2011 research sampler

There always seems to be a lot happening on Barro Colorado Island.  There are dozens of field workers, research assistants, and students working on Masters and Doctoral research projects.  Each project happening in the field and the lab has a small team of people working together to carry out the procedures and collect the data.  Read on to find out about some of the projects that were in full swing while we were on BCI this summer!

The ants go marching

Jesse Czekanski-Moir, Ph. D. student, and his team of students are busy feeding ants.  Not that the ants can’t find food on their own!  One of the questions they are considering is how ants share food resources and how the dispersion (the spread out) of food effects the number of different ants that come to eat.  There are many, many different species of ants on the island.  Some of them eat the same foods.  Jesse’s work is important because it can help conservation biologists understand community ecology. In other words, he wants to save the forest by helping all kinds of people understand how things live together!

The people in the lab make food for the ants several times each week. All of the food for the ants is the same.  On odd numbered days they carry the food up to the sites selected for the study.  They put the food out on little squares of papers for the ants and then come back later to see who is there. 

Although they put food out every other day, what changes is the number of different portions.  On some of the papers the food is all in one large portion.   On other papers it is cut into 4, 8, 16, 32, or 64 little portions. The only days they don’t put the food out is when it is raining very hard.

When the researchers go back, they look to see how many different species of ants are eating on each paper.  So far, they have noticed that the papers that have many small portions tend to attract more different kinds of ants than the one with one big portion, which often only has one large species of ant feeding on it.

What conclusions might they draw from this?  Could we conduct an experiment similar to this one in our own garden?  How many different ant species do you think are living near our school?

Mama monkey

Lilian, who is from Columbia, is on BCI this summer working with a team of four people that is studying female spider monkeys. They spend their days following the monkeys and recording their behaviors. They split each day into two shifts so that they everyone gets a break. Each evening they ‘put the monkeys to sleep’ and then came back to the station for dinner.  When she first said that, we thought she meant something very different! Lily had to explain to us that monkey troops sleep in different places every night and that she and her team have to find out where the monkeys settle in and go to sleep so that the team knows where to find the monkeys in the morning! 

Studying the behaviors of monkeys is a tough job!  As Lilian put it, “the monkeys are bad – they don’t stay on the trails!  So we have to chase them through the forest.”  The people who study monkeys in this way have to dress with long pants, long-sleeve shirts, boots, scarves to cover their hair and plenty of insect repellant.  Each day they select one of the 9 female monkeys they are studying to follow for 12 whole hours! Every three minutes a timer goes off and one of the pair writes down what the monkey is doing at that moment.  The other person gathers the animal waste to test it for the nutrients the monkey is taking in.

The team has gotten to see members of the only troop of spider monkeys on BCI born, die, and live together for many months.  One reason people study primates is to better understand human evolution since we are closely related.

Before coming to BCI, Lilian did some other research on some Capuchin monkeys in Columbia where the forest that the monkeys live in is very fragmented, or broken up by human development.  She was interested in figuring out how the monkeys shared the spaces and resources.  Lilian found that they had overlapping ranges in the shapes of different polygons that were separated by time.  In other words, Lilian found that each troop of monkeys had a territory of a different shape (polygon).  Some of the territories overlapped.  But, in that case the two troops were never in the overlapping space at the same time.

Lilian, like Jesse with his ants (see separate post), knows that the best way to the forest or the monkeys in the forest, is to understand how they live and interact. When scientists figure that out, they can share that information with the people who live near or in the forest so that they can do more to make sure that the monkeys don’t lose their homes.

If you were a leaf, what would you do in the face of Global Climate Change?

Sarah Neihaus is interested in nutrient cycling and how tropical forests will react to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the air.  People before her have shown that when there is more CO2 in the air, trees produce more leaf-litter (leaves that dry up and fall off the tree then collect on the ground).  She is interested in what effect more leaves on the ground might have on the cycles of the nutrients and the growth of the forest.

