My Tropical Ecology class took us back to the Bajo del Tigre the other day and as we were walking out of the forest we stopped to open a set of particularly prickly pods that contained beautiful round, black seeds called ox eyes. While the seeds are lovely the pods more closely resemble cacti than rosebushes and we had to be very careful not to touch them as we opened them for fear of getting our hands covered in tiny splinters. As we walked away from our find, we noticed a fluffy tail bobbing up and down to the side of the path ahead of us. A coati, a relative of raccoon but with longer, fluffier tails, elongated snouts and general better temperament, was just ahead of us. We watched in awe until it started to wander into the dense under-foliage and we noticed more movement to our left. We stood captivated as coati after coati nosed their way across the path on all sides of us. Large as the first to tiny babies, they were an absolute wonder to see, and no more than thirty feet away! More than twenty ambled past, taking their time to forage with their long snouts for grueenbs before bounding after the slowly retreating group. We stood in near complete silence until we were sure that they had all gone before dissolving into excited chatter. (Photos were taken and some are displayed below.)
One afternoon, as we were taking a break in the middle of class, one of the girls came in with her palms carefully cupped together and a grin on her face. Curious, I maneuvered my way behind her and looked over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of what she had found. For a moment I thought it was a leaf on a twig, then I realized that the twigs were in fact legs and the leaf the body of the most realistic katydid I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. It's camouflage was perfect, discoloration on part of the wing imitating sunburn, lines running the length of the wings looking exactly like veins on a leaf, a slight wave along the edges of the wings to make it asymmetric and a tiny hole that went entirely through both wings. I was absolutely awed by this specimen of selective camouflage. And yes I took a photo and it is not included below because I have not figured out how to crop and I'm not including my groups faces in the photos on this blog.
On Friday, we all went to visit a coffee farm. It was small, no more than two hectares, but was so different from most farms I had been to before. If you have ever visited a farm you know that they are very organized places. Long straight rows of identical plants, all weeded and well maintained. This place, despite being a fully functioning, and from what I heard booming, business was more reminiscent of my mothers garden than a farm. The coffee plants were not planted in rows, rather they were placed where ever they could exist happily in the shade and be spaced apart enough to allow workers to pick the coffee beans. The were surrounded by native trees, citrus (of which I ended up eating two fruit, they were delicious and I'm not entirely sure anyone in the states would recognize the fruit) chayote vine (which is a vegetable that is quite good, if a little bland) and a thick carpet of grass covering the ground. This actually allows the coffee to grow better as the relationships between the plants improve the quality of the coffee and the other crops. We got to try our hand at coffee picking. There's a photo out there somewhere of me wearing a small basket around my waist and picking coffee. It was fun. We learned a lot about coffee growth, coffee pathogens, flavor, scent, coffee plants themselves, the beans and the process of coffee getting from the coffee cherry's to the cooked product that graces our breakfast tables (and lunch tables, and dinner tables, and work tables and is just generally very common). I also learned something else when we returned to the farm house and were given a taste of the coffee the farm produces; I still hate coffee. I really, really do. I had a third of a cup loaded with milk and sugar and I only finished it because I was dipping sweet arepas into it. I will stick to milk and water, thank you very much.
My favorite part of the week was the night we went bat mist netting. One of the worlds foremost experts on bats lives in Monteverde and he came to show us wild bats. We called him Batman. He first gave us a lecture on bats and how important they are to the environment. They are actually responsible for a good deal of pollination as many species eat nectar. We actually got to see one of these bats. They are also responsible for a staggering amount of pest control. They save farmers all over the globe billions of dollars per year in insecticides and crop damage. Fruit bats also play a key roll in seed dispersal. Basically there is so much to love about bats and they are not the pests they have been described as for hundreds of years. DO NOT HURT BATS. THEY KILL MOSQUITOES. That should be T-shirt. Anyhow, the lecture was not the fun part of the night, the fun part was walking into the small reserve behind MVI and getting to see some of these bats up-close and personal. There were fine nets strung up along two of the paths so we sat at the intersection of these two paths and Batman's daughter brought us bats every so often as they were netted. At first I was horrified and terrified that the bats were being hurt as Batman handled them to show us their wings, bodies and, on occasion, small bat-fly parasites. Their wings are two layers of skin covering thin bone with almost invisible veins and muscles allowing the bats to pull their wings in without looking like folded umbrellas. It was a wonder to see but also, due to how thin their wings were, deeply stressful to think how easily those fine wings could be punctured. However, apparently this fear was unfounded as bat wings heal quickly and do often get punctured. We saw scars on many of the bats wings despite Batman ageing them as almost all under five years of age (they can live up to twenty or more for certain species). The largest bat we saw was a fruit bat. It actually had the largest front teeth of any of the bats we saw as it needed them to help it grab fruit and carry it. Batman had to wear gloves when he was handling this bat as it liked to bite and could hurt. Not that it was vicious, just that he had to hold it in his hand to show it to us and it did not want to be there. We only saw one nectar eating bat, but it was perhaps the most recognizable. It had a long snout, an incredibly long tongue (as long or longer than its body, the end of it was constantly poking out of its mouth) which it used to reach into flowers and access nectar and very small ears and nose leaf, the organ used in echolocation, as it relied mainly on smell to find flowers. It was lovely. The most common type of bat we saw was a small insectivorous bat. It had a beautifully pronounced nose leaf, tiny fangs, a tail flap used to scoop bugs out of the air and was the size of half my palm. I didn't bring my camera because I knew it would never have been able to capture pictures in the flashlight illuminated dark (and I refused to use a flash around the light sensitive animals), but several other people had cameras that were less sensitive so I may at some point post pictures taken by them. We caught several of these bats and Batman placed most of them in his bag at his waist to take them home. He also allowed us to touch the fruit bat, to feel its wings and marvel at how their skin expanded and contracted. To feel how soft their fur was and to gently, so gently, touch the bats nose leaf. Then, as the evening went on, he offered to let some of us hold the tiny insectivorous bats. I volunteered at once. It was so small, he placed it in my palm and I curled my thumb over its back and there was still plenty of space for it to exist. I could feel its heart fluttering against my palm, slowing slightly as I stroked its head to relax it. So my hands have held a bat. I am very proud of this. I actually ended up holding about three, but that's beside the point. They were all so delicate that I was terrified of hurting them so I was a gentile as possible. It was a wonderful experience, truly, truly wondrous. I would do it again in a heartbeat.