The beginning of the end!

Soo, our last day of fieldwork has come and gone! I have taken my last measurements on my Puerto Rican adventure! Although this last site has definitely been the toughest and myself and Michelle were both delighted to finish up yesterday after a tough week, it does sadly mark the end of what has been a very enjoyable and eventful internship! I have had an amazing experience here helping the guys, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would and have honestly enjoyed every minute of it! I’ve experienced what doing fieldwork is all about and met some interesting characters along the way! I have also had the best time with Michelle, Wuu Kuang and Harry and am so grateful for everything they have taught me on this internship! I couldn’t have asked for better group to be working with!

Our group photo after the last day of measuring!
Our group photo after the last day of measuring!

 

The vast amount and diversity of knowledge I have picked up is incredible! Both in the field and out!!

We were laughing one evening about all of the random Spanish words and plant names that we have used pretty much constantly on this trip and that we would always associate with Puerto Rico! Words like, Coccoloba (one of the trees we have been measuring!), tostones (pieces of fried plantain!), Gonzalagunia (another plant we have been measuring!), mofongo (another fried plantain dish!) among others!! After hearing this popular summer hit it makes me think we could definitely make our own Puerto Rican version with all these characteristic words! 🙂

On a serious note though I now realise how much work goes into organising fieldwork especially abroad! I have seen how important it is to be organised so that everything runs smoothly, from the research into the site before travelling to organising the equipment to the data recording in the field! I have learned how to take measurements with a ceptometer, porometer and a hygrometer! There are so many different factors to take into account when doing this kind of field work! For example in the case of three of the sites on this trip because they were experiencing severe drought the plant conductance’s were very low. Factors such as moisture and light are very important to consider when examining the performance of plants as different situations can produce different responses!

The picturesque but very dry trail we were working on in Guanica!
The picturesque but very dry trail we were working on in Guanica!

Another important lesson I have learned is never to underestimate the threat of the mosquito! I made this mistake, thinking I was invincible with no bites in the first week, but by the end of the second week I had been the victim of numerous attacks!! Lets just say there was some intense itching and I have fallen in love with mosquito repellent now!

I’ve had the chance to experience some real Puerto Rican culture also! From the food to the music and dancing! The classic Puerto Rican side of fried plantain tostones has become a favourite of ours and I’ve also tried some delicious fresh fish from the island like red snapper and grouper! Wuu Kuang has been the most adventurous of us all and has even tried mofongo which is also a very traditional dish of fried mashed green plantain. I had the not so pleasant experience of ordering what I didn’t know was actually a gizzard and plantain stew for lunch one day!! Really not my cup of tea but the boys loved it surprisingly enough!!

Gizzard!!!! :O
Gizzard!!!! :O

We visited a lovely beach on our day off last week, there were many Puerto Ricans who had set up for the day with their barbeques and music!

Slightly overcast for our day at the beach!
Slightly overcast for our day at the beach!

 

We have a couple of days now to put the last few bits of data together and relax before we fly home! This trip has definitely exceeded all my expectations, I’m not sure what I expected but this has been really amazing! I’m grateful to have made three good friends in Michelle, Wuu Kuang and Harry, to have visited this amazing Island and of course to have learned so much during the fieldwork!! It’s been a trip to remember and a great experience to reflect on when thinking about choosing my path after college! Plenty of memories and stories for everyone at home! One think I won’t mind getting home to is the Irish weather and some relief from this heat (never thought I would say that!)!

Bye for now! 🙂

Michelle and I! :)
Michelle and I! 🙂

 

Michelle also taught me where hat designers get their inspiration!! :)
Michelle also taught me where hat designers get their inspiration!! 🙂
A gorgeous view across the forest!
A gorgeous view across the forest!

 

The guys just chilling! :)
The guys just chilling! 🙂
A beautiful view from the top of the trail down to the sea!
A beautiful view from the top of the trail down to the sea!
One last selfie with a big Agave plant!! :)
One last selfie with a big Agave plant!! 🙂

 

 

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El Niño!

