Ecuador 2011

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor our first expedition to examine ecomorph convergence and adaptive radiations in jumping spiders, we (Edy Piascik, Mauricio Vega, and Wayne Maddison) went to Ecuador in 2011 to tropical rainforest sites both east (Yasuní) and west (Canandé) of the Andes.  The goal was to go beyond simple collecting, to time our sampling by habitat in order to determine microhabitats.  Yasuní was wonderfully productive — more than 150 species of salticids within 5 km of the station.  Canandé was magical for its strange salticids, including a transparent yellow one and an unusual new species of Lapsias.  Wayne blogged the trip for the Beaty Museum, and has inverted the sequences of blogs to present the posts as a chronological essay, starting in Quito, then going to Yasuní and  Canandé.

STILL BEING EDITED


23 July 2011, between YVR and UIO

Taking off from YVR, we fly over our beautiful jagged mountains, clothed in green below and, even though it’s July, white above. I realize that we’re traveling from one rainforest to another. Ours in Canada is quieter, its life flourishing at a relatively gentle pace. Ecuador’s is busy, noisy, fast-paced, like a big city that never sleeps. Onward to the Amazon basin, City of Life!

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Quito, Ecuador

A long sleep after the long trip was good, but now I can feel the effects of Quito’s high elevation. The team has accumulated in Quito: Mauricio, Edy, and myself. We get together at a café in Plaza Foch to talk strategy. Our equipment is pretty much ready. Tomorrow we go to the university, La Catolica (PUCE), to sort out details of our stay at their field station at Yasuni. On many of my trips to Ecuador I’ve worked with the excellent biologists of PUCE. Then on Tuesday we’re off east to the jungle!

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Quito is an old colonial city but with modern conveniences – I’m sending this report by public wi-fi the city provides. The city is nestled in the slopes of the volcano Pichincha, visible here as a backdrop to buildings and the tangled stuff of cities. It’s only a handful of kilometers from the equator, but the weather isn’t that different from Vancouver’s, cool but not icy, because Quito is at 2800 meters elevation. We’ll be much warmer at Yasuni.


Thursday 28 July, Yasuní

We arrived at the field station at Yasuni on Tuesday after a short flight to Coca and a 3 hour road trip punctuated by a boat crossing of the wide Napo River. Two full days in the field, and we have over forty species of jumping spiders and some really sweaty clothes. One of the classic Amazonian jumping spiders is Amycus, a long-legged thing whose males have long faces. Here’s a male we found yesterday. A very different looking beast is Synemosyna, which to your eyes looks like an ant (and presumably to the eyes of many predators avoiding ants). But, it’s a jumping spider. This may seem a bizarre product of the tropics, but a similar species of Synemosyna can be found in eastern Canada!

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Our goal here is to do as complete a survey of the jumping spiders as we can in 18 days, while recording the microhabitats of the specimens (on tree trunks? Up in the foliage? On the ground?). Different species specialize on exactly where in the forest they live. We plan to travel to southeast Asia next year, and compare the jumping spiders in the two places to see if the different species in South America and Asia have adapted in similar ways to their microhabitats. This will help us understand how the jumping spiders could have evolved to become so diverse – 5000 species described so far, and many more out there yet to be found. And so, one of our goals is simply to discover species.

To find the spiders in their different microhabitats we use particular methods for each. Here’s Edy shaking bushes to see what spiders fall onto her sheet, and Mauricio scanning the ground for spiders there.

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Tired and hot

Meals here at Yasuni Scientific Station are served at precise times, which means no matter how tired we are from the day before, we have to get up for a 7 am breakfast. We talk strategy then hit the trail at about 8. We follow our structured sampling routine for about three hours, then break for our bag lunch. We continue sampling until 3 or 4 pm, then go back to the station to shower and recover. I say “recover” because the exertion in the tropical heat — particularly shaking and beating the vegetation — takes a lot out of you. And to add frustration, on sunny days swarms of stingless bees hover around your face to drink your sweat, and occasionally bumble into your eyes. Here I am, just out of the field, tired and hot.

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But the day’s not over yet, because we have to process the specimens, which includes photography, preservation, and note-taking. We usually process for an hour or two before supper, then until about 10 at night. Just in time to go to bed, and get up for a 7 am breakfast.

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Wearing Pungency

Recipe: take one shirt; stir for one day with bucketfuls of sweat and a half cup of ripe tropical mud. Rub with aromatic tropical plants. Let sit overnight in humid place. Next morning, repeat sweat, mud, and plant treatment. Yields several servings of pungency.

Such is the state of my clothes. I have five shirts with me, and 18 days here. In order to do a laundry just once here (yes they have a laundry service!), I need wear each shirt dirty and smelly for one day. My colleagues are also doing similarly. (We must be in basic agreement about this, otherwise someome’s sensibilities will be offended.) It saves the energy for the washing machines, or our time hand washing. Our days are so full we have little energy for washing. And after hand washing, how would we dry the clothes quickly enough in the rainforest?


