Taylor Bi is a researcher from Oxford studying “Matador Bugs” under the supervision of Ummat Somjee. We helped her with loaning some computer vision equipment to help studying these bugs getting dropped in front of an experimental setup!
“The insects have very interesting hind leg morphology, and I’m investigating whether the ‘flags’ (cuticular extensions) on their back legs have any relationship to their aerial manoeuvrability. Interestingly the flag is present on all nymphal stages, as well as on adults, so I’ve been investigating how flag surface area changes throughout development, and whether large flag to body surface area predicts greater parachuting or gliding patterns!”
“Here are a few pictures of the experiment! So I used the calibration board to allow the integration of 2D information from the two GoPros I set up at orthogonal angles into 3D information, and the arduino and LED made up the sync light that flashed at a distinct pattern, which allowed me to time calibrate the two GroPros I was using to film the falls.”
It has been about three months ago since I last wrote my blogpost ‘How to Become an Amateur Biologist 4’. I have been travelling, through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Ireland. The latter being a bit of an outlier, but you do everything to see your foremost favourite artist, in my case Theo Katzman. And now, I am sitting here back in my student room in Leiden in the Netherlands, where I just started uni last week again. Back to studying, back to routine and back to the lovely Dutch weather. I wanted to write one last blogpost for Dinalab. To update you on the finishing of my project, but also to reflect on what I have learned at Dinalab, in Gamboa as a certified (self-named ;p) amateur biologist.
Eventually, I ended up making boots (using Andy’s massive old boots), where people could experience what it is like to ‘hear sounds’, or better said perceive vibrations, like a leafcutter ant does. For the boot, I created these ‘legwarmers’ where I sewed into two vibration motors (two in each legwarmer; four in total). In Arduino I wrote a piece of code where the vibration motors outputted data from audio recordings of leafcutters, cutting and foraging leaves. The audio recordings were transposed into numerical values, so the vibrators would vibrate more intense when the values from the audio recordings were higher. These values are abstracted from the amplitude of the audio recording (which is also influenced by pitch in the audio file). However, I wanted to make the experience a little bit more interesting and let all of the four vibrators vibrate at different times and different intensities and speeds. The audio recording consists of multiple ants making ‘sound’, so by letting each vibrator vibrate differently I wanted to recreate the effect of individual ants producing these vibrations/sounds.
I named my project ‘SignificAnt’. Ants are often seen as pests, as little, insignificant creatures. However, ants, or in this case leafcutter ants, have a very important function relating to decomposition, soil health and other basic ecological functions. So, the name refers to the important and unmissable role that leafcutter ants have and play in the ecosystem. Besides the meaning of ‘significant’ and the clearly recognizable ‘ant’, ‘sign’ is also an important part of the word. Since the concept ‘sign’ plays an important role in Jakob von Uexküll’s Umwelt, the name seemed to fit perfectly.
I could test out the Significant boots on the first (what an honour!) Dinalab exhibit, which took place on the 11th of June. The week before the exhibition Serena and I have been working incredibly hard, until the late hours, being sleep deprived, eating poorly, but also laughing incredibly hard together. Serena’s delicious tea and listening to Theo Katzman kept us sane. The exhibit was a big success; many people showed up and showed genuine interest. We both presented our own individual projects and our menstruation plant, Andy and Kitty sold lots of keychains for the APPC (including my designs 😊) and lots of people tried out my boots and asked interesting questions. In the evening, me, Josie and Finn organised a goodbye/birthday party and it was the perfect ending to a very fun, but exhausting day.
As the name of the title suggests, in this post I am going to tell you how I became an amateur biologist now. Before going to Dinalab I wrote down some goals and philosophy for my stay there. I will further elaborate on them below.
The goal of the project, or in general for my stay at Dinalab, was firstly to make something physical, as in a physical, tangible product. I am a person that very much lives in my head. I think a lot, so I have a lot of ideas and thoughts about things, however I have great difficulty with bringing out these ideas and thoughts out into the world. Although, it was still super hard and challenging for me to go from a framework, to a question, to a concept and eventually to the actual product, I am glad to say that I did it!!! I learned so much from the whole process. Andy helped me out a lot, which I am very grateful for. So I am happy to check this foremost important goal of my list!