So our current location is the South of the island where we are working on a site at Guanica state park which is near the city of Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico. We took a day to explore some of the city when we arrived and found a lovely picturesque square in the city center. We also had great intentions of experiencing the culture and made quiet a long trek on foot to an art museum after many wrong turns in the afternoon heat only to arrive too late to go inside!!

 

A grocers stall in an indoor market in the city! Lots of exotic fruit and veg!
A grocers stall in an indoor market in the city! Lots of exotic fruit and veg!

 

Me with a statue in the square in Ponce!
Me with a statue in the square in Ponce!

 

Guinep, a local fruit from the Melicoccus bijugatus tree that we tried in the city!!
Guinep, a local fruit from the Melicoccus bijugatus tree that we tried in the city!!

 

The heat here is much drier and we’ve found it a bit tougher to work in than the previous sites which were more sheltered and humid. We try to get to the site as early as possible to get our work finished before the midday heat! We might have been a little too eager on one such morning though when we found the gates locked at 7am and ended up waiting for the ranger until 8.30!

 

The guys eager to get to work!
The guys eager to get to work!

 

We have been noticing very low conductance’s in the porometer measurements of the plants here and the guys suspected that this was because the plants are experiencing a water stress and are closing their stomata to conserve as much water as possible. After talking to the ranger he confirmed that they are going through an El Niño, which is a warming of the central Pacific once every few years, from a combination of wind and waves in the tropics. It shakes up climate around the world, changing rain and temperature patterns. It benefits some areas with increased rainfall and reduces harsh winters but for Puerto Rico at the moment they are experiencing a severe drought!

 

A volunteer in the park explaining to Michelle why all the cacti are being attacked by a woolly aphid in the forest!
A volunteer in the park explaining to Michelle why all the cacti are being attacked by a woolly aphid in the forest!

 

A drought stressed Croton discolor folds over its leaves to conserve as much water as possible! These were very annoying for Michelle to measure without he porometre without damaging them!
A drought stressed Croton discolor folds over its leaves to conserve as much water as possible! These were very annoying for Michelle to measure with the porometre without damaging them!

 

After surveying our site on the first day and tagging our plants we ventured to the coastal side of the state park to compare the plant life and maybe check out the beach!

 

At over 30degrees being on the beach in trousers and boots!!... Not ideal!!
At over 30degrees being on the beach in trousers and boots!!… Not ideal!!

 

After this day we decided the pants and boots were being replaced! We are working on an open trail and after being informed that there are no threats of snakes or other wildlife we opted for the cooler choice!

 

Swapping the boots for shorts and runners....ahhhhh!
Swapping the boots for shorts and runners….ahhhhh!

 

We spent a chilled out afternoon pressing the specimens back at the hotel later in the week. This is another technique I have picked up on this trip! I have learned how to press the plants so that both the abaxial and adaxial surfaces are facing up on some leaves to make it easier to examine them when they are dry. I’ve also learned how important it is to label things properly so you know what everything is a few weeks down the line when you get back to the lab!

 

 

How plant pressing goes in a hotel room! Its a lot more organised than it looks!!
How plant pressing goes in a hotel room! It’s a lot more organised than it looks!!

In the field I’ve been intrigued by the ability of Wuu Kuang and the guys to identify plants from our list in a forest full of what I would perceive to be a lot of trees that look the exact same!! It is definitely not an easy task to go to a forest you don’t know and identify a number of new species in a few hours! I’ve picked up some really useful tips from him for identifying plants in the field, like what different traits to look for first and making and using a key! If you are prepared and you know what you are looking for then the differences between the species become very apparent! Some of these techniques I can recall from the practical classes last semester in the Diversity of plant form and function module we had.

 

Myself and Michelle in action in thefield, taking measurements on the ceptometer and the hygrometer!
Myself and Michelle in action in the field, taking measurements on the ceptometer and the hygrometer!

 

Spot the stick insect!

So one of our last days in Isabela was the 4th of July so there was plenty going on for this big American holiday! We had dinner in a local Puerto Rican restaurant, I tried some fresh grouper fish and fried bread fruit which is a traditional Puerto Rican food.It was delicious!

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A slightly fuzzy photo of Harry, Wuu Kuang and I in the local restaurant!

