Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Full Year

Before we get started with today’s post, make sure to check out the latest edition of Berry-Go-Round. Mary over at Neotropical Savanna has put together a great edition- I think it might actually be the best one yet*.

*What? Better than mine? Say it isn’t so! Well, it is so, and I’d probably be a bit crestfallen to admit it if Mary’s edition just wasn’t so darn great.

Speaking of Mary, check out her blog while you’re over there. She lives- get this- in Panama. Panama, from what I understand (haven’t been there yet, but plan to sometime… could sure use a plant-savvy guide. Mary, are you listening??), is like an undiscovered Costa Rica. It’s Costa Rica minus the condo developments, zip-lines, timeshare-compounds and “fusion” restaurants. It’s got lowland jungles, 11,000 foot volcanoes, cloud forests, beaches and similarly amazing plant and animal life as CR, with just a tiny fraction of the tourists. I am so there.

Side Note: For you non-plant-oriented readers, I listed some great reasons why you should check out Berry-Go-Round here. Plus, she lives in Panama. Panama!

One Year

Last Wednesday marked a year of doing this blog. Globe Willow on Creek Rd 3 27 08I was reminded not only by the date, but by seeing/hearing some of the same things I blogged about in the very first posts last Spring. While I was away in Costa Rica the Globe Willows (subject of my 2nd post) bloomed, and their bright green leaflets line the street to my office once again. And Saturday I heard Western Meadowlarks while road-biking out West (subject of my 5th post.)

greek_flag Tangent: And yes, last Wednesday was also Greek Independence Day. Which means I feel the urge to share another odd little story about being raised in the Greek church. The Greek church serves Greek-Americans not just as a church, but as sort of an ethnic vehicle, a place to get together with other Greek-Americans and celebrate various things Greek.

Foremost among those things was Greek Independence Day. I mentioned that we sang the national anthem, and I think we had a little pageant or something, and maybe some special cookies or what-not afterwards. But what I remember most was Mr. Papadopoulos*.

*Not his real name. I can’t remember his real name, and neither could either of my siblings, when I pinged them. But every Greek church has some guy named Papadopoulos, usually some older guy with a dark bushy beard and permanent scowl on his face, probably because he’s still pissed off about Constantinople falling to the Turks. Seriously, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Go to any Greek Church on Sunday, start asking around, and you will find at least a dozen middle-aged-to- old guys who are still pissed off about it. Just don’t call it “Istanbul”, or they will go ballistic...

25-03-08_greek_independence Every year on Greek Independence Day, Mr. Papadopoulos would stand in front of the congregation and speak about Greek Independence day. He would tell us how the Turks ruled Greece for 400 years, how Greek mothers would dress their little boys as girls so that the Ottomans wouldn’t draft them into the Janissaries, and how the brave, out-numbered Greek resistance fighters finally overthrew their Turkish masters.

The interesting thing about this was that Mr. Papadopoulos wasn’t a priest or a deacon or anything; he didn’t hold an ecclesiastical position of any sort. So far as I could tell, he established himself as the church’s designated Independence Day speaker through sheer, determined, jingoistic enthusiasm.

st. nicholas church Mr. P. came to church every Sunday. He showed up late and he never wore a tie. (Every other male over the age of 5 wore a tie.) He walked up to the front, took a seat in one of the 1st 3 pews, and then spent the next 15 minutes turning around, waving and smiling at various friends in the pews behind him.

This behavior pissed off the “good mothers” of the church (my mom included.) Mr. P. would be the subject of all manner of coffee-hour gossip and complaints. (“He’s always late!” “He makes such a fuss!” “He never listens to Father’s sermon!”) But once a year, on Greek Independence Day- and only on Greek Independence Day- Mr. P. wore a tie*.

*In the early years, this drove the church-ladies completely apeshit (“He wears a tie for Greece but not for Jesus??”)

Over the years, the tie-thing became sort of a running joke, and although people chuckled about it, it became apparent that no one was more enthusiastic or passionate about Greek Independence than Mr. P., and so he gradually evolved into the quasi-official Greek Independence Day Speaker, and a sort of a minor celebrity of the congregation.

