Notes from the Field: La Selva, Costa Rica

There is a subtle sour smell of sweat. It has permeated all of my belongings. I have been in the lowland rainforest of Costa Rica for just about two months. It rains constantly here, making sure everything has a perpetually clammy, slightly damp feel. I have been here catching fruit eating bats for a collaborative project with my advisor. We are investigating the coevolution of fruit scents in piper plants and the diet of a genus of bats, Carollia spp.

Piper is highly diverse and rampant genus of plants. There are ca. 1,000-2,000 species worldwide and about 50 of them can be found in the La Selva Biological reserve. The first month, I scrambled around the forest picking leaves of anything and everything I thought was piper. At first, it was extremely challenging because you think you know what Piper looks like and then BAM! you realize there is so much variability in traits for within one species. Even across different species you can have everything from heart shaped leaves to round to smooth to hairy leaves. You have species that can only be positively identified by smell, “Smells like lemons, must be Piper xanthstachyum!” or even species you have to identify by taste “Oh shit, my tongue is numb, must be Piper darienese!”

Piper diversity

Piper diversity

However, it has become kind of fun, like a super hard version of “Where’s Waldo?”. Except, instead of Waldo you have 50 species of plants that look like everything else in the forest and instead of a two-page book spread you are in 1,600 hectares of jungle!


In the evenings, I mist-net trying to catch the species that are feeding on these plants, Carollia castanea, Carollia sowelli, and Carollia perspicillata. These species are relatively abundant so most nights we catch at least a few. However, these aren’t the only species that are eating the Piper. The other night we caught Dermanura watsoni (Thomas’s fruit-eating bat), with a Piper in the net! Be that as it may, the Carollia bats are the real specialists at eating Piper.

Dermanura eating Piper

Dermanura watsoni eating Piper (photo credit Ada Kaliszewska)

Every night is a challenge, an adventure and sometimes a success! We have one more month of sampling to go and the rains are starting heavy again. Wish us luck!






Some other fun creatures of the forest…

Cyclopes didactylus Bothriechis schlegelii Mimon crenulatum Caluromys derbianus






Notes from the field: La Selva…and then the rains came

Two flashes of lightening, I am subconsciously counting the seconds…until a loud clap of thunder rolls through the clouds above. With all this I am still unsure if it is going to rain. I teeter between packing up my gear to sprint to the nearest shelter or try to wait it out. If the rain does come I will only have seconds to get to shelter before it hits hard.

I stand. I wait. I listen. All of a sudden I hear the Howler monkeys scream their loud whooping calls as they protest the impending rain. Then I know it’s about to rain and hard. I scramble to pack up my equipment and samples and after a minute I am drenched. This is life in the rainforest.

I have been here for a little over two months and I am finally starting to understand the voice of the jungle. When I first arrived it was overwhelming, so much so, that I felt I couldn’t hear or see anything even though with every step I took I passed dozens of species. It’s like getting to know a new friend, you learn how to read them. Read the cues of their behavior and read their moods. This rainforest is definitely a moody one. The weather is capricious, especially as we enter December. One minute the rain will be pouring down so hard you have to shout over it and then, all of a sudden, the sun will break through, hot and strong. The water will immediately start evaporating and you can see the steam rising from the ground all around you. While this can make field work challenging it also makes this place surreal and magical.Drenched, but still working


Notes from the field: Grenada

Grenada is a small country in the southern tip of the Caribbean island chain. It is full of colorful animals, lively culture and truly benevolent  people.

Location of Grenada    The beach    Grenadian Anole    Local fruit    The town    Looking for bats in an old Slave Pen house   Bats in an abandoned club   That's a lot of bat guano   The bat crew after a day in the batcave   Some sunset recording   Beautiful view with some acoustics   My advisor and I with Artibeus lituratus   My first Molossus molossus!   Dr. Carted with a large female snake   A quick lesson in acoustics with some vet students   Hanging out


I have been here for almost two weeks helping the Veterinary researchers at St. George University to study bats and the viruses they may carry. We have been trekking all around the island, North to South shore and everything in between, searching for bats. We climbed through abandoned houses, chocolate and nutmeg factories. Mist-netted at the military base, outside of schools, around people’s houses and outside of a bar.

We caught four of the twelve species on the island: Artibeus jamaicensis, Glossophaga longirostris, Molossus molossus and one Artibeus lituratus. We find that the Jamaican fruit bat (Artibeus jamaicensis) and the Miller’s long-tongued bat (Glossophaga longirostris) are, by far, the most common and the easiest to find as they roost exposed in the ceiling of abandoned or lightly used buildings.