She thinks that having more carbon in the soil, which comes from having more leaf litter on the ground, will effect the nutrient cycle, but she is not yet sure how.  To find out what is happening, she is measuring carbon amounts at different places in the cycle.

She works on a large area of land that has been divided into smaller plots.  There are three different things happening in three different sections. In the first section, there are five plots of land that are untouched – just left as they are. Scientists call these control groups.  In the second section, there are five plots that have all of the leaves raked out of them every week!  These leaves are spread out as evenly as possible in the third section.  So, one section is natural, one section has the leaves raked out and the third section has extra leaves. If it sounds like a lot of work– you’re right!  They have a full-time leaf-raker just to maintain those sections.

Sarah collects her data in several different ways.  One is by collecting leaves as they fall to the ground with a square net trap held up with PVC tubes.  She dries everything that falls into the trap, grinds it up, and sends it to a lab where they identify the nutrient levels in the leaf litter.  The second way Sarah is collecting data is using a pizza pan!  She puts the pan down on the ground and then cuts around the  circumference of the pan to collect the leaf litter that is on the ground below the pan.  She cleans those samples, dries them, and sends them to a lab to find out their nutrient levels.

On these plots, she is looking at tree growth and nutrient cycling, because those two things are related to Global Climate Change.  Is this sort of study something we could do in Milwaukee? 

Highway to the canopy

Stefan Schnitzer has noticed that lianas (woody vines) are all over the place in tropical forests!  And he is not the only one.  Many ants, mammals, and birds have noticed them and are making good use of them.  Stefan has been monitoring the growth of lianas in the forest for the past few years and has been able to compare his data to observations made by other scientists. Stefan has found that the amount of lianas in tropical rain forests has increased.  You may wonder, why does this matter? (We did).
Well it might matter if lianas win the getting-to-the-sunlight competition that they have with trees. They take up space in the forest but store less carbon. Why is carbon important?  To put it simply, extra carbon in the air (instead of in plants) is leading to Global Climate Change.

One of the experiments Stefan and his research team have recently set up is to compare what happens when you cut all of the lianas in one plot and compare it to a plot that has been left alone. His team has prepared 16 60 x 60 meter plots.  They labeled, measured and plotted every tree and liana growing in the plots – there were thousands of them!  Eight of the plots have been left untouched.  This is the control plot. The other eight had the lianas cut out of them in a 80 x 80 meter area (since lianas have such a long-distance growth pattern they cut 10 extra meters on each side of the square so that they could get all of the lianas that were growing into the plot). Of course when you cut the lianas, they still have energy and life in the roots, and so they try to grow again.  Every two months someone goes through the plot and cuts the new shoots.  They also walk through the control plot so that the only difference in the two plots is that the lianas have been cut (not that someone is walking through one plot, but not the other.)

Maybe this study will show the effect lianas have on tree growth.  Other people are interested in what happens to the ecosystem when lianas are removed. For example, there is a research groups that is using Stefan’s plots to trap mammals, and photograph mammals that walk by at any time of the day or night.  These two groups want to see if animals use the forest differently if there are no lianas. Other groups are studying how changing the trees and vines that grow will affect bird communities, ant communities and invertebrate communities.

I am sure that a good deal of exciting results will come from this work – much of it will probably lead to even more questions then they started with!

Do you think that taking lianas out of the forest help save the forest or harm the forest, or something else altogether? Could it change the air we breathe?

What would you like to find out about these plots? Have you seen lianas where you live?

Meg and the bees

We met Meg Eckles last summer.  What a surprise to see her again on BCI this summer! Meg is very passionate about two things, bees and education.  She studies bees to try to explain why they have developed such complicated behaviors.  Meg has also spent a lot of time working with a high school teacher in San Diego helping students get involved in research and see the work being done in Panamá.

