12 November 2011

Summer Travels with SIRLS Director, Bryan Heidorn

It seems appropriate to ask this time of year, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” While my vacation to visit my younger son in Arcata, California was very nice my research and service trips might be a bit more interesting. Professors at major universities are required to spend 40% of their time on teaching, 40% on research and 20% on service. Since much of the school year, 9 months, has a large proportion of teaching, active professors use the summer for research and service in their unpaid “free” time, unless they have grant funding. By the time a professor gets to going up for promotion to full professor they must have international recognition. The reviewers of the promotion case are themselves national figures or themselves from other countries. That means you need to travel to get the required recognition.

Generally, when I am traveling in the summer it is in service of the question, “How can we more effectively collect, analyze and disseminate information to protect biodiversity and human health?” I have the privilege as serving on the Board of Directors of the JRS Biodiversity Foundation. One of my duties for that board was to travel in May to Nairobi and Kisumu on Lake Victoria to meet with government officials, conservation groups and researchers who are setting up information networks in East Africa to help better manage resources. This is a critical issue in countries where most people get their food and shelter directly from the land. On that trip we were able to learn a little better what is needed and attempt to attract help to move in that direction in terms of information needs. Consider it a reference interview where the answer is not limited to a book on the library shelves or in fact any book that has yet been written. (Traveler’s note: The US State Department runs a travelers alert system. They send you information on safety issues almost daily. We avoided the border region with Somalia). But you want to know the exciting parts. By far the most exciting part of the trip had nothing to do with that type of information but with the type of automobile repair knowledge you wish you had when your van breaks down at dusk in Naikuru National Park next to a pride of lions. Also, how much you might really wish you had the information required to find an alternate route when you are forced to travel during a tropical storm on the same mud road as a bunch of insane truck drivers while the storm threatens to wash the road, you and the van down into the canyon and the raging river down there. I did survive without being eaten or drowning. If you see me, feel free to ask for the story of the Arizona cowboys and the Masai.

That was not my only international trip this summer. In August the Universidad Nacional de Colombia invited me to give a keynote talk in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the National Museum. This was my second trip to Bogota. Unlike most of my trips I was able to add a free Sunday to the front of that trip to tour Bogota. That was a lucky thing since it gave me an extra day to adjust to altitude sickness by trotting to keep up with my gracious but fast walking graduate student guide. The Colombians are very proud to point out that crime rates have fallen substantially in recent years but my daily travels alerts from the US State Department were not always reassuring. (Traveler’s Note: I advise anyone traveling in potentially dangerous areas to sign up for these reports.) We had a wonderful conference on Monday and I even understood some of the slides of other speakers in spite lf it all being in Spanish. Unfortunately, speaking in front of a large crowd requires more oxygen than I could suck into my lungs. Thank goodness for ibuprofen and lots of water. I had another “free” day on Tuesday so I toured the national natural history museum and library and learned about some really cool projects and also the barriers that exist to information dissemination. Wednesday, I taught a daylong class in biodiversity informatics. Fellow SIRLS faculty member, Hong Cui even presented in that course via Skype and PowerPoint on extracting information from books, text mining. Thursday, I was to travel to Costa Rica, discussed next, but first I had to leave Colombia. Did you know that one cannot fly from Colombia to Costa Rica without an original copy of one’s yellow fever vaccination card? I knew that but forgot so I had the opportunity to spend another unexpected day in Bogota. (Traveler’s note: if you can get a copy of your vaccine card there is a Red Cross office, Cruz Roja, at the airport that can issue a new card.) That was the day my hard disk crashed. I guess the disk had trouble with the altitude as well. Luckily, I was finished with my scholarly talks and still had my smart phone.

I did make it to Costa Rica eventually. I have been there many times but always for pure work and no time for vacation. This trip was 80% vacation, sort of. I traveled with my oldest son, Dylan (who had managed to find, scan and email my yellow fever vaccine card and get it to me in Colombia). We visited biological research stations. None of those gilded tourist accommodations for us. On Saturday evening we drove in the rain to the La Salva Biological Research Station. Because of that rain it is low season there in late August and there are rooms available in the dorms. It also helps to be on the science advisory board for the station. In fact, we had a whole house to ourselves not because I help out with grant proposals and policy but because it is too hot and wet for most people. Some in more rustic stations call this the Hilton in the Jungle. Indeed the roof does not leak and there are relatively few giant insects in the house but there is no air conditioning. Even though we arrived after 9 PM there was a dinner of beans and rice waiting for us in the cafeteria. (Traveler’s note: if you stay at research stations you better like beans and rice for breakfast lunch and dinner. If helps to use the sauces.) It rained the two days we were there but we hiked many miles of trail in sun and rain and saw collared peccaries, howler monkeys, peccaries, capuchin monkeys, peccaries, a three-toes sloth mother and baby, peccaries, hog nosed viper, many birds and other animals that I’ll tell you about if you ask.

