Feed your microbiome wisely!

When Science Met Nature…

Human Microbiome. Credit: Paul Rogers, NYT

Jessica’s Science Blog- 03.16.18

Feed your microbiome wisely!

This post is for all my non-biologist friends, family, and acquaintances!!

You may think you’re human. You’re a (wo)man and that means you’re made up of 100% human cells, right? No? OK, you’re wise to my tricks.

Lactobacillus bacteria. Important probiotic for humans. Named for their ability to produce lactic acid as they consume sugar. Credit:

You know that microbes occasionally invade your body, infecting you with, say, the cold or flu virus. So, already we have to assume that some proportion of your body is made up of microbes, be they viral particles, bacterial cells, or parasites (ew, right?). If you had to guess, roughly what percentage of your body is composed of microbes? Are we in the ballpark of 10%, 25%, or maybe 50%?

Geez, even I have to admit that I was FLOORED when I came to find that microorganisms account for about 60-90% of our human bodies!! That’s some sci-fi level stuff! My sharp math skills inform me that our very own human cells comprise a pathetic 10-40% of our bodies (although new estimates question the old finding that microbes outnumber human cells by 10:1). SAY WHAT?

What’s really fascinating is that new research indicates that human individuals may differ dramatically in the number, diversity, and communities of bacteria that they host. Some of this variation may be attributed to the environment, some to diet and lifestyle, and some to maternal or genetic factors (e.g. like what kind of community your mother gave you at birth).

Most of our bacteria is found in our gut

It gets even freakier when we consider our total genetic makeup, 99.9% of which can be attributed to our most intimate of pals, the trillions of microbes that inhabit our bodies. You know what, they’re more than pals, they’re our faithful partners. Among their many functions, we’d be unable to digest food and extract its life-sustaining nutrients without the work of our microbial partners. That’s because most of the bacteria in our bodies live in our guts (especially our colons)!

Recent studies on the human microbiome have revealed that a diverse community of gut bacteria is absolutely essential to human health. For example, there is evidence that the types of bacteria present in our microbiome may influence our mood and behavior. Some scientists have argued that anxiety and depression may closely connected to interactions that occur between particular types of gut microbes and the brain?

If this is true, psychiatrists and psychologists should (in theory) have much to learn from nutritionists. In the future, they may find that their patients respond positively to regular ingestion of active cultures of beneficial bacteria. This is an area of important research for our angst-ridden society.

Maps and slide credited to Jasper Lawrence

Cross-cultural studies of human gut microbiota have also suggested that autoimmune disorders, which commonly occur in the western world (such as lupus and Chrohn’s disease) are quite scarce in developing countries. One proposed explanation is that we are too clean in the west and that the human body evolved to be challenged by parasites, and worms in particular. Along these lines, new therapies are being developed where people are being inoculated with worms to treat inflammatory autoimmune conditions.

All the more reason to encourage your children to play in the dirt! They need to get dirty (and play together in the garden, on the farm, or in mud puddles) to pick up beneficial bacteria and develop their immune systems!!

So, you might be asking yourself: what types of foods should I be incorporating into my diet to pick up beneficial bacteria? The answer is foods that have undergone lactic acid fermentation, aka “LACTOFERMENTED” FOODS. I’ve sampled these delightful foods in homemade batches and in store-bought products. They’re quite tasty!! Here’s a list of my favorite ones:

  • Pickled Veggies

    kefir (fermented milk drink)

  • kefir cheese (kefir made into cheese, duh!)
  • yogurt with multiple species of bacteria (like siggi’s),
  • kombucha (fermented black or green tea),
  • sauerkraut or kimchi (fermented cabbage, German or Korean preparations),
  • sour pickles (available at Jewish delis; NOT the ones preserved in vinegar)
  • pickled veggies or eggs (jars for pickling and recipes for lactofermenting can be found here!)

I’m getting HUNGRY!! I try to eat at least one item on this list daily. Since I’ve been doing this, my seasonal allergies (i.e. from tree and grass pollen) and sneezy/eye watering response to cat dander have have become mild-to-non-existent! Coincidence? You be the judge!! They’re also great probiotics to eat when you’re coming off antibiotics to replenish your gut flora and ward off yucky yeast infections!

That is definitely the weirdest way I’ve ever ended a blog post. You’re welcome.


If you liked this post, be sure to check out my previous blog entries on When Science Met Nature….

FEB: Warriors of cold and flu season

JAN: Adult snow days

NOV: Gorillas have sex, too

OCT: Frogs and spiders, oh my! Surprising food web dynamics in neotropical swamps

SEP: The Long Trail

JUN, JUL, AUG: Tales from a far-flung forest: parts 1, 2, and 3,

MAY: We can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

FROM 2016: The health benefits of yoga: A scientific perspective.

Warriors of cold and flu season


When Science Met Nature…

Jessica’s Science Blog- 02.03.18

Warriors of cold and flu season

One way to pass the time if you’re sick

Today is Saturday, February 3rd, the day before Super Bowl Sunday. As I sit on the couch, sipping green tea and watching an episode of Mosaic, Steven Soderbergh’s exciting murder mystery series for HBO, I’m taking a moment to reflect on my first month of 2018. Some exciting new adventures are in the works, which I’ll share with you in the coming months.

One other development in the new year has been the ushering in of a particularly nasty cold and flu season. Reportedly, multiple Philadelphia Eagles players have come down with the flu. Several of my friends and family have recently suffered through sinus infections or flu-like symptoms. Misery loves company, and I’m in the sinus infection club.

In a futile attempt to alleviate some of my symptoms, I’ve converted our bathroom into a make-shift steam room. I’ve drunk copious amounts of gatorade, hot tea, tomato juice, Emergen-C, NyQuil, and chicken soup. I’ve gargled with salt water. I’ve ingested ginger, turmeric, garlic, lemongrass, honey, and elderberry, some of nature’s antivirals and antibiotics. I’ve alternated between tylenol and ibuprofen to knock out fevers. I’ve voluntarily slept on the couch, so that my coughing wouldn’t disturb my partner. I’ve been prescribed doxycycline, Tamiflu, and Zpac.

I’ve lost many battles. But, I plan to win the war. Like a Katniss Everdeen of cold and flu season. At long last, I bought a neti pot. I wonder if all of this could have been avoided if I had a daily regimen of flushing out my sinuses with a saline solution during cold and flu season?

Schematic of the immune system

It’s amazing to me how long this infection has lingered in my sinuses. It’s been about 31 days since I noticed the first symptoms. I’ve heard that the immune system has trouble fighting off infection in sinus cavities.

One of my biggest challenges has been to balance daily activities with rest and recovery. I tend to overdo things when I feel better, which puts me right back to where I was days before. It’s been frustrating.

One thing that I’m incredibly grateful for is my strong female friendships. I really don’t know what I’d do without my core group of friends. You know who you are. Most of you are scattered across the country. and I miss you every single day. I wish I had more $$ so that I could travel and spend the weekend with you.

But first, I need to have a serious talk with my white blood cells. Let’s work together, guys. I need your full cooperation. There are big things to do. I can’t wait to do them.

As for tomorrow, all I have to say is: E-A-G-L-E-S….Go Eagles!!!!


If you liked this post, be sure to check out my previous blog entries on When Science Met Nature….

JAN: Adult snow days

NOV: Gorillas have sex, too

OCT: Frogs and spiders, oh my! Surprising food web dynamics in neotropical swamps

SEP: The Long Trail

JUN, JUL, AUG: Tales from a far-flung forest: parts 1, 2, and 3,

MAY: We can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

FROM 2016: The health benefits of yoga: A scientific perspective.


Adult snow days

When Science Met Nature…

Jessica’s Science Blog- 01.04.18

Adult Snow Days

The all important measuring of snow depth, a time honored tradition

As I sit at my computer with the early makings of a winter cold, I realize that it’s a rare thing to have a proper “snow day” as an adult. When we were kids, we’d anxiously await the school closings announcement on TV. My childhood pre-dated the internet, email, smartphones, texting, and emojis. When my parents bought our family’s first computer and printer, they also picked up a copy of Encyclopedia Britannica on disk. I remember dial-up not being too far behind those developments. I think the year was 1996, and I was starting my second year at a new high school in northeastern Ohio. It was the  perfect timing for researching and writing my school papers.

Later on, I’d fill idle time playing video games and learnng how to chat on very early chat rooms. It’s for this reason that I really dig the return of vintage video games with emulators and arcade bars that cater to people of my generation. Mario Bro’s 1, 2, and 3 still hold a special place in my heart. The addition of the raccoon tail was revolutionary.

