Late night field work

One of the things that I enjoy the most while doing field work in the jungle is to do field work at night. Spiders and many other creatures become more active at night time, therefore to understand patterns of spider web building and prey capture we do a lot of our work after the sunset. In addition to working at night to get the data we need, night time provides a glimpse into the nocturnal wildlife. Believe me, there is nothing quite like walking the trails in the dark jungle with the fluttering moths and flies around our headlamps. This is one of my favourite moments here in the Amazon.

Our group had a night of adventure walking through the dark and muddy trails of Jatun Sacha observing and enjoying the liveness of the jungle. Although we knew (more or less) what was waiting for us on the trails, we were no shy expressing our excitement for the different animals we found.  ADSC_0076 copyeditedlong our way, we contemplated all sorts of creatures, most of them larger in size than expected or seen by us before, such as this spiny bush cricket of more than 10 cm long or DSC_0004 copythis whip spider, also known as tailless whip scorpion that was the size of Philippe’s hand.


We were also fortunate to discover several small tree frogs in the dark; these animals spend a major portion of its lifespanDSC_0261 copyedited in trees feeding on insects.   DSC_0198 copyedited   DSC_0104 copyedited

DSC_0238 copyeditedAnd Tiffany was never scared to grab any amphibian she found along the way, including this big and fat toad who DSC_0077 copyposed with almost everyone for a good picture. As I said, she never doubted in capturing amphibians to look at them closer, the picture on the right shows her manipulating a caecilian, a tropical amphibian that look like a large worm or a slick snake that we found two days earlier at Palenque in the cloud forest.


DSC_0096 copyeditedBeautiful insects such as this dragonfly are very common to observe as well. However, the jungle would not be the jungle without spiders, and we looked at several interesting species waiting in their webs for a prey. For example, these araneas, which build a beautiful orb web.DSC_0290 copyeditedDSC_0511 copyThe most amazing spider we found however, is this net-casting spider, which uses a blue/purple DSC_0158 copyeditedweb that suspends between the front legs. This spider prey capture strategy is to stretching the net and propel itself onto the prey, entangling it in the web.


Army ants are also common to find in the jungle at day or at night. DSC_0181 copyeditedHere we followed the line of ants to find their nest, a scary hole in the base of a log where all the family reunites; thousand of ants! After a two hour walk and happy for the experience we had, we finish our night and went sleep under our mosquito net beds.

Field work

Field work in the jungle is a very intense experience; this is a hostile work environment, which in part you could fight by using one of these creative tennis rackets that deliver an electric shock to kill flying insects (in here there are tons of them). DSC_0012 copyAccording to those who have used these gadgets, if you touch the mosquito with any part of the racket face during your swing, then … POW! This device may be very handy for those of us who are attractors of mosquitoes and suffer from their bites, especially in those areas where Dengue and currently Chikungunya are infecting hundreds or thousand of people. Chikungunya (first medical description was in Tanzania in the 1950s) is a relatively recent virus disease in America, transmitted by the same mosquitoes that Dengue. For our bad luck, both of these infectious diseases are present in our study areas; hopefully none of us will get infected this field season.

But working in the jungle is so exciting that you do not worry too much about mosquitoes and other annoying bugs, the heat, and the overwhelming humidity. The jungle offers us an unique diversity DSC_0013 copyeditedof life forms. Like this fellow Llama was observing us while we were collecting spiders from nests beside the highway in the mountains of Ecuador.



And what about this beautiful Masket Trogon (female), a fairly common bird of the humid highland forests in SouthAmerica; its beautiful colours catched our camera lenses.  DSC_0063 copyedited

DSC_0104 copyBut our real target were spider nests, and we found many of the different social and sub-social species that live in the East of the Ecuatorian Andes.  For example this Anelosimus baeza nest in the picture at the left. Spiders are fascinating study  systems and they build such a beautiful webs, the energy investment is very high, not just in the process of building but also in the material (silk) they need to produce to build a functional web. DSC_0196 copyThe interesting thing is that these webs caught nutrients (prey) and are also made of these nutrients. In the picture at the left you see Mark (Master student in the Avilés lab at UBC) DSC_0223 copylooking for spiders within a beautiful spider nest. Mark will be studying how precipitation and predation pressure by ants and waps may affect the proportion of spider webs of different architecture: orb webs (2-dimensional webs), tangle webs, and sheet and tangle webs (3-dimensional webs).

DSC_0253 copyThe world of species interactions is fascinating; it is not just the excitement of knowing how natural communities are structured in terms of who eats whom. Some other ecological interactions are also very interesting and important in natural communities, for example some parasitoids can cause changes in the behaviour of their hosts. The picture on the right shows a parasitoid wasp that infected a spider. These parasitoids make their spider hosts build a modified web that protects the parasitoid larva while developing, amazing, right?

In our trip looking for spider nest there was a lot of climbing, and Philippe (Master student in the Avilés lab at UBC) is the expert in this sort of activities! DSC_0360 copyYou can see him in the picture on the left checking a social spider nest in a slope at the edge of the road. DSC_0438 copyHowever, Phil was not the only one climbing hills, Leticia (PI, UBC) also did her part to take a closer look to the nests and collect some spiders, and of course I also climbed to record all these activities.