At first, the Velvety free-tailed bat (Molossus molossus), was difficult to locate, but thankfully we have a very skilled and social vet helping us Dr. Carter. As we drove through small towns we started talking to people and pretty soon the bats were easy to find! While we are out we got a chance to talk to local people about the important aspects bats contribute to ecology. Grenadians are extremely receptive to this information we hope to have changed a few people’s minds that bats are good!


Notes from the field: San Juan Island style!

Oh man, has it been a whirl wind! This summer I am assisting my lab mate Rochelle Kelly with her super cool research on the biogeography of bats in the Pacific North West, specifically the fragmented habitat of the San Juan Archipelago.

We have already been here a week and have been mist netting on two islands, Blakely and Shaw. Both have been spectacular in their own way.

Spencer's Cabin on Blakely

Spencer’s Cabin on Blakely (Home to a Townsend’s Big-eared bat)

On Blakely Island we stayed at the Seattle Pacific University (SPU) field station. During our stay we mist-netted at a historical landmark, Spencer’s Cabin.  Home to a resident* Townsend’s big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii), an extremely charismatic and adorable bat! The first evening we mist-netted we caught several species including two Townsend’s!! Sadly, one of those got away…yeah, yeah just like the old fish tales.

Townsend's Big-eared bat

Townsend’s Big-eared bat

The next night we netted at Taggares pond and we were in for such a surprise! We caught 20 bats that night which is extremely good for netting on an island with two large lakes! We also saw a beaver and two barred owl juveniles. Even though it was busy at the nets we had help. Some SPU students,  who were on their own field course, came out and netted with us until midnight, even though they had a final the next morning at 9am. We were so thankful to them for helping our night go so smoothly!

Unfortunately we had to move on from Blakely and set up home base on Shaw Island. Shaw is a beautiful Island that has more of a down-home farm feel.

We have netted there a couple of nights and put out acoustics detectors to monitor bat activity of the species we are not capturing in our nets. We will continue to explore more islands in this archipelago and catch more great species like this Myotis evotis!

Myotis evotis (The long-eared myotis)

Myotis evotis
(The long-eared myotis)


*a single individual has been observed to return to this cabin over the past few years, however, we are unsure if this is the same individual every year.

Nerd Nite: Seattle…an evening with a nerd and a cocktail

This past week I was fortunate enough to give a guest “lecture” for a nerd night event at Lucid Lounge in Seattle. I use the term “lecture” loosely because really I gave a powerpoint in a bar with a cocktail in hand. However, it was such a treat to share my research about the evolution and sensory ecology of Neotropical leaf-nosed bats with so many people outside of the University of Washington and outside of elementary school groups.

I discussed the 3D Morphological aspect of my dissertation and how diversity in the nose leaf and ears may be related to ecological diversity (i.e. eating different foods). I was ecstatic, when at the end of my talk, about a dozen hands shot up and I received many passionate and insightful questions. Whenever I have doubt that my research is not relevant or potentially uninteresting to the public it is experiences like this that inspire me to continue to share my developments as I forge a path through graduate school. There is always  at least one person who is truly interested in what we do and that is all it takes.

To anyone who might feel like this, keep sharing! It is worth it.

In a couple months you might see my talk here:

Notes from the field: Palo Verde – The last few weeks

I sip my morning coffee as I look out over the wetland in Parque Nacional Palo Verde.

Palo Verde rapidly drying

Palo Verde rapidly drying

Everyday I see the water line retreating, as much as a meter per day. This year in Palo Verde has been exceptionally dry and water has been extremely limited.The rainy season was short and light and many small water sources have dried months before they normally would.

Over these past weeks we have been traveling all over the park in search of water. With the help from my lovely field assistants we have been fairly successful in finding some great netting locations, given the circumstances.

Katherine looking for bats inside a cave nearby.

Katherine looking for bats inside a cave nearby.

We have been near and far, netting at a small (1 x 1m) concrete water hole near the comedor to netting inside of the wetland. We have been netting in bat caves and deep within the forest.

At first, the lack of water was discouraging as I was not catching as many bats as I had hoped and we almost felt like “what’s the point”. However, my first field assistant of the season, Alvaro, changed my attitude when he said to me  “The worst kind of try is to not try.” He was right and this situation was an ideal opportunity for us to try new netting techniques and explore the park! So, that has been our motto throughout this field season and has motivated us to conduct our research in many areas around the park and try some unconventional and sometimes “crazy” techniques, and sometimes it is has paid off. We have been lucky enough to catch one of my favorite bats, the Wrinkle-faced bat (Centurio senex) and film another very special bat Vampyrum spectrum feeding!