But, I digress. Let’s get back to snow days. You know, there was such a satisfaction, joy, and mirth attached to snow days as a kid. You could wear your pajamas all morning, eat a leisurely breakfast, and bundle up for a couple hours of play in the snow. I once strapped on a pair of cross-country skis and pretended to downhill ski in the retention pond next to my house in Illinois. We occasionally went ice skating on that same pond when it froze over. I could build a snow man if the mood struck me, or break out the saucers for a little sledding fun.

Hot chocolate always seemed to be awaiting me in the kitchen. A hot shower wasn’t too far behind. These simple pleasures were all I needed to enjoy life. As an adult, it just isn’t the same.

As the snow falls outside and the wind blows, I’m inside working on my computer, and when I’m not doing that I’m either cleaning, or shoveling. Where has the wonder gone?

I guess we can look for it in a child’s eyes. Or a dog’s eyes. That’s great, too.


Adult snow day: Can we recapture that childlike wonder?

If you liked this post, be sure to check out my previous blog entries on When Science Met Nature….

NOV: Gorillas have sex, too

OCT: Frogs and spiders, oh my! Surprising food web dynamics in neotropical swamps

SEP: The Long Trail

JUN, JUL, AUG: Tales from a far-flung forest: parts 1, 2, and 3,

MAY: We can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

FROM 2016: The health benefits of yoga: A scientific perspective.


Gorillas have sex, too!

When Science Met Nature…

Studying gorillas is nothing if not glamorous, as you can clearly see; PC: Kathryn Jeffery

Jessica’s Science Blog- 11.01.17

Gorillas have sex, too!

Kingo, a silverback male western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) at Mondika, copulates with Mama ti Seysa, one of six adult females in his group; PC: Jessica Lodwick

Naturally, gorillas have sex from time to time. They, like us, are sexually reproducing primates in the great ape family, Hominidae. Gorillas are non-seasonal breeders, which means that females conceive throughout the year. Within gorilla groups, mating occurs during the period in which a sexually mature female enters into the fertile phase of her reproductive cycle. This physiological phase is referred to as estrous. During the ovulatory window of estrous (usually 2-3 days/month when she’s cycling), she signals her interest in copulation via a choreographed sequence of displays, postures, and gestures. Solicitation behaviors include staring, branch-waving, and lip-tightening, and approaching. The male may also solicit copulations with receptive females using a similar sequence of behaviors. I must admit, a silverback male’s tight-lip stare is fairly formidable.

I found it somewhat exciting and entertaining to watch a sexual solicitation among gorillas unfold. The act of copulating, on the other hand, was usually pretty mechanical and perfunctory, lasting a maximum of 1-2 minutes, with the female laying belly face-down on the ground and the male mounting her from behind. Copulations may occur anywhere between 1-12 times/day when females are receptive.

Kingo, a silverback male western lowland gorilla copulates with Eboka, another adult female in his group; PC: Jessica Lodwick

Interestingly, pregnant females also copulate with the group silverback, as has been shown in a 2009 paper by Doran-Sheehy and colleagues. It has been hypothesized that they do this to spite fertile, lower-ranking females, who also solicit copulations with the silverback. This spiteful behavior may at first seem like a pointless exercise. Isn’t there enough sperm to go around, as in chimpanzee society? The answer is a bit unclear and hard to test. However, considering the small size of gorilla testicles and the number of copulations/day that the male engages in with more than one female. sperm may actually be in limited supply for female gorillas during certain periods.

It’s completely unclear to me (and I would assume everyone else) how female gorillas view sex. A silverback male is typically more than twice the body weight of an adult female. In light of this extreme sexual dimorphism in body size, I couldn’t help but wonder if female gorillas feel like they’re being crushed under the weight of the silverback during sex? I will never know the answer to this question because I can’t interview wild gorillas.

Female-female mounting behavior: Eboka (top) mounts Mekome (bottom), another adult female in Kingo’s group; PC: Jessica Lodwick


Another question I’ve pondered is why female gorillas sometimes engage in homosexual behaviors. Over the course of three years, in which I observed habituated wild western lowland gorillas at the Mondika Research Centre, I recorded instances of female-female mounting, face-to-face presentation with genital contact, loud vocalizing, and one brief observation of what could best be described as cunnilingus from one adult female to another. Were these types of inter-female sexual behaviors performed to attract male attention and increase chance of copulation? If so, who was initiating these behaviors? Were they typically initiated by pregnant females (e.g. in an effort to outcompete their lower-ranking opponents for access to sperm)? The answers to these questions, at present time, remain a mystery.

Anecdotally, I remember that the male quickly descended a feeding tree after two of his females (who were on the ground) were observed to be engaged in female-female mounting while loudly vocalizing. He solicited and completed a copulation with the higher-ranking female on that occasion. The function of female-female sexual behavior as an advertisement to the male would be interesting to explore further, but sample size would be a problem since I only observed intrasexual behavior when two females were receptive to mating at the same time.

Adult female western lowland gorilla uses walking stick to gauge water depth at Mbeli Bai, Republic of Congo; PC: Thomas Breuer

Finally, we come to the issue of whether there is variability in sexual behavior between gorilla groups or populations. Gorillas are intelligent animals, who have been observed to make and use tools in the swamp. (I recommend you check out Breuer et al. 2005 in PLoS Biology for more details). It would be difficult to imagine a sort of stasis in sexual practice across wide geographic distances, if not for any other reason than apes are innovators. Cultural behaviors have been documented in chimpanzees and orangutans, and potential cultural traits have been described in gorillas. Though this has not yet been shown, I would hypothesize that sexual behaviors and/or positions might in fact be good candidates for cultural traits in gorillas.

The reason I say this rests on an observation made at Mondika by one of my colleagues. A young adult female gorilla had recently transferred into the Kingo study group. This meant that she had previously been living in another gorilla group in the study area. One day, in the course of soliciting a copulation with the male she presented herself to the male lying on her back rather than on her belly. Mind you, I had NEVER seen a female in Kingo’s group present herself for copulation in this manner. She was a new member of the group. The silverback then mated with her in a face-to-face position.

Face-to-face mating in wild western lowland gorillas at Mbeli Bai, Republic of Congo; PC: Thomas Breuer

Mekome (left) and Eboka (right), two adult female western lowland gorillas, stare, approach, and perform a tight-lip display at one another. These behaviors immediately preceded female-female sexual behavior; PC: Jessica Lodwick

Note: Face-to-face mating in gorillas also been observed at Mbeli Bai, another lowland gorillaresearch site in Congo. Was this a case of cultural transmission from one group to another? Another mystery that lacks sufficient data to test, but an intriguing possibility- that females may innovate and spread their behavioral variants to other groups when they transfer. Female gorillas may secondarily transfer between multiple breeding groups in their lifetime, so there is plausible mechanism for transmission of cultural behaviors across gorilla groups.


Animal Behavior is Fascinating!

Adult female western lowland gorilla uses tool to fish for herbs at Mbeli Bai; PC: Thomas Breuer

I hope you’ve learned some new things about animal behavior in this latest installment of my blog! I seek to inform, engage, and entertain you with my true-life stories, observations, and experiences as a behavioral ecologist. Behavioral traits, just like morphological traits, can evolve over time to suit the environment in which animals live. If the evolution of a certain behavior affords a distinct advantage to individuals within a population in terms of survival and reproduction, it should be expected to persist, should it not?

Furthermore, cultural behaviors in animal societies can be transmitted from one generation to the next through social learning. Like humans, ape mothers model all sorts of behaviors for their offspring- from foraging techniques, to tool use, to grooming and gestural communication. Sexual practices in gorillas may be learned, but just how this learning is achieved remains a matter of interest.


If you liked this post, be sure to check out my previous blog entries on When Science Met Nature….

OCT: Frogs and spiders, oh my! Surprising food web dynamics in neotropical swamps

SEP: The Long Trail

JUN, JUL, AUG: Tales from a far-flung forest: parts 1, 2, and 3,

MAY: We can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

FROM 2016: The health benefits of yoga: A scientific perspective.

Bonus image: Did I ever mention that central African forests are home to a great diversity of colorful butterflies? PC: Kathryn Jeffery


The Long Trail


Map of the LT

Change of plan! I’m postponing my forthcoming guest entry by Dr. Kristiina Hurme’s. She’ll be bringing you an animated story about weird things she saw in Panamanian swamps at night. Her story is currently slotted for October! Make some popcorn and buckle your mental seatbelt because we’re traveling to a very different kind of forest. A temperate montane forest in Vermont…..