Watcher on JEM[5] I think of Mr. P. every year around this time, and in a weird way I identify with him, because I see myself as enthusiastic, passionate and excited about the living world as Mr. P. was about Greek nationalism. And although like Mr. P. I don’t have any qualifications beyond enthusiasm, interest, and sheer passion for the subject, I like to think that I have evolved into the quasi-official Utah-Mountain-Biker-Amateur-Botanist.

Enough Reminiscing, Back To The Point Already

In one of the recent Blue Piñon posts I tried to express the satisfaction of realizing that something you really wanted and worked real hard for turned out better than you hoped, and I guess that’s how I feel about this project. IMG_5559 When I started the blog last year, I had a real clear goal: I was getting older, and I realized I’d never paid very close attention to the change of seasons, and specifically the onset and development of Spring. Without question this last year I’ve changed that. I’ve paid closer attention to the change of seasons, and the living things around me than I have in any previous year of my life, and quite possibly even all of them put together. I’ve learned more about how the living world works than in any previous year, and with my eyes finally opened, I’ve worked diligently to see, learn about and understand the living world as I’ve traveled outside of Utah as well.

The experience has brought me wonder, delight, satisfaction and an appreciation of the Beauty of the World that I can’t hope to describe in a sentence or two, but which I’ve tried hard to convey throughout this blog over the past year.

The project has also had some unexpected side-benefits. One of them is that for the first time in my life, I’ve kept a journal (of sorts.) As I look back over the past year, I now have a good record of what I did, where I went and what I saw/experienced.

JT 6 9 01 I never intended for the project to continue this long. My original plan was to blog from the Spring Equinox to the Summer Solstice. But when I got to the Solstice there were so many exciting things happening all around that I decided to continue through the Summer, and wrap it up when Fall came around. Rudy and Chuck But when Fall came around I got all wrapped up in the whole hybrid oak project with Professor Chuck and Rudy Drobnik, and by the time that was done for the season I was wrapped up in St. George biking/botany, and by that time I was committed to host Berry-Go-Round and …. Well, before I knew it, another Spring is on the doorstep and I certainly can’t quit now… In other words, the project always seems to be about 90 days away from completion…

Search Slope Another thing that has probably extended the life of this project is you- readers. For the first 6 months or so, no one read this blog- I mean no one. (I have one of those little counter-things set up.) And though I often felt a bit silly going to all this effort and doing all these crazy-detailed posts that no one read, I justified the time spent mainly through the fun I was having learning about all this stuff, and reminding myself of the overall goal of the project, which was to open up my eyes and make me watch the world wake up.

Today, thanks largely to some kind links from far more popular blogs, a couple hundred people a day read this one. Some of those visitors are first-timers searching for Selma Hayek photos* or a Ricardo Montalban biography or some other topic I’ve referenced in a tangent over the last year, but a surprising number appear to be returning, regular readers, a number of whom I’ve come to consider friends. I’m both flattered and grateful that anyone finds this strange blog interesting enough to read regularly, and your visits, comments, corrections and kind words have been an additional, unexpected and wonderful side-benefit of this project. I hope that I’ve been able to share with you at least something of the wonder and beauty I’ve seen in the natural world over this last year, and that your time spent reading my deep-dives, stories, tangents and lame graphics has been – on the balance- enjoyable and worthwhile.

*This post continues to be one of the most-visited posts by first-time visitors, due to searches for Selma Hayek photos. I am telling you, if you want to increase your blog-traffic, put in some Selma Hayek pics.

So with Spring around the corner, the project is continuing forward, and a reasonable question for me to ask myself is: What will I do differently this year? First and foremost, I hope to take more days off to explore places and things I plan to blog about. Between racing, family commitments, and social/group events, my summer weekends fill up quickly, yet I always finish the year with unused vacation days. IMG_5321 I’m going to try real hard this year to do more one-day, weekday, trips: leave work, drive somewhere, camp, get up, bike, hike, climb or otherwise explore someplace new, then return home that night. Such 1-nighters are a bit easier logistically for me- less time away from the family, easier to carve out than a weekend- but it won’t be easy. The economy is giving my company a rough ride as it is so many others, and since my day job is bringing in the money to pay the 150-some-odd people who work with me, there’s a very practical limit to how often I can take days off.