Secondly, think like nature, was another goal. Von Uexküll’s paper is all about this. Studying organisms in its own environment, in its own small little ecosystem, in its own respect. In order to be able to this, you have to think like nature, understand everything that goes on in the world of your subject of study. Although this is actually not very feasible, since it takes a lifetime to understand an organism fully in its own context. Nevertheless, I feel I have been come a little bit closer to thinking like nature, by looking at the leafcutter ants at work day in, day out. I also see ‘think like nature’ more as a philosophy, instead of a plan per se.
One other important goal that I had was to have fun! School and university sometimes makes you lose contact with the having fun part of studying and discovering the world, since the system is based on deadlines, performance and grades. However, this was also harder than expected, since I am a major perfectionist and my project is part of my Master’s degree and gets evaluated. Together with Andy, we made a very basic ‘Ant Gate’ which could detect ants walking through the gate. Luckily, besides having fun making stuff, I also got to have lots of fun with my dearest lab buddy Serena, dancing around Dinalab, singing our souls out, getting angry at the code of our project and catching up on the hot goss of Gamboa. Andy was my partner in crime mindwise, with the same crazy ideas and thoughts about the world, and Kitty was my partner in crime at APPC talking about how cute and funny(looking) sloths are and bashing people of the hotel.
Another goal, although a very basic one, was to get to know and learn about local flora and fauna. I learned so much about different kinds of animals and plants from scientists from the Smithsonian, local people and Kitty and Andy. For example, I learned so much about bats, butterflies, birds, frogs, plants and trees, ants and about lots of other big and small creatures.
And with all this new knowledge comes anew sense of curiosity. Nature keeps on surprising and amazing me and being in the jungle this all became more explicit. It brought me so much inspiration and new interests, and even more questions than answers. I hope to bring this home to the Netherlands. Although the environment is very different, I hope to continue to stay curious, adventurous, open-minded and to be respectful of nature and all its living beings, which in the end, are, for me, the most important character traits of a (amateur) biologist.
Unfortunately, a few days after the Dinalab exhibit my stay was coming to an end and I needed to start getting ready for my big backpacking trip; cleaning up Dinalab and saying goodbye to my dearest Gamboa friends and family. These last days were really stressful and emotional and I had a really hard time saying goodbye to Gamboa, the people, the nature and the animals.
My experience at Dinalab has been beyond my expectations. Andy and Kitty’s hospitality will continue to amaze me, especially considering I have been there for four months and the lines between work and personal life can get blurry. I have met the most amazing people, who have become, still are and will be my friends from Gamboa for life. Also, working at APPC has taught me so much about sloths and the other animals living there. They do incredibly good work and I am very happy to have been part of a team where people care so much about animals and nature. Luckily, there is still so much good in the world 🙂
Thanks to everyone that made my stay at Dinalab and in Gamboa in general so memorable. Thanks for all the help, fun, support, knowledge and crazy adventures. And an extra big shout out to Andy and Kitty, thanks for making me feel so welcome and at home. Thanks for teaching me so many cool new fun facts and skills. And lastly, thank you for letting me mess up Dinalab, using all the cool machines and eating your pizza 😉
Can’t believe that this was my last blog post from my stay at Dinalab (at least for now ;)) I really hope to get back to Gamboa, because I have had the time of my life there! Untill next time. Love you all <3
Always when I look back at my blogposts, it surprises me how quick time goes by and how much I have done and learned. Looking at ‘How to become an amateur biologist 103’, all the stuff that I wrote about seems so far away already. Also considering the progress of my project. It feels like ages ago that I have decided to something with sounds and vibrations in ants, but actually it is not even that long ago! Anyway, I guess that’s a good sign, right? Unfortunately, my stay in Gamboa and with that at Dinalab is coming to an end. With only two weeks left I am working hard to finish up my project and enjoy as much of Gamboa, the people, nature and all of its finest things and quirks as possible. However, for now I still have to tell you about everything I have done and learned these past weeks.