This past May, my botanist partner and I did a weekend warrior backpack trip on the Long Trail. Many people will be familiar with the Appalachian Trail (AT) and it’s thru-hiker stories. The best-selling book by Bill Bryson (later made into a film), “A Walk in the Woods,” contributed in recent years to the mainstream popularity of AT trail culture. However, I’m guessing that, outside of Vermont or New England, a much smaller contingent will know the Long Trail (LT). It’s a damn shame because the LT is the most ancient of long-distance trails in the United States. Its construction was completed by members of the Green Mountain Club over a twenty year period from 1910 to 1930. The LT has its own group of section and thru-hikers. Some of these are third generation Vermonters, while others have come from all over the map to experience the lush, green (and might I add wet and muddy) environment of the Green Mountains.

I belong in the latter category – I grew up in the mighty midwestern states of Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio, but I’ve spent the better part of my adulthood living in New York and Connecticut. Before this year’s excursion, I had day-hiked two peaks at the northern extent of the LT, Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump. They were both beautiful, although quite different from one another in their topography and plant ecology.

The LT stretches 272 miles from the southern end of the state to its northern border with Canada. We started our backpacking trip on Friday night at the southern most shelter, Seth Warner. This was close to the Massachusetts border, not far from North Adams and the Berkshires. We got water to filter and built a fire to cook our first trail meal, cheesy rice n beans with bell pepper and onion. We met some fine folks at Seth Warner – Ryan and Christian from Boston, on their first overnight backpacking trip; Jill and Faith from Chester, VT and the UP of Michigan, respectively; a dude from NJ attempting his first thru-hike on the LT; and ‘Tumbleweed’, a young female AT thru-hiker. We shared stories and whiskey around the camp fire. We even made PB&J ‘hobo pies’ for dessert. We returned the pie irons to our car as we passed by on the trail the next morning.

Seth Warner Shelter

On Saturday, after a satisfying breakfast of cheesy grits with pepperoni, we backpacked along a nice stretch of trail with a significant climb in elevation. In total that day, we had to cover 7.2 miles to Congdon Shelter: our destination. All that climbing was worth it when we reached a beautiful clearing with a large beaver pond. We sat on a log at the edge of the pond to eat our sandwiches. We hiked during black fly season, which was a little annoying whenever you stopped to drink or eat a snack. But, I found that a long-sleeve collared shirt and long pants protected me from black fly bites pretty well. As we were relaxing on the log at mid-day, my partner spotted a beaver swimming in our general direction. The beaver approached closer and closer, as if (s)he was curious to get a better view of us. We snapped a pic, but without a telephoto lens it was hard to make it out.

Beaver pond in the Green Mountains

We saw other animals along the trail and on the road:

  • Gray fox; Red-tailed hawk; Barred owl (heard call); Squirrel
  • Eastern newt; Blue jay; Large crane flies; Black flies (in May); Dragonflies (e.g. chalk-fronted corporal); Wild turkey; Garter snake

Spring wildflowers on the trail


After lunch, we climbed a bit more and came to another beaver pond and a boardwalk that runs parallel with the dam. I was excited to see the infrastructure of the dam up close and personal. We also noticed that there was a beaver lodge at some length from the dam. My boyfriend pointed out that delicate white, yellow, and purple violets dotted the dam. Naturally, he dutifully recorded loads of spring wildflowers on iNaturalist throughout our route. I understood why they are called the Green Mountains. Of particular note were the spring beauties (Claytonia), starflower (Lysimachia), painted Trilium, and blue-bead lily (Clintonia). 

Well in advance of dark, we reached a fast-moving stream with rapids. Congdon Shelter was only a mile away, perched along the stream. The water quality in the Green Mountains is excellent. We filtered, though we probably didn’t need to. We rolled into camp and set up our two-person tent. The black flies were really abundant at this shelter, which is why we didn’t want to sleep on the open-air bunks in the shelter. We built a fire and cooked a spicy mac n cheese dish with bell pepper. I’ve spotted a common theme. Um, can you tell we love cheese?!? We shared our meal with ‘Plant/Faceplant’, a young male AT thru-hiker who had like zero fat content. We swapped stories with ‘Johnny Walker,’ an experienced thru-hiker who always solo hikes and sleeps in a hammock. He likes to eat raw and has found dried seaweed to be a nutritious addition to any meal. Did I mention the hiker logs. Funny stuff. Really entertaining. There are all types out there hiking. Some are nuts. Some are meticulous. That’s the fun of the trail. The only not-so-fun part is trying to sling and secure a bear bag full of food over a limb at the proper height. But definitely necessary in the mountains.

Beaver dam

On Sunday morning we awoke and ate instant oatmeal for breakfast. We were the last ones out of camp. I slept like a rock that night. Best sleep of my life. Walking all day with a pack on your back will do that. Also, the temperature was just perfect in my sleeping back. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right. Like baby bear. We retraced our 7.2-mile route on Sunday back to Seth Warner. The only difficult part of the trail was trying not to sink into mud or slip on the flooded rocks in the early section of the hike. We had a pleasant conversation with an old guy called ‘Gray ghost’ at a snack break. He said something that struck me. Something to the extent of how walking the trail and being immersed in nature is the ‘real world’. Not the world that we’ve constructed. Yea, trail names are kinda fun. There is a sort of anonymity to them, but also a lore, myth, or legend implied.

Once we reached the powerline cut, greeted by the plucky British soldier lichen (Claydonia), I knew we had a long downhill coming up. We really zoomed through that section. But, I should point out that going downhill is harder on the knees and requires greater concentration to avoid misteps and tumbles. I found and used a walking stick for the downhill portions of the hike. Definitely allowed me to redirect some of the force to the stick rather than my knees. I had hot spots on my heels by this time, that refused to be covered by duct tape, despite my best efforts. Sweat is a baddy. So is friction.

When we made it back to our car, we hadn’t showered since Friday morning and felt pretty ripe. We had a beautiful drive ahead of us through the Berkshires. We were tired but happy that we had spent the weekend experiencing the wild beauty of the Green Mountains. I’ll always remember my first time backpacking on the LT. I learned that I much prefer backpacking on a trail system with shelters, because you get to meet interesting people and share in a sense of community. I’m looking forward to doing this again on a different stretch of the LT or even on the AT.

Red eft life stage of the eastern newt. Warning: I’m toxic!

CONCLUSION: BACKPACKING IS HARD WORK BUT ITS REWARDING. And sometimes, you’ll get lucky and see a red eft… or a beaver… or something you don’t often see in your every day life.


Did you enjoy this story? Be sure to check out my previous posts:

JUN-AUG: Tales from a far-flung forest: parts 1, 2, and 3

MAY: We can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

FROM 2016: The health benefits of yoga: A scientific perspective.




Frogs and spiders, oh my! Surprising food web dynamics in Neotropical swamps


When Science Met Nature…

Jessica’s Science Blog- 10.01.17

Frogs and spiders, oh my! Surprising food web dynamics in Neotropical swamps

For this month’s extra special guest post, we’ll dive into the wild world of Neotropical swamps. The author and illustrator of my October piece is Dr. Kristiina Hurme, a behavioral ecologist at UC Berkeley (and my dear friend and colleague pictured above) who studied parental care in frogs for her doctoral research. This post was inspired by conversations Dr. Hurme and I had years ago about weird things we witnessed while doing field work. By the end of this post, you may agree that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction when it comes to predator-prey interactions in the swamp. I want to stress that Dr. Hurme’s observations of spiders and frogs are 100% real and unembellished and that her illustrations are based on actual photos of these interactions. Some of the details of these food web dynamics may not have ever been scientifically documented. So, strap on your mental headlamp and let’s fly to Panama!


Are you my mother?

I spent a lot of time in the swamps at night in Panama focusing on parental care in frogs. Along the way, I got to observe the natural history of many other organisms. The most interesting- and sometimes endearing- was that of spiders. So, I spent all my time thinking about what makes a good frog momma, but I also saw spiders being really good mommas and carrying around their egg sacs and often their young. I’m not sure about any parental care after that, but they definitely transported the eggs.


Female L. insularum guarding newly hatched school of tadpoles. Photo by Michael Starkey.

In most species of frogs, the tadpoles are solitary, so they’re very skittish and not very active because they don’t want to draw a lot of attention to themselves. But in my species, Leptodactylus insularum, they make huge gregarious schools and they’re very active. But, they use strength in numbers to hope that they’re not the one caught by a predator. Therefore, there’s actually a high level of mortality by predators that focus on movement, such as spiders, which sit at the surface and sense movement in the water.