IMG_0755 I also hope to do a better job with both birds and insects this year (How is it that I’ve been at this for a year and still haven’t blogged about either Magpies or Box Elder Bugs??), and as I didn’t really understand moss and lichens until this past Fall/Winter, I’m looking forward to returning to the high country when the snows melt with an eye as to what they’re doing as well.

Lastly, I did a miserable job last year getting up above timberline, something I’ve actually been quite good at in previous years, and which I hope to do again this coming year. Oh, and I hope to kick ass in a few more races.

Anyway, what an awesome year. Thanks for tagging along. I can’t wait to see what the next one brings.

Monday, March 30, 2009

How A Utah Winter Is Like A Crazy-Stalker-Ex-Girlfriend

So I had a serious post planned for today, a post I wanted to do last week (but got side-tracked blogging about Costa Rica) about a year of doing this project, how it turned out, where it’s headed, etc. But I’m putting it off another day so I can do this rant instead. There’s no science or plants or birds or anything in this post, just me ranting, so if that’s not your thing, check back tomorrow.

Saturday it broke 50F. I did a great 80 mile ride with several teammates that took us out to the Western side of the valley, out by Kennecott and along rolling roads that haven’t yet been cluttered with tract housing or strip malls.

Route Map caption Tangent: An 80-mile “base miles” ride with my teammates is way more exhausting than an 80-mile ride by myself, or for that matter, with non-teammate biking friends. When I ride with teammates, they’re all- pardon me- we’re all constantly sprinting and catching and trying to out-do one another on climbs, etc. I pedaled into the driveway pretty wiped…

It was warm and sunny. I saw a couple of red-tailed hawks circling overhead, and for a stretch of about 3 miles I heard the songs of Western Meadowlarks, almost continuously, one after another.

Western meadowlark Tangent: The song of the Western Meadowlark is my absolute favorite “Spring Is Here” sound. It’s such a wonderful, melodic song, and though you’ll never hear it Salt Lake/suburbs proper, if you go just a few miles West, toward Herriman, Magna, Toole or Stansbury Island, they’re all over the place. But only for a few weeks do they sing like they do now, so if you live along the Wasatch Front, do yourself a favor and find a reason to get out West sometime in the next few weeks.

HON thumb1 Special Note to UT Cyclists: The Hell-of-North race course is a great area to see/hear Meadowlarks. Yet another reason to pre-ride the course.

Sunday I woke up, looked out the window and saw the storm coming. I jumped on the mountain bike, pedaled up to the zoo and started riding the lower trails, those (barely) dry enough to ride. Within minutes the scattered flakes turned into a grappl-y-sleet that stung my face. As I pedaled back down Sunnyside Ave. head-on into the ferocious wind, I rode 1-handed, the other shielding my lower face from the sting.

IMG_8889 Within 2 hours we had 4 inches of snow in the yard, and this morning it’s about 8. Saturday's ride now seems like vague dream, and this brings me to the point of this post, which is that a Utah Winter is exactly like a Crazy-Stalker-Ex-Girlfriend.

Special Note to Female Readers: Yes, my analogy is about Crazy-Stalker-Ex-Girlfriends. It works equally well for Crazy-Stalker-Ex-Boyfriends (of whom I’m pretty sure there are more of in the world.) But I’m a straight male, so I have no experience with them.

Natural Woman I’ve been happily married for many years. But I still remember the various highs and lows of dating and relationships back in my younger days. In the beginning, there’s nothing more wonderful, fascinating and exciting than a new girlfriend. You want to spend every moment with her. You think about how empty and unfulfilling your life was before she was part of it. You think everything she does is so clever, so witty. You think every part of her is so beautiful and lovely.

NJO AFO 2 15 01 Back in December, Winter’s a lot like that too. Every snowfall is magical. (pic left = Bird Whisperer & me in Yellowstone, Feb ‘01) The patterns of the ice are endlessly fascinating, and the tracks of deer and other critters in the fresh snow at dawn tell hints of countless little night-time stories.

IMG_1609 And then there’s skiing. The first great powder day of every Winter is every bit as thrilling and wondrous as a first kiss. And for several weeks following, you can’t wait for the next ski day, and you start judging the quality of the entire season by how many ski days you get in.

