Notes to Future George

In reference to the first mini project we did last week, I thought it would be good to reflect on the challenges of successful ecological research in the tropics…seemingly the biggest take away from our two days in the field. The lessons felt especially tangible as I’m sure Re-learn them a few times as I muddle my way through my first semester of solo (ish) tropical research in the upcoming months. I spent my last semester in Champaign pretending I knew how to think of all the difficulties I would face this semester…ha! Logically I knew not to let myself feel prepared, but it’s too easy to subconsciously believe your daydreams where the tropics are just like the magazine covers and postcards show us. So, for my own record and all the people back home who think I’ll be spending the next four months splashing in turquoise waters, Ive written a short letter to myself based on the BCI mini-project:

Dear decision-making George of the next few months,

  • When you think it’s a cool idea to: Sample in tree fall gaps, REMEMBER:
    • Tree fall gaps are shockingly un gap-like at ground level.
    • LIANAS! In the midst of a liana tangle, you will feel upset
    • To bring home this point: when defining a gap as clear canopy space, there is no restraint on the ground level situation!
    • Don’t fool yourself into thinking things like:
      • “We will do our samples directly in the middle of the nice circular plots” (You won’t…the middle will be covered in something poky. There will be no clear middle point. It will not be circular. You will constantly be making arbitrary decisions about the “edges” of the plot.)
      • “We will make our paired shade plot 10m to the left of the tree fall gap” (Nope, probably not. The forest doesn’t care that you hope 10m to the left of tree fall gaps have the same topography as the tree fall gap. Anything can happen in 10m)
      • “We will identify a species” (maybe eventually)
  •  When you think it’s a cool idea to: Study seedlings, REMEMBER
    • Tiny seedlings aren’t necessarily babies…they could be long-term waiting for their moment of sunshine. (I originally thought this was unlike humans…turns out there are tiny old people and huge young people. Regardless, this fact certainly makes thinking about these seedlings more complex)
    • Seedlings look shockingly similar regardless of species (Hmmm, human babies all look the same too….what I seem to be learning here is that human and plant ID strategies aren’t so different…maybe when I learn a little more, Ill be able to disprove that thought.)
  •  When you think it’s a cool idea to: study different forms of damage to seedlings,  REMEMBER:
    • Thrifty herbivores have developed a complex array of leaf-destruction strategies, meaning you can’t quite get away with only looking for tiny bite marks as signals of herbivore damage…bummer.
    • Turns out pathogen damage can look exactly like herbivore damage. (Only to the untrained eye, but still, I was imagining obvious distinctions…tropics didn’t deliver)
    • Pathogens…(George, you should learn a whole lot more before saying anything on this topic)
  •  When you think its cool to: Choose plots within your study site, REMEMBER:
    • Sitting in the BCI cafeteria, drinking beers, we said: “our plots should be unbiased; they should be random”. In the field we developed many qualifiers…exceptions to the rule of randomness. Our plots would be random, BUT:
      • Not in places covered in Lianas
      • Not in places with spikey vines
      • Mostly only places where the ground is clear…other than seedlings of course!
      • Mmmm, high amounts of preference for spots with more seedlings…but not too many…especially at the end of the day when we are hot and sick of counting.
  • When you think its cool to: do those tropical things: REMEMBER:



Crazy fungus exists…Thats pretty freaking neat?!








Something about the tropics makes you feel over confident about your ability to take artsy nature photos. This is a great example. You spent 15 minutes at this flower. Its not a cool photo.





This tropical ant-ologist is a legend. “H, you have millions of enraged soldier ants crawling up your legs”…He replies: “No te preocupes”. Impressed.




Another great example of overly artsy photography attempt. Also, this ant finally meets his match with a flower bud many times his size. He refuses to give up which should make you feel inspired.





Tired, sticky, sweaty, a little creepy, but STOKED!






Hopefully this helps George,

Cheers sister,



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