During the past two weeks, I had the great opportunity to travel to Guarujá, Brazil for the Evolution 2015 meeting, a joint meeting of the Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB), American Society of Naturalists (ASN), and the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE). The trip down was super easy thanks to a not-very-full flight from Detroit straight to São Paolo (meaning only one layover!), and a conference shuttle from there to Guarujá. While Guarujá is a beach town on the southern Atlantic coast, it is currently the Brazilian winter, meaning that high temperatures on most days were only about 80 (the horror!), and nights were breezy and cool. I actually didn’t get in the water at all (so busy with the conference!), but the beach itself was lovely and full of quiosques (kiosks) selling snacks, sodas, and beers.
The conference consisted of days of talks followed by a social mixer, a special presidential lecture for each of the societies, and then a poster session, meaning there were activities from 8:30 am to 9:00 pm each day, with a break for lunch and two coffee breaks (the amount of coffee consumed was truly incredible….I did my own share). Fortunately the conference provided lots of snacks and finger foods that many folks (including me) made meals of, allowing us to avoid the pesky timesink of actually going to dinners. What adaptiveness!
Talks were organized into sessions of 6 or 12 presentations focused on a common theme (e.g. Speciation, Hybridization, Adaptation…), and talks were 12 minutes long, followed by three minutes for questions from the audience (though of course many presenters talked too long and had no time for questions…boooooooooooo). The conference featured six to seven concurrent sessions, so there were plenty of options for finding interesting science to learn about.
I gave my talk as a Hamilton Award Finalist. The Hamilton Award is sponsored by the SSE and given to the student presenting an outstanding talk at the meeting. It was an honor to be in the group of students presenting these talks (it was probably the best session I attended), and being a finalist also came with financial support from SSE (thanks to them!) which allowed me to attend the meeting in the first place. My talk, “An invasive predator, the red imported fire ant, alters latitudinal gradients of multiple traits in a native lizard” focused on how fire ants are altering latitudinal gradients in fence lizard traits, including behavior, stress responsiveness, and morphology. While previous lab research has shown that fire ant invasion affects the values of these traits, this new research extends our knowledge of these traits to the whole range of fence lizards and allows us to show that the changes we’re seeing due to fire ants are the opposite of the trends we see in areas without fire ants. This implies that fire ants can cause very strong changes in fence lizards (and maybe other species) over large areas and short times. More on this when we actually write it up for publication!
In addition to giving my own talk, I also saw lots of sweet presentations at the conference. One of my favorites was entitled “Moth tails divert bat attack: Evolution of acoustic deflection” by Akito Kawahara, curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Akito covered the different ways in which moths can defend themselves from one of their primary predators, insectivorous bats, including acoustic aposematism, by which moths use sound to signal their unpalatability to bats, and acoustic jamming, where moths produce sounds that disrupt the echolocation abilities of bats. Akito’s research looked into why some moths, such as luna moths, have long, spiraling tails. Along with his collaborators, he found that the twirling tails scatter the echolocation signals produced by bats, convincing them that the tails are the largest target on the moth’s body. The bats often attack the tails, allowing the moth to escape with the cost of losing a tail…this can essentially give the moth two “extra lives.” For more info, check out this longer write-up (with cool videos!) from Ed Yong or read the published article.
By the last day of the conference, many attendees were pretty burnt out due to the near-constant inpouring of high-quality scientific information into our brains, so my roommate Peter and I decided to sneak away for the later half of the day and look for herps. We asked the incredibly helpful Carlos (one of our awesome hotel’s desk managers) if he knew where we might see some lizards or frogs, and he recommended a trail near his house on the southern edge of town. We hopped a taxi to a really beautiful beach, climbed across an aqueduct, and hiked a narrow trail over a mini-mountain right on the coast.
We were rewarded with a steep descent down a slippery mountain streambed onto a rocky cove with awesome views out to a local island.
On the return journey, we explored further up the stream and looked for frogs, finding two different species (of which we only got pictures of one….someone, I won’t say who, dropped the only specimen of the other before we could get pictures…). The one frog that did stay with us long enough for a picture is probably in the genus Physalaemus, and might be P. moreirae, an endemic to the area. I also accidentally stuck a rusty pipe into my elbow and had to get Peter to remove some pieces from my flesh once we returned to the hotel, but, since I’m up to date on my tetanus shots, the drama stops there.
After talking a security guard into calling a cab for us so we could actually return to the conference, we had a huge dinner of grilled fish and steak at a beachside restaurant before attending the final evening’s Super Social. Yes, it was actually listed in the program that way, and it did turn out to be quite super. Awards were announced, including those for the Hamilton Award (Alas, I did not win, despite making the most people laugh during my presentation… unfortunately that wasn’t one of the criteria on the grading rubric!). The social continued with an epic 4-hrs-with-no-breaks performance by a Brazilian cover band, featuring backup dancers, choreographed line dances, and costume changes. They ran through sets including Queen covers, classic rock, contemporary club, country, Brazilian hits, and disco. While I was dancing down in front with my friends, I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around to find the lead singer pulling me onto the stage to do one of the choreographed dances. There was nothing else for it except to kill it onstage as a Brazilian rockstar, so I laid down my best moves to represent for the American contingent at the conference. To the best of my knowledge (and quite fortunately) no video or photographic evidence exists of this, so I’ll give you a pic I stole from a friend’s Facebook of the “country” music portion of the show.
After the conference, I took a few days to travel around Brazil on my own. I visited Ilhabela, an island to the north of Guarujá that is 85% preserved as a park of the Mata Atlântica, the threatened Atlantic Forest biome. I stayed at a beautiful suite in a jungleiferous location, which independently hosted several other travelers from the Evolution conference.
While it was a bit chilly for herps, there were lots of beautiful endotherms (birds) present.
I also hopped on a diesel Land Rover for a 2 hr. jaunt along the one rutted, mountain road that leads across the island. On the other side I explored an awesome waterfall, Cachoeira do Gato, and mucked around in the rainforest looking for critters.
I also hiked on the beautiful Praia dos Castelhanos (even though it was a cloudy day) and got eaten alive by the local borrachudos, a biting fly that left bloody streaks on my ankles…awesome!
After hopping another night bus to Rio, I met up with an old friend and revisited some haunts in the city, including the iconic Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf) mountain.
I rounded out my journey with another night bus to return to São Paolo and a visit to the Instituto Butantan, a pioneering research center for snakes and snake venom treatment. They also have a collection of native herps and an old school, open air serpentarium, though given that temperatures were in the fifties, the outdoor snakes weren’t in the mood to be very active.
On the whole the trip was a great educational experience, but I was super happy to return to the states and sleep in my own bed! In another week or so, I’ll start thinking about my next conference, the SSAR Herp meeting at the University of Kansas coming up in less than a month!