But after a time, if the girlfriend isn’t “the one”, the magic starts to wear off a bit. Her clever witticisms aren’t quite so charming. woman angry She isn’t quite so fascinating or engaging, and spending all your free time with her doesn’t seem so fun anymore. And you start to notice that she doesn’t really like your friends, and you’re not that crazy about hers, and you don’t like the same music on road-trips, or read the same books, or really even see the world the same way. Still, she’s a bright attractive woman, and you do your best to make things work. But nevertheless, things aren’t like they were. And, if you’re completely honest with yourself, you admit that you find yourself noticing and admiring other women.

AFO Ski Foothills 11 30 01 Similarly, after a couple of months of Winter, the novelty wears off a bit. Yes, skiing is still fun, but you don’t rush outside every time new snow falls. You find yourself looking forward to little breaks, like work trips to Southern CA, or weekend road-trips down South. And on a daily basis, the logistics of Winter become tiring: the shoveling, the scraping the windshield, the white-knuckle driving, the badgering the kids to play outside (“Oh, quit whining- it’s not that cold!”) And, if you’re completely honest with yourself, you find yourself lingering in the garage, admiring your bikes, thinking about what it would be like to embrace them again.

Finally, in the end, you break up. You may end it, or she may dump you, and that’s the end of it. Sometimes you may feel down for a bit (especially if she dumps you) but in any event, it’s over. You move on to the next stage of your life, ready to live, and grow and love all over again.

Only sometimes you don’t. Your ex keeps hanging around, or finding reasons to call, or seems to always be where you’re going, and you just can’t seem to shake her. wild-girlfriend And then sometimes, you may actually find that the woman you thought was the most amazing person ever to grace your life is actually a complete, nut-job-mental-health-basket-case, who is so phenomenally over-the-top-batshit-crazy that you simply cannot believe you ever wanted to be within 100 yards of her. And yet she won’t go away, she’s determined to reach “closure” or “resolve outstanding issues” and you just want your old life back…

IMG_7674 A Utah Winter is exactly like one of those crazy-stalker-ex-girlfriends. It’s so wonderfully charming when it first shows up and it turns the whole world into a magical wonderland. But by the end of March/early April it simply will not go away. It won’t listen to reason or acknowledge the obvious- that the Equinox is past, Spring has begun, and your relationship is over. It keeps coming back, determined to mess up your new relationship (Spring, biking, hiking, being outdoors.)

IMG_7898 Winter, we are done. What we had was truly wonderful. But it’s over; we’ve grown apart, and it’s time for both of us to move on. I need to bike and camp and sit out on the deck, and you need to go see the penguins down in Antarctica or do whatever the hell it is you do the rest of the year. I really wish you the best and hope you have a rich, wonderful future; I just can’t be a part of it.

Now go, and let me go. You know what they say- if you love something set it free. In like a lion, out like a llama. Or something. Just go already, before I have to change my number and get a restraining order.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Costa Rica Part 4: All About Cloud Forests

IMG_8694Strangler Figs are all over the place down in the lowland rainforests, but they’re even more obvious and more fantastic (pic right) up in the cloud forests, where we spent the last 3 days of the trip. IMG_8886Tropical Cloud forests form atop mountain ridges above 1500m which are almost always enveloped in clouds (pic left), and so receive nearly all of their moisture as mist. IMG_8780They’re sort of like a cool-to-chilly rainforest, expect that the epiphytes have gone utterly berserk. Everywhere you look, on every tree (pic right- take a sec and click on it. Look at all the stuff growing on that one tree. Is that insane or what?), are mosses, lichens, bromeliads, orchids, heliconias growing all over everything (even wooden park benches are mostly moss-covered.) The interior of a cloud forest is generally damp, misty and dim. But on a (rare) sunny day, a cloud forest is, hands-down, the most beautiful place I’ve visited on the entire planet.

IMG_8808 Of the 3 days we spent in the cloud forest, 2 were bright and sunny. To be surrounded by light and beauty that intense for the better part of 48 hours is almost a bit of sensory overload. When you get back down to the pastures of the lowlands (or worse yet, Northern Utah in March) it’s almost as though the cones of your retinas have been burned out; nothing seems to have any color for a few days.

