Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Hunting for ticks

No, I am not referring to the hunt for stowaway ticks in various body crevices after a hike. I am talking about actually going out on a hike to look for ticks on purpose! What mad hatters would do this? I did last weekend, along with my friend and collaborator Larisa, a veterinary entomologist.

Our mission was to collect ticks for a research project, which brings me to why there is a post on ticks in this Herpblog. Briefly, the goal is to infect lizards with tick larvae to study various aspects of host-parasite relations in a lab setting. (By the way, the root word for herpetology is herpetos, which is Greek for "crawling," another very tick-like word!) We collected adult Western Black-legged ticks (Ixodes pacificus) in order to breed them and obtain larvae.

Larisa and I met at Montana de Oro State Park, an area with sufficiently moist vegetation to support heaps of these ticks. At first glance, the area looks quite dry:But when you hike into the trail a bit, it becomes quite moist and lush:

Collecting ticks is easy, and fun! We use "flags," which are big pieces of fabric attached to a metal pole. We simply drag the flags along the ground as we hike, periodically checking them for unsuspecting ticks that thought they were grabbing onto a big piece of animal fur. Here is a photo of Larisa flagging (Incidentally, if you take a close look at her belly, you'll see that she currently has more than a casual interest in parasites! :-):

And here is a photo of endoparasite-free me:

Female Ixodes are larger than males. Here is a photo of a female (left) and male (right) on the flagging:

We caught about 60 ticks in a couple of hours and placed them in these vials:

We are going to place all of the ticks on a horse on campus to breed them. The males will crawl around the horse looking for females, and they will mate with the females. Larisa told me that the males deliver sperm to the females through their mouths! The females will attach to the horse and become engorged, and we will then take them into the lab and put them in a humid chamber, where they will lay their eggs, and thousands of little tick larvae will emerge. Then we will finally have the larvae we need to infect lizards!

After a day of hiking and tick-collecting, I spent the evening lounging with my tick-free buddy Darwin on the couch.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Boas, beaches, and banditos... Oh my!

I ushered in the new year with a trip to the Cayos Cochinos islands in Honduras to help some friends of mine in a study on boa constrictors. I knew there would be some good adventures, but I had no idea that a whole week of these adventures would be done in one pair of socks...

All four of us flew in from different states -- Chad from Missouri, Phil from Florida, Leslie from Georgia, and me from California-- and spent the night in La Ceiba before heading out to the island. Here are some pix of us at the Expatriates Bar.

We ended up staying an extra day in La Ceiba, however, because our baggage had not arrived on the planes with us! The airline assured us that they had loaded up dozens of bags onto a truck and were transporting them from San Pedro Sula to La Ceiba. So, we left Phil behind to get the bags, while Chad and Leslie and I went out to the island.

Here's what the island looks like from the boat:

We arrived at Cayo Menor the morning of December 28. There is a beautiful little research station on the beach, as well as a nice hilltop restaurant with great views of the mainland.

After breakfast it was time to get started! Chad started gathering up every snake bag he could find at the research station, as though we were going to catch a dozen snakes. How many boas would we find before lunch? I aimed high because I'd been told the boas were common on the island-- 3!! Chad just grinned and kept gathering snake bags. Then we set out on the first big hike up the center of the island, and I soon saw the source of grin-- boas were everywhere!

The pink boa constrictor of Cayos Cochinos is much smaller in size than boas on the mainland. Chad and other researchers are trying to determine why this is, and what consequences it has for the ecology of the snakes. The goal on this particular trip was to measure the total body water of the snakes (in the rainy season) to compare to the value in the dry season (they had already collected these data the previous summer), using stable isotopes. Time to get out those deuterium samples! Er- they are in the luggage, which hasn't arrived yet. We'd better wait for Phil's arrival with our bags the next day.

Phil did indeed arrive the next day, but we grew suspicious when we saw him wearing a La Ceiba tourist shirt. The truck the airline has hired to deliver our luggage had been hijacked by banditos! Of course, the island we were on has no stores. As the reality that we would be spending a week on the island with 1) no clothes but what we had on our backs (except Phil with his new gay shirt), 2) no research equipment to do the body water study, and 3) no toothpaste, soap, sunblock... well, you get the idea. We were four stinky kids.

So what did we do? We alternated between pouting, boa hunting, and iguana catching. Considering the circumstances, we had a really great time. Our discomfort was somewhat ameliorated by Leslie lending us some toothpaste, etc. (she had packed her stuff into a carry-on and escaped the banditos!), but especially by the Flor de Cana rum we talked one of the staff members into getting us from another island.

Here are some more photos:

Weird cocoon (about 5 inches long!):

Anoles mating:


Vine snake:

Lessons learned on this trip:
1. Carry on if you can!
2. Get travel insurance! (We still haven't been reimbursed by the airline, and will likely only get a small fraction of the value we lost)
3. Six-day-old socks aren't nearly as offensive when used properly, with Flor de Cana.