strange black bees Dan later tells us are from the genus Melipona.  Little did I know that this hive will give me one of the most memorable moments of the trip.

According to Dan, the Hymenopotera (wasps, bees, and ants) guy in our KU group, the bees were stingless so they couldn’t sting us.  I later asked him as to why nature would evolve to lose its defense against predators.  His respose, “I have no idea, it makes no sense to me.”  Naturally we weren’t worried about the nest as much as we should have been.  Next, Caroline became interested with the bees, and started to walk toward the hive.  She announced to us that the bees were all flying around outside of the hive.  I thought to myself that if she isn’t worried I should have no reason to worry as well. I guess Joe and Tom had the same mindset as me.  All of a sudden I felt a pinch followed by another and another.  Only then was it when I saw that we were under attack.

Apparently Dan forgot to mention that even though the bees can’t sting, they still have a form of defense against threats.  They bite.  They bite a lot.  So for the next 10 minutes we were all dealing with little black bees clinging to our skin and clothes biting.  Arms, face, neck, scalp, hands: they were all bitten.  It was comical after the initial shock of the attack, watching the bees that clung to our clothes, and watching everyone else deal with the same problem as me.  The whole situation instantly became hilarious when we realized we were picking bugs out of each other’s hair and off of each other’s backs.  According to Dan’s thinking the bees were just mad because they can’t sting so instead they bite like banshees.

Ever since, I’ve been sure to keep an eye out for all hives from any species.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Learning to See

A few days ago I hiked through the forest for the first time covered in DEET. I swatted at every insect that came near me. Finally I conceded that I did come to the rainforest with an entomologist. I was going to have to touch some bugs. About halfway through I got my vial out and started catching beetles. Every time I caught a beetle I'd ask Dr. Chaboo, "What kind is this?" it turns out that, each time, I had caught a chrysomelid, her specialty. I wondered how she could tell what kind were chrysomelids. They all looked different to me. After lunch we had our first art lesson. We all picked something to draw. I chose one of my beetles. We spent about 30 minutes to an hour on our drawings. My eyes followed the little beetle around the vial, wishing it would hold still, and I examined each part closely before trying to replicate it on paper. After I finished my drawing, Dr. Chaboo brought in a vial of specimens she had caught by sweeping the grass with a net. There were all kinds of insects in the vial. As I examined them, I started to recognize several even though they looked different from each other. I asked if some were chrysomelid beetles. She said some were. I realized I could recognize the chrysomelids from drawing the ones I had caught. I told Dr. Chaboo. "Good! The class worked then," she said.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Creativity vs Conformity