Spiders prey on tadpoles and other spiders

Whenever I found a school of tadpoles in the swamp, there would be a high number of spiders present (with tadpoles as prey) right next to the school. A tadpole school is this weird thing where the water is  boiling with tadpoles. So if they pass by where a spider is sitting and waiting, he’s almost guaranteed he’s gonna catch a tadpole in this mess. So, I very rarely found spiders with other species of tadpoles because it’s hard to predict where that one individual tadpole’s going to come up to the surface. It’s only at later stages that they need to even breathe air. Spiders probably have a hard time catching tadpoles generally, but not when they encounter the species I was studying.

Male fishing spider with L. insularum tadpole.

It was neat to see spiders catching tadpoles, because sometimes they’re pulling up a tadpole that’s even bigger than them. You can imagine tadpoles are a pretty good meal. So once a spider catches a tadpole, it looks like it’s set for a while. He’s gonna suck it dry from the inside, so there will be this trail of happy spiders with their tadpoles. You can tell where the school had been wherever there was a high concentration of spiders with juicy tadpoles they were chowing down on. So, I came to notice that there were always spiders killing tadpoles, any time you went out in the swamp. But, of course there was probably a spider like every six inches throughout the whole surface of the swamp. There was a high density of spiders.




The cool part was that I would find spiders eating other spiders….and spiders eating larger frogs….and then really large frogs eating spiders. At first I thought the food web was pretty simple, with spiders eating tadpoles. But then, I got some really cool observations.

Once I found a large wandering spider (family Ctenidae) with a juvenile frog. That made me sad, because it’s so hard for a tadpole to be the one that survives past metamorphosis. He made it to about teenager size (half as large as an adult), and that’s when the spider killed him. So, I was pretty bummed, but I was taking pictures. And then I watched an even larger spider come up and attack the first spider, to the point that then he left the frog behind. So, the original spider got killed by the larger spider and then that poor frog was left in the swamp.

I’m sure it wasn’t wasted, I’m sure someone eventually ate him, but it made me feel bad because my frogs have such a hard time making it to adulthood.

Another time, I saw a male fishing spider (family Pisauridae), the smaller one that’s more yellow with a white stripe, holding a tadpole but he wasn’t eating it. He was drumming on the surface of the water with his legs while holding the tadpole. I kept watching him and watching him. I realized that a female spider was approaching. So, he started to approach her very cautiously (because spiders kill each other). He held the tadpole out in front of him with his other legs put up in the air, as if he wanted to keep as much of his body away from her. He slowly inched forward, with the tadpole close. Luckily for him, she grabbed the tadpole and stared eating it. At which point, he flipped her over and used his little forelimbs, the pedipalps, to inseminate her on both sides. So, he got his copulation with his nuptial gift. And then, risky as he was, he stole the tadpole from her and ran away. So, I don’t know if he was gonna use the tadpole on another female, but he definitely made out with his life and his meal.

Male L. insularum eating Ctenid spider.

Like I said, I saw almost always spiders eating tadpoles, but one time I did find an adult male L. insularum frog with a really big spider (family Ctenidae) in his mouth. So, the food web is interconnected in many ways. Also, I once saw an adult female L. insularum frog eating a small tree frog. Swamps are dangerous places. Anyone who’s bigger eats anyone who’s smaller across many different taxa.



Maternal care and offspring development

In terms of cool facts about the female frog and her parental care, the females will guard the schools, including the foam nests. So, when the pair makes the foam nest, it’s only around for about two days, which is very fast in terms of frog development. The female will sit inside, and if you come close she’ll jump out and hiss and splash and bite to try to protect her eggs. This seems to be aimed only at vertebrate predators. I never saw her react to any sort of spider or invertebrate predator….that’s only thinking about one tadpole…she does not react at all. If my body was hidden and she just saw my hand- as if I were a snake or a turtle head- then she would aggressively attack my hand to keep me away. I think she’s waiting for a vertebrate predator that could pick off her entire school, which could be up to 10,000 tadpoles.

From day two to day 17, the tadpoles are constantly active, constantly feeding. By 17 days, they’re metamorphosing into tiny frogs. This is really fast. For context, the fastest development of the desert frogs is about 11 days, so this is really really fast.

Other frogs in Panama might take two to three months to develop, but of course you’re risking that the water is going to dry up. In these flooded grasslands, where my frogs are breeding, water drying up killed at least half of the schools. They never even made it to day 17 because the swamp dried up. But interestingly, only about half of the schools ever had a female stay behind to protect them. I don’t know what a female needs in terms of the energy resources to stay and defend her school. But, I found that none of the schools that didn’t have a mother guarding them survived to metamorphosis. So, if your mother didn’t stay around to protect you, there was zero survival.

Close up of school of L. insularum tadpoles.

Females might also be important in leading schools around to different spots within the swamp. So, females can dig little tunnels to connect drying puddles. Maybe they know something about where there’s better nutrients or better places to avoid predators, either vegetation to hide from vertebrates or less invertebrates. For invertebrates, it seems like being the first frog to colonize after the rains come and the water fills up, you have an advantage because there are fewer insects living in the swamp. Later in the season, the insects are in later stages or adults that can chow down on the tadpoles much more readily. In the beginning, it’s like a novel environment every time it rains. If you can time it with breeding, right when the pond fills up, there might be less predation from invertebrates. At least those are my feelings from being out there.



There’s tons of natural history. I felt like I could do a whole other Ph.D. or at least tons of art and photography projects just on documenting spiders. I have a great appreciation for spiders after being with them in the swamp for about a year.

Notes on natural history

Spiders are carnivorous throughout their entire lives but almost all tadpoles are herbivorous and almost all adult frogs are carnivorous. We couldn’t see tadpoles preying on anything, but there are tadpoles (especially fast-developing ones) that will scavenge if there’s a dead animal in the pond. But, from what I could tell my species does not do that.

Also, parental care is really rare in frogs and in the few that do provide parental care, it’s split between whether it’s the mother or father that provides the care. In my species, it happens to be the mother. The males are really muscular and have thumb spines, probably for fighting and wrestling. Someone has seen them wrestling. The males are covered in scars, which I assume is from fighting for good spots within the swamp where they call. In three years, I only saw one pair in amplexus and it was a really big, muscular, macho male.


A pair in amplexus.

Did you enjoy this story? Be sure to check out my previous posts:

SEP: The Long Trail

JUN, JUL, AUG: Tales from a far-flung forest: parts 1, 2, and 3,

MAY: We can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

FROM 2016: The health benefits of yoga: A scientific perspective.





Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 3

When Science Met Nature…

Jessica’s Science Blog – 08.01.17

Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 3

Grey-cheeked mangabeys in the canopy (Lophocebus albigena); PC: Coke and Som Smith Photography

REMINDER: We’re at a rustic FIELD STATION in the Republic of Congo. It’s about 77°F (or 25°C for the rest of the world) with high humidity. Grey-cheeked mangabeys (Lophocebus albigena) are whoop-gobbling in the canopy as they travel through camp. Last night I could have sworn a woman was screaming bloody murder, but it was just the call of a tree hyrax (Dendrohyrax dorsalis). In this third installment of tales from a far-flung forest, we’ll be departing from Mondika camp on foot and by boat for adventures in the Central African Republic!!

Adventures to Bayanga and back

Like the road to slaying the final boss in a video game, one must be prepared to contend with a series of obstacles on the journey. Fortunately, many of them are surmountable challenges, and if one keeps an open mind and a flexible attitude, we’ll make it to the castle (so to speak). And if we’re delayed, at least we’ll get serenaded by echolocating bats on a moonlit boat cruise.

  • African forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) PC: WCS Congo

    Step 1) Hiking out: We’ve got a 4-hr hike ahead of us. We’ll start at first light, and we won’t rest until we’ve crossed the flood plain of the Djeke River. If we’re lucky, we’ll see a harem of African forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) feeding in one of the bais along the trail. Mostly though, we’ll focus on putting one foot in front of the other until we reach our destination – the mighty Sangha River. The Sangha is a large tributary of the Congo river, covering nearly 500 miles from end to end. Its water level swells in the rainy season and drops in the dry season to expose sand bars, which are used by hippos. I saw hippos chilling on a sand bar just outside Bayanga in the dry season. The fishing is good on the Sangha. I saw a huge variety of fish forms sold at outdoor markets. I quite enjoyed the smoked river fish, although I never knew what species I was eating.