Spider Report

How is our spider survey going? Amazingly well (knock on wood). We have found, after a week of collecting, about 100 species of jumping spiders, all within a kilometer walk from the station. And, we haven’t yet tried certain microhabitats, like vines climbing tree trunks or suspended litter, because they don’t fit easily into our microhabitat classification. Soon we’ll try those, and no doubt get more species. It’s a bit overwhelming sometimes to see how many species of jumping spiders there are in the world. And, jumping spiders are just a small part of the diversity of spiders, which are a small part of the diversity of animals, which are (probably, when we think of unknown microbes), a small part of the diversity of all living things.

One of the commonest species here is Kalcerrytus, which is found hopping on the forest’s leaf litter. Handsome, but not too colourful.

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Clown

I’ll be posting photos of some of the spiders we’re finding. First, one of my favourites.

At the forest edges we found this little clown, fast moving and full of colours. Its name is Maeota.

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The sweet little male has a tuft of hairs on the top of his head that, combined with his jerky motions, makes him seem frantic and silly at the same time.

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Salticidae

The scientific name for the family of jumping spiders is “Salticidae”, which refers to jumping. You can see the same root in the English word “saltatory” and the French word “sault”. Most jumping spiders are reasonably good at hopping, but the champions in my experience are the amycine jumping spiders, common here in South America. This little Acragas, about 6 mm body length, jumped 25 cm as I was trying to photograph it. You can imagine that sometimes there’s a lot of frustration trying to take these photos!

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Brilliant

One of the most brilliantly colourful salticids around is Psecas, a long slender beauty found on vegetation. Quite a treat for the eyes.

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Amazon Wildlife

We’re here as biologists to study spiders, but we’re just as much tourists as anyone when it comes to the unfamiliar mammals, birds and other vertebrates of the Amazon Basin. We knew it would be a special trip when we saw a troupe of small cute monkeys watching us from roadside bushes as we drove to the station. We’ve seen toucans twice, and many other colorful birds (apologies to the ornithologists for lack of specifics, but they are “colourful birds” to me). A few days ago, we were returning to the station along a road after a downpour cut short our collecting, when we saw this crossing the road:
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A sloth! Poor thing, it was probably scared when it saw us but could only go so fast.

But the vertebrates of course don’t have a monopoly on wonder. Here, some stunning Urania moths who’ve come to the mud by the station:

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The Amazon basin is more full of life than anywhere I’ve ever been. And I’m not telling you about the plants, or beetles, or frogs, or fungi. OK, maybe I’ll show a photo of fairy tale fungi we found:

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Old Friend

One of the old friends that is good to see is Galianora sacha. I described both the genus and species as new to science in 2006 after finding a few specimens at the Jatun Sacha reserve in 2004. It turns out they are common here in the forest understory, on small palms and other plants with large leaves. Their mottled, slightly greenish colours make them hard to see on the leaves, which are often mottled with tiny mosses or fungi.

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Wildlife at the station

We don’t have to leave the grounds of the station to see the local animals. There’s a tapir mom and child who have adopted the research station. They come to check us out, and beg food. Here’s mom sniffing my beating sheet. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and a better photo of her face:

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What a strange snout, almost like an elephant trunk.

This is the main building of the station:
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When I took the photo I hadn’t seen the little animal on the grass. Here he is, once I noticed him:
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An agouti! They are big rodents, maybe beaver sized, but walking more like tiny deer.

A few days ago we heard that a venomous snake, Bothrops, had been spotted about where the agouti was standing. I’ll have to be more careful where I walk at night!


Beaker

The other day we found this male Hypaeus.

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I swear, if it’s an undescribed species, I’ll name it Hypaeus beakeri. Note the resemblance to the muppet scientist


Cute and not so

I mentioned cute monkeys in a previous post. Here’s a not-so-cute bit of wildlife passing by, with my hand for scale:

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(My arachnological colleagues may give me a hard time for this, but cuteness is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s no cuteness in this beholder’s eye when it looks at this tarantula.)

For those of you who got the chills seeing that image, following BoingBoing’s use of unicorn chasers as antidotes for disturbing posts, here is my Cylistella chaser:

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Cylistella are tiny jumping spiders (around 2 mm) with little round bodies, looking like small beetles. Some spiders are cute.


Monkey Skull

Speaking of cute monkeys, we came across this in our wanderings through the forest, a monkey skull hanging on a small tree.

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What could this mean?


Isolation of the old days

One of the strangest aspects of this field work for me is to be typing at my iPad in the Amazonian jungle, communicating with people around the world. I first came to do field work in eastern Ecuador in 1988, at the former field station in Cuyabeno. We’d go to the end of the road then take a motor canoe for two hours to get there. For the two weeks or so we were there, we were pretty much completely cut off from the world. No electricity, no newspapers, and certainly no internet. Canada could have sunk into the sea and I may not have known about it. We emerged from the field curious about what had happened in the world during our long absence. Of course, we were gone only two weeks, but to us so many wondrous experiences had made our absence seem much longer. (Hence my theory of anti-relativistic travel: whereas for space voyages approaching the speed of light, the voyager would experience much less time having passed than those left behind, but for earth-bound travel, the voyager usually experiences, subjectively, much more time having passed.)

