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Unexpected guests for supper

Blogpost written by Dr. Andrew Whitworth, Director of Restoration Ecology & Biodiversity Conservation

 

Last night, as I prepared my evening feed (rice with something), I heard a strange and unfamiliar squeaking sound from outside. I grabbed my head torch (aka.flashlight) and out I went. This is what I found.

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Eyelash pit viper starting its meal (Photo by Andrew Whitworth)

 

I couldn’t believe it. Ever since moving to live on the Osa Peninsula in February, I have been desperate to see the stunning eyelash pit viper (Bothriechis schlegelii), but so far they had eluded me. This isn’t surprising considering their awesome camouflage- forest green broken up with strokes and flecks of red and yellow. However, this chappie had been given away, by the poor little robber frog (Craugastor fitzingeri) who was now … supper.

I rushed back inside, still barefoot, to grab my camera; and for the next twenty five minutes, watched and photographed (without flash!) while the whole process unfolded. Many people believe that snakes can dislocate their jaws, but this isn’t really true. They do however have some unbelievably loose fitting and complex bone structures in the jaw and head. These can expand away from each other and allow the left and right side of the jaws to move independently; left first, then the right and then the left, and so on and so on…until they finally swallow their supper whole!

What was strange about this encounter for me was that the snake ate the frog from the back first. Most snake species will actually make an effort to search out the head of their prey first, and begin swallowing from there, to ensure no problems in fitting awkward pointing limbs in their mouths. Maybe this froggy was small and flexible enough to pose no issues.

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Eyelash pit viper eating its meal, legs first (Photo by Andrew Whitworth)

 

What was very cool though was that as the right sided fang of the snake moved along, a young secondary fang was visible, tucked away in the protective sheath. Vipers frequently lose these fangs and so new ones grow quickly behind. These cheeky little vipers are never caught without their weapons, just in case a meal is rightly available.

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Eyelash pit viper, close-up of the secondary fang (Photo by  Andrew Whitworth)

 

It wasn’t long until all that was left … was a foot –  just hanging from the viper’s mouth.

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Eyelash pit viper, finishing up its meal (Photo by Dr. Andrew Whitworth)

 

The frog then travelled down through the snakes body, pushed by the rippling muscles and inner organs, where over the coming few days, intense gastric juices would digest the frog, bones and all. This froggy snack could actually sustain this little snake for the next month at least, if food is scarce-  a feat I am extremely jealous of… as I seem to need to feed every couple of hours or so.

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Eyelash pit viper, digesting its meal (Photo by Andrew Whitworth)

 

According to my neighbour and reforestation fanatic, Agustin Mendoza, these snakes aren’t so common in the low lying areas of the peninsula next to the ocean. They typically thrive higher up on Cerro Osa, where there is a cool refreshing breeze; who says snakes aren’t smart?! What an incredible snake and one of my top five herping moments in my life so far!

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Eyelash pit viper (Photo by  Andrew Whitworth)

(To see some of Andy’s free amphibian and reptile field guides from the Amazon, click here, here and here.)

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The Greater Grison: a bit of a mystery in the Osa

Blog Post by Lesley Mould, DC Office Intern

Osa Conservation’s rainforest camera traps have been capturing some very exciting footage recently! One camera recorded a particularly remarkable video of a Greater Grison. Watching clips of the camera trap footage in the D.C. office motivated me to investigate some of the more unusual species that are native to the Osa, starting with the Greater Grison.

The Greater Grison is a member of the weasel family. It is native to South and Central America and inhabits forest and cerrado habitats. It is typically found near rivers or streams, and in elevations ranging from 500 to 2,000 meters. The Greater Grison population is actually doing very well, despite the fact that they are rarely seen in the wild. In fact, there is considerable debate in the scientific community over whether the Greater Grison is diurnal or nocturnal, which makes it all the more exciting that we got a video of one exploring the rainforest in the daylight!

Greater Grison

Photo by linnaeus1758

When the weasel-like carnivore is not hunting, it spends its time hidden away in dark and isolated spaces, such as hollowed out trees or abandoned animal burrows. It feeds on various vertebrates, including fish, amphibians, and small mammals. The grison has a particularly interesting hunting style. It begins by moving in a zig-zag pattern, stopping occasionally to lift its head and sniff the air. When it finally locates its prey, it gets very low to the ground and commences a series of grunts, which escalate to barks, and culminate in a single scream while fiercely baring its teeth. Once the grison catches its prey, it delivers a fatal bite to the back of the neck. Although the predators of the Greater Grison are not entirely known, they possess a distinct defense mechanism. When threatened, they will spray a yellow-green musk produced by its scent glands to thwart predators and mark its territory.

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Although they spend the majority of their time alone, grisons seek out multiple partners during breeding season in January and February. Females produce litters of two to four. Newborns weigh around 50 grams and are blind for the first three weeks of their lives, but grow quickly and reach full adult size in just four months. If you haven’t seen the video from our camera trap yet, check it out below:

 

 

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Put an End to Harmful Plastic Pollution

Blogpost written by Emily Bartone, Sea Turtle Research Field Assistant

Working with the sea turtle program, I feel lucky to spend my mornings patrolling Osa’s picturesque beaches looking for nesting sea turtles. However, one feature that can often distract from the beauty of these beaches is the presence of plastic waste that still finds its way to the coastline. While this pollution is unsightly, more importantly, it’s harmful to wildlife.

Volunteers clean up trash on Piro Beach

Despite ongoing beach clean ups,  plastics can accumulate on our beaches because it washes up with the tide. What doesn’t make it to shore likely gets caught up in one of the several massive gyres of trash floating in the world’s ocean. Because plastic is non-biodegradable, these gyres are forever growing. Every single piece of plastic that has ever been produced still exists in some form. It may break down into tinier pieces, but it will never disappear.