A week is never the same here in Gamboa. You might have nothing planned in the night and then someone texts you: “We are leaving to go lizard seeking in five minutes, you wanna join?” And in five minutes you find yourself in your field clothes, boots and headlamp, weaponed with your bugspray , ready to seek some lizards. This actually happened. The Gamboa life, or in general the Latin-America lifestyle, with its chaoticness, leaves more room for spontaneity which I love! It has been a breath of fresh air from the lifestyle in the Netherlands, where everything is very much structured and planned weeks in advance. It is going to be hard adjusting back to these habits in September 😉
The only constants here are doing my project at Dinalab and going to APPC on Friday’s. Scrolling through my pictures, you will mostly find stuff about my project and adorable (and occasionally also scary) animals. APPC has been great, and I am still very much loving my quality one-on-one, or one-on-many time with the sloths. I really am gonna miss them when I leave. Oof, I am already becoming sentimental. I will try to save that for the last one in this series of blogposts. Anyway, new sloth fact: Sloths closest relatives are anteaters and armadillos, and they descent from this massive terresterial sloth that were as big elephants 😮
For my project I was testing out different frequencies and patterns of frequencies on the Leafcutter Ants in front of Dinalab. At one point I noticed that there was some yellow-orangish substance on the piezo disk, which I hadn’t seen before. I cleaned the disk and tried it again on a different part of the trail with the same vibration settings (100hz with a duration of 100ms). Then I saw with my own eyes that (one of) the ants was/were secreting this substance. How exciting!!! But why, what, how and when? 🐜
The vibration pattern seems to elicit some kind of ‘distress’ response in the ants. They start attacking the piezo disk like crazy and try to bite/cut it. Also, when the other ants smelled the substance, they flinched away. The entomologists I have spoken to think the substance is something like faecal matter, or in other words, ant poop. 💩 They told me that, apparently, the matter serves as a fertilizer inside of the nest and as a deterent outside the nest. Maybe when excreted in ‘fear’, an additional chemical compound is added to the excretion, which is called context-dependent chemical signaling. One of the entomologists, Alissa, wants to check what the chemical substance is in the lab, which is super exciting!! Probably it is ‘just’ poop, but it is still very interesting why they excrete this with this type of vibration.
For my end product I am making an installation where people can experience the vibrations that leafcutters make accompanied by the sound that it makes for us. It is literally going to be an experience how it is ‘to stand in someone else’s (in this case something else’s) shoes’. I will not tell you too much details yet; you can see the endresult in the last blogpost or at the exhibition 😉 I have still a lot of work to do in one week, but I hope and believe it’s going to pay off!
Furthermore, recently two new entomologists, or more specifically, myrmecologists, have arrived in Gamboa. Alissa and Stephanie are studying fungus-growing ants (but not the leafcutters) and they have taught me so much new stuff about ants! One time they took me ‘ant digging’, which was so cool and so much fun. I even got to dig up ‘my own’ colony and write my initials on the sampling cup. The species we dug up is Serciomyrmex Amabilis, a little fury fungus-growing ant. The cool thing is that some colonies are infiltrated by a certain type of ant, Megalomyrmex symmetochus. These ants are not fungus-farming ants, so they don’t help with caring for the garden and thus they are seen as parasites. Mega is a social parasite since it lives together with the host. Unfortunately for Sercio, they do eat from the garden and profit from it. At first instance this seems like parasitism (thus the name parasite as well), however, the parasites do protect the fungus by attacking other intruders. Alissa, Stephany and their research team say it may be a context-dependent mutualist since it also defends their host from other threats! Super interesting, right?
I have also starting to make two designs for the recycled plastic keychains that Kitty and Andy make and sell for the APPC. I really like the shape of the Cecropia leaves, which I see a lot around here because that’s what we get for Valencia the Taipir and the three-toeth sloths a lot, since it’s their favourite. Another design I made is, of course, of the leafcutter ant! I have spray painted them with some pretty colours and now they are almost ready to be sold! Actually I already sold my first (cecropia) design and I hope to sell more on the exhibition I am going to give at the end of my stay here 😊
Cool2 is also still in the game. We have been playing around more with Arduino and an LED strip. Slowly but steadily we are making progress and hopefully in one or two weeks we have a prototype to show and present! Besides our menstruation plant, Kitty taught Cool2 how to crochet. Kitty was an excellent teacher but crocheting is not my calling. It was nice, but I am a bit too restless for such detailed work. Serena loved it though and she made some really cool stuff, which you will probably see in one of her blogposts 😉
Serena organised a jungle crafting afternoon where we got to make something out of the materials that we found in the forest, to explain a (scientific) concept with. Although my thing didn’t fully work out as I wanted, I really did learn to get outside of my head. It was a super fun experience!