Do I miss the old days, when Cuyabeno would be our entire world, to eat, drink, smell, and immerse ourselves in the forest, our attention focussed fully? Yes. But am I happy to be able to share what I’m seeing with you as I see it, here at Yasuni? Yes. I’m not sure how I could have my cake and eat it too.


Mysterious

Thiodinines are a group of mysterious jumping spiders found mostly in South and Central America, though a few species live in North America. They are mysterious not only because of strange structures on their bodies and legs, but also for how they behave. This delicately-coloured female Cotinusa holds her abdomen up in the air and waves it around. We have no idea why.
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And this male, of a different species of Cotinusa, is very small and looks like a thrips (google that!).

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Belliena

The tiny beautiful Belliena lives in the forest understory. It competes with Cylistella for the title of Cutest Salticid in the Forest. The male’s jaws are a metallic gold-green.

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Photographic Equipment

In case some of you are wondering about the equipment I use to take photos of the spiders, it’s rather embarrassing. I have an ancient 3.2 megapixel waterproof Pentax to which I’ve glued a hand lens. As a waterproof camera, the lens doesn’t move out when turned on, so I could glue the lens on. I have everything automatic turned off – autofocus, exposure, flash intensity. When the shutter is pressed, it just takes a simple photo without trying to think about it. More modern point-and-shoot cameras can’t be made stupid, at least not the ones I’ve tried, and so try to “intelligently” adjust things on the fly for perfection. But, because they don’t know I have a lens glued on, their adjustments mess everything up. The focus on my system is fixed, which may seem like a drawback, but is actually an advantage when trying to photo a quick spider. The main drawback is that the photos aren’t high resolution, which can be seen in the photos of small things like Belliena and Cylistella. Of course, much better photos can be taken with fancy lenses and a DSLR camera, but my system is so light and easy to use that I can take about 250 photos after a long day in the field. I’d rather have good photos of all of the species than great photos of half of them.

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Spindly

To those of us long familiar with jumping spiders in most of the cooler parts of the world, the long spindly Lyssomanes looks particularly strange. It simply doesn’t look like a jumping spider. But it is, though its evolutionary lineage split off early from that of the bulk of jumping spiders. Most Lyssomanes are green or yellow, but this one is quite dark. It lives on big-leaved plants.

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Ecuador spiders: More to come

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve reported on the Ecuador spider expedition. The trip was a smashing success. I was unable to report live as the second site in western Ecuador had no access to the internet. Now that I’m back in Canada, I will soon be telling you more about our spidering adventures. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, here are photos of one of the most striking salticids we found at Yasuní, first on the recently fallen tree and then later along the forest edge. It is an amycine that I believe may be a Hypaeus. Here are the male and female. What vibrant colours. How could you not like a spider like this?
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Punctures

When we do field work, our bodies transform in many ways. We get a bit fitter through the hard work of walking the trails and shaking the vegetation for spiders. (We thought we’d lose weight at Yasuní, but they fed us too well.). We get a bit of a tan, though not as much as you might expect, as most of our work is in the shadowy forest. But, most visibly, we get our skin pierced by a myriad things. Spines that go in and stay, to emerge weeks later. Clinging grasses that rip your skin. Ticks that bite and hang on (Edy even had one in her ear, which, had she chosen to leave it, could have swollen into a nice plump living earring). Mosquitoes that bite. Ants that bite. Ants that sting (yes, being modified wasps, ants have stingers). And once, I found this mound in the forest on top of which were big bees that closely resembled our friendly bumble bees. But these weren’t so friendly, and decided to take exception to the invasion of their privacy. Two came and stung me.

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We become impressionist paintings in red of scratches, holes, and welts. As you might guess, we travel to the field with many bandages ready.


Tent for a spider

Jumping spiders, with a couple of exceptions, don’t use silk webs to catch their prey, instead hunting like cats: spotting prey with their acute eyesight, creeping up, and pouncing. But, they do have and use silk. They often trail a dragline behind them, a safety line to catch them should they miss the target of a jump. They also make small shelters of silk in which the spend the night or do other “private” things like moulting or caring for eggs. We found one of the most remarkable jumping spider shelters along the river at Yasuní, an elegant “tent” found on the tops of leaves. It’s about a centimeter across and shaped like a six-pointed star, with the points grouped in pairs to yield a triangular form. Each point is an anchor for the tent. The little spider sits underneath, poking its head out between a pair of points. Here it is.
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Sometimes he sticks his head out from one corner, sometimes from another.
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And here is what the spider inside looks like
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I’m not aware of anyone having studied their behavior, but my guess is that they dash out from the tent to ambush little insects walking by.


Rhetenor

I mentioned in a previous post our collecting from the recently fallen tree, and how that was a rare window into the spiders of the forest canopy. One of the jumping spiders I’d long wanted to see alive was Rhetenor, a strangely-shaped beast that I knew only from drawings and preserved specimens. The specimens I’d seen were from the nearby Tiputini research station, collected by Terry Erwin of the Smithsonian Institution using a special method called “fogging”, in which a natural insecticide fog is wafted up into the canopy, and the spiders (and insects) that die and fall from on high are caught on sheets spread around the ground. Erwin’s samples have many Rhetenor specimens. Given I’d never seen it otherwise, I figured it was so exclusively a canopy dweller that I’d never see it in our earthbound collecting at Yasuní. But then, near the end of our stay, I was collecting in vegetation along a natural beach on the Tiputini River, and who should show up but this — a Rhetenor! The back eyes are near the corners of the trapezoidal carapace. It looks a lot like a beetle.
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Here she is walking. What a beautifully strange spider!


