Bullet Ants

•July 20, 2012 • 2 Comments

I think it’s possible that bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) are the one thing that universally strikes fear into everyone in Costa Rica. From the seasoned researcher to the field techs who’ve grown up around them, everyone who knows what they are dislikes Bullet Ants. Let me explain why that might be.

You may think that something called a bullet ant, is perhaps shaped like a bullet? Perhaps they’re really fast?

No, no.  They’re called bullet ants for a way more awesome reason.  Because they have the ability to sting you with a neurotoxin that causes a sensation of pain alarmingly like what it feels like to be shot, and it lasts for a full day, sometimes longer. Waves of ridiculous, horrible pain, and partially paralyzed areas surrounding the bite.  Sounds like fun right?

My roommate Erica, an assistant in the McGlynn lab at California State University Dominguez Hills, studies bullet ants.  She goes out in the middle of the night, finds nests and tracks the nectar that these lovely bullet ants bring back.  Apparently they carry small drops of nectar in their tiny, pain-inducing mandibles, and bring them all the way back to their nests to feed their nestmates. Sweet of them, right?

Erica does this daily with complete good humor. She stays up all night, hunting crazy ants, goes to breakfast, and then sleeps all day.  She’s social, friendly, and a completely awesome roommate.

But she does work in the rain forest, in the night, with a pretty scary animal. You may not be surprised to hear that occasionally, she has dreams about bullet ants.  A couple of days ago, we were both sleeping in the daytime,  as those who work at night often do, and Erica says to me, in a serious, calm voice,

“I think there’s a bullet aunt on me”

I respond with a very sleepy and  slightly alarmed, “What?!”

Erica’s reply? Again, perfectly calm, no worry whatsoever in her voice, she says “I think there’s a bullet ant on me, but I don’t want to get up to check.”

Then she turns over, and goes back to sleep.

I at this point, have finally woken up, and I realize that, thank goodness, Erica has not.

We’ve had this entire exchange while she was fully asleep.

In some ways this is entirely reassuring, I no longer have to worry about being stung in my sleep.  I’m unlikely to wake up screaming, feeling as though I have been shot with a large gun, and concerned that I may be dying.  I find this comforting enough to go back to sleep myself.

I wonder though about these things we researchers do to ourselves.  Maybe not consciously, but somewhere inside, we just might be terrified of the things that we do and it just might come out in our dreams.


On how to stay in the moment

•July 18, 2012 • 1 Comment

First, I know not all people agree that this is paradise.  In fact some people seem to only see the parasites, the bug bites, the scary snakes, and other crazy things.

To them this beautiful morning looks more like this:

They aren’t wrong, at least not entirely. However, the last thing I want is for someone to hear those crazy stories and decide not to come to Costa Rica in general or La Selva in particular because of them.

In fact, in some ways, the reason this place is so amazing is that it is sometimes a little dangerous or miserable.

I think that most people need  to worry, complain, or stress about something, at least a little bit. At home in the US, that tends to take the form of stressing about the long lines, or the traffic, or the fact that so and so gave you a funny look and you’re sure they’re gossiping about you. I think, in part, that’s because in the States, you never have to worry about frogs in the toilet, or venomous snakes crossing the path as you walk to the comedor for dinner. There are no rats in your office, and there is very low risk that if you leave a tiny piece of candy out for longer than 20 minutes, you’ll return to find a resourceful, vigilant, ant highway taking it away, sugar molecule by sugar molecule.

You’d think that these types of things might make you a little crazy.  Instead, for me at least, they seem to be a way to keep in the moment.  When I’m here, I rarely think about the horribly embarrassing moment that happened when I was twelve, because I’m busy watching for army ants.  I can’t rehash the mistakes of my early twenties, because I don’t want to accidentally go off path and step into a pile of peccary poo. I can’t even think about the crush I have on that guy I met that one time, because I need to focus on the location of the next spider web.  The lack of distractions and absence of physical danger in the more-developed world is convenient, but I’m not 100% sure that its actually better, at least emotionally.  My brain is always working overtime.  While the self-help books and yoga teachers say otherwise, training my brain to think only about the things I want it thinking of has always been a challenge.  Here in Costa Rica, it takes no re-framing, no special effort, to make my brain stay in the moment. I just simply have other things to think about, things that keep me here, where I am.

So, yeah, I’ve got 12,654 bugs bites (including a really really itchy one on my ass).  However, I have no idea what day of the week it is and I could care less if you’re talking about me (but if you are, I hope its all good). 🙂


The luckiest girl in the world.

On being lonely

•July 9, 2012 • 3 Comments

Loneliness is an odd thing.

I’ve been here at the station for a full week now.  I’ve found more than thirty of the spiders I’m looking for, practiced marking them, measuring them, though for hours about how I’m going to deal with trying to answer all my questions about them.

I’ve watched a ladies soccer game, had a couple of bottles of Imperial, and spent (too little) quality time with a couple of people I really enjoy.  I have two roommates who seem lovely, both work in the evening-time as well (one on Bullet Ants, one on Dendrobatid frogs).