  • Boating to Bayanga on the project pirogue (dugout canoe)

    Step 2) Boating: Sweaty from the hike, we arrive at N’dakan, a tiny outpost on the Sangha River. To fish and get up and down river, local people use dugout canoes. They’re made from hollowing out massive hardwood trees. Our project canoe has the luxury of an outboard motor, which allows us to reach Bayanga in less than 8 hours. Every month, our boat driver travels this route to resupply and make the changeover with our workers. My field assistant, Whitney, and I are accompanying the boat driver and workers on the changeover for this month’s trip. We could use a “vacation.”

  • Step 2.5) How to pay a bribe: By geographical necessity, we’ll need to pass through a border checkpoint in Lindjombo as we reach the southern edge of the Central African Republic. What this also means is that it’s time to get shaken down by the gendarme (i.e. police or border guards) for a bribe. Pretty standard practice. Pleasantries are also exchanged and questions are asked about the nature of your travels. I admit that I wasn’t aware that I was authorized to divert project funds to pay off a local official. On that occasion, I sat in the office for the better part of an hour trying to talk my way out of a bribe. When the official told me that he had all day, I realized that I had little recourse. I paid the bribe and we were on our way. If you ever find yourself in this situation, I recommend making an offer of coffee and donuts, because that will thrill everyone and you’ll get out of there without forking over project dough. I learned that trick and subsequently deployed it successfully on the return trip!
  • Small fishing village along the Sangha

    Step 2.75) Locating a bathroom along the river: Ugh. If you’re like me, you can’t make it eight hours without a bathroom break. Being a woman poses a particular challenge in this regard. On more than one occasion, I had to ask our boat driver to pull over at a small fishing village and ask an elder for access to an outhouse. Mind you, I didn’t need an outhouse, just some privacy to void my bladder! One funny part about this experience is having tens of children smile and wave at you, shouting, “Mbunzú!”(white person).

  • Step 3) Arrival at Bayanga: Tired and a little sunburned, we finally arrive at Bayanga just before night fall. The very best thing to do upon arrival is hoof it to Doli Lodge for a drink on the water at sunset. An incomparable experience. Even better if you have a friend from WWF join you. Incidentally, doli means elephant in Sango, the national language of the Central African Republic.
  • Saka saka with rice

    Step 4) What’s on the menu?/ Don’t drink the water: After a good night’s sleep, you’ll take the most wonderful shower of your life. It’s ice cold. But it’s a real shower, and you haven’t taken one of those in months. Order some saka saka or koko with gozo at the local cafe. Delicious!

  • But don’t do what I did. Don’t drink the water or ice cubes that’s served to you at the cafe. Even if they assure it’s safe…it may not be filtered or boiled. Needless to say, I suffered a bout of amoebiosis. Flagyl to the rescue! PSA: NEVER mix alcohol with flagyl.
  • Did I mention that the Sango spoken in town is considerably more sophisticated than the bush Sango we use in camp? Also seems to be spoken faster, more confidently, and with a flourish. I tried my best, and attempted to remember to use the formal you (ala) instead of the familiar you (mo) when addressing respected officials. Always greet everyone with an enthusiastic, “Bara mingi! Tonga na nye?” That roughly translates as, “Good morning! How’s it going?” The response is, “Ye’ ke d’ape,” meaning nothing much is happening. I guess that’s a good thing!
  • Chocolate biscuits imported from France

    Step 5) Hit the magasin to pick up supplies: **But, avoid the outdoor market if you’re offended by seeing bushmeat for sale. I didn’t want to see this, so I steered clear. The last thing I wanted to see was dead guenons or worse. I also steered clear of the local palm wine, which I’m told is a bit like moonshine. It cleans your clock.** The local donuts were pretty tasty. One of my favorite treats was the chocolate and vanilla biscuits. Every month, we stocked up on rice, dry beans, pasta, tomato sauce, canned sardines, boxed wine, and spices. Also, copious amounts of oil and maggi are used in what seemed like EVERY DISH. Finish your shopping with the help of a checklist that you’ve prepared in advance to give the shop keeper. He’ll box everything up nice and run through the checklist with you. You’re likely to meet ex-pats and missionaries in the shop. I met one missionary family who moved to Bayanga to teach local people how to grow fruit trees.

  • Step 6) If you speak Sango, why not brave the local discotheque? Bring an escort. Wear your Sunday best: a long skirt and blouse. Don’t show skin. It’s impolite. Stay for a few songs. The DJ will be spinning Koffi Olomide, Papa Wemba, and other Congolese soukus. Upbeat music. You CAN’T MISS the young men showing off their best pelvic gyrations. A form of male-male competition. Whitney and I requested a song by Brenda Fassie, because 90’s Brenda songs are dope.
  • Children at play in Bayanga

    Step 7) Be sensitive to sociocultural issues in town, especially those that relate to historical conflicts between Bantu and Bayaka. Poverty is a pervasive problem in Bayanga and its surrounding areas. Without steady income, heads of households are forced to poach and sell wild animals. To my knowledge, there weren’t any cultural taboos against eating apes. Some of the best hunters have been snapped up by conservation and research organizations and trained as eco-guards or trackers since they know how to locate elephants and gorillas. These reformed hunters receive a monthly paycheck in return for their hard work. It’s a win-win and an example of how ecotourism and conservation efforts can benefit local communities.

  • Also, there is a sad history of the Bantu treating the Bayaka inhumanely, including violence. The Bayaka live in small satellite villages, Yandoumbe and Mousapala, on the outskirts of Bayanga. Bayaka families make intermittent trips into the forest to hunt and gather as their ancestors have done for generations. The women gather tree nuts and koko leaves, and the men hunt diuker. Forest products may also be traded for gozo and household wares in town. There is a co-dependent relationship here, which sways in favor of the Bantu. The Bayaka may be small in stature, but they are not short on heart or cultural traditions; they’re dancing, drumming, story telling, and polyphonic singing have no equal.


Deep forest immersion: Hunt by day, drum and dance with Jengi by night

1) Hunt by day

  • Sangha forest outside of Yandoumbe, Central African Republic

    When you’re offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to tag along on a traditional net hunt and overnight stay in the forest with Bayaka families, you take it! Whitney, myself, and three female field assistants from the Bai Hokou project were given the chance while in Bayanga. I really had no clue what to expect. I had to take a leap of faith that this would work out alright. I knew that a couple of our trackers were bringing their families and that gave me some comfort. We filled our water bottles, grabbed our headlamps, and departed for the forest. I’d say we hiked for about 2 hours before we reached a small clearing in the forest. This was to be our camp site. Drums and vessels for pounding maniac flour were dropped here.

  • The women split from the men, and the five western ladies joined up with our trackers for a duiker hunt. The men carried a massive net that needed to be unfurled, untangled, and arranged around a perimeter of trees. Whitney and I helped Samedi work on his part of the net. He explained that once a duiker was found someone would go inside the net and begin to flush it out. Pretty deft coordination is required to make the hunt successful. This was hard work.
  • Going on a net hunt; PC: James Hopkirk

    After nearly two hours of moving with the net a duiker was spotted! I heard a man in the center working to scare the duiker in a particular direction. We closed in, helping to reduce the net’s circumference. I saw the duiker run into some brush. We were getting closer. Just as the moment was upon the hunters, the duiker escaped through the net (perhaps there was a gap or a hole), and all the time invested in the hunt was for wasted.

2) Drum and dance with Jengi by night

  • We get back to the clearing and families begin to prep dinner. We are offered koko and gozo by an adjacent family. No duiker meat (thankfully). We eat our dinner in peace, surrounded by beautiful trees. After dinner, the Bayaka begin to build a bonfire. Children and young men begin drumming. Women and children begin to sing. Polyphonic singing and hand-clapping like you’ve never heard before. Raw and powerful, and beyond beautiful.
  • Bayaka women and children engaged in polyphonic singing and hand-clapping, unique to their culture

    Over the next hour, the drumming and singing builds as if to a crescendo. The power of the music is growing and throbbing. Individuals begin to dance around the fire. Dancing in a circle, with smiles on their faces. We join in the dancing. It feels awkward at first, but as I let my guard down it became freeing. Everyone’s happy and living in the moment. My headlamp falls off and it disappears. Never getting that back. I take a seat and watch. The singers are still singing. Drummers are still drumming. Dancers still dancing.

