Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tenth in a series of short writings about our ecotourism trip to Costa Rica

10. Tenth in a series of short writings about our recent ecotourism trip to Costa Rica

You don’t have to go to Costa Rica to see black vultures, Coragyps atratus. There’s a pretty good population of them throughout much of the New World, including Oklahoma, where I first learned their scientific name under the tutelage of George M. Sutton, famous ornithologist at OU. There’s also one at the Wild Bird Rescue, Inc., headquarters at 4611 Lakeshore Drive, Wichita Falls, Texas, where it displays what the average person would consider some rather un-vulture-like behavior, for example, preening the hair of its handler and jumping from window to window to check out visitors walking along the wooden deck outside its building. In Costa Rica, late February, among our traveling companions, C. atratus quickly became the “black-headed vultures” as opposed to “red-headed vultures” which were Cathartes aura, turkey vultures, also a common species in the United States, although commonly occurring further north than do C. atratus.
So why do I finish this series of short writings about an ecotourism trip with comments on vultures? That’s a pretty good question for which I have no answer, except that two of my previous contacts with New World vultures were pretty memorable, and in preparation for our other ecotourism trips, to Botswana and Tanzania, I studied my Old World vultures, hoping to see several species up close. Old World vultures are not closely related to New World vultures, thus provide a pretty good example of convergent evolution. Evidently, if you’re digging around in carcasses, head feathers are an evolutionary liability, thus the baldness of vultures in general.
What made those previous encounters with vultures so memorable? One, in the Arbuckle Mountains of southern Oklahoma, was with a really small chick. I crawled into a hole and there it was, beautiful, looking up, maybe asking for a piece of dead rabbit. I was on a field trip with George M. Sutton at the time, and we passed the “nestling” around before returning it to its crevice. The second encounter was also on a trip with Sutton, to western Oklahoma, where he knew about a nest in an abandoned chicken coop. I crawled in between the boards and was confronted with an adolescent turkey vulture who stood up and slowly regurgitated, about an inch from my nose, the most putrid mass of stuff I’ve ever smelled. Sutton thought that was pretty funny. I still get nauseated just thinking about that event from back in the 60s. My encounters with African vultures were all via camera, although for a book that’s coming out in April, I did a drawing of one to introduce a chapter entitled “A Warning.” No, in that chapter, if you read Africa Notes: Reflections of an Ecotourist, you won’t be attacked by a vulture, but by the mental impact of foreign travel and what that travel does to your sense of what’s happening in our nation today.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Ninth in a series of short writings about our recent ecotourism trip to Costa Ri

9. Ninth in a series of short writings about our recent ecotourism trip to Costa Rica

Two-fingered sloth on the ground. I was told that “two-fingered” is the best name because the digits being counted are on the anterior limbs, thus on the hands instead of feet. Later, at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, at Cahuita, we also got a lesson on sloth urination and defecation, bodily functions in which this one was obviously involved, or it would not have been on the ground. If you go to Costa Rica as an ecotourist, somebody will make sure you see sloths. Nobody in their wildest dreams, however, can guarantee you’d see one on the ground in the wild, near a relatively popular beach, on a Sunday. Needless to say, among the crowd that watched this one make its way across the sand and gravel to a nearby palm, in a swimming-like crawl that can only be called “agonizing,” there were hundreds of smart phone photos taken and probably sent, instantly, to friends around the world. I’m wondering how many of those pics were accompanied by the biology lesson: Hoffmanns’ two-toed sloth, Choloepus hoffmanni, on the beach after pissing and taking a crap.

Prior to this ecotourism trip to Costa Rica, my only encounter with sloths was in a village along the Amazon a couple of days downriver from Iquitos, Peru. I was with a group of students from two eastern prep schools, their teachers, including Jim Serach, a Cedar Point Biological Station alum, and one of my own doctoral students, Alaine Knipes, now with CDC. We’d stopped in this village to buy stuff. One girl was holding a baby sloth. Immediately I asked to hold it, too. Somebody took some pictures. That little sloth clung to my arm and hand; that’s the only way I can describe it.  I don’t remember ever falling in love with a wild animal as completely, and quickly, as I did with that little sloth. We asked the girl what she fed it; she answered “leaves.” We asked her what she was going to do with it when it grew up. She answered “eat it.”

