Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A dry, "hoarse" start at the field

In stark contrast to Ellee’s site at the generally sopping wet El Verde Station in the El Yunque rainforest (mean annual precipitation of roughly 4,000mm) the southwestern region of the island exhibits a xeric climate (Yauco’s annual precipitation barely averages around 1,000mm). And the weather that I’ve experienced since my arrival is no exception. Thanks to the drier weather, the predominant feature in the atmosphere aren't the passing clouds but the murky haze of Saharan dust. That’s right – many folks outside the Caribbean may not know that dust storms originating from the Sahara Desert blow across the Atlantic Ocean and sweep through much of the West Indies. But no worry, the dust does little to hamper the enjoyment in the tropics and commencement of some exciting biological research!

And joining me on my lizard collecting excursions is my good ol’ herpetological compañero, Mel. Mel and I have been friends since we were undergraduates and have gone herping together throughout most of the Puerto Rican Bank. So it can’t get any more convenient for us to go herping while considering it “work.” The general plan: collect lizards for my research by day (and sometimes night) and then collect Red-eyed Coquí calls (Eleutherodactylus antillensis) for his research by night (sometimes very late in the night).

Photographic throwback! Mel and I caught off by this snapshot back in May 2012.
I'm holding up an agitated Puerto Rican Racer (Borikenophis portoricensis)
From the start, there hasn’t been a dull moment. The first stop that we made to collect lizards was at the edge of the mountains in Yauco. We arrived at our destination which consisted of a strip of grass and bushes off the side of the road which winded around the mountain. One side of the road was an uphill incline of dense tropical woods surrounding a sloped pasture. On the other side of the road was an equally steep downward slope which revealed a beautiful panorama of the lush forest valley below and huddled green mountains beyond. The leaves rustled rhythmically in the wind that passed through the landscape as green ripples across the mountains’ vegetated surface.

There was a small house nearby and Mel suggested asking the homeowners’ permission to trek through the fields uphill. I was originally just thinking of staying near the road edges, but I figured the more ground we could cover, the better! We politely ‘knocked’ by yelling out “¡Hola, buenas tardes!” as the dogs outside the house had already alerted the entire valley of our presence.

An older woman came out of the house to greet us and we introduced ourselves formally as any field biologist would, courteously explaining why random strangers want to walk around her property in the name of science. The kind woman was more than happy to let us venture into the field and asked us to not mind her vocally expressive canines and her horse inside the field.

And so we walked up this path, surrounded by dense brush, leading to the field of four-foot tall grass. Upon reaching the field in what we thought was a “Pulchellus Paradise,” Mel and I split up and diligently combed the area. Fifteen minutes passed and only Mel spotted one lizard before fleeing out of reach.

As I continued uphill I heard something emerge from the bushes at my peripheral. I saw a mammalian head with pointy ears – it was the owner’s horse. I’ve been around horses before. However, most of my interactions with them involved respecting each other’s personal space, which is what I assumed this horse would prefer. But this horse was not having that. He (and it was definitely a ‘he’) trotted straight toward me with much energy either excited to meet me, extremely curious of me or…was just plain offended that I gave him the cold shoulder? As a herpetologist, I know very little on horse behavior. I comfortably understand some mammals like man’s best friend, but I don’t know how to read a horse. This horse had no shame in nudging his nose at my ear. To keep some distance I petted his long face to assure that I meant no harm. I then attempted to resume lizard-finding, but the horse followed me and insisted that he be the center of my attention. Either I had to initiate contact by petting him, or he had to put his face on mine.

I stopped and pondered on how to handle the situation. I took note of the horse’s large powerful legs, each balancing on solid blocks of keratin that could make human bones act squishy. As the horse started chewing on my pants I thought about how blessed I was to be part of a research team with two lab mates who have substantial experience with horses and are not currently here right now to give me input (Ellee, you’re so close yet so far!)
The view of the mountains from my grandparent's porch in Yauco. Despite some cloud cover, the view of the mountains would be much clearer if it wasn't for the Saharan dust. Within those mountains lives a horse with a very assertive say the least.
I tried to walk away again. As I continued, the horse felt the urge to try to push me down with his face. The ground below my feet had very little traction, and it didn’t help that I was at a 50+ degree incline so I couldn’t exactly get away at a faster pace…not that I could outrun a horse…

Mel called out to me from below, half-laughing at the spectacle that I was in. I told Mel that this horse was forbidding me from very important herping. We both decided that I would continue to walk toward the fence while Mel makes various sounds to attract the horse his way. The closer I got the fence, the more aggressive the horse behaved (aggressively excited to play, aggressively sad or angry that I was trying to leave, I have no idea). And I’ll admit that I ate dirt once (Mel says the horse actually did push me down), but the horse actually restrained himself enough to not step on me like a door mat. Finally his attention turned over to Mel and I accelerated to the fence and make it over. 

I followed the edge of the fence downhill meet up with Mel. The horse was right next to him, but on the other side of the fence which, by the way, only consisted of a single strand of barbed wire a foot off the ground. Looking at how easily it would be for the horse to step over the fence, Mel humorously commented in English, “What dumb animals.” Suddenly the horse started jumping in place. We braced ourselves and the horse turned around and galloped across the field out of our sight. We both headed to the path to leading to the road only to see the horse guarding the access to the path, spinning around and hopping. The brush was extremely dense below us and the only way to get on the path was to step back onto the field. “Great,” I thought. “Not only is this horse intelligent but it’s also bilingual.” 

This predicament forced us to find another way to the road, which involved climbing down through the woods which were completely webbed with vines. In the end, we just looked for lizards on the side of the road. And between that site and another outside the town, Guayanilla, we were successful for the day.

And that’s the story of how Eddie decided to avoid checking for lizards in a field with horses for the rest of the trip. Well I have to run more lizards on the racetrack now.
¡Hasta la próxima vez!

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