IMG_8626Speaking of another way of being a tree, another first for me were the fabulous tree ferns, which grow up to nearly 20 feet all over the place in Monteverde. Ferns are ancient and fascinating plants. IMG_8635They’re true plants, with a vascular system and true real leaves, but they’re not seed plants, instead reproducing via the alternating gametophyte-sporophyte generational strategy we saw when we looked at mosses. So every Fern you see is chromosomally haploid, like a sex cell (sperm or ovum) in a human.This guy is Sphaeroptyrus brunei, or Monkey Tail Tree Fern, so named because its uncurled proto-fronds look like monkey tails.

Filmy Fern Besides the tree ferns, there are both “shrubby” ferns and epiphytic ferns growing all over the place. Check out this one- it’s called Filmy Fern, one of the 37 species of the genus Hymenophyllum found in CR. Is that alien-looking or what?

IMG_8664 Another first for me- and a long-awaited one- were Clubmosses and Spikemosses, which are Lycophytes (pic left). On the complexity spectrum, Lycophytes sit between Mosses (bryophytes) and Ferns; they have a true vascular system, but not true leaves, and reproduce via the same alternating-generational strategy as Mosses and Ferns.

Why You Should Care About Ferns and Lycophytes

IMG_8750 Even if you’re not a plant-nut, there are at least 2 reasons worth knowing about Ferns and Lycophytes. First, the very first forests, long before there were angiosperms or conifers or ginkgos or even cycads, were composed of Ferns and Lycophytes. Tree Ferns I just mentioned; back in the Carboniferous period, Tree Ferns existed that dwarfed anything we saw last week. But even more interesting, there used to be Lycophyte trees (diagram left.) Lepidodendron1These ancient trees, belonging to the long-extinct genus Lepidodendron, together with Tree Ferns dominated the planet for around 50 million years before seed plants showed up and eventually evolved into trees. Lepidodendrons of all species had a simple, distinctive form- a straight trunk that branched into a “Y”. Think about that; for 50 million years, there were pretty much just 2 tree shapes in all the forests of the world- Tree Fern, and “Y”-shaped.

Tangent: It’s simply amazing to me that the only living relics of the mighty Lepidodendrons, which dominated the planet so thoroughly, for so long, are little moss-like things. Really makes you think about evolution, and how things turn out in the long run…

IMG_8641 The second reason is more practical: the gasoline that powers your car, the natural gas that heats your home, the diesel fuel that powers the truck that carries the fresh avocados to your neighborhood Albertson’s, and the coal that powers the turbines that produce the electric current that runs the PC you’re reading this on,- all of those and virtually every other petroleum product that powers our modern world- were produced by those ancient Lepidodendron/Tree Fern Forests. Coal and petroleum deposits are the final end-products of 300 million year-old forests. Our entire civilization is powered by Ferns and Lycophytes.


Goldfish1 The rich green light of the Cloud Forest is accented with countless flowers of all different colors. Orchids, Pavón de Montaña, Goldfish plants (pic right), there are too many wonderful flowers to cover in just one post, so I’ll zoom in on one – Heliconias. These beauties, which occur all over the country, both in the cloud forest as well as in the lowlands below, are striking in both form and color. HeliconiaAt first glance, they appear much like a Bird-Of-Paradise–type flower. But there’s a clear difference: Birds-Of-Paradise are brightly-colored flowers sitting in a green, pointy-cup-like bract. Heliconias are dullish-green flowers sitting in a brightly colored pointy-cup-like bract. With the former, the flower itself attracts the pollinator; with the latter it’s the color of the bract which first catches a Hummingbird’s eye. This one (pic left) is Heliconia monteverdensis, which occurs mainly up in the cloud forests, but you’ll see Heliconias all over the country.

IMG_8753 In a land so foreign and a forest so strange, it’s somehow comforting to latch onto something familiar. For me, a constant in my travels has been Oaks. From the foothills of the Wasatch, to the rolling hillsides of California, from Hyde Park in London to Zacatecas Mexico to the hardwood forests of New England, I’ve long enjoyed seeing and recognizing Oaks of all different types. And even here, in this bizarre forest in the clouds, I found one- this wonderful, massive, ancient oak, Quercus costaricensis. (pic right)

Another constant for me in my travels of course has been pines (of which last week’s Blue Piñon was one example.) And though you’ll often see Pines along the roadside in Costa Rica, they’re not native. The most commonly planted Pine is Pinus ocarpa, a 5-needled Pine which occurs natively as far South and close by as Nicaragua. But South of the Nico-Tico border, the range of Pines ends, and where conifers occur again they’re Araucarias or Podocarps. (For a description of Podocarps, see the last paragraph of this post.)