Sometimes, they come to me

At Yasuní our goal was to sample as many species of salticids as possible, in order to understand the whole community of jumping spiders. But, there were a few species that we were hoping to get for other, specific reasons. One was Habronattus paratus, because many years ago I’d noticed that some specimens from the Amazon basin were more golden and differed in other ways from specimens from elsewhere, and I suspected they may be a different and undescribed species. We hadn’t found any specimens. After an intense morning collecting in the tropical heat, late in our stay, I went to the cafeteria to fill my water bottle with cold clean water. Coming out of the cafeteria, and looking forward to the drink, I looked down at the sidewalk, and there was this fellow looking up at me.

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I looked down at him; he continued looking up at me. A male Habronattus paratus. I had no vial with me, and thought about what I have. Book, no help. Plastic bag, might have hole. Water bottle–? So, I poured out the liter of preciously cold drinking water onto the ground (after momentarily wondering whether I could drink it all before the spider hopped away), chased the little guy in, and carried him to the lab. Of course, then I went back to the cafeteria to fill the bottle once again.


Sounds of the forest

One of the small projects I do when I go to a tropical forest is to set up a video camera and audio recorder and simply leave them, recording the sites and sounds of the forest. You can hear some of them in our museum — listen when you are in the washroom. Doing these recordings has made me more aware of how rich is the chorus of sounds in a tropical forest.

In the forest at dusk, you will hear the sounds of crickets, frogs, katydids, cicadas, birds. One, off to the left. What is it? Another, close by, just behind you. Then another, high overhead. And suddenly you feel the space of the forest, as your mind’s eye is cast out to each to wonder about the unknown animal making the sound.

Ecologists and artists both are increasingly aware that the sounds of ecosystems are changing. As species are lost, voices in the chorus are lost. Pay attention, listen. While you can.


Excellent Birds

At Yasuní I got lucky when I left the video camera out for a half hour in the forest. Here’s a snippet. Can anyone tell me what sort of birds these are?


Big Tree

It’s hard to capture the magnificence of a big rainforest tree in photographs. I’ve made a crude composite of photos of one of the biggest trees easily photographed at Yasuní. You can see my beating sheet for scale — it’s about 4/5 of a meter on each side.
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The base of the tree has expansive buttresses, stabilizing it. The horizontal span of these buttresses in the widest dimension is about 11 meters. Vines cling to the trunk rising high into the canopy. High up, the tree divides into massive branches, draped over which are bromeliads, orchids and other plants, forming a luxurious aerial garden. You can understand why there are so many species of spiders and other creatures that live only in the canopy, because there is so much happening up there. Many of the spiders stay up there and never touch the ground, and like them, many of the plants in a tropical rainforest live an entirely aerial existence. I look up there and dream what marvelous spiders are in that garden.


Special effects monster

Science fiction filmmakers dream up strange monsters to induce endorphin release in viewers, but nature has had a millions of years head start in evolving monsters. As a spider biologist, I generally find spiders fun or at least acceptably innocuous (though, as per my tarantula post, not always cute). But, if I were to ask special effects designers for a science fiction film to take a spider and make it scary (or to arachnophobes, even scarier), they might come up with amblypygids. Amblypygids are not spiders, but are related to spiders. They have spiny mouthparts, and, most remarkably, really long first legs that look like thin antennae. Amblypygids look vaguely robotic. Here’s one we found on the ground at night at Yasuní.
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The first legs are hard to see, so I’ve drawn yellow lines just above and paralleling the legs. The legs are so long that they go out of the photo on both sides; their total span is about 30 centimeters. The legs move slowly back and forth, around, surveying the region near the amblypygid like tactile radar. I’m glad amblypygids aren’t as big as dogs.


Paper snowflakes

Children in Canada and probably many other countries know how to make folded-paper snowflakes. You take a piece of paper and fold it, then fold it again more or less crosswise to the first fold, then again so that all three folds intersect at one point. Then you cut an edge at some distance from the intersection point, and cut little holes and nicks. When you open it up, you have a snowflake that is radially symmetrical about the intersection point.

It seems that leaf-eating insects in tropical forests also cut snowflakes. Here’s a sight I’ve seen often, a leaf with rows of punctures.
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I’ve not seen this being created, but my guess (and here I’m speculating) is that when the leaf was young and tender, still tightly furled before opening out, some hungry insect ate through the leaf, drilling straight through. The leaf then opened up with this regular design of holes.