 

The square outside the restaurant where there was traditional music and dancing for the night!!
The square outside the restaurant where there was traditional music and dancing for the night!!

 

 

The beach in Isabella was really beautiful! I went for a run one afternoon but got a bit distracted taking photos!
The beach in Isabela was really beautiful! I went for a run one afternoon but got a bit distracted taking photos!

 

A tropical storm on the horizon! A familiar site in the afternoons in Isabela!
A tropical storm on the horizon! A familiar site in the afternoons in Isabela!

 

A big iguana we spotted outside our hotel!
A big iguana we spotted outside our hotel!

 

Myself and Michelle got an awful fright when we tried to remove a twig from a leaf we were measuring when it turned out the twig could walk! A really odd insect! It is barely visible in the photo below. It’s so well disguised!

Spot the stick insect! :)
Spot the stick insect! 🙂

 

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A rare splash of colour in the Puerto Rican moist forest of Guajataca!

 

The forest trail we were working on in Guajataca
The forest trail we were working on in Guajataca

You can’t always trust Google Maps!!

So Isabela is a really pretty and traditional Puerto Rican town in the north-west of the Island! This where we are staying at the moment! We arrived on Monday and after a nice refreshing day off Tuesday we set off early on Wednesday morning to find the site which was Guajataca State Forest or known to the locals as Bosque Estatal de Guajataca! We rose early and left the hotel at 6.30 with Google maps at the ready! We could see it was going to take us about 45mins to get there which was a bit longer than we had expected! I manned the GPS in the passenger seat for Harry who was driving so Wuu-Kuang could concentrate on refreshing himself on the species we were going to be looking for that day. We were all a bit worried when the route we were taking started leading us up the narrowest and windiest roads up the side of a mountain! I’m not one for heights so there were a few “head in hands” moments!! But we trusted the map and kept going never loosing faith in it until we reached our destination…..

An old farm on the side of a hill??!
An old farm on the side of a hill??!
They were happy to lead the way to the forest if we waited for them to load the calf into their pickup!
They were happy to lead the way to the forest if we waited for them to load the calf into their pickup!
Leading the way, cool as you like!
Leading the way, cool as you like!

These two very helpful chaps meant very well and with very little English did their best to lead us to our site but alas we had hit another dead-end…

Not exactly what we were looking for!!
Not exactly what we were looking for!!

So after having a chat with some very helpful people in this scout camp, once we got over the language barrier of course we were on the road again and after another half an hour driving we had hit another dead-end, a local man even claiming that we were nowhere near this Bosque Estatal de Guajataca!

So once again when all else fails we went for coffee!! No Starbucks this time though! We found a local supermarket and had a very long chat with an old gentleman who gave us the directions we needed in return for our company and listening to his stories for a while! He was living on his own away from his family and had been injured in a workplace accident ten years ago and so had been in the wheelchair ever since! He told us the general directions we were looking for and we were happy to meet such an interesting and friendly guy!

Meanwhile back at the car Wuu Kuang had had another brain wave! We have a handheld GPS device to mark the locations of the plants we tag in each site. Wuu Kuang thought it might be an idea to look at the old herbarium label of one of the plants that was in the Smithsonian herbarium in Washington that was collected in Bosque Estatal de Guajataca and get the GPS coordinates from this. He inputted the coordinates into the GPS and using this and the directions from ‘Angel’ the friendly guy from the supermarket we eventually reached our destination!!

The herbarium label that Wuu Kuang took the coordinates from to help us find the site!
The herbarium label that Wuu Kuang took the coordinates from to help us find the site!

Even though we spent most of the day driving around it was definitely one of the most fun and enjoyable so far! I really enjoyed the adventure and the comical locations we ended up in, the farm really topping it off of course!! 🙂

View from the top of the tower when we eventually reached the forest!
View from the top of the tower when we eventually reached the forest!
Selfie from the top of the tower!! Great day! :)
Selfie from the top of the tower!! Great day! 🙂

Work?.. What work??!