It’s strange how a theme will keep popping up in conversations over the course of days or weeks. This phenomenon has occurred several times on this trip, and the best example of it is the one I’ve made the title of this post: “creativity vs conformity.” Before I explain this concept in more detail, let me provide an example. Yesterday, I was standing in one of the labs here at the field station. And when I say “labs,” I should probably qualify my term: the “labs” are square concrete floored rooms with 12-foot “ceilings” of rough wood that form the floor of the “library” above (the library has many shelves and not many books. One of the hazards of the rain forest is that books mold very quickly). All outside walls of the labs are screened openings with no glass or insulation. The tables are simple and wooden, the lights are bare bulbs (only operational during electricity hours, from 6 to 9:30 p.m.) and when that’s not enough light, there are headlamps and flashlights on stands. The labs are rudimentary but functional. The researchers here are able to do amazing things despite the privations and the difficulties of working in the field. I’m continually amazed that this tiny piece of civilization — complete with flushing toilets, showers, and periodic electricity — manages to endure on the edge of overwhelming wilderness. But to my point. I was standing in one of the labs, talking with one of our “ant people,” as we call them (that is, one of the researchers here working with ant specimens on a variety of projects). He was dumping a vile-smelling mixture of ethanol, dead ants, and chewed up hot dogs out of test tubes. I questioned him on his project and found out that he was collecting carnivorous ants by placing tubes of hot dog (laced with poisonous ethanol) every 100 meters on a trail. Later in the day, he would return to pick up the vial and its contents. I asked him about his methods — how he determined that hot dog would work, why put them every hundred meters, which trail and why, etc. As I listened to his answers, I began to realize that this “biology” business — which I had assumed was a cut and dry process of following strict procedures and obtaining irrefutable data — was, in fact, as much art as science. “I think it’ll work,” the ant guy said. “And if it doesn’t? What if you make a mistake, like only some carnivorous ants like hot dogs or something?” I asked. He laughed and continued picking through piles of dead, smelly ants with his tweezers. “I guess I’ll just come back next summer with a different project, then.” On multiple other occasions in the past two weeks, I’ve realized that what the field biologists do is in some ways just as creative as what I do with watercolors or poetry. In fact, both field biology and the humanities both exist somewhere on a continuum, with creativity at one end and conformity at the other. I wish I could take credit for the title of this blog, but I can’t. In fact, “Creativity vs Conformity” was the topic of one of the many speeches I heard over the course of graduation weekend: this particular talk was given by Dr. Amy Devitt, a Professor in the English department, at the initiation ceremony for Phi Beta Kappa. She talked about the need for creativity in our chosen field, but that that creativity must come in a recognizable form. “You can say anything you want, but you have to say it in a way that people understand,” she told us. In biology, you must follow procedures in order to have usable data: any scientist can tell you this. But there is still a considerable space for creativity. How to bait the traps, when to put them out, where to put them, what poison to use — these are all areas that fall to the researcher’s creativity. And when he or she runs into a dilemma — running out of test tubes, having the wrong size of eye dropper, not having a big enough aquarium (a problem the “fish person” has right now) — they have to be creative to get around those problems. The more time I spend here, the more I realize how blurry the supposed “boundary” between the arts and sciences really is.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


I used to be terrified of bees and wasps. If I was playing in the yard and I saw a wasp in the neighbor’s bushes, I would run inside. And yet, now I am considering a career in entomology. Quite a lot has changed between my childhood fears and now. A lot had to be overcome to go on this trip, hiking into thick rain forest brush and trees. I remember once screaming at the top of my lungs at what I thought was something with a stinger, which turned out to be a crane fly, a fly that many call a giant mosquito but is harmless. People have traumatic experiences that can potentially haunt them for the rest of their lives. Others acquire fears as children after watching how adults react to their own terrors. Once the fear is established, a person can react in many ways. One is to prevent the exposure from ever happening again, retaining the fear forever. A second option is to stop and think about whatever the fear is, assess what triggered it (such as whether it was acquired from watching someone else’s unfortunate experience), and decide to learn more about what scares them rather than continue to be afraid.

Yesterday, I walked through dense rain forest, certainly a place with dangerous snakes, africanized bees (more commonly known as killer bees) and scores of aggressive, biting and stinging ants. I was on my guard, of course, but was able to walk comfortably because of the knowledge that none of the creepy crawly critters in the jungle were out to get me. They just do their thing like any one of us. Just like us, these animals will defend themselves when threatened, which is why we should be careful when we’re in their territory. I don’t dare intend to say that anyone wandering into these territories can afford to be complacent, but a little knowledge about how these animals live and what they want to stay away from goes a long way. Snakes, spiders, bees, nasty tropical ants…none of them are out to get us. They just want to carry on with their lives.

Thursday, June 9, 2011



We are quickly settling into a routine at the CICRA field station: wake up at 6 a.m., have a hearty breakfast, and then go on a walk from about 8 a.m. to noon. Have a big lunch and then either go on another walk or have class. Have a big dinner, attempt to send correspondence over the painfully slow internet connection, and socialize until bed at 10:00. It’s all biology all the time here, and conversation starters come easy: “So, what are you studying?”

Today’s afternoon activity was a short class. The biology students have begun hammering out their research ideas, and the creative kids began brainstorming thematic concepts that could potentially tie the whole project/trip together.

One of the concepts that we’ve been throwing around is the idea of the microcosm. On our first day, Dr. Chaboo opened up a heliconia leaf, explaining its contents and showing us the many species that reside within just one plant. The forest is composed of countless mini-habitats, creating the unusual breadth of biodiversity in the rain forest.