A few days after the Sloth Sanctuary visit, Karen and I were having breakfast with another couple. The conversation turned to sloths, and the rationale for spending all that time, money, and human energy on the rescue of so many that were either injured or otherwise damaged in a way that prevented their return to the wild. The only answer I could provide was the emotional impact of being close to these creatures, hearing details about their biology, and staring into their faces. I was not allowed to hold any of the sloths at the Sanctuary. I am convinced, from handling many different kinds of creatures, that any kind of a close encounter changes the way we view those organisms, whether they be beautiful, soft, and brown-eyed ones like that Amazonian one eventually headed for the dinner table, or those gorgeous, but microscopic, ones seen in the intestine of some other animal. Meaningful interaction destroys fear and stimulates curiosity—no matter the participants. The big time take-home lesson from biology.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Eighth in a series of short writings about our ecotourism trip to Costa Rica

8. Eighth in a series of short writings about our ecotourism trip to Costa Rica

I first encountered the comparative questions in Douglas Hofstadter’s book Metamagical Themas: (1) In what ways are things different in spite of their similarities? And (2) In what ways are things similar in spite of their differences? These two questions are at the heart of any exploration, whether it be of biological materials and situations, or political, economic, or social phenomena. Thus I stare out into rainforest from the gondola of a canopy ride, seeing leaves that are similar to ones in our Nebraska home but many times the size, plants growing on plants, decay, palm inflorescences hanging down like bead-curtains inviting tourists into an imaginary arboretum, far-off monkeys shaking branches as they jump among the trees, a toucan a mile away, isolated on a high dead stalk, tangles, termites, mosses, ferns, and epiphyte communities. What could you do, I ask myself in these situations, if you won Powerball and could crank the clock back fifty years? The answer is simple: come to Costa Rica and study Bromeliaceae. Apply the comparative questions to whatever is living in the water trapped within their leaves.
I know, the word sounds technical, scientific—“Bromeliaceae”—but it refers only to a family of plants, a family with about three and a half thousand members mostly in the New World tropics, and some of which you can buy in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the middle of the winter, not only in a local nursery, but also in the grocery store. Pineapples belong to this family, and pineapples are a major Costa Rican export. But the comparative questions that would guide my Powerball-funded fantasy are applied to the communities of animals that live within bromeliads. These communities have all the properties of ideal research material, including the most important property—accessibility—and the second most important—they are not under the oversight of any institutional animal care and use committee. No seventeen page form is required for me to ask: what kinds of tiny invertebrates live in the rainwater drops between those leaves?
And so I cash my Powerball check and retire to the tropics with a turkey baster to collect my stuff and microscopes to study it. And with my microscope, what do I find in the teaspoons of tropical rain collected in these swirls of leaves? The answer is the same as what I found as a child, using the microscope my grandfather had given my father when he was a child. That answer is found in one of my books, Pieces of the Plains: Memories and Predictions from the Heart of America:

If microorganisms could write, their story might also seem vaguely familiar to a work also laden with metaphorical baggage. With your lenses, you have fallen, Alice-like, into a round hole, and just as Alice-like, the results completely alter your perception of reality. At first, the denizens of this tiny world reveal no sense of purpose, no sense of direction, no awareness of past, present, or future, nothing that connects them to any familiar sign posts or behavioral traits by which we negotiate the realms of money, health, military adventure, agriculture, politics, sex, sports, or religion. You do not belong in this realm you have just entered; you have no idea what processes actually govern its existence, what its inhabitants do for a living, or how they got there.  Only your education prevents you from deciding, like long-ago ancestors would have done, that they simply appeared spontaneously. Slowly, very slowly, your evolved internal wiring, established neural circuits, and past experiences, begin to re-assert themselves. You are, after all, a human being; if you have any power at all, it is to impose your will on nature, at least in terms of interpretation. They eat; they mate; and, they fight, just like I do, you think. Suddenly they sort themselves out into a pattern you recognize: thousands of them, all vibrating and smacking into one another, have gathered around an air bubble. Oh, you think; they need air; they want air. You have absolutely no idea whatsoever what they need; they are incapable of want. Your conclusion is fantasy. Five minutes have now passed.  What you have seen through this lens is an irresistible drive to impose your own guiding mythology on the natural world and thus believe that you have, in fact, also imposed your will.
But you cannot control what happens in this jar of grass, water, and time without creating a human work of art. You can kill everything with heat or hydrochloric acid; you can change the community makeup by adding a handful of rice or fish food; you can decide whether to let the water evaporate or keep it filled to a certain mark; and, if you’re really a masochist, you can try to isolate one of the community members in “pure” culture. But once you perform any of these acts, you’ve created something that would not have otherwise occurred naturally. The blasé ease with which you add that handful of rice mimics our approach to nature in general, whether it be mowing the yard, planting trees, digging a ship channel through the Mississippi River Delta, or burning Amazon forest at the rate of fifty acres a minute, year after year. Eventually the infusion culture will collapse, no matter what you do. Eventually there will be no more movement under the lens. The difference between your jar and the tropical forest is one of the big take-home lessons: you can start another jar, generating that mystery at will, but you can never replace the biological diversity lost when that forest is gone.