So, besides all this exploring and discovering we are actually doing lots of work every day! Not your typical kind of work though. So to explain why I am actually spending a month of my summer hols in the Caribbean I can tell you that the overall aim of this project is to predict the responses of vegetation to the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This will be done by examining woody vegetation types in numerous destinations across nine of the world’s biomes and comparing the reactions of these plants with the same plant species from the same areas between the years 1989-92, which were collected by Jack Wolfe and are now present in a herbarium in Smithsonian Institution in Washington. So, there is a huge amount of travelling and sampling of plants to be done and I am here to assist Michelle, Wuu Kuang and Harry in their investigation of the different plant species in the forests of Puerto Rico, lucky me!!! 🙂

Amazing sight of massive bamboo plants across a field on our way to work!
Amazing sight of massive bamboo plants across a field on our way to work!

There are a few main steps involved in the fieldwork that is carried out over 4 or 5 days in each location. On the first day we check out the site trying to locate the plants on our list. The species list that we have for each location is all of the species that were examined and collected by Jack Wolfe many years ago. We found sticking to this list to be very frustrating at times as it always seemed like Wolfe chose the most simple and common plant species for his collection in a forest full of weird and wonderfully different types of trees, some with the biggest leaves you could imagine or the most uniquely shaped ones. But of course we must follow his footsteps and could only but admire these amazing specimens.

IMG_0282
To our surprise we found many ancient cycads in the forest in Cambalache from the Zamiaceae family!!

The next step in the process is measuring the leaves, and I don’t mean measuring the size of them! They are measured with numerous different instruments for at least three successive days !!! I had never seen any of these instruments before and after seeing them in Cambalache on the first day of measuring I expected their operation to be a lot more complex than it was! One leaf on each tree is chosen to measure every day and the first measurement that is taken is the rate of conductance of gases through the leaf. This measurement is taken with a porometer, which resembles an old Gameboy with a clip attached to it to clip onto the leaf. It measures the rate of water vapor exiting the leaf through thousands of tiny pores called stomata (photo). Next a hygrometer is used to measure the relative humidity and the temperature around the leaf; this involves holding a microphone like object up to the leaf as if waiting for it to tell you how hot and sweaty it feels! The device then gives us a reading for the RH and temperature and I record this on our data sheet. Michelle took charge of both of these instruments. The final measurement is taken by an instrument called a ceptometer and this is the one which I have been using each day. This device measures the level of light radiating on the leaf that can be used for photosynthesis. Each of these devices is very easy to use and once you get the first few plants done each morning each measurement becomes almost automatic.
The measuring itself is quite repetitive so it’s difficult at times to stay focused and this is when we ended up missing a specimen on our way and having to backtrack, which ended up wasting some time. I feel myself and Michelle worked well together, we certainly got a rhythm going and while we stopped occasionally for a much-needed sugar fix, collect some souvenirs along the trail or had an episode with the GPS, we worked pretty efficiently overall.
While myself and Michelle take the measurements the two boys have other tasks to occupy themselves with. Harry is here to measure the rate of photosynthesis in some of the taller tree species that we have to measure. He does this by using a long pole with a scythe attached to the end to cut off some small branches from the top of the taller trees and then measures them using a very complex looking machine called CIRAS. The pole is very handy for this job but there have been a few hiccups with this infamous tool! Lets just say that it’s not as long as it used to be!!!
Meanwhile Wuu Kuang is busy taking notes on all the different specimens we are sampling, locating ones that we have not found yet or helping Harry to find some good trees to measure!

An extremely cool and unusual defense mechanism by this tree!
An extremely cool and unusual defense mechanism by this tree, Zanthoxylum martinicense!

So, we spent five days measuring in Cambalache and after this the leaves that we have been measuring are all collected along with some extras and must be then pressed and posted off to the lab at home, where they will await the return of these guys to carry out some further analysis on them. We also collect three duplicate leaves or, in some cases, small twigs with leaves to be pressed and sent to three herbaria, one being the Smithsonian Institution herbarium in Washington, another is the herbarium in the National botanic Gardens in Glasnevin and then one extra specimen is also sent to UCD to be included in their herbarium.
The task of organizing and pressing all these plants I thought was unexpectedly long and tedious. We divided the leaves between the two rooms and while it took myself and Michelle most of the evening, the boys managed to get in a couple of hours by the pool….we think the boys ‘accidentally’ miscalculated when dividing the leaves!!
Okay so now you can gather the routine that is followed at each site! There are very early mornings involved, long hours of measuring and then afternoons to input data or press plants! The hard work is worth it though to see some of the places we have been and just to be working out in the forest each day. We stumble upon something new in the field each day, no two days have been the same!!
Check out a few of the pictures I have taken so far on my adventure and I’ll have another update here soon on our next site and the adventure we had finding BOSQUE ESTATAL DE GUAJATACA!

