McLaughlin Natural Reserve

The last two years I have been working on a project at McLaughlin Natural Reserve studying the response of flowering plants and grasses to fire in shrub chaparral. The fire opens up the canopy, allowing for a large bloom of wildflowers. The reserve includes many areas with serpentine soils, soil from ultramafic rock with high magnesium, low calcium, low nutrient levels and often high levels of heavy metals, so only certain adapted species can grow on it. These serpentine regions tend to have many native California plants which have adapted over time to the harsh soils, often in very strange ways.

This year, the particularly wet conditions led to a bloom of many stunningly strange flowers in these burned patches. It’s been incredible to wander through these fields of bright colors, and to look up close at some of these strange flower forms.

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Alone

I spend most of my day working alone. And not alone boxed into a small grey cubicle kind of way; no, I spend my nine hours alone in the expanse of a reservoir, the alone-ness opening up and spreading out so far that even a scream might be lost in the air without reaching another human ear.

I tend to like having some time to myself, to withdraw, reflect, and recharge. But this much time alone, this much space alone, it can become overwhelming in a way that shifts the simple alone-ness into a sullen loneliness. The kind of loneliness that slows me down and makes me want to crawl back home, or at least sit down and feel sorry for myself for a while. I push back against it with weapons of sound: singing to myself, or listening to my ipod. Some days, when the air is heavy and even the birds sound antsy, I’ll listen to four or five podcasts, running one straight into the next, the radio stories a thin substitute for human conversation. When the stream eventually ends, I feel like I’m missing something, letting go of a crutch and finding myself off-balance.

Other days, when the air is bright and the wind is blowing, instead of fighting against the alone-ness, I jump right in. I sing out not in defiance of the silence, but as a way of appreciating the opportunity, this whole open space for expression that has been given just to me. I don’t march around my plot, I dance, light steps from one plant to the next, and if I feel like throwing my arms up to the sky, I do that too. Step, spin, record data. Step, spin, move quadrat. Step, spin, step. . . Laugh. I’ve found that when I am on my own I frequently find myself laughing, not because I find anything particularly funny, but as if a lid is removed, and it just spills right out.

And for a while at the end of those days, when the sun finally ceases its assault on my neck and retreats behind the tips of the trees, that joyous feeling settles into something more peaceful. I’m no longer aware of being alone; instead, I feel connected. I don’t mean this in a spiritual, feeling the hearts of the rocks and birds way, because honestly, I saw that eagle eat a screaming chick a couple hours ago, and I don’t really want to feel emotionally connected to it at the moment. No, this is a simpler connection, as if I can sense the whole of the surrounding ecosystem–the trees, the soil, the eagle, the chick–and I am aware of my place in it. The connection between scientific spirit–or a spirited scientist, whichever you prefer–and all of the system she’s studying; and the serenity that comes with realizing that she, too, is a part of the system, no more important than any of the rest, but no less important either.

Keeping work interesting

Before I started this project, my explanations for what my daily work would entail probably sounded pretty boring. On a most basic level, what I do every day from 8:00 until 4:30 or later is count plants. I look at them, figure out what species they are, and write them down. Oh, and occasionally I dig up some dirt. Thrilling, right?

What keeps me constantly engaged in my fieldwork–other than an underlying obsession with the wonderfulness of plants–is the different terrain at each of my sites. As I discussed in my last post, many of my sites host an assembly of logs that provide all sorts of challenges, and the logs are just the beginning. Wetter sites have vibrant communities of rushes, that hide little gullies and streams. I’ve frequently taken an oblivious step that’s landed me a couple feet lower down than I expected to be. My most vegetated sites are often grown up above my head, so that I have to shove my way through overly-friendly saplings and grasses. It reminds me of movie stereotypes of running through fields of corn, except instead of corn it’s the highly invasive reed canary grass, and instead of running I’m crawling. Even writing down lists of plants becomes a lot more interesting when you’re trying to write while balanced on a log, or with a stick shoving into your side.

Maybe some of these challenges sound annoying, but mostly I find them rather amusing. After all, they help keep my work constantly interesting, and make me really appreciate the few easy sites where all I have to do is count plants.