Podocarps make it up into Central America clear into Southern Mexico, and having never seen one in the wild, I had half an eye toward spotting on on this trip, but didn’t think any were common in the areas we’d be visiting.

IMG_8837On Friday afternoon, after hiking in the Santa Elena cloud forest, we returned to kick back around the hotel for a few hours. While Awesome Wife and the Trifecta relaxed, I took the car out to look for another trailhead, and a quick pre-dinner hike. As I drove up a dirt road looking for the trail, I passed a lithe, brown-haired, middle-aged gringa walking up the road. She looked somehow familiar… from a book…

I hit the brakes, backed the car up and rolled down the window. “Excuse me,” I asked, “Are you Willow Zuchowski?” And in fact it was her, the guidebook author herself, a bright, charming woman with whom I spent the next 15 minutes chatting about her wonderful book and trees of the area. Toward the end of our chat, I asked her about Podocarps, and she told me that they did in fact grow in Monteverde, and where to find them.

Tangent: I actually have several stories about running into (and recognizing) guidebook authors. My favorite was about 3 years or so ago, when I rescued Steve Allen from a sand-trap in which his van was stuck in the San Rafael Swell.

IMG_8858The following morning, the day we had to drive back to San Jose, I rose before dawn, padded quietly out of the cabina so as not to disturb my sleeping family, and drove back to the Monteverde park entrance. At park opening, 7AM, I was the first visitor to enter the park. Unlike the previous 2 days, it was a “typical” day, enveloped in cloud-mist, dim and mysterious. For the next 3 hours I hiked alone, passing just 4 other hikers, 2 of them rangers. I finally arrived at the landmark and junction from where Willow told me to look, but whether due to the thick mist, or my own poor recognition of the species, I was unable to spot the Podocarp I knew was within 100 meters of me.

Sweet Zone Map IMG_8866 So I have yet to see a Podocarp in the wild, and this will be something I’ll have to seek out in another, future, adventure. The forests between Southern Mexico and Nicaragua are in what I think of as the Conifer Sweet Zone, where Northern Pines overlap with Southern Podocarps. Though I have yet to visit this region- Chiapas, Guatemala, Honduras, etc.- it’s on my list.

Anyway, it was an awesome vacation.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Costa Rica Part 3: Palms, Epiphytes, Figs and Wasps

Note: I tried real hard to squeeze all the Costa Rican plant stuff into 1 post. Really. Couldn’t do it, and you’ll see why after this post and the next.

*Well I guess I could, but then it would be another Monster Post (like the Lichen post), and Jodie and Kelly would make fun of me and roll their eyes again the next time they talked to me about my blog…

So far I’ve covered the easy stuff- mammals, birds. Now for the hard stuff- plants.

IMG_8524 Last week I saw more species of trees- just trees- in 1 week than I’ve seen throughout the US in an entire year of doing this blog. Costa Rica has a land area less than ¼ that of Utah. Utah has maybe 30 different tree species total. Costa Rica has 30 times that. And that’s just trees. Costa Rica has some 9,000 species of vascular plants, including 1400 species of orchids alone! Any plant/tree type you look at, the diversity and complexity down there is simply dazzling.

Here’s a quick example: Palms, which I blogged about last Spring. In the whole Western US, there’s one native Palm species, Washingtonia filifera. Sure there are bunch of exotics in gardens, office parks and along boulevards, but none of them- to my knowledge- have naturalized to any extent in the Western US.

C nucifera on beach Costa Rica has 109 species of Palms, both native and naturalized exotics. And even the exotics have fascinating stories. The Coconut Palm, Cocos nucifera, (pic left lining deserted beach) grows all over the place, but occurs in 2 distinct varieties, one on the Caribbean side, and the other on the Pacific. Acrocomia_aculeata2 Coconut Palms evolved somewhere around Pacific or Indian Ocean islands, and have migrated or been introduced throughout the tropics. The Caribbean variety was introduced by settlers bringing Coconut Palms from Africa. But the Pacific variety came the other direction, and was either introduced or migrated on its own (via floating coconuts)- it’s not clear which- across the Pacific. In other words in Costa Rica the Magellan-like circumnavigation of the world by the Coconut Palm has come full circle.