My photography has certainly been shaped by this — I spend much of my time on walks with my camera pointed, point blank, at some log, flower, hole or pool of water. It’s fascinating how quickly these microhabitats change. The photographer is guaranteed no amount of time with any subject — the light changes or the insect moves. It seems that flexibility and a quick camera draw is key to shooting photos of moving things in the jungle. For slow things, a tripod and a tolerance of bug bites.

The highlights of our forest walks today included a pair of monkeys and a larger-than-life tree. The monkeys looked at us inquisitively, crouching on branches, tails draped down. The tree was enormous — hard to tell just how tall it was, but much taller than anything I’ve seen in Kansas. “What can you say?” asked Dr. Goddard as he scanned it from the buttress roots to the towering top.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Research Topics

Today was our first couple of hikes on the trails at CICRA. Going into this experience, I really had no idea what to expect. I had a cartoon illustration with monkeys swinging on vines and colorful beetles surrounding us, but I was not far off. We walked through a rainforest full of life: everything was alive! The birds and the monkeys could be seen jumping around on the trees, filling the jungle with their calls. It didn’t take long to train my eyes to see smaller details. Uncovering a plant to reveal miniature ecosystems. Life depending on life. 

As we uncovered different plants and logs, I started to wonder about the chemistry behind the insects and their ecosystems. What was attracting these particular bugs to these particular plants? As a microbiologist, I wondered about the biochemistry of the nectar of the plants and what kind of microbes they attract. I began to discover how many research topics the rain forest had to offer. For example, the diversity of microbes in gold-mined rivers versus non gold-mined river near CICRA. All of these questions have yet to be answered and leave plenty of scientific opportunities for Amazon microbiology and ecology.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Layers of Time and Culture

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Umbrellas of Lima

Umbrella tree

The umbrella tree, slightly higher than the dwarf umbrella tree

By Reed Niemack

The flora in Lima was immediately different from what I have been accustomed to seeing back home in the U.S.  Perhaps the most startling has been the use of Schefflera arboricola, or the dwarf umbrella tree.  Commonly used as a houseplant in the states (I have a few at my own residence), here the species is used more as a shrub and for hedges throughout Lima.  This interests me because a plant species that for the most part can only grow indoors in the U.S. is used widely as an ornamental shrub for the outdoors. It is also itneresting because in Lima there is a presence of numerous botanical species, like that of S. arboricola, that are non-native to the region.  In fact, the dwarf umbrella tree is not found natively remotely close to Peru or even South America.  It is known to have originated in the rainforests of Taiwan, and has somehow let the rest of the world know of its beauty as well as its relatively easy cultivation, which is perhaps why it is so common.

The other species found here in Lima, very much in the same places as S. arboricola is Schefflera actinophylla, or the umbrella tree.  Now don’t let the similar names become confusing because they have little in common besides the fact that they are related species. The dwarf umbrella tree is not a miniature S. actinophylla, but an entirely different species found in a completely different part of the globe.  The umbrella tree is supposedly native to the rainforests around Northern Australia and the nearby islands like that of New Guinea, Java, etc.  Here in Lima, S. actinophylla is grown not so much as a shrub, for obvious reasons, but as an ornamental tree found alongside the various palm species and other tropical trees in the parks, alongside sidewalks, and such.  It is surprising to see actually how large they can grow to become because the only specimens I have witnessed are thoseused as houseplants, only about 5-6 feet tall.  These trees are comparable in size to that of the elm or maple species we find in Lawrence.

In Lima, the species are very commonly found alongside one another.  The landscaping aspect of the two plants, and how they are used in conjunction with one another is fascinating in that one can really see why they were named “umbrella tree” and “dwarf umbrella tree.”  The ‘shrubby-ness’ of S. arboricola and the ‘tree-ness’ of S. actinophylla really do seem to complement each other, and are commonly grown in the same pots and gardens here in Lima.  The beauty of these two plant species is obvious to me, and apparently to citizens of Lima.