Reed canary grass, way over my head
Reed canary grass, way over my head

The ex-lakes

I have yet to find a good phrase to refer to my two work sites. Both were once lakes that have drained down as the Elwha River returns to its natural flow. However, there are no names associated with those particular stretches of the river, only for the lakes that used to be. Calling them “Lake Aldwell” and “Lake Mills” is now a misnomer, but “Former Lake Aldwell” or “the Lake Mills Basin” just seems to take too long to say. I often default to calling them the abbreviated “Aldwell” or “Mills,” but feels like a cop-out, like when you can’t decide to call someone by their first name or last name and so avoid calling them anything at all. Which, honestly, I do all the time. But it’s a lot easier when you’re talking to someone, and a bit harder when you’re talking about someone or some-geologically-and-ecologically-defined-region.

Consequently, in my head I have taken to referring to these regions as “ex-lake Aldwell” and “ex-lake Mills.” Slightly disrespectful, perhaps, but it fits in such an amusing way. One day it might be nice to name the for what they are rather than what they used to be, but standing in them now, looking around at the still open expanses being slowly conquered by brave, pioneering vegetation, they truly feel like something that was once a lake, and is now only barely beginning to figure out what it will become. Ex-lakes, healing with time and moving forward in succession.

The two have very different personalities. Ex-lake Aldwell is narrower in a way that makes it appear smaller, as the majority of it is out of sight at any given time. Exposed for longer, it’s greener and feels more welcoming to seeds, birds, and the wandering researcher. Mills gives off quite a different impression. Where Aldwell welcomes visitors in, ex-lake Mills rises up imposingly, presenting expanses of flat sand dropping away into steep cliffs. It is fantastic, awe-inspiring, and feels enormous no matter where in the reservoir you stand.

The two also present different challenges to the researchers working on revegetating them. Ex-lake Mills has large stretches of coarse sediment, more sand and rocks than soil, which challenges any plants to survive with little water or nutrients but lots of sun and wind. In contrast, ex-lake Aldwell is perhaps too friendly, embracing a variety of highly invasive species that threaten the establishment of native species.

To me they’re these incredible beings that have been given the chance to begin again, to be reborn and returned to a healthier, more natural state. I will have very little to do with guiding that rejuvenation, but I have been amazingly inspired by these budding ex-lakes, and I love them like they’re children taking their first off-balance steps.

Tree of Life

Today we cut down a palm tree. That’s right: we cut down an entire tree. And I don’t mean a little scrawny sapling-could-be-an-overgrown-house-plant either. I mean a full thirty to forty foot palm tree.

And why did we chop down this tree? To look for bugs. In fact, to look for parasites living inside of a particular insect, in a day-long project that scaled from very large, to microscopically small. Along the way, we discovered a huge range of animals that called this palm home, including insects, spiders, caterpillars, scorpions, lizards, and at least four species of ants. It’s one thing to sit through a lecture on how much diversity there is in the tropics, it’s quite different to go out and find that diversity yourself by cutting down a single tree. It was truly fantastic.

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mini-lecture of the day: Inga

Inga is a genus of trees that are quite common in the neotropics. Two of the species I worked with last summer were Inga (thibaudiana and pezizifera) so I’ve gotten fairly good at identifying the genus.

I find Inga really interesting because of its extrafloral nectaries. “Extrafloral nectaries” may sound really complicated, but actually they’re fairly simple: “extra-floral” meaning not on flowers, and “nectaries” meaning something that provides nectar. With inga, the nectaries are on the leaves, and they attract ants that help protect the tree from herbivory and vines.

an ant drinking out of a nectary on an inga leaf
an ant drinking out of a nectary on an inga leaf

Another interesting thing about inga is that it has compound leaves. This means that all the parts that look like leaves are actually leaflets, and the leaves themselves are made up of four to twenty leaflets. Inga leaflets always come in pairs. Inga leaves (and leaflets) can be fairly small, or really big.

inga
inga
not an inga: ends with a single leaflet
not an inga: ends with a single leaflet
sometimes Inga leaves are really big! This picture has one leaf with eight leaflets
sometimes Inga leaves are really big! This picture has one leaf with eight leaflets