In my climbing, I was also lucky to found some other interesting webs, such as this perfect shape orb web, and this cotton candy 3-D web. DSC_0363 copy
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Our trip continued to Jatun Sacha and in our way we were all amaze by the astonishing view of the Sumaco, DSC_0488 copya symmetrical volcano that appeared on top of the fog covering the high elevation cloud forest. Sumaco latest eruption was about 100 years ago.


Pichincha volcano

While part of the local team was sorting the research permits at the Ministery, picking up some DSC_0026 copyeditedextra malaise traps (flying insect traps) at the university, checking on the field vehicle that is getting fixed, etc. some of us took advantage of our time here and did some tourism in the city. We walked up to the Pichincha volcano, which is at more than 15,000 ft. The day was beautiful and we had an amazing view of Quito city. The landscape DSC_0038editedwalking up to the mountain is gorgeous, but you feel the effects of the altitude with every step.  


DSC_0045 copyeditedFor those that do not want to walk up, there are horses to rent, but we as good outdoor people decided just to walk up…as far as our breath and fast beating hearts allowed us! We ended doing a very good job beside the altitude sickness we felt.

Along our way, we were lucky to see this couple of carunculated caracaca, a bird of prey typical from the Andes of Ecuador and Colombia. DSC_0080 copyedited These two were hanging around a few meters from us, probably expecting us to feed them.

We also had the chance to see llamas, one of the four SouthAmerican Camelids. As you can see, nor Tiffany (González lab) or Katrina (Avilés lab) could resist the opportunity to be kissed by Linda, a cute white llama.

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The full crew meets in Quito

This is part of the crew that did a great job scouting for study sites in West Ecuador (from left to right: Luis (soon starting his PhD at UBC in the Avilés lab), Jen (Postdoc in the Avilés lab), Mark (Master student in the Avilés lab), Leticia Avilés (PI, UBC), and me (PI, Rutgers University), but I am behind the camera. Our goal was to find good study sites along a precipitation/productivity gradient. The idea is to study: DSC_0037 copyedited(1) Whether precipitation and predation intensity (by ants and wasps) affect the abundance of spiders building different web architectures (Marks’ Master thesis); (2) Insect abundance and body size (spider prey) patterns along this gradient (Katrina, meet her in the picture below). We will also do some chemical analyses of insects to see if prey quality for spiders varies along this gradient (Tiffany, meet her in the picture below); and (3) Determine why are there no social Anelosimus species in the dry coastal areas of Ecuador (Jen).

Meet Sam, Tiffany, and Katrina (from left to right). Sam comes from Wisconsin; she will start her MastersDSC_0005 copy at UBC this fall. Katrina comes from beautiful Vancouver and this summer she will work on her honours thesis; both Sam and Katrina belong to the Avilés lab. Tiffany recently joined the González lab, and she will get involved helping in several projects in the coast. Tiffany will also get trained in field work techniques studying spiders and insects. Next year, she will be focused on her own research!

And the last but not least member of the team is Phillipe! Phil is Quebecua (FrencDSCN0701editedh Canadian) and he is another of Leticia’s master students. Phil is working on ecological networks of arthropods associated to social and sub-social spiders…a very interesting project.

Here we are at El Pobre Diablo, which is a popular restaurant/jazz bar in Quito. We all (as usual, I am behind the camera) had fun enjoying a nice chat and a delicious meal.

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Diversity in the western Ecuador: moist and dry forests

Did you ever imagine that spiders could live together in societies just like ants or humans do? In DSC_0056 copyeditedmany tropical places of the world, including Ecuador, there are social spiders, and these can build nests more than 10 meters across, which can contain more than 10,000 spiders! Several lines of evidence suggest that the shape and size of their webs protect them from potential predators.


There are a high diversity of lifestyles among spiders, not only social DSC_0078.editededitedspiders are present in the tropical rainforest, but also sub-social and solitary spiders live here. Every nest in the tree of the picture is a sub-social spider nest containing a mother and its spiderlings (immature spiders). Among solitary spiders in the tropics but also in temperate areas, Argiope DSC_0140 copy 2spiders build these amazing webs that decorate with a pretty pattern of banded silk.



But the tropical forest also contains many other amazing creatures,DSC_0160edited most of them would bite you if they have the chance. For instance, you really do not want to be in the way of army ants! The mountain of ants over the leaf is due to an unlucky grasshopper that crossed in the way of the ants. It took them less than a second to cover it completely.

mantiseditededitedSome other amazing insects are the hooded leaf Mantises. These are generalist predators that feed on all kind of insects.



DSC_0168copyWhat about this wax flower that captured my attention while looking for spiders. It looks unreal!


Tonight the rest of the Avilés and González crew (Phil, Tiffany, Sam, and Katrina) will land in Quito. Tomorrow evening we will have a big celebration, and this Friday, half of us will head to Jatun Sacha Biological Reserve. The rest of the crew will be back to the coast for about three more months of hard work. Jatun Sacha is located East of the Andes, in the Amazon basin, and its name is derived from the local Kichwa language, and is translated as “big forest” or “big jungle.” I am looking forward to come back to this place!

Starting the field season in Ecuador

Well, I finally arrived to Quito! After a short walk around the historic district, which is aDSC_0076 copyn UNESCO World Heritage Centre (see picture), I said good bye to Quito to say hello to my trip ahead. This time I travelled across the cloud forest west of Quito to Pedro Vicente Maldonado city to joining part of the Avilés lab crew that is waiting for me there. Tomorrow, we will head to Chone city (we are moving toward the coast) where the real adventure looking for social spider nests will start for me!