I’ve eaten meals and had conversations with many many researchers. I’ve gone to talks and  watched the tropical rain forest from up close and through my office window. I’ve seen and learned too much (in a good way) for such a short time.

I’ve done all this before, started in a new place, worked up my comfort level with all the new people.  Slowly got my bearings and made it feel like home.

Somehow each time I do it I forget just how lonely it can be those first few weeks (and sometimes months) before I make the first real friend, and find a few people who I really enjoy spending time with.

Its funny though, how loneliness is (for me) always so much more profound when I’m in a group of people, than when I’m totally alone.  I’m a solo backpacker and traveler for goodness sake, there is no reason I should ever feel lonely, I choose this regularly!

I have all kinds of theories about this: that it isn’t actually that I am alone, but rather that I am more alone than those around me (or so I imagine).  Or perhaps it is that I’m feeling the social norms trying to kick in but I’d really rather not try to fit in here, or maybe I’d like to be different in this place where almost no one knows me.  Is it fear? Is it my shyness? Is it none of the above?

The truth is, it doesn’t really matter. In a few months I’ll feel entirely differently. I’ll be dreading the thought of going home, and planning my next trip with excitement and considering a change in location because a part of me is a little bored with staying in this place that was once so new.

Perhaps I need this loneliness, just a little bit, so that I never forget how much I adore the collection of awesome people who I’ve found through all my nomadic movements.  Without dark there can’t be light.  Or something like that.

Or maybe I just want a really good gossip-and-tequila partner.

Happy day of independence.

•July 4, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Last year, on this most patriotic of days, I was in the middle of a failing field season.  I was trying hard to find a way to be a normal, un-nomdadic person, who also did field work and travel and stuff.  I was training for a century ride, looking for Neospintharus trigonum, playing ukulele badly.  I finished the day chasing fireworks in my kayak and loving life.  

The year before that, I was trying to find a way to say goodbye to my dog.  I may have done something celebratory for the day, but I don’t remember it.  I just know I felt so, so, sad.  Almost everything changed that summer. 

The year before that, I was at Jenny’s house in Puerto Viejo, drinking tequila and singing inappropriate songs about America and celebrating the independence of a country that I was so lucky to be born into, if for no other reason than because I, as one of the under-privileged in AMerica, still had so much more than so many others.  I had enough, in fact, to spend a summer in Costa Rica.  

And here I am again, full circle, three years later.  No party tonight (it was on the Saturday before I got here), but for me, a mini celebration of the fact that I’m able to be in this place. My only bike-riding option is rusty, with no breaks, and though my ukulele skills have improved somewhat, I still play badly most of the time.  I’ve sold the kayak, all of my belongings fit easily into a 10 x 5 storage space, I no longer have a physical address, and I’m thinking that I’m ok with that. In fact I kind of love the idea of just embracing nomad-ism for a year or so.  After all, I should go to where the spiders are, right?  And the spiders?   Oh yes, I have found the spiders, so much improvement on that front.  

So for today, I’m going to celebrate my own personal independence. Independence from the feeling that I have to or even want to be a certain way this year.  

I still love my life, though it isn’t quite what I had originally planed.  

I”m going to go out in the jungle now. I’m going to mark tiny spiders with glowing paint and laugh at how awesome they are.  Tonight, I’ll drink a tequila-guanabana cocktail and toast to freedom.  Seems like the best sort of plan I could possible have today.  


Un abrazo.  


Things I have learned about dating by studying the behavior of spiders.

•February 6, 2012 • Leave a Comment

1) While dating, I should remember that I study behavior because I think that the behavior of an organism can be a window that give you a view of the overall picture of the interactions, environment, and evolutionary history of the organism. The same is true of people. The things that people say when describe themselves, their beliefs, and their personalities mean almost nothing. In particular when they are trying to get you to date them. The only thing that matters is their actions and how those actions make you feel.

2) Nephila spiders will abandon a web when there are too many things stealing their time and attention, when they aren’t getting the basic things they need to survive, when the cost of relocation is less than the cost of stayingKnow when to get out

3) Nephila spiders do not know before they build a web, how that web will do or whether it will be better than the one before.  They build it anyway, and see how it goes.  You can’t know how a relationship will be or how it will turn out until you are in that relationship.  Over-thinking and trying to guess, while interesting at times, rarely ever actually teaches you anything.

4) Spiders sense everything about their environment by how their web feels under their “feet.”  Are there new prey out there? Are there predators? Wind or rain coming? Little kleptos invading to steal all your food? When I am dating (and it seems possible that it is true of others as well) sometimes I forget to listen to what’s right in front of me: that feeling in my gut that something is wrong or off, something is changing, there is some kind of imbalance that needs to be corrected, there are minor repairs that need to be made.  Sometimes just liking the place where you are, and (who you’re there with) is just not enough.  Don’t forget to pay attention to what your senses are telling you

5) When someone is stealing little things from you (your time, your energy, your emotional attachment, your banjo) and you sense that there is an imbalance, you have some choices.