  • Rumor spreads that a forest spirit is about to appear. Talk of Jengi. We turn to look in the direction of where leaves are shaking in the dark. What can best be described as a large bush begins dancing toward the bonfire. Everyone clears out. All eyes are on Jengi. Jengi’s power is palpable. My jaw drops as I watch Jengi dance to the music. I’ve imbedded a short clip below that shows a different forest spirit (this time wearing a burlap sack) dancing with a Bayaka family.
  • The night of our Jengi appearance, the spirit manifested as a dancing bush, waving its leaves to and fro in a rhythmic frenzy. I came to understand the nature of the mystical qualities ascribed to forest spirits in this moment. Jengi was exciting – an escape from the norms of reality! Jengi danced for about 20 minutes, and then s(he) disappeared back into the forest. It was as thrilling an experience as any I’ve had since! I feel honored that the Bayaka trusted me and my colleagues to introduce us to one of their forest spirits that night. Also, it was pretty fun joking with our trackers for the next week about how Jengi stole my head lamp. And boy, do the Bayaka know how to laugh, drink, dance, have a good time, and enjoy theatrics, however silly you can make them. I learned how to live in the moment from them and that ‘sillyness’ is contagious.


Sunset over the Sangha River; PC: Coke Smith

After a series of adventures in Bayanga, it’s time to return to Mondika! Even though our boat motor needed repair in Bayanga, which waylaid us by a couple days, I’m happy to report we made it back to N’dakan and to Mondika camp without major incident. The moment my head hit the pillow was pretty satisfying. It felt good to be away. Great to be back. Only an hour’s walk from Kingo and his beautiful family.


Did you enjoy tales from a far-flung forest?

I hope you’ve vicariously experienced some exciting adventures via my blog and increased your knowledge about the people and ecology of the Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. Good news: I have a very special guest/ collaborative post in the works for September. We’ll be flying to Panama and joining up with Dr. Kristiina Hurme for tales from her Ph.D. research on frog behavioral ecology!

Previous post on When Science Met NatureTales from a far-flung forest: Part 2

JUNE 2017: Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 1

MAY 2017: We can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

FROM 2016: The health benefits of yoga: A scientific perspective


Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 2

When Science Met Nature…

Dzanga Bai: Village of the Elephants PC: Karin von Loebenstein

Jessica’s Science Blog – 07.01.17

Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 2

Map of Mondika camp in relation to the Djeke Triangle and Sangha Trinational World Heritage area. Image produced by Gorilla Stichting Nederland

Background information: When I was 24 years old, I waved goodbye to friends and set off on an epic journey that would last for a full year. I was on my way to live in a central African rainforest! Not exactly Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but close.

I was making my way to a field station, known as the Mondika Research Center, that my Ph.D. advisor had established for studying wild western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla). The forest that I was about to call home was part of a 10,000 hectare expanse known as the Djeke Triangle, stretching from northern Congo to southern Central African Republic. Having no recent history of logging, the rainforests and swamps of the Djeke Triangle support an astounding diversity of flora – from towering fruit trees and lianas to succulent herbs – and fauna – such as forest elephants, chimpanzees, gorillas, forest buffalos, forest antelopes, red river hogs, guenons, mangabeys, vipers, spiders, ants, and bees.

Mondika is the very best place in the world to study lowland gorillas up close and personal. So, I decided that I was ready to trade modern conveniences for a bold adventure observing and walking among a family group of gorillas. To be clear, what I’m talking about is trading a bed for a thermarest, an apartment for a tent, a toilet for a latrine, a shower for a bucket bath, a plastic basin for a sink, and high speed internet for a sat phone.

Samedi, an expert gorilla tracker for the project, in the tropical lowland mixed forest

No one demonstrates the principles of forest living better than the Bayaka people of the Central African Republic. The Bayaka are hunter-gatherers who’ve relied on the rainforests of central Africa for food and shelter for hundreds of generations. Their traditional knowledge and expertise in tracking animals, net-hunting, fishing, plant medicine, and gathering nuts, leaves, tubers, and honey, is absolutely extraordinary. I had the pleasure of working closely with Bayaka men, like Samedi and Mamendele, who make their living as gorilla trackers at the project.

You can imagine that spending 12-hour days in the forest over the course of a year results in unique experiences and great stories. Most of my stories are about living things that surprised me in some way. Things I didn’t expect to see, but will remain in my memory forever. Stories that wouldn’t be nearly as rich or interesting without the knowledge of the Bayaka to impart context.

In this second installment of tales from a far-flung forest, I’ve compiled a few of my MOST memorable encounters with charismatic forest animals (some big, some small)! I feel extremely privileged to have been afforded the opportunity to observe such an incredible range of wildlife in the course of my studies and travels. I believe one must SEE wild animals to WANT to protect them. I hope you enjoy! *Disclaimer: no animals (other than the occasional sweat bee) were harmed or contacted directly in the course of my adventures.*


Spontaneous Encounters with Remarkable Forest Animals


Wild chimpanzees in a central African forest PC: Lukuru Foundation; Bili site in D.R.C.

Perhaps you’ve watched chimpanzees in the zoo? Maybe you’ve perceived the sentience in their eyes? The curiosity they show toward new objects and people? I had an impression of chimpanzees before I went to Africa. I’d been to chimpanzee exhibits at a handful of zoos. I’d written my undergraduate honor’s thesis on chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) behavioral ecology using archival data from the Jane Goodall Institute. I guess I thought that reading papers and watching natural history films on chimpanzees would prepare me for what to expect. It didn’t. In fact, it was *naive* of me to think it would.

Flash to the forest: I was once again with Mamendele, one of the most experienced gorilla trackers at the project. We were in an area of the forest that was situated pretty close to the swamp. It was my day off, and we were collecting fruit samples from a tree that the gorillas had fed from the evening before. We had a bit of down time, and I told Mamendele that I hadn’t seen a chimpanzee yet. I said that I had only heard chimpanzees drumming on the buttresses of trees (which is CRAZY cool). He told me that he knew how to make a call that sounds like that of a blue duiker (a small forest antelope). He told me that chimpanzees are attracted to the calls of duikers. I assumed that was because chimpanzees are known opportunists where hunting is concerned and would view blue duikers as prey.

Blue duiker (Philantomba monticola)

I must have looked at Mamendele with eyes-large-as-saucers because the next thing I knew he was making a loud nasal call. It sounded a bit like a crying baby. We waited patiently for about 20 minutes. I noticed Mamendele, always vigilant, listening to and scanning his surroundings. Before long, a dark and slender figure appeared from behind a tree. Curious and cautious, the figure peered at us. I stifled a gasp. This was an unhabituated wild chimpanzee. Mamendele whispered to me, “Do you see them?” I squinted my eyes and looked closer. Another chimpanzee had appeared from the darkness of the forest. Stealthy, to say the least. Perhaps they were looking for a duiker, and in the absence of one they were trying to work out what had occurred when they came by two humans instead? Some cruel trick. I could not believe how curious and patient these chimpanzees seemed.They kept a healthy distance of about 60 ft. If they were fearful, curiosity must have been tempered their fear? And then as if it was all a dream, the pair of chimpanzees returned to the forest.

I’ll never forget this intimate and fleeting moment spent with chimpanzees because it inspired me to support research and conservation efforts aimed at understanding and protecting these highly intelligent animals. They are, after all, our closest living relatives!! If you want to do something to support chimpanzee research and conservation in central Africa, I encourage you to look into the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project. Consider making a donation! Goualougo’s project directors, Drs. Dave Morgan and Crickette Sanz, are nice people and extremely dedicated and hard-working scientists. I greatly respect and admire the nature of their work with great apes in the region.

                                            Forest Elephants

African forest elephants visit a clearing at Bai Hokou, Central African Republic

How can a 6,000 lb behemoth with giant ears disappear in the forest? At first, the prospect seems counterintuitive. Well, the understory of this tropical mixed forest is dense and dark. You could probably hide a tank in plain sight and not notice it until you were 15 ft away! That’s the way in which African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) blend with their surroundings. Also, they are surprisingly quiet, except when feeding or snoring (yes, I’ve heard an elephant snore in the early morning hours). While following the gorillas, I’d estimate that we encountered a forest elephant about once per month. Roughly half of the time the elephant heard our footsteps and trumpeted in our direction. In fact, one of the first skills I learned was how to run from a trumpeting or charging elephant. You’d be surprised how well you can leap over tree roots and claw your way through thickets when properly motivated!