Rooster-tail The native palms are of course beautiful and interesting as well. The most common “pasture” Palm throughout the country is the Coyol Palm, Acrocomia aculeata, (pic above, right) and my personal favorite native was this guy, the Rooster-tail Palm, Calyptrogyne sp., (pic left) which was pretty common down by Manuel Antonio.

Side Note: There are 17 species of Calyptrogyne. I think this one might be C. ghiesbreghtiana, which is actually pollinated by bats. And speaking of Palm pollination, to reach our hotel, we had to drive through a couple of kilometers of Palm plantations. The Palms in question were African Oil Palms, Elaeis guineensis, which are pollinated by, of all things, a Weevil*.

*Notice how we keep coming back to Weevils over and over and over again? I am telling you, Weevils rule the world, and we are just along for the ride. Somewhere, deep in some dark tropical jungle, I’ll bet there’s like this elite governing council of Weevil-Illuminati who secretly plot the course of entire planet, including- among other things- how long they should keep us around…

What’s interesting about the Latitude vs. Diversity trend is that it continues the further North or South from the equator you go. The Canadian Boreal forest is dominated by just 9 tree species. And the declining diversity isn’t just in plants- it’s the same deal with birds, mammals, insects and fungi.

IMG_8777 So you’d think that like most big obvious trends in the natural world- like why exotic species wreak havoc on islands or why overgrazing damages grasslands, or why vultures defecate on their legs (to keep cool)- there’d be some simple, clear, logical textbook explanation of why species diversity is so much greater in the tropics. But amazingly, there’s not. There are dozens of theories/hypotheses, and significant problems with pretty much all of them. Some of the more popular include:

1-More energy from the sun = faster growth, development and speciation

AW Epiphytes 2-Tropical creatures live under benign-to-optimal environmental/climatic conditions. They fine-tune/optimize for these environments and therefore minor differences in environment- valleys, different drainages, rain-shadows have amplified effects on tropical organisms, which drives speciation.

3-Speciation is in part a reaction to parasites, and colder climates limit the growth/survival of parasites.

IMG_8702 4-Repeated climate swings/ice ages in higher-latitude climes drive more frequent extinctions, leaving a smaller number of species following each such swing.

5-In warmer climes, biggest pressures on living things are from other living things, which drives speciation. In colder climes, biggest pressure = environmental conditions.

I’m not qualified to weigh in, but I’m partial to #3, because a) I “get it” better than I do some of the other explanations, and b) parasite-pressure is one of the leading the suspects as to why sexual reproduction is so much more common than asexual reproduction among plants and animals.

IMG_8691 Whatever its cause, the diversity of the tropics can be a bit intimidating for the wannabe amateur botanist, but with a patience and a good plant guide, by the end of a week you can start to get your bearings in the rain/cloud forest. The book I picked up was outstanding: Tropical Plants of Costa Rica, by Willow Zuchowski*, an American ex-pat botanist who’s lived in the Monteverde area for 20 years. It’s not only the best plant guide I found for Costa Rica; it’s the best plant guide I’ve bought, ever.

*Remember her, we’ll come back to her tomorrow.

AFO Lotoja Finish 2008 zoom Tangent: Going from amateur botany in Utah to amateur botany in CR is a lot like upgrading categories in bike racing. You race for a while in a category, get used to finishing in the top 3 or 5 pretty much every race, and you start to think, “Hey, I’m a pretty good racer…” Then you upgrade to the next category, and it’s like, “Holy crap! Everyone here is like me! This is really hard!”

IMG_8625 Here’s a tree-type you’ll see all over CR that’s a cinch to recognize: Cecropia, known locally as Guarumo. Their leaves are easily recognizable, like big hands with lots of fingers. They’re most common in open, or previously cleared areas, often along roadsides or the edge of forests, but they also do great up in the cloud forests, quickly exploiting any new gaps in the canopy. They’re shade intolerant, love direct sunlight, and can grow an astounding 4 meters per year.

