Blog for 2010-06-29

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The day began early with a bearded pig spotting on my morning run. The pig glanced my way, squealed, then hustled off into the forest. At breakfast, watermelon and some kind of clear rice noodles with cabbage and egg filled plates as students prepared for the exploratory day ahead. There was also some type of chicken nugget and sausage-hotdog hybrid if protein was in need. There was no formal meeting in the morning, but students quickly filed out in their respective project groups to determine just what kinds of projects could be completed in the new surroundings. Maliau Basin offers so much, but the hidden snags that come with the projects seem quite daunting at times.

A large tree seen from the canopy

Lunch came quickly, including salted fruit, a novelty for some, and students scrambled to finish their project proposals before the deadline of 2pm. But as everyone came in, it quickly became apparent that students were ready, and the presentations got rolling. Lots of projects on fungi were proposed (likely due to newly arrived an enthusiastic fungi expert, Anne) but everything from lichen, to tree ferns to pollinator attraction studies were proposed. After the first half, a quick break was taken in the heat of the day for some cool drinks (or a run down to the store for something sweet) and then we resumed presentations.

As the proposals drew to a close, the professors offered some closing remarks, and students geared up to head out and begin their projects. Unfortunately, fate was not on our side, as it began to absolutely pour as soon as the proposals were finished. So, students changed gears and began to work in earnest on recording and organizing data for their Focal Taxon Projects (got to get on that!) Luckily, the rain finally brought some welcome relief from the heat.

After a dinner with *gasp!* another group of people present, it was time for a fascinating lecture by Rod about the mechanisms of defense that caterpillars, larvae and butterflies use to defend themselves. Let me tell you, these little critters have some complex and amazing coloration, chemicals, and behavioral patterns to increase their chance of survival and thus their fitness. Some caterpillars have coloration on their bodies above their head to mimic the eyes of other more dangerous organisms, or chemicals they can excrete that repel ants.Not only that, but some caterpillars have phenotypic plasticity, so they can adapt their morphology to better blend into their surroundings, often in relation to what they are eating (such as tannin content) or some juvenile hormone may kick-in. But even more amazing color adaptations are seen in the butterflies - once they have survived to adulthood, there has been a high attrition rate to get to that stage and there has been a huge investment of energy and resources. There are butterflies that mimic owl eyes, other poisonous butterflies, spiders that prey on them, leaves, or even have elaborate back wing structures that make it look like the head is on the tip of the hind wings. Not only that, but many butterflies have behavior that directly mimics the object they are attempting to portray.

A butterfly that mimics leaves

For instance some leaf-looking butterflies have a flight pattern similar to that of a falling leaf and others will rub their wings together to make it look like their hind wings are antennae moving around. Rod also didn't miss the chance to throw some humor into the mix by suggesting the interesting number patterns of 88, 89, 68 and such on certain butterflies have evolved to confuse the elusive "human collector" species...

Butterflies with ambiguous numbers

All in all, another busy but rewarding day in the rain forest.

The flower to be manipulated for one of the insect visitor projects