Forest elephants have excellent hearing and can detect vibrations from your movements. They are also important seed dispersers, and you will often encounter forest elephants at fruiting trees. Fortunately, forest elephants that come to feed in this part of the forest tend to be solitary. I visited another gorilla field site further north in the Central African Republic, known as Bai Hokou, where you can easily meet several elephants in a clearing at once. A beautiful sight, but a potentially dangerous situation in which to find yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Village of the elephants: Dzanga Bai PC: WWF blogs

Forest elephants in the Central African Republic face a lot of poaching pressure and, as a result, can be quite aggressive. I heard a story about an inexperienced researcher getting gored by a forest elephant at Bai Hokou. One of the best places in the world to view forest elephants is at Dzanga Bai (a.k.a. the “village of the elephants”!), a long-term elephant research and conservation site in the Central African Republic that is a crown jewel within the larger World Heritage Site of the Sangha Trinational area. natural wonder of the world. Elephants gather here in large numbers (e.g. I counted 69 elephants in the bai at one time) to drink mineral salts from the sandy soil. I had the privilege of visiting Dzangi Bai with my field assistant, Whitney Meno, my friend and colleague from the World Wildlife Fund, David Greer, and the director of the Elephant Listening Project, Andrea Turkalo.

David Greer and Andrea Turkalo en route to Dzanga Bai

I consider my visit to Dzanga Bai to be one of my most treasured experiences in Central Africa. You can read about the pioneering work of Andrea Turkalo with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Cornell University here. Andrea is a world expert on forest elephants, having studied hundreds of individuals in this population over the span of decades. She has braved threats from elephant poachers and more recently from C.A.R. rebels, but she persisted and she persevered. I hope her work will continue at Dzanga Bai because forest elephants have terribly slow life histories and more data are needed to understand long-term changes in the population.

Sweat Bees, Spiders, and Snakes

Not everyone is a lover of creepy crawly things. I recognize that. Personally, I think most spiders are beautiful. Although I appreciate snakes for their fascinating adaptations, I’m fearful of snakes that are venomous or fit the mold of large constrictors. I hate sweat bees. Wait, hate is an understatement. I loathe sweat bees.

Sweat bees by the thousand PC: Holly goes apes blog

Sweat bees (family Halactidae) use your body exudations to make honey. First strike against them right there! They also aggregate by the hundreds, possibly thousands, when you cross into a part of the forest occupied by a colony. They swarm around your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, entering when they have the chance. Ugh. I wondered if the gorillas ever became annoyed by sweat bees. I didn’t see them swatting sweat bees from their face like I did. Although, who am I kidding? Swatting sweat bees gives you a reprieve of about 1.5 seconds until they return to invade your eyeballs and ears. I noticed that sweat bees assaulted my face and hands in greater numbers than they did with our trackers. Was it my soap? Diet? Hormones? What could I do to reduce the                                                                                                                                   appeal of my sweat? Oof, I never solved that puzzle.

Golden silk orb weaver (Nephilia)

Spiders, on the other hand. For a period of about two months, I hosted a rather gorgeous golden silk orb-weaver (Nephilia) spider as a resident at the entrance of my tent. I felt a little guilty leaving my tent in the morning, because I inadvertently disturbed its web. Every night, I’d find my spider friend perched on a new web in the same spot as before. Hard-working spider! I beheld its beauty every day for a time. I wish I would have taken a photo! I preferred spider residents to transient biting ants any day. There was even a time when I had a termite colony invade my sleeping quarters after my candle had tipped over, burning a small hole in the tent fabric. They ceremoniously chewed my books and papers to bits. I’m generally of the opinion that spiders tend to be more afraid of me then I am of them. I like that arrangement just fine.

One morning in the Gilbertiodendron forest, I came across evidence of- what I thought to be- colonial spider activity. We’re talking hundreds of webs. Webs bridging to other webs. Webs connecting sapling trees. Like the way artificial Halloween cobwebs decorate a haunted house. This network of webs spanned at least the length of 50 yards or half a football field! I should have measured the length, or taken a picture. Hindsight is 20/20. Unfortunately, you don’t always have a camera on you when you’re traveling through the forest. Alas, I didn’t have a tropical entomologist with me in the field, nor a detailed book on spiders of central Africa. The identity of the colonial residents remains a mystery I may never solve?!?

Rhinoceros viper (Bitis nasicornis)

Finally, we come to snakes. I came across snakes (that I knew about) only rarely. There were three snakes that stood out to me. The first was a rhinoceros viper (Bitis nasicornis), a.k.a. the horned puff adder, resting on the trail across the Mondika river. This was a rather impressive looking snake that boasted nasal horns and measured about two to three feet in length. We came across this beauty in the early morning light. He or she was slow-moving and posed no threat to our safety. I remember seeing the horns protruding from the head of the snake and wondering what their function might be? Was it a sexually selected trait, preferred by females? Were the horns used as a weapon against males? I think I need to read up on this!

The other snake was a much more scary sight. I was scurrying through the forest, trying to keep up with one of the female gorillas. My guide saw it and yelled for me to stop. I look up and see a slender green snake on a liana about three feet in front of me and two feet above my head. Could this be a Jameson’s mamba? There is absolutely NO WAY that I would have noticed this snake. The light was too dim and the understory too dense. We had no antivenin at camp. Even if we did, it probably wouldn’t be the right kind? Lucky for me, my forest guide had exceptional vision and skill. The final snake, well, I’ll spare you the details. But suffice it to say that this snake crawled out of the latrine just as I opened the lid! I jumped backwards like a cartoon character on fire. Ever since that episode, I was wary of snake friends when opening the lid!

Never again do I hope to meet a snake in the toilet!!!! 

Mamendele poses for my camera in camp


Did you enjoy tales from a far-flung forest: Parts 1 & 2?

Good news: I have at least ONE MORE tale to tell! In a future post, I remain open to including a story from another far-flung forest on the other side of the world! A dear herpetologist friend of mine once told me a chilling story from her field work in Panama involving frogs and spiders…. Perhaps, I’ll be able to collaborate with her on a future installment featuring the forests of Central America?

Previous post on When Science Met NatureTales from a far-flung forest: Part 1

MAY 2017: We can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

FROM 2016: The health benefits of yoga: A scientific perspective

My field assistant, Whitney (black shirt), and myself (green shirt) en route to Dzanga Bai

Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 1

When Science Met Nature…

Jessica’s Science Blog – 06.01.17

Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 1

When I was 24 years old, I waved goodbye to friends and set off on an epic journey that would last for a full year. I was on my way to live in a central African rainforest! Not exactly Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but close.

I was making my way to a field station, known as the Mondika Research Center, that my Ph.D. advisor had established for studying wild western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla). The forest that I was about to call home was part of a 10,000 hectare expanse known as the Djeke Triangle, stretching from northern Congo to southern Central African Republic. Having no recent history of logging, the rainforests and swamps of the Djeke Triangle support an astounding diversity of flora – from towering fruit trees and lianas to succulent herbs – and fauna – such as forest elephants, chimpanzees, gorillas, forest buffalos, forest antelopes, red river hogs, guenons, mangabeys, vipers, spiders, ants, and bees.

Mondika is the very best place in the world to study lowland gorillas up close and personal. So, I decided that I was ready to trade modern conveniences for a bold adventure observing and walking among a family group of gorillas. To be clear, what I’m talking about is trading a bed for a thermarest, an apartment for a tent, a toilet for a latrine, a shower for a bucket bath, a sink for a plastic basin, and high speed internet for a sat phone.

(Top) Mondika camp (Middle) Colony of army ants (Bottom) Samedi, an expert gorilla tracker for the project

No one demonstrates the principles of forest living better than the Bayaka people of the Central African Republic. The Bayaka are hunter-gatherers who have relied on the rainforests of Central Africa for food and shelter for hundreds of generations. Their traditional knowledge and expertise in tracking animals, net-hunting, fishing, plant medicine, and gathering nuts, leaves, tubers, and honey, is absolutely extraordinary. I had the pleasure of working closely with Bayaka men who make their living as gorilla trackers at the project.

You can imagine that spending 12-hour days in the forest over the course of a year results in unique experiences and great stories. Most of my stories are about living things that surprised me in some way. Things I didn’t expect to see, but will remain in my memory forever. Stories that wouldn’t be nearly as rich or interesting without the knowledge of the Bayaka to impart context.

I’ve curated a story for you to illustrate my point:



We’re Swamp People Now / Oddities of the Swamp

Traveling through a Congolese swamp forest

One day, the gorillas decided to make a bee-line for the swamp. When they do this, they tend to move swiftly and in a single-file line through the forest. Why they do this isn’t clear, but it may have something to do with avoiding other groups or other silverbacks in the area. As my tracker and I bob and weave over roots, shrubs, and thorny Haumania herbs, we scramble to keep up with Kingo, the silverback, and his females. Through sheer luck and determination, I manage to not trip and fall on my face. But, my movements are awkward and my pace is much slower than that of my master guide, Mamandele. He’s wearing $1 flip-flops.