On Tuesday we asked for a lunch to take on the road and, my Spanish being dreadful, I ended up with a bean sandwich. It was of course raining when we left La Salva but it cleared up as we approached Upala and then made the rough trek to Santa Cecilia and then south to the Guanacasta Conservation Area, Santa Rosa Station. (Travelers note: Much of the road from Upala to Santa Cecilia is washboard. I hear that this road was to be paved with USAID support but the U.S. mission pulled out of Costa Rica because Costa Rica did not want to be part of a bit of ugliness in Nicaragua being orchestrated by a guy called Oliver North. Ask me about it some time). Our hosts were Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs. We arrived in time for dinner of beans and rice. At dinner we met a professional photographer and two biologists studying eye spots on insects. We agreed to meet for a nighttime hike. We settled into our room and tried to block the larger holes in the screens and left to meet our fellow travelers. That night we saw spider monkeys sleeping in a tree, whip scorpions crawling in a stone wall, thousands of spiders, dung beetles eating a dead frog and a cat-eye snake hunting for mice. (Traveler’s Note: take a big flashlight if hiking at night in a tropical jungle. You’ll be able to see hundreds of glowing red, green and yellow eyes looking back at you from the darkness, most of them in sets of eight.) Joe, the photographer, showed us how to climb a monument constructed in honor of the soldiers that fought off the invasion from Nicaragua before the time of Allie North. The breeze was cooler up there and we could see storms out at see from our high vantage as well as spot bats and other wildlife.

Wednesday morning I knew I would not get to finish my beans and rice breakfast when Dylan limped into the cafeteria a little breathless and pale and asked, “What happens after I am stung by a scorpion?” Not knowing all of the possible answers to that question we rushed back to the dorm room where I gave Dylan prednisone and ibuprofen and retrieved an epi-pen. (Traveler’s note: Carry a first aid kit with anti-venom if possible while traveling far from medical help in a tropical jungle.) We captured the beast and then headed to get the opinion from Dan and Winni. Dan said that since Dylan was still standing he was not allergic to the sting and since it was not a coral snake in the specimen jar that he would be fine because the neurotoxin, only causes paralysis of the lips and fingers while causing an odd metallic taste as well as sever pain for several hours. In fact Dan said that if he could pick anything to get sung by in the park this scorpion sting was the most interesting. Dylan was a real trooper and we headed out almost immediately for a tour of the region with Dan and Winnie. Over the past 30 years Dan and Winni have been attempting to identify all of the many thousands of species of moth and butterflies and their parasites in the Guanacosta region. Climate change is changing the distributions… but that is another story. Ask me about it some time.

We learned about their dna barcoding operations and the fleet of parataxonomists helping with collecting, identification, specimen preparation and databasing. You can find their work documented on the web. We had sandwiches for lunch and it was not beans and rice! Evening included cold beers on lawn chairs in front of Dan and Winni’s house and a visit from our photographer friend who had captured a beautiful snake. When I woke Thursday morning I pounded my shoes against the bed frame very vigorously to dislodge any scorpions. (Traveler’s note: pound shoes somewhat more vigorously than I did.) I noticed the lump on the inside of my shoe on the way to breakfast. You would be surprised at how quickly I can remove my shoe even at my age. Yep, scorpion, but I avoided having my food taste like metal all day. We drove an hour that morning to Cuajiniquil where me met Frank Joyce, a professor from UC Davis and Minor Lara, the local fisherman turned eco-tour guide. Frank lives in Costa Rica year round and teaches overseas classes in marine biology. Interested? After collecting scuba gear we took the two-hour boat ride to the ranger station on Islas Murcielagos in the marine protected area. (Traveler’s note: You want to be in good standing with locals if you want to get off the tourist sites.) On the boat ride, Frank told us about the geology of the islands, the biology and the history of the protected area. Ask me about the overfishing story.

At the ranger station we admired the black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura similis), Ctenosaurs and heard about the Norway rats that would arrive in large numbers at dusk. Dylan and I snorkeled that evening where we say many wonderful creatures while keeping a wary eye out for bull sharks. We had spaghetti for dinner! It was too hot to sleep indoors so we pulled mattresses out to the covered porch. Yes, there were rats running on that porch but we pulled the matrices away from the walls against which they normally run. They were not very interested in us although we had to lock down all luggage to avoid curious furry visitors from using our socks for bedding. I did say there were no gilded tourist hotel rooms for us. It of course rained in the night. Given the heat, the rain felt wonderful as the wind blew rain onto the porch. We did two dives on Friday and explored the coral reef. There countless fish and turtles but no sharks which was a sweet disappointment. The coral was mostly dead however because of a combination of a low oxygen, deep water up-swelling two years ago and suspected pollution from eco-tourist hotels across the bay and outside of the protected area. Frank was excited to see coral heads beginning to reform. I have been interested in learning how to construct and deploy underwater sensors so I am currently considering how to raise funds to put a camera permanently underwater at the site to record the regrowth of the coral. If you have such a camera please let me know. Later in the day we traveled back to Cuajiniquil where he had dinner at Minor’s house and slept in an air-conditioned hotel room. There was even a hot water shower. (Traveler’s note: I can recommend the Santa Elena Lodge in Cuajiniquil.) Saturday we returned to San Jose. It was raining by the time we arrived at the Aeuropuerto Hotel, which I can also recommend. (Traveler’s note: It is good to have a four wheel drive vehicle that can withstand a two and a half foot high jump off one road and onto an access ramp going the other direction.) Our last meal in Costa Rica was a dinner that was not beans and rice with a cold local beer. I expect I’ll be back in Costa Rica in May on business but if at all possible I think I’ll pack an epi-pen and add a day or two to visit a one of the research stations. I might even teach a weeklong workshop in biodiversity informatics.

Bryan Heidorn is the Director of SIRLS

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