Lastly, some Inga can have a winged rachis. The rachis is the part of the leaf that connects all the leaflets together, and when it has a lot of leaf-tissue on it, it’s considered winged. I don’t know if this serves any biological purpose, but it makes them look really cool.

that bug is standing over the rachis, which is winged in this picture
the bug is standing over the rachis (winged in this picture)

For the first time since I’ve arrived in Costa Rica, I had trouble waking up this morning. Having spent nearly eight hours in the field yesterday, my body was not ready to bounce out of bed at 6:05. But I came here to do fieldwork, so I got up and got going.

We went to the field with two of La Selva’s staff to act as guides. While we can now identify saplings of our nine species when looking closely at them, it would have taken us quite a while to find all of the two hundred fifty trees we need. Leo and Willie helped us find the saplings quickly, and also kept an eye out for snakes.

For each tree that we or our guides found, we needed to mark its location on the GPS, flag it with bright orange tape, label it with an aluminum dog tag, and record its position in a notebook. By our third full day of work, we had streamlined our system as best as we could, but there were still some challenges. Some of the trees were just a few meters off the trail, but we’ve found others a fair ways back in the forest, and reaching them has required climbing down logs and pushing through giant palm leaves. Long roots, spiked vines, and the threat of snakes sometimes has made finding safe footing a mini adventure in each step.

In the next gap, fully lit by sun, stood our final Pentaclethra macroloba. As with all the rest, we tagged, flagged, marked, and recorded it. “Pentaclethra is finish!” My graduate student called out to our guides. Our search continued to be quite productive, and one by one, we checked the final trees off our list. By the time we headed back to the station, only three species remained unfinished.

We emerged from the forest a little after two, walking slowly to avoid staggering. We washed our boots, unpacked our gear, took a shower, and were luxuriously clean by three.

“I actually feel really awake now,” my graduate student said. I agreed–the bit of rest and cold shower woke me up considerably. We planned on heading out to the lab, and I sat down briefly on my bed to stretch out my ankle.

I was woken up about an hour later by the wonderful sounds and smells of a rainstorm passing through; she slept even longer.

Lessons in Trees

Our first step in a research project that will study over two hundred fifty individual trees from nine different species was learning how to identify tropical trees. Initially, I expected this to be a fairly simple task. After all, I know plenty of trees native to the west coast, and there are even more species whose names I don’t know but which I can easily recognize. So when the graduate student I’m working with handed me a packet of information and photos to study, I felt fairly confident.

That confidence fled as I looked through the packet. On first glance there seemed to be two types of trees: tall with big leaves and tall with small leaves. They were all too-bright-for-my-camera green, and all about the same shape.
“How do you tell these apart?” I gaped, trying to sound like I was suavely asking for a few pointers rather than admitting that I was completely lost. Fortunately, my graduate student claimed she was as unsure as I was, but she said not to worry, as one of the La Selva staff would probably help us on our first day in the field. I stared at the leaves and Latin names for about fifteen more minutes, and put the packet away feeling no wiser.

At eight o’clock on Friday morning, we met Orlando Vargas, La Selva’s botany expert, who had very kindly made time in his busy schedule to introduce us to the forest. Sitting on the porch, he looked completely comfortable in rubber boots, trail pants, and a t-shirt with an image of a snake. When he introduced himself, a friendly smile lit up the strong lines of his face.

He asked us if we knew how to bike.

“Yes, but I’m a little rusty,” I said. I haven’t gone biking in years.

He told us that when he isn’t doing research or working in the office, he likes to go mountain biking; he mentioned competing in national competitions. “But we will go slow.” In fact, Orlando did set an easy pace that even I could keep without much trouble.

He did the same when teaching us about the trees. Orlando can do more than name every plant in the forest–he can describe their habitats, growth patterns, and insect relationships. He points out the trees and shows us distinctive markers such as the shape of the stems, the feel of the leaves, and even the smell of the sap. As we walk, he also gives us tips on where to find the trees. “The forest changes every meter,” Orlando says, and with his guidance separating individual trees from expanses of green, we can see how just how true that is.