As we catch up to the group, I notice that we are beginning our descent into murky water that’s shin-deep at best and waist-deep at worst. I attempt to summon my balance beam skills from when I was six to tip-toe across submerged roots and branches.

Kingo feeds on Hydrocharis herbs in the swamp (PC: Ian Nichols)

On the outskirts of the swamp, I reach out for a grip and nearly pierce my hand on a row of razor sharp 1-inch THORNS lining the TRUNK of a tree. “Ahhhhh!”, I exclaim. As I lose my balance and one boot goes in the water up to my knee. “Oh shoot”, I think, “I’ve got to get a GPS fix to record my ranging data”. Mamandele, bless his heart, is standing on what I like to call a small ‘island’ waiting for me once again to catch up. Finally, after about 10 minutes we arrive at the part of the bai (a clearing in the swamp) where the gorillas are feeding on mineral-rich Hydrocharis vegetation. I get out my pen and clipboard and start recording feeding data.

Just when you think you’re safe and settled, that’s when the swamp tricks you. So, here I am happily recording feeding rates of my focal subject when I glance down at a small ‘island’ about seven feet from where I’m standing. On that ‘island’, I see thousands of small red ants clambering about. I ask Mamandele what those ants are called. He tells me they are bad ants, that if they bite you you can get very sick and maybe even die. He directs me emphatically to move away.

We find another ‘island’ to stand on. Later, I come to understand that the bites or stings of certain ant and bee species in the forest can cause anaphylaxis in people. I guess we dodged a bullet?!?

In time, the gorillas move to another bai. We follow. I can hear one of the females, Vinni, singing loudly as she feeds. It’s really LOUD and a little amusing. I stifle a giggle. Vinni and Mekome, another female, begin to exchange aggressive vocalizations. Soon, their squabble escalates, and I see Mekome lunge at Vinni. Vinni responds by splashing water in her aggressor’s face. Kingo isn’t having it; he intervenes and smacks Vinni to break up the conflict. Poor Vinni.

Female gorillas feed and walk through the swamp with ease

Why Vinni, I wonder? I record the aggressive event and note that the male intervened on behalf of Mekome. Interesting. Over the next year, I would record other aggressive encounters where the male favored one female consistently over another, typically the higher-ranking female over a lower-ranking opponent. Interestingly, he also mirrored a preference for higher-ranking females when initiating copulations, which is detailed in a study from the project.

A bit soggy and tired but undaunted, we leave the gorillas feeding in the swamp and make it back to camp in time for a candle-lit dinner in the dark. You always hope dinner’s gonna be koko (Gnetum africanum leaves stewed in peanut sauce) with gozo (boiled flour of manioc root). For some reason, you’re addicted to koko with gozo. Fun fact: the protein-rich leaves of Gnetum africanum are a staple food of western lowland gorillas! If you’re really lucky, you’ll even get a bit of fish in your dish.

In truth, my boots were soaked. Mamandele kicked off his flip flops. I slogged to my tent and took a luke-warm bucket bath, which is just what it sounds like but with a can to dump water over my head. The itchy condition known as cutaneous larva migrans was soon to be my souvenir from the swamp.

As with most nights, I wound down by reading a book by candlelight and listening to Led Zeppelin on a cassette walkman. I set my digital watch alarm for 4 AM. I snuffed out the candle. It occurs to me that the gorillas probably slept near the swamp and may return in the morning….

Luxurious shower accommodations al fresco

Good thing I have an extra pair of boots and some leftovers to pack for lunch. Just another day in the life at Mondika.

Koko (right) and gozo (left): my favorite forest dish


Did you enjoy tales from a far-flung forest?

I have more tales, so I think my upcoming July post will feature a new tale. Possibilities for sequels include encounters with forest elephants, chimpanzees, red river hogs, spiders, snakes, or sweat bees! In a future post, I may even include a story from another far-flung forest on the other side of the world?

African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) visits the Mondika River

Previous post on When Science Met NatureWe can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

From 2016: The health benefits of yoga: A scientific perspective

We can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

When Science Met Nature…

Jessica’s Science Blog – 05.08.17

Do you like leisurely walks through the woods? Did you ever stop and wonder what that water plant is called, you know, the one with the showy yellow flowers? Great! But does your curiosity tug at you until you can “ID” said plant? Now, how about fungi? Lichens? Mosses? Wait, mosses and lichens, you say, I barely even notice them!

Now, what if you’re not exactly a seasoned naturalist, but you’ll take any excuse to photograph wildlife with your trusty telephoto? Not to worry, even if you only answered with aplomb to a couple of these questions, rest assured that you’ve got what it takes to be a citizen scientist! Dust off your smartphone’s camera and lace up a pair of hiking boots because you’re about to make a contribution to the iNaturalist.org community.

As an ecologist and science educator based in New England, I spend a lot of time learning and teaching about plants that inhabit forest and field. On one happy occasion, I got to teach beach ecology on the shoreline of the Long Island Sound, but I quickly discovered that most of the plants had me scratching my head. Fear not, iNaturalist can educate you on even the most obscure or unfamiliar life forms, from birds to bacteria, there is a specialized community of naturalists and scientists waiting to identify your specimen from a picture.

Common snapping turtle (Chelydra s. serpentine) observed in the UConn Forest

Green frog (Rana clamitans) observed in the UConn Forest

Recently, in celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, the 2016 Connecticut State BioBlitz assembled hundreds of scientists and volunteers to catalogue the diversity of life in the greater Hartford area. Their efforts, made possible in part from the thousands of observations compiled in iNaturalist, paid off and smashed all previous world records, at 2,765 species identified in one day! Where else can you interact in real time with world class scientists, naturalists, hobbyists, and amateur photographers?

Northern black racer (Coluber constrictor) observed in the UConn Forest

Not to mention that most science is off-limits to the general public, locked away in online journals with sky-high subscription fees. I like that iNaturalist is different. It harkens back to the days when Charles Darwin, as a young naturalist, sailed to the Galapagos Islands to collect and identify specimens as part of his Voyage of the Beagle. iNaturalist puts Mr. Darwin’s opportunities for discovery in the hands of Jane Doe, with ahem, a little digital flair.



Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) observed in South Hero, Vermont

In our fast-paced society, filled with deadlines and constant connectivity, more and more people are finding that getting out into nature helps de-stress mind, body, and spirit. Researchers in Japan have studied the physiological health benefits of walking in the woods; they found that forest walks and viewing decreased heart rate, stress hormone levels, and blood pressure of participants when compared with walks and viewing in cities. Recently, other studies have found evidence that hiking in forests actually changes the way our brains work and improves immune system function.

iNaturalist truly is a revolutionary platform that allows every day people to connect with nature, that is, in ways that extend beyond pretty photos of summer lake front property or fields of wildflowers, displayed in a slideshow set to Bon Iver music (although beautiful). You get to connect with each other, to learn new species, to share your offbeat love for slugs with others who actually care, and you can do it anywhere in the world, at any time, with anyone you like by your side. Join iNaturalist today, it’s free. You’re on your way to being a citizen scientist, and you didn’t even know it when you brushed that spider away from your coffee cup this morning.

Algae species (Palmodictyon varium) observed in Sharon, New Hampshire

Don’t believe me? Take it from an iNaturalist user, who is a delightful mix of scientist, nature enthusiast, long-distance runner, and educator. Dr. Karolina Fučíková, who spends the bulk of her time as an algae scientist and professor of natural sciences at Assumption College in Massachusetts, began using iNaturalist as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut in 2015. Dr. Fučíková says that originally she saw iNaturalist, “as a way towards becoming a better, well-rounded naturalist,” having added, “I’ve definitely learned to recognize more species around me. It’s been a great addition to weekend hikes [and] long runs.” However, before long she began collecting data in the app to build a data repository for her research project on algae biodiversity and distribution.

Fučíková says that she sees “great potential in [iNaturalist] for student projects especially – [in that] they can record locality data (GPS coordinates, date and time of observation, photos of habitats) and document the observed specimen even if they don’t recognize the species. That gives the students a level of independence while still allowing me to check their data and store it all in one place.” In short, Fučíková views iNaturalist as a versatile tool with several uses and applications that connect the natural world to people who “science”.

She is not alone in this assessment; the growing community of “iNat” users has a social and competitive spirit to it. You can be the envy of your peers with the greatest numbers of observation or as Fučíková puts it, “cool sightings :).” So what are you waiting for? Get out there and join the iNaturalist community!

Shell mound pricklypear (Opuntia stricta) observed in St. Thomas

St. Andrew’s Cotton Stainer (Dysdercus andreae) observed in St. John