Mud shirt

Remember the day we rushed out to the fallen tree? It turns out that our field clothes were in the laundry that day, so I had to go out with my city clothes, including one of my favourite T-shirts. That’s what I’m wearing in the rain-drenched photo. Well, after getting back from the tree, I hung the T-shirt over the balcony railing, following the tradition of tropical biologists. I didn’t think about the T-shirt for a while until the day before we left Yasuní, when we were accumulating clothes for cleaning. Where did the T-shirt go? I didn’t recall taking it off of the railing, but it wasn’t there. What did I do with it? Eventually we found it, lying on the mud, two stories down. Covered with little butterflies, it had begun the process of being returned to nutrients for the forest.
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Generally speaking, tropical biologists prefer synthetic fabrics because they won’t rot back to mud. This T-shirt was cotton, however. After a thorough washing it looks OK, though it may be weaker for the experience. Each time I put it on I will remember its experience.


Spider hunting in Yasuní, Ecuador: wrap-up

All in all, it was a spectacular visit to Yasuní. I estimate we found about 153 species of jumping spiders. For the few jumping spider geeks among you, the breakdown by group was 63 amycoids, 26 marpissoids, 26 euophryines, 24 freyines, 8 lyssomanines and 6 others (lapsiine, astioids, plexippoids and heliophanine).

With such an extensive sample of the jumping spider community, we will have a good basis for understanding the South American component of how salticids have evolved into different ecological niches on the different continents. Next, to complete our Ecuadorian trip we go to our second site, Canadé, west of the Andes. I’ll let an Akela male say goodbye from Yasuní.
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Río Canandé Reserve

In addition to government reserves and National Parks like Yasuní, Ecuador has many smaller reserves that are owned privately, often by foundations seeking to conserve special areas. One such reserve, in the richly biodiverse but threatened Choco region of northwestern Ecuador, is the Río Canandé Reserve of the Jocotoco Foundation. We chose it as our second site for Ecuador, expecting that the imposing barrier provided by the Andes would give us a jumping spider fauna that had evolved to some extent in isolation from that at Yasuní.

We got to Canandé by car, driving from Quito northwest down from the Andes. The roads were small, dusty, and poorly marked, but after 6 hours or so, including a ferry ride on a barge powered by two motor canoes, we arrived at Canandé. Jocotoco has a lodge there that serves to house ecotourists (especially birders) as well as scientists.

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I was especially excited, as I’ve collected many times in Ecuador, but almost always in the Amazonian east. This was my first time in the wet rainforests of the west. What would we find?


An amazing start at Canandé

In our Name a Spider contest, the species whose name is at stake is a lapsiine, an unusual and poorly known group of jumping spiders. No lapsiines had been collected yet in the low elevation areas west of the Andes, but I was pretty sure they should be there, and if they were, they’d likely be new. I was pretty excited about what lapsiines might be at Canandé.

On the first day of sampling we hiked out and chose our first site for sampling. Each site, as we define it, is a 50-step length of trail in the forest, along which the three of us play rotating roles of ground-looker, trunk-brusher, and foliage-shaker. It’s my job to take the 50 steps (such a privilege seniority gives me!), and so from our first GPS reading I started to step 1, 2, my eyes wandering over the ground, 3….. Oh my gosh, what is that!!!!!! On the third step I saw a medium size jumping spider crossing the dead leaves on the path in front of me, and within the first half second I knew (1) it was a lapsiine and (2) it was outrageously new. It was flattish, elongate, and dark.
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In fact, it looked almost exactly like the strange Cucudeta from New Guinea, though bigger. But there were no known ground dwelling lapsiines west of the Andes, and the only ones east of the Andes are half the size and rather different. It was a female. Finding a male would be important for our studies, but I wasn’t permitted by our protocol to look specifically for more for the next three hours. But once we had done our routine and were resting on the trail, I thought “they look like Cucudeta; maybe they live in deep litter piles like Cucudeta”. So, I scooped up some litter and threw it on my sheet, just as I had for Cucudeta, and bingo, first pile, a male. My heart jumped instantly in elation.
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Over the week at Canandé, we found they were reasonably common, and got a good sample of them. There is no doubt they are a species new to science, and there’s a good chance they will represent a new genus, though we haven’t yet done the studies to confirm exactly what they are related to. Needless to say, I was glowing after our first day.


A viper teaches mindfulness

One day at Canandé we woke to rain, which usually means very few spiders collected. We decided nonetheless to hike more than an hour to the pristine forest higher up the hill. We started sampling, but with the rain, the salticids (who usually love sun) weren’t out. I was not seeing anything using the beating sheet. That is, nothing until this long green thing with a wide head fell onto the sheet. This is the scary picture of it.
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It’s a Bothrops — a viper, related to the notorious fer-de-lance. Quite poisonous. On my beating sheet. A few inches from my hand. But here is the not-so-scary picture of it.
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It’s a baby, and indeed I think I injured it in shaking the tree from which it fell. We took a break to take photos and appreciate it, before returning it to the tree.

This little pause did two things for me. It made me think again how special was this place, and that I should pay attention. I did, for the rest of the day, watch the forest more intently than normal, and not out of fright. And, as we were looking at the snake I noticed on the sheet a tiny black beetle-like jumping spider, a Cylistella. It’s like the little cute one from Yasuní, but a different species, and the only male we’d collected. I would not have noticed it had the snake not been there, because I wouldn’t have had the patience to look closely enough for such a tiny thing. This has happened to me before, that I noticed a small spider only because something else of interest had been on the sheet. It was as if the snake was a spirit sent from the forest to say “will you PLEASE pay attention, there’s a Cylistella on the sheet!”. And so, I paid attention.