For a long time it was believed that sloths preferred Cecropias to other trees as they’re most often sighted in them, but more recently it’s become apparent that they’re just spotted more often in Cecropias because those are the trees that dominate so many forest-edges. There are 4 species of Cecropia on mainland CR, and Zuchowski’s guide provides an easy identification key for them.

Even more interesting than the trees in CR are the epiphytes. Epiphytes are organisms which grow on other plants, and they include plants, mosses, lycophytes, ferns, fungi and lichens and even cyanobacteria. As soon as you start looking at trees in CR you start noticing them. C paniculata One of the most common is this guy, Catopsis paniculata (pic left). You first notice it by looking at a tree and thinking, hey why does that tree have 2 different types of leaves? Then you realize that the clumps of spiky leaves are separate plants, in this case C. paniculata. Catopsis is type of plant called a Bromeliad, which is a family of 2,000+ species of monocots native to the tropics of South and Central America. If you think you’re not familiar with them, you’re wrong- Pineapple, Ananas comosus, is a great example. (BTW, Pineapple is a CAM plant.) Another example you might be familiar with, and which is also common throughout CR, is Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides, which is not actually a “moss” at all, but a monocot angiosperm.

Strangler and Bromeliad cut Many/most epiphytes have commensal or even mutualistic relationships with their host trees, but others are outright parasitic, the best example being Figs, or “Strangler Figs” (genus = Ficus.) Figs begin life as epiphytes on existing trees, but then drop successive roots to the ground, and grow all over and around the host tree, eventually killing it. By the time the Fig kills its host, the Fig has developed into a complete tree of its own, surrounding and enveloping the now-dead trunk of its host. The host-trunk eventually rots away, leaving a hollow, free-standing Fig tree.

IMG_8740 Figs are particularly interesting because like Palms, Joshua Trees and Bamboo, they’ve evolved a fundamentally different way of being a tree, but they’re also a bit ghoulish, like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that takes over, replaces and eventually emulates its host.

But the absolutely most fascinating thing about Figs is how they reproduce. A single “fig” isn’t really a fruit, but rather a flower, or technically an inflorescence. The real flowers are inside the “fruit” and this is where things get weird. Figs are fertilized by specialized wasps, the females of which bore inside the fig and lay eggs, after which they die, their bodies consumed/absorbed by the fig.

FCycle1 When the eggs hatch, some male, some female, the newborn wasps seek each other out and mate.

FCycle2 Following mating, the male chews a hole through the fruit, and then promptly dies. The pregnant female exits via the male-chewed hole, flies to another fig, chews her way inside and repeats the cycle, carrying pollen on her body from the interior-flowers of the first fig, and thereby pollinating the second…

FCycle3 Tangent: And this is only the “basic” story. In the “director’s cut” version there are all sorts of additional cool twists, including other wasps that parasitize the fig wasps!

The interesting corollary of this cycle is that the male Fig Wasp spends his entire life inside the fig. I should mention that Fig Wasps are tiny, like 1/8 – ¼” long. We didn’t see any, but we did see a much, much bigger wasp- a Costa Rican Tarantula Hawk (genus = Pepsis.) I didn’t get a pic, but it looks a lot like the ones we get in Southern Utah- black body, orange wings- except WAY bigger, with a body as long as my forefinger.

Tangent: I once mused about the “universe-perspective” of the Sea-Monkey-Like-Brine-Shrimp inhabiting the ephemeral tiñajas on desert slickrock. If anything, the universe-perspective of a male Fig Wasp would be even more weird to contemplate.

The sting of the Tarantula Hawk, BTW, is one of the most painful stings of any insect, ranked near top of the Schmidt Pain Index, which is a comparative ranking of pain caused by various Hymenopteran (bees, ants, wasps) stings. Bullet Ant The pain of its sting is exceeded only by that of the Bullet Ant, Paraponera clavata, (pic left) which Bird Whisperer spotted on the trail and our guide identified for us, saying, “Touch it and we’re going to the hospital.” The Schmidt Index describes the pain from its sting as: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel”. So like the guide said, don’t touch it. Woops. I’m veering into creepie-crawlie stuff. Back to plants…

BTW, the figs you eat come from an Old World Fig Tree, Ficus carica.

Next Up: Tree Ferns, Heliconias, Podocarps and all about Cloud Forests