Friday, April 24, 2009

what's in a name?

So this workshop I'm currently helping out with is all about Long-term changes in the Tropics, and I've been taking the chance to get to know the participants. In particular, we went on a guided natural history walk yesterday. Some groups went about 300m in 3 hours, pausing to look at every bird and every plant along the way. Other groups - namely, the one I joined, took a bit more of a hike, and covered a little over a kilometer of trails - looping from secondary forest into old-growth forest. Of course, 'old-growth forest' here in the tropics isn't untouched, and as Deedra mentioned in her talk on La Selva this morning, there is no such thing as 'virgin rainforest' in the Neotropics. Even here at La Selva, there's a history of selective logging, and human occupation over the last few thousand years. I was intrigued to learn that there are pollen samples suggesting ancient agriculture.

But enough of a digression. Our group for the natural history tour included several people on their first trip to the tropics, and many who had never been to Costa Rica. While the guides are used to dealing with hard-core birders, none of us really knew what a tinnamoo was, let alone the different types of motmots (sp?). (A tinnamoo kind of looks like a small brown/grey turkey, nests on the ground and makes a surprisingly beautiful sound. Unlike the parrots which make a noisy, squawky sound, providing further evidence for my theory that the prettier birds are, the uglier they sound, so it all balances out in the end. (The scarlet macaws being the ultimate example of beauty = gnarly squawkiness). The toucans are in the intermediate range - lovely beaks, but they provide a noisy clacking sound that echoes through the selva. But what would you expect from something that eats Fruit Loops?

While we failed miserably at learning to identify bird calls, despite our guide's best efforts, we did learn quite a lot: Pentaclethera (lovely mimosa-tree with feathery leaves) is actually quite toxic - so nothing eats it. That might seem like a good idea, but if the birds don't eat the seeds, then it's difficult to disperse your offspring - so the large seedpods are apparently designed to crack open at high temperatures.

More traumatizing, I learned that those little strawberry dart frogs with blue legs have apparently been observed to move their eggs around in such a way as to require the entire species being moved to another family. So while I have been calling them Dendrobates ever since my Tropical Biology course in 2001, they now belong to a whole different family. I can't remember which family they now belong to. Still, no matter what they're called, the "I can't believe it's not Dendrobates" remain my favourite amphibians in La Selva. After all, a Dendrobates by any other name looks just as sweet, right?

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