Photo by Manuel Sanchez

Photo by Manuel Sanchez

Sea turtles are particularly susceptible to the dangers from marine plastic. Throughout the oceans, sea turtles are commonly found tangled in discarded fishing nets, unable to swim for food or air. Some turtle species that rely on jellyfish for food, such as the endangered leatherback, mistake floating plastic bags for this prey. Sea turtles are unable to digest the plastic they eat, so it accumulates in their gut and creates deadly blockages. As more and more plastic pieces enter the ocean, it’s becoming impossible for turtles to avoid consuming it.

Volunteers clean up beach trash

 

While our efforts to complete beach clean-ups in the Osa make an important difference in reducing the plastic in these ecosystems, there are many ways that the average person can also help prevent the plastic from arriving in the first place.

Consider the waste that you create in a day – how much of it is plastic? Bottles, bags, packaging… likely all plastic! One small lifestyle change people can make to reduce their plastic waste and help protect sea turtles is to minimize their use of single-use plastics. This includes things like packaging of individually wrapped snacks. Instead, buy in bulk and store your purchase in your own container; carry reusable water bottles and shopping bags; ask for your drink without a straw at a restaurant; carry silverware in your bag to avoid plastic cutlery. Remember to ask yourself: While it may be more convenient for a moment, is it worth endangering wildlife and polluting the planet for eternity?

Help us protect sea turtles and minimize the plastics that make their way to our oceans.

 

 

Land Conservation and Forest Restoration

Keeping Up with our Vanilla Conservation

Blog Post written by Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya, Research Field Assistant Biodiversity & Conservation

I love vanilla! But did you ever wonder where it comes from? From the vanilla bean. But not from a tree; it comes from an orchid, which grows up the tree as a vine.

However, it is not that simple. Each flower opens for only 24 hours and must be pollinated within 8-12 hours. If pollination does not occur the flower wilts, drops from the vine, and no pods are produced. The vanilla bean’s pollen is covered by a little septum (called the rostellum) that separates the anthers (male features), and stigma (female features). This means the some creature to go in and break this septum; a pollinator. It also means that vanilla conservation is a tedious and difficult task. 

Vanilla Plant

Photo by Ruth Pillco Huarcaya

 

(The history of vanilla, and more about pollination and conservation, can be found here)

Costa Rica has approximately 12 species of vanilla, at least four of which are found around the Osa Conservation’s biological station and adjacent landscapes. Only two species are grown to produce commercial vanilla: V. planifolia and V. madagascariensis. Because the natural pollinators are unknown, pollination is performed by hand, and low levels of genetic diversity are expected in cultivated plants.  

camera trap for vanilla

Photo by Ruth Pillco Huarcaya

Many Vanilla species are threatened in the wild. Here at Osa Conservation, we want to understand the ecology of wild vanilla, and gain a better understanding of their habitat preference, and reproductive strategies. We want to know where they like to live, who their pollinators are, and who disperses their seeds. This could help us to develop proper conservation strategies, and allow us to test profitability for commercial production in areas such as secondary forests, restoration plots and fruit gardens.

Vanilla pollination

Photo by Ruth Pillco Huarcaya

To do so, we have been using wildlife camera traps to monitor the flowers and beans, and have spent hours directly watching the flowers. So far, a population of Vanilla hartii was found flowering, and after a few long hours of observation and camera trapping, the little Stripe-throated hermit hummingbird was observed visiting their flowers; a potential pollinator or a nectar thief?

Our work will continue until we can really discover the secrets behind wild vanilla in the Osa Peninsula.

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Dung Beetles: More than Meets the Eye

Blog Post by Eleanor Flatt, Biodiversity and Restoration Research Field Assistant and Dung Beetle enthusiast

It is 1 o’clock in the morning, rain is breaking through the forest canopy. It is pitch black, and I am just about to wriggle out of my jungle hammock to check pitfall traps … again. This experience was not due to insanity, but for science. Specifically, my aim is to observe when distinct species of dung beetles are most active to better understand their role in the ecosystem. This task is just part of the research I am carrying out on dung beetles here at Osa Conservation.

Photo by Nick Hawkins, Dung beetle in action

Photo by Nick Hawkins, Dung beetle in action

Dung beetles are very important in terms of ecological function within a tropical forest. They provide waste removal, soil aeration, nutrient cycling and secondary seed dispersal. All dung beetle communities are dynamic, relating to environmental features, habitat type, spatial distribution, dispersal capacities and interspecific interactions. Dung beetles are awesome as an indicator group, as they are super susceptible to changes in their environment. 

Photo by Nick Hawkins, Dung beetle in the Osa peninsula

Photo by Nick Hawkins, Dung beetle in the Osa peninsula

Understanding the dung beetle communities in different forest types can be a useful monitoring tool in reforestation projects. Dung beetles serve as a reference point of forest health and help set what we call a “primary forest baseline” which gives a restoration goal to work towards as we continue our studies.

The research we are conducting helps us to understand how the mechanisms that cause dung beetle diversity to decline are linked to changes in landscape structure and mammal populations. As the demand for palm oil plantations here in Costa Rica grows, this information could be very useful for the conservation of biodiversity, especially here in the mega diverse Osa Peninsula.

Photo by Nick Hawkins, Eleanor Flatt studying dung beetles at Osa Conservation

Photo by Nick Hawkins, Eleanor Flatt studying dung beetles at Osa Conservation

Dung beetles are often overlooked, but they have so much to offer. Not only do they benefit the ecosystem they live in, but they give people like us a better understanding of the effects of the changes we cause.