Centurio senex

Centurio senex

Every night we have been working hard mist-netting until about 10pm and then we will usually film until 2 or 3 in the morning. It has been exhausting, but rewarding and I wouldn’t have it any other way! I really have to thank all of the people at OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) and the hard work of my field assistants for all of their help. My assistants, who would stay up with me until 2 am waiting for the katydids to emerge for the night so I could feed them to bats or who would spend days repairing (sewing) our mist-nets so we could keep catching bats every night. Without them I could not have kept going this hard for five weeks. Thank you Sergio Padilla Alvarez, Alvaro Cerdas Cedeño, Katherine Díaz and Luis Girón!!!

Notes from the Field: Palo Verde – The first week

Life of Palo Verde: A few of the amazing species we have seen.

Hot. Dry. We are driving down a dirt and gravel road that leads deep into Palo Verde National Park. The dust is so thick that we slow to less than 15 kilometers per hour so we don’t hit anything.

These first few days in Costa Rica, in San Jose, have been stressful, but I let out a sigh of relief to know that at last I was on my way to my field site. I came to Palo Verde to investigate how bats use behavioral manipulation of their nose leaf (in Phyllostomidae) and ears to find prey items. I want to compare if different species use different behavioral movements of the nose leaf and ears when searching for prey. Once at Palo Verde Biological station we settled in and prepared for our first night of mist-netting.

Vampyrum spectrum

Holding Vampyrum spectrum

Palo Verde is a tropical dry forest on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. I first visited about a year ago when I took an OTS course and I knew I wanted to come back because the diversity of bats you can catch here is amazing.

On the first and second night out we were so lucky to have caught a False Vampire bat (Vampyrum spectrum) each night. This rare bat has a wing span of up to 2ft and feeds on insects and other vertebrates. While this species was particularly exciting to catch, we were also astounded to catch more than 15 different species in the first week.

For some individuals, we have been trying to record high-speed video from bats inside a flight enclosure. Like most live and wild animals they seldom behave how you would like them to. There have been many nights we have sat silently in the dark for hours waiting for that bat who will be our star pupil.

Protection from the mosquitoes

Protection from the mosquitoes

At times the field work can be extremely arduous and sometimes very uncomfortable. For example, at night it is 75 degrees with 75 % humidity and I have to bundle up from head to toe to protect myself from the mosquitoes. But, being able to see the biological diversity in this extreme habitat is really something wonderful.

Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) Meeting 2015

SICB is one of my favorite scientific conferences to attend. Amazing scientists from all of the world come together to share their research. This meeting really has something for everyone: ecology, evolution, phylogenetics, biomechanics, as well as much more and most work incorporates multiple fields listed. I highly recommend that all biologists (in any form) attend this meeting at least once in their career.

I had the opportunity to present some of my preliminary research on the morphology of the nose leaves and ears of phyllostomid bats. Take a look at my poster!


Out of OUR Element: Students & Science Communication

Some of the OTS students-bird watching

I wanted to share a link to a National Geographic blog that features the OTS (organization for tropical studies) course I was a part of in Costa Rica.  In this class we had the opportunity to work closely with two great film producers, Nate Dappen and Neil Losin, founders of Day’s Edge Production. Together we explored the different mediums of science communication, particularly photography and film making. Featured in this article, Out of their Element, are the short films our class turned out in just a few days! Through this experience I have learned how much power each of us has through sharing our research experiences and the amazing things we discover, especially if we can do it in a creative way.

Check out- Out of their Element and tell us what you think!

Not your mama’s nose leaves

As I progress through my first quarter as an RA I find myself busy with writing grant proposals, trouble shooting equipment and diving into the black hole of literature on the subject of sensory ecology. There is never enough time or brain capacity for all those papers…

Aside from all that, I have been experimenting with some new methods for my future project. With the help of our awesome lab manager Abby, we have been taking bat heads and producing high quality scans of some of the sensory structures (nose leaves, ears, etc.). Recently, I have focused on scanning the nose leaves of some phyllostomid bats in our microCT scanner. Phyllostomids (Phyllostomidae), Neotropical leaf-nosed bats, are a wonderfully ecologically diverse group of bats of the Neotropics. Phyllostomids are unlike most bats in that they emit echolocation calls through their nasal cavity, not orally, and posses a conspicuous nose leaf on their nares (see first photo). Diet of various species consists of everything from insects, fruit, nectar, vertebrates and blood. Their sensory structures, such as ears and nose leaves, are diverse in size and shape. I am extremely interested in how the variation in morphology, the form of a structure, in this group of bats influences their ecology.

This is really great because I can get 3D models of the structures that I can use to look for differences between species!

Phyllostomus hastatus-omnivore
Photo credit: Maël Dewynter

Check out it!

Artibeus lituratus-frugivore
Carollia perspicillata-frugivore