  • It might be that the cost to you is small, while the benefit to them is potentially very large, so you could choose to just let them keep taking those things, assuming that at some point they will do some benefit for you (or that the benefits to not acting are larger than the cost). In Argyrodes-Nephila  interactions the host frequently just ignores all the stealing little kleptos simply because they don’t hurt them enough to warrant spending energy to eat them or chase them away. There is also some speculation that the Argyrodes clean the web a bit by eating the little insects that are too small for Nephilia to bother with, which makes it easier to catch prey (they can’t see the web before they fly into it). Ignore it and hope it evens itself out eventually
  • However, if you let those little stolen items accumulate, they can become too large to overcome. At that point, your only hope to survive might be to abandon ship.  Nephilia  tolerates Argyrodes to a certain point,but if there are too many on her web, she just might leave the whole thing behind in order to escape them.  Don’t ignore it too long, or you might not be able to fix it any longer

6) It’s okay to be honest about what you want.  If a spider that’s 20 times larger than you says to get off their web, you listen.  However, you have to actually send the message in a way that they can understand. If you’re a spider, when all else fails be aggressive. 

7) Frequently, Argyrodes find the Nephila again and the whole cycle starts all over again.  Sometimes your problems follow you where ever you go.  In that case, you should probably evaluate what you are doing instead of blaming it all on the kleptos   🙂

Spidey males don’t have to be present to be sexually active

•February 6, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Spider Can Inseminate Female From Afar


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The orb-web spider Nephilengys malabarensis is into rough sex—so rough that the male will often voluntarily break off his whole sex organ, or palp, while it’s still lodged in the female’s abdomen, rather than risk being eaten alive by her. Now a group of researchers think they know why evolution has allowed this dead-end dad to survive. They collected 25 pairs of spiders and introduced them to one another. After each pair had mated and the male’s palp was left in the female, the researchers dissected the female and counted the sperm in her abdomen and the amount remaining in the embedded palp. That organ, they reported online 31 January in Biology Letters, continues to transfer sperm into the female long after the male has fled or been consumed. The longer it’s embedded, the more sperm it transfers, and it’s even more efficient when the male breaks it off himself to run away, rather than letting the female do it while eating him.

(VIA Science, random samples DOI: 10.1126/science.335.6068.508-c)

The worst people

•January 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Yesterday, my friend L **** posted this link on facebook.  A list of the forty “absolutely worst people in the world,” a bunch of people who turned a day celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. into a way of proclaiming their ugly beliefs.  I found the list on the link itself disturbing. Although in some ways its probably good to have these people posting these kinds of things: at least it tells their “friends” the kind of people they are and allows them to make a choice about whether to know them, but to feel like its ok, acceptable, normal, even funny to post racial slurs? Not good.

I’ve always had a kind of passive philosophy about bigotry: I don’t care what you look like, who you sleep with, or what God(s) you do or don’t believe in. if I’m going to dislike you, I’ll try to do it based on your personality 😉 In some cases that isn’t enough, you have to step up and say out loud to someone else that what they’re doing isn’t ok, sometimes I have.  I find that happens less and less the older I get. Not because I’m less likely to say something, but because (I guess) I don’t seem to be as likely to be in those situations.   Maybe I’m just picking better people to surround myself with.  Maybe I try to hard to see where other people are coming from.

The problem I had after reading this isn’t just about the link though, it’s even more about the comments.  See, I know it’s a bad idea to read the comments. Even reading a whole post on facebook is often a bad idea; people say ridiculous things under the cover of Internet invisibility. However, it seems as though frequently, people see a post that makes them feel uncomfortable and they all seem to believe that they have to relate it to their experience and even one up it as though that post started some kind of sick competition for who has to deal with the most bullshit.

I’m a _(adjective)____ wo/man and have to deal with Black/Asian/Indian/Russian/White/alien wo/men  ­­­­___(verb)_______ me, too.  I’m ­___(adjective)______ and I had to deal with prejudice from __(noun)_________ and it was so much worse than your racism.  Try that mad lib.

We all have bad experiences, but they aren’t in competition against someone else’s, they just exist.  And that’s all that I saw L trying to say.  That it sucks that African Americans still, after all these years and supposed growth of our society, have to deal with nasty people who for some ridiculous reason can’t see beyond the color of a person’s skin.  So let me say this, I don’t speak for white people everywhere. I don’t think any one person can speak for any collective group of people. But as for me, I’m pretty glad that MLK existed, and I’m glad his memory is respected with a whole day, because he did amazing things, he said amazing things, and he talked to and with all of us.  I’m sad for what happened to him.  I’m sad that any person would belittle that. I’d like to see a day when people look at something like these posts and simply say that it is awful without mocking other people’s pain.  Even more, I’d like to see a day when people don’t say these things at all.  We’ve all got stars on ours.

And to my friend L, I’m sure there are lots of reasons to like and/or dislike you, regardless of your skin color.  I can even think of a few. 😉 Personally, I think the color of your skin only adds to your weirdo charm. I hope someday all the other people see that too.  Imagine that.

****written entirely without L’s permission but hopefully he’ll forgive me this once (if not, read fast: the delete button’s coming!)