Party upstairs

One of the most remarkable thingsabout walking through a tropical forest is how often you see a scattering of flowers littering the ground. In one place they were long and pink, in another white with pointy petals, in another place bright red. Each was as if a big bouquet was dropped. These flowers of course have fallen from a tree above that is in flower, so far above that it’s usually hard to see. When you come upon them lying on the ground it’s a sudden lift to your spirits, as if a party’s happening up there and you can hear the music. It makes you a bit joyous to picture the fun. Here are some of the “flowerfalls” I found.

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Wouldn’t it be cool to do an art project, either photography or painting, depicting “fallen flowers” and the abstract patterns they form?

And of course, “flowerfalls” might be followed by “fruitfalls”. Here are two elegant fallen fruits.
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Oz’s Glass Spider

In L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz, there lived a glass cat who was rather proud of itself. Being glass, it was transparent. It would say “I have the handsomest brains in the world. They’re pink, and you can see ’em work.”

In Canandé we found the most remarkably transparent jumping spider I’ve ever seen. It’s an amycine, but I don’t know exactly which one. Here is a close-up of the male’s body. At the back of the carapace, you can see the muscle bands for each of the legs, separated by yellow, which may be the blood pooling.
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You can also see the eyes quite clearly. The black patches on the head are the smaller side eyes, but the main eyes extend like cones backward from the face. In the living spider you can see these cones move as the spider is looking in one direction or the other.

Quite remarkable. “I have black eyes, and you can see ’em work.”


All together now

A big bean pod — maybe 20 cm long — was lying on the path in the forest in Canandé, and all of its contained seeds were germinating while still in the pod. A strange sight.
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Holding on

Look how these vines at Canandé have lateral anchors to hold on to the tree trunk.
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Orange and Red and Green

One of my favourite jumping spiders at Canandé was a species of which we found a single male, at the most distant site from the lodge. He’s a beautiful translucent orange, with red legs, and a body that reflects metallic green.
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For some reason to do with the nature of the flash, my camera rarely captures the metallic colors of spiders. Seen with the naked eye, he reflects much more green than this.

This little fellow had an endearing behaviour. He would cock his head left and then right, like a dog or a person attempting to listen better.orangeRedGreen2 copyB
Perhaps this helped with its vision?


Dung beetles

This post comes with a GROSSNESS ALERT. We noticed that there were some beautiful big metallic green dung beetles flying around the forest, and they seemed to pay special attention to us, as if they were waiting for us to do something.
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Well, eventually, if you spend enough time hiking and working in a forest without “facilities”, at some point you’ll find yourself needing to do something spontaneous. Entomologists who work on dung beetles have long known that human dung is among the most attractive, so they collect their own to use as bait. (Do you have what it takes to be a tropical biologist?) When I found myself having to be spontaneous, way up the hill in the beautiful forest, I decided to start my stopwatch to see how long it would take for the dung beetles to arrive. It took 3 minutes, which is longer than I’ve seen in eastern Ecuador, but then the Canandé forest is rather cool and not as anxiously dynamic as the Amazon basin is.

The very first to arrive was one of those big metallic green ones. It turns out that my product was really quite loose, more so than usual. The big beautiful beetle just flew straight in, and started swimming around without hesitation. Next time you see a big beautiful tropical beetle, ask it “And where have you been?”.


Hiking uphill

I prefer hiking uphill rather than downhill. Of course, it’s easier on the knees, and if you trip, falling forward is more reassuring than falling backward. But for me most importantly, my eyes are closer to the ground in front of me when I go uphill. This means that on our morning hikes up the hill, we’d be occasionally spotting little spiders on the ground. The commonest was this compact one that looked like a little brown lump because its legs were held close to the body. We don’t quite know what it is. Perhaps it’s a Toloella, perhaps not. We nicknamed it “grumpy” because of its stern eyebrows and guarded posture.
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Before there was a forest

Every individual living thing in a tropical rainforest seems temporary. Dung gets rapidly recycled into beetles. Fallen leaves are rapidly decomposed. Trees fall and new ones sprout up. The forest may look the same from year to year, but there is rapid turnover of individual participants. And yet, one gets the sense that left on its own, the forest will come back. No bare patch remains bare for long. Human destruction aside, it feels that the forest as a whole is perpetual, always reviving.

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Hiking uphill one day turned up not just spiders, but this rock with a fossil scallop in it. When I first saw it, it was a shock, first because you tend not to notice many rocks in most tropical rainforests (the ground being largely covered with mud and living and dead plant materials). But second, it broke my sense of the forest being perpetual. This land was under the sea once, millions of years ago. Instead of the forest being in an always timeless *now* of constant change that erases the past, I was forced to think of this place before the forest was.


A conflagration of monkeys

We often heard, and once saw, howler monkeys calling in the forest at Canandé. Their voices travel far, and sound to my ears like a mix of your stomach growling, Chewbacca, and a howling wind — and really loud.