Meg knows a lot about bees.  She is working on earning her Ph.D. and is particularly interested in how bees behave, develop their memories, and learn.  Like many doctoral candidates, she has a team of volunteers, interns, and field students who help her collect her data.  My roommate, Catalina, was on Meg’s team.  Many mornings she was up at 4:00 a.m. and preparing to go out into the field.  She returned to the labs sometime after 7 a.m.  In the field she recorded the bees’ behavior as they exited their hive.  She had to head back to the field around 5:00 each evening and record their behaviors as the bees returned to the hive.  Fortunately for them the hive doesn’t move so they always know just where they have to go each day in the field! 

The bees they are currently studying are stingless bees – they bite instead of sting!  She is trying to figure out how the bees communicate with each other.  To do this her team sets sugar water out around the forest for the bees to find.  Then they move the sugar water and watch to see how the bees act when they get back to the hive.  Observing these changes can help make assumptions about how bees ‘talk’ to each other about the location of a food they love!

Have you ever been stung by a bee? Do you think a stingless bee bite hurts more than a bee sting?
Getting stung in no fun. But bees are important. How might bees be important to our lives? 


So then, why pursue a career in science?

At the end of our stay in 2010 we gave an informal talk in the lounge on BCI.  Most students and researchers do this at some time or another.  Many explain their work and then entertain a host of questions from the crowd squeezed into the room on the couches and scattered about the floor or on empty crates.  We, on the other hand, asked questions of our crowd.  Here are some of their anonymous responses to 'why science?'.

“I always asked questions about how things worked and found the scientific answers the most convincing and intriguing as they created more questions. It is very satisfying to understand (to a certain extent) how living things function.”

“Initially, I started out desiring to be a medical doctor so I chose science subjects in high school. At the university level, I couldn’t handle the sight of blood, so I moved on to study botany, convinced that a world without plants was unimaginable with a lot to discover about the American Rainforest.”

“My science teacher taught how science works- the scientific method and how scientists find things out, rather than just the facts, which is what I got. Also, my biology education seemed oversimplified – no one ever told me that it was a lot more complicated than the simplified diagram I got so I was less likely to be interested in carrying it further because I didn’t realize how much more there was to ask and find out. Also, I thought that becoming a scientist was really hard and only old crazy intelligent nonsocial men became them. But scientists are sociable!”

“Amazement at the natural world. Inquisitive nature – I ask questions and science is the route to answering them. Fascinated by the complexity and diversity of life and living organisms. You can never be bored as a scientist and can never run out of aspects to investigate.”

“Science is very dynamic and unpredictable, these two features make it the most rewarding activity. I like science because it gives sense to my life as I try to answer one question after another.”

“I was always fascinated by dinosaurs when I was little, and that curiosity lead me to be interested in animals, especially lizards and snakes, because they are like living dinosaurs (well not really, birds are actually.) Then I wanted a microscope and one year my parents got me a magnifying glass. When I turned 12 my parents finally got me that microscope and that was it. Dinosaurs and looking at things close up. That was all I was interested in for years. Then in college I started to love plants because they were new. I have always loved discovery.”

“[I went into science] because I want to learn more about science and the environment that is all around us.”

“I decided to study ecology because it fulfills all the criteria I sought in a job. I wanted a career that was intellectually challenging, provided opportunities to travel to interesting places, and allow for me to have a positive impact on society. Ecology is definitely challenging, requiring application of many different scientific disciplines; tropical ecology requires travel to beautiful and fascinating places, and if it closely ties to biodiversity conservation.”

“[I was inspired by] a book in a school library and gardening with my father.”

“I found myself interested in EVERYTHING; filmmaking, journalism, art, psychology. . . if I had it my way I would have been able to do it all, but I decided that biology: relationships, interactions between (especially non-human) living things was the most important thing I could spend my life doing. Nothing else was crucial... or as enthralling.”

“Nature has always inspired and amazed me. I decided to choose science to answer my curiosity about various aspects of nature, to learn more in the process and to participate in the cycle of questioning and answering and more questioning and answering.”

“I had a great biology teacher at school who did interesting experiments and knew loads! Also I always liked asking questions and trying to work at answers.”

“I used to eat ants and wondered why no one else did.”

So, what do you want to do with your career?  Why?