Lastly but not least, I did a bunch of fun stuff here with my amazing Gamboa friends. We went a drag contest in the city, we visited the Biomuseo, Team Dinalab (me, Serena, Andy & Kitty) had a nice beachday at Forte Sherman, we had our second ruin party, we played Capuchin Heights (Andy’s self-made Carcassonne), went on a few night hikes/walks and of course some good old sunset hangouts!
One morning we helped out the butterfly lab whip up a quick working instrument to help measure the pull strength of heliconius butterfly legs (for WAYYYY cheaper than scientific devices you can buy)!
The Pullinator is a device used to determine a butterfly’s strength by measuring how much weight they can pull. Our PhD student, Jessie, uses it to study muscle deterioration in butterflies as they age. Cool, right? But the best thing about The Pullinator is how it got made!
From their lab instagram https://www.instagram.com/p/CcrLzgCr_6b/ “It all started with Andrew K Davis et al paper where they measured grip strength in monarchs using a force gauge. As Jessie proceeded to search where to buy such device, her engineer Uncle asked, “why not build it yourself?” She began this operation by consulting the amazing @digital.naturalism.labs who successfully brought it to life! Later, Ernesto Bonadies from @biologickecentrumavcr suggested using sandpaper to standardize the friction of the gripping area as it has a defined numerical scale. Finally, the name and beautiful typescript came from our PhD student, Laura Hebberecht.”
This amazing device is just one example of the incredible things we can create when we use our creativity, intellect and most importantly, our collaborative spirit.
During his past couple trips at Dinalab, Marc Juul has been working on a device to stream high-quality, 360 degree audio from the middle of the rainforest to anywhere on earth (with internet). His latest incarnation is even more robust and self-contained (and features upcycled plastic inserts!)!
At the APPC https://www.appcpanama.org/ the biggest animal we work with (in fact the largest land animal south of mexico in the americas!) is the Baird’s tapir. She is HUGE and STRONG and SMART and it can be very difficult to make toys for her that will last!
when Paula Te visited though, we re-taught ourselves how to weld and got busy making a big strong enrichment feeder for her!
Here’s a full how-to guide we made to show how you can take bubble wrap (or any kind of #4 plastic sheets) I quite like the bubble-wrap texture that is maintained in the final results! (We used a @TeamMayku vacuum former)
The time flies here. On one hand that is a positive given but on the other hand it also means that time start getting short to work and finish my project. These past few weeks have been very fruitful. While Andy and Kitty were away to Sri Lanka to organise stuff for DinaCon, Serena, Jorge and I were ‘in charge’ of the Dinalab. Besides working on our projects, we had lots of dance parties, ice cream celebrations and movie nights.
After two and a half months with a lot of researching, experimenting and seeking inspiration, I decided to do my project here at Dinalab about Leafcutter Ants. With the concept of Umwelt in mind, I try to ga in a little bit more insight in how these ants perceive the(ir) world. Right now, I am experimenting with ‘sound’, or vibrations. Ants don’t make sounds through the air (air-borne), but through surfaces (substrate-borne). With the help of Lisa Schonberg (former DinaCon participant in 2019) I started exploring this with piezo microphones, which are surface microphones. The cool thing is that you can use piezo as a microphone and as a speaker! So besides recording, I am testing whether the Leafcutter ants will react to certain frequencies and changes in frequencies. So excited to find out what is coming from this! Maybe we will even be able to communicate with ants in the future… 🐜
Serena and I started working on our collaborative project under the name ‘Cool2’. We chose three main themes where we wanted to build the project around, which are Nature, Feminism and Arduino. From these themes we started creating a mindmap and picked out four keywords which spoke to us the most. Cycle, misunderstood, meaning and ruthless. Last week we got the idea to make a plant that shows you in which fase of your menstrual cycle you are in by the colour of LED lights. The LEDs will light up when you water or touch it. This is a new way to track your period and to simultaneously learn about periods. The thought behind this was sparked by the fact that a lot of women I know use a period tracker but are not consciously aware of the fase they are in. For example, sometimes I would get quite moody and sad and then in a week or less I get my period. Afterwards I am always like: ‘Oh now I understand, I just needed to get my period!’ What a relief 😉
In the time period when Kitty and Andy I kept on volunteering at the APPC. My love for the sloths grows stronger each day. They are just the cutest things ever! Especially Ingmar, the sloth I named after my supercute cousin. Such a kind soul 💕 New sloth fun fact by the way: sloths have four stomachs, just like cows. Also Mireya taught me a lot about the different plants that the sloths and Valencia the tapir eat. I learned to recognize poro poro, indio desnudo, jobo, cecropia, mango and berignon.