One day we got up the hill to the pristine forest and there were monkeys above us. They were clearly agitated, shaking branches and looking down at us. It was my impression that they were shaking the branches above us to make things drop on us.
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(It’s hard to photograph monkeys with my simple camera, as one sees just the silhouette.)

One (circled below) was shaking a vine from which was dangling something big — maybe a broken branch hanging on only by the vine (arrow below).
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He was almost straight above me, and suddenly I realized I was in real danger should the vine break (it was maybe 15 meters up, and the thing falling would have cracked me good). But then I was torn — maybe I should go straight underneath with my sheet, in hopes that the monkey would shake down some canopy-dwelling spiders?! Should I? Alas, prudence won.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that our closest relatives are noisy and pushy, and the more there are, the noisier and pushier they seem. Just like humans. I wonder if instead of “troupe”, the collective noun should be “a conflagration of monkeys”.


Cute mushrooms

To compete with the fairy mushrooms at Yasuní for cuteness, here are some mushrooms from Canandé.
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Raking the forest clean

You may recall the special lapsiine jumping spider that excited me so much on our first day at Canandé. The best way we found to collect it was to grab a pile of leaf litter from the ground, place it on a sheet and sift through it.

Midway through our time at Canandé we were returning to the lodge when we noticed, along the trail, a rake leaning up against a tree. We then realized that the path was without leaves, clean. We were astonished: did the park ranger rake because the ecotourists expect clean paths?

We found the answer near the end of our time at Canande. We were talking to the ranger about what trail we were going to use that day, and he said “but I haven’t cleaned that trail”. We told him that we prefer the paths unraked, to which he replied “but the snake is there”. It turns out he rakes the paths for visitor safety: there’s a small viper much more poisonous than the fer-de-lance that hides just under the surface of the leaf litter. It’s harmless as long as you don’t disturb it by stepping on it or doing something silly like grabbing handfuls of litter to look for spiders — which we had been doing with great enthusiasm the previous four days.


Horned jumping spider

We found a striking salticid at Canandé whose males have sword-like projections on their jaws. We think it’s a Tylogonus. Here’s the beast:
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Notice the two spikes projecting forward from the face. They are coming from the jaws. We don’t know what the males do with them, but we expect they are involved either in male-male jousting or in otherwise impressing the females.


Chainsaws in the rainforest

On our last sampling day at Canandé we were a bit sad that our time there was about to come to an end. We were sampling in a very wet forest and not getting much, but the birds were singing, and we knew we were in a special place in the world.

But we could hear chain saws roaring, gnawing, tearing, almost continuously. We figure they were a few hundred meters away, just outside the reserve. And, every half hour or so, we heard the deep notes of a huge tree falling. The fall was not simple and quick, because a large tropical forest tree is attached to many around though vines, and so one big tree might bring down a second, and a third. The fall was a spasm, a mournful and dying melody of crashes. It was disturbing, surreal. It put us all in pretty low spirits.


Mitad del Mundo

Several kilometers north of Quito there’s a monument built about 30 years ago marking the equator and celebrating French scientific expeditions in the 18th and 19th centuries to Ecuador to determine the placement of the equator. Tourists over the years, myself included, have had their photos taken at the monument with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one foot in the southern. But, according to the current reckoning (and modern GPS devices), the monument is in the wrong place by a few hundred meters.

I figure the modern equivalent to having a photo with your feet in two hemispheres is to attempt to record a waypoint on your GPS device at 0.00000 latitude. After a few failed attempts in vehicles moving too quickly, we slowed down the car as we were returning from Canandé and voilá!

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By the way, I can’t wait until everyone finally gets on board expressing latitude and longitude using fully decimal degrees rather than degrees, minutes and seconds. For database entry, quick calculations and minimizing errors, full decimal is so much better. It’s easy to remember that near the equator a degree is approximately 100 km, and thus the first through fifth decimal places represent approximately 10 km, 1 km, 100 m, 10 m and 1 m.


Canandé wrap-up

At Canandé we found approximately 78 species of salticids in one week, fewer than in our first week at Yasuní by quite a bit. It seems that Canandé is not so diverse. But we were still very please with our sample of species, most of which we’d never seen before, and which included the wonderful new lapsiine.

As I had for Yasuní, I’ll give some details for the few jumping spider geeks among you. The breakdown by group was 25 amycoids, 18 marpissoids, 20 euophryines, 9 freyines, 3 lyssomanines and 3 astioids and 1 lapsiine.

The spider to wave goodbye from Canandé is one with close Canadian relatives. In eastern Canada you can find Zygoballus rufipes, notable for the trapezoidal carapace and the big jaws of the males. At Canandé we found an unfamiliar Zygoballus with extremely long first legs. Here’s the male, saying goodbye from Canandé.
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With that the Ecuador trip was finished. And now we have the job of identifying and analysing thousands of specimens from a couple of hundred species to see what stories they tell us.