Another cute little guy we stumbled across! Going nowhere fast mind you..!
Another cute little guy we stumbled across! Going nowhere fast mind you..!

 

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We had a few surprises when we lifted up leaves and found these guys underneath….the friendly kind of bees though!! 🙂

 

Another really amazing epiphyte!!
Another really amazing epiphyte!!

 

We spent quiet alot of time collecting these pretty seeds from a tree called Adenanthera pavonina! A great souvenir from the forest!
We spent quiet a lot of time collecting these pretty seeds from a tree called Adenanthera pavonina! A great souvenir from the forest!

 

The sunlight trail!
The sunlit trail!

 

Experimenting with the camera! The sun coming through the trees!
Experimenting with the camera! The sun coming through the trees!

 

RAIN FOREST SELFIE!!! had to get one in!! :)
RAIN FOREST SELFIE!!! had to get one in!! 🙂

 

Ever heard of green Caribbean magic?!

I’m off on the adventure of a lifetime, exploring the subtropical forests of Puerto Rico and helping out a team of researchers from UCD with a major project in my spare time!!

I jest! 🙂 I have been given an amazing opportunity to carry out an internship, assisting three researchers from UCD with a project they are working on and this summer they just happen to be doing this in the sub-tropical forests of Puerto Rico! I’m feeling very lucky to be here with them!

Having arrived myself on Monday after a smooth and uneventful 20hours of travelling I was eagerly anticipating meeting the rest of the group on Tuesday and getting to our first destination. I met with Michelle, Wuu-Kuang and Harry at the airport on Tuesday morning and got a much appreciated warm welcome! We loaded into the rental car and finding that our sat-nav wasn’t working we ended up taking a few U-turns, numerous trips through a toll and over a certain bridge before deciding that Starbucks was our best hope to finding our hotel. Yep, coffee and Wi-Fi got us there in the end! We arrived at our accommodation that evening looking forward to the prospects of the following day and exploring our first site which was Cambalache State Forest.

Welcome to Cambalache!

 

Not having much experience doing fieldwork previously I was a little apprehensive. Worrying about what I knew were trivial things: Did I bring the right gear? Should I have learned off the list of 165 plant species that we were going to study? How will I deal with hiking boots and long pants in 30 degrees of heat? And most importantly, how will I cope with my frizzy hair in the field? All off these questions turned out to be trivial of course except for my hair, it definitely doesn’t love this climate as much as I do!

My first visit to a subtropical forest was, in a word, stunning! I’m not sure what I was expecting but I know this exceeded my expectations without a doubt. It was hot and humid but that fell to the back of my mind for most of the day. None of the numerous photos I have taken do this place justice!

panorama

 

The abundance of unusual species was incredible. We first noticed the amount of epiphytes present on the trees, some extremely big like the one below.

EPY

My knowledge of sub-tropical plant species is minimal to say the least but another thing I did notice was the amount of plants that looked very familiar from the houseplant section of the garden centre I work in back home, except all of them ten times bigger. It was fascinating to see them in their natural habitat! Below is a photo of Sansevieria trifasciata or Mother in laws tongue as its more commonly known, a popular house plant back home!

motherinlaws

Or another popular one from home, Monstera deliciosa or what is more commonly know as a cheese plant!

cheese

 

Of course one would expect to see some wildlife in a subtropical rainforest, spiders, lizards and the likes and while I thought I might prefer to go home without that experience we have seen some wonderful creatures during our fieldwork so far! Below are photos of one of the many spiders we have come across and also a cute little lizard roaming the picnic area!

spider

 

 

lizard

 

Stayed tuned for more on my sub-tropical adventure!