For a long time Andy has been working on trying to sense ants. This has been proven to be a difficult task because they are so tiny, fast and with so many. Andy made a 3D design for a simple ant gate where leafcutters can be sensed. The gate works with a light source (in this case a laser because a laser light is the most stable) and a photoresistor. Right now, the ant gate only works for ants with leaves. If I have time, I will try to make the ant gate better by making it more sensitive to smaller ants, and ants without leaves, as well. Anyway, it was a fun (side) project that involved leafcutters and Arduino!
Serena and I also organised a small Arduino workshop for some students are doing a project with a heart rate sensor and a GPS. We taught them the basics of Arduino and they learned it very quickly. Thank you Daniel and your group for joining us and being so enthusiastic and good students! Good luck with the project 🙂
Luckily there was also enough time to explore the beautiful nature that Gamboa has to offer. I took Serena for the first time to Pipeline Road and she was very happy as you can see in the picture. Last week Andy organised a night hike. It had been a long time since I had been on one so it was very nice to go on one again. We saw so many frogs and I saw my first treefrog! Andy says that you haven’t been to Panama if you haven’t seen one. So fortunately now I can say that I have been in Panama for real!!
And last but not least there was also a lot of time to do fun stuff with my Gamboa friends. We went bowling, partying in the city, watching series and movies and playing tennis and volleyball. For the week I also went to Bocas del Toro with Josie and had a super fun time!
The upcoming weeks I will be working very hard on finishing my project. It will be a lot of recording sounds and videos, experimenting with different sounds, frequencies and other stimuli and combining this to a meaningful endproduct. Hopefully the ants will cooperate and will I be able to share something very special, a glimpse of one part of the Umwelt of a Leafcutter Ant. Can’t wait to unravel the secret life of Leafcutter ant 🕵️♀️ I will be back…
I initially arrived to Panama at night; during the drive from the airport to Gamboa, I heard the sounds of the rainforest in the dark for the very first time, and I felt awe of nature wash over me.
A couple of weeks into my time here, Andy organized a night hike. Thinking back to how I felt during that first drive from the airport, I was super excited for the opportunity to explore the jungle in the dark.
And what an incredible night this was! I mean, just look at all the cool creatures we saw!!
A highlight of the hike was when the whole group took a couple of moments to turn all our lights and headlamps off, allowing our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Within a few moments, your eyes will read more details in your surroundings, and the layers of the forest start to form; slowly, you begin to see the canopy, then the stream banks, then people’s silhouettes. Eventually, fine details that you don’t expect start coming through, like stream pebbles and people’s faces!
One of my greatest takeaways from this experience is how rejuvenating exposure to nature can be, even when the expedition seems daunting. I would be lying if I said I was not a little nervous going into the rainforest at night, but the experience was actually grounding and regenerative. Given that I grew up near the Red Sea, the closest thing I could compare this hike to is a scuba dive or snorkeling trip; you take your time to wander a novel, incredibly biodiverse environment, pointing out all the cool creatures that you spot to the rest of the group.
I feel inspired by all the cool patterns and textures we saw – the slimy Red Eyed Tree Frog egg clutches, dark canopy silhouettes, and infinite frog color combinations. I’m looking forward to returning to the Dinalab and incorporating these elements of nature into my work.
One of my research goals is to better understand what students in the natural sciences have to navigate when they are interested in transdisciplinary (TD*) experiences. To do so, I’ve been talking to students who have multidisciplinary interests and are curious about integrating that into their science. During some of these discussions, we’ve been drafting journey maps of our learning experiences. Some guiding questions included:
At which points in your learning journey did you feel like you had to choose a discipline to “belong” to? When did you start learning or internalizing disciplinary demarcations between science, art, humanities, design, technology, etc…?
Below you can see some of the sketchnotes drafted from these discussions. Do any of these reflections resonate with you? Can you think of when you felt the need to pick a discipline to box yourself into?
*TD: stands for “transdisciplinary”, referring to that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline (Nicolescu, 1970)