Tropical souvenirs

Back in December 1989 I was in the Boston area visiting my brother who was doing graduate studies there. I was attempting to write some complex code for a computer program to do data analysis, but I was having recurring headaches, and I noticed I had a high fever. I kept working as long as I could, but eventually submitted to a visit to the hospital. After the usually questions, pokes, prods and some blood drawing, a young intern came to me with some excitement in his voice and asked me if I’d been traveling. I said yes, I’d recently been visiting my parents in Canada. His face looked perplexed, then he asked if I’d been anywhere else. I said yes, I’d been in Ecuador for most of the month of August. His eyes lit up, and explained that it appeared I had malaria. I assume it was his first case of the exotic tropical disease.

From a mosquito’s point of view, malaria is a disease transmitted by infected humans to unsuspecting mosquitoes. We see it the other way around. The organism causing malaria is not a bacterium or a virus, but rather, like ourselves and plants and fungi and other animals and many smaller things, a eukaryote. When reproducing in our blood it goes through cycles of bursting from the cells, hence the recurring headaches and fevers. My malaria must have lain dormant for several months before emerging in force far from its source, thankfully where medical care was at hand.

I am reminded of this experience by the lump at the back of my head that seems to have grown up since I got back from my recent Ecuador trip. It seems to be getting bigger, and itchier. I think I know what it might be: a bot fly larva.

By the way, the computer code that I wrote when I had the 40 C fever? It was rather tangled, and mysterious. It was years before I figured out exactly how it worked. But the strange thing was, it worked.


Bot fly?

This post comes with a GROSSNESS ALERT, for the squeamish among you.

If the lump at the back of my head is a bot fly, then here is what is growing in my scalp. A larval fly — a maggot basically — hides just under the skin enjoying the nutrients my body provides, growing and growing. It pokes out just barely in order to get air, but mostly it’s just a giant pimple. It itches. And maybe, if the larva gets big enough, it moves.

I’ve heard of other biologists nursing their bot fly larvae like pets, waiting for the larva to grow and pop out ready to turn into a fly. Should I care for mine? Should I give it a name? Suggestions?

Given that my lump is getting itchier, and I can’t see it (though I can pet it), or put on my bicycle helmet easily, I think I will go to the doctor to see what it is. If it’s a bot fly, it’s coming out.

How did I get the bot fly larva? The strange thing is that the mother bot fly never came close to me. The female bot fly does not do the dirty work of putting her eggs into me. Rather, she lays her eggs on a mosquito, and waits for the mosquito to deliver the payload when it comes to bite me.

Now, to phone the doctor.


My offspring […revealing what the lump on my head was]

The last two posts were written in September, when I thought the lump on my head may have been a bot fly from Ecuador, parasitizing me. Here’s how the story turned out. But, this post comes with yet another GROSSNESS ALERT.

In late September I went to the doctor, who cut out something from my scalp. He sent it to the lab to analyze, but, to my surprise, I received no diagnosis. Was it or wasn’t it a bot fly? I wasn’t too worried that about not receiving a diagnosis (after all, whatever it was, he cut it out, right?). But I did notice through October that the bump wasn’t going away. Was it simply irritated? Was it infected?

By late October two strange things were happening. I would occasionally reach back and touch the lump, and find my fingers wet with a clear liquid. The lump was leaking! The weirdest thing, though, were the noises. Twice I was awoken in the night by noises that sounded like fingers snapping. Snap. Snap. I realized that they were coming from the back of my head — and when I lay my finger on the lump, I could feel it pulse with each “snap”. The noises were probably transmitted through my head, which made them seem particularly loud. I also started noticing the snapping noises during the day. Was it just some strange effect of my pulse?

In early November I decided it was time to go to the doctor again. But then, on a Sunday morning, I awoke to find the lump gone! No pain, no leaking, seemingly healed. I thought: wow, maybe there had been some minor infection that my body finally overcame! (I had, by the way, been putting antibiotic cream on each night.) I was thrilled that my lump was gone.

But then, on Tuesday evening, I found this on my bedroom floor. It’s the size of a big raisin.

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Here’s a closeup.

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Yes, indeed, this is the pupa of a human bot fly. The spines were used to hold the maggot in if I had attempted to pull it out, like the barbs of a porcupine quill.

Now I know: The doctor had failed to remove it, and therefore it had been my “pet”, living in my scalp, for the last 10 weeks. On that Sunday, as a full grown larva, it must have crawled out of my scalp in the middle of the night, to pupate. Suddenly things made sense. The “leaking” presumably came from the continued irritation of the larva under my skin, and the noises were probably its occasional jerking movements. It seems obvious now, but I discounted these clues because I had been convinced the doctor had removed whatever was there.

Had I known it was still inside me, I could have used the royal “we”. I could have claimed I was “eating for two”. I must confess some fondness for my little offspring, the little baby fly nourished by my body in its womb-like hideaway under my skin. We humans imagine ourselves top predators, but of course there are many creatures that feed upon us. Most are small bacteria or viruses or other things too small to see, but others we know well, like mosquitoes.

I will try to keep it alive in hopes that my intimate friend will become an adult fly. I’ll tell you if it does.


Postscript

Well,  those were the blog posts I wrote in 2011 from Ecuador and after my return.  The bot fly pupa died before becoming adult. 😦

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