After doing some last-minute research on GoogleEarth (and looking at pictures posted online), I decided that today we would travel to Isla Mujeres. We had to first drive to Cancun (~2 hours) and take the ferry to the island (~30 minutes, $14 roundtrip per person). The north coast of the island is rocky, and walking distance from the ferry terminal, so we started there… After a very short walk, and looking for only five minutes, we confirmed that we had found a reasonable population of C. pica! (And the final field site of the season… and for my dissertation work!)

We found one particular stretch of rocks where there was one large boulder that was mostly submerged. This offshore rock was covered in C. pica, all of which were 35 millimeters or larger! Needless to say, with the concentration of snails that we found, we did not have any trouble finding enough individuals for sampling. What slowed us down was that the stretch of “beach” that we were on was not near the crowd, so Michael could not wander too far from “camp” (and we could not both leave our stuff behind).

Many of the snails at this site had chitons on their shells (see left), many of which were tucked into the umbilicus of the shell. (The umbilicus is the “hole” in the dorsal surface of the shell.) I observed this in previous localities, but not since we were traveling the northern Caribbean islands.

Unfortunately, as we were finishing up tissue sampling, the storm that was rolling in all afternoon finally reached us. So, we had to forgo the site survey because not only is it not safe to survey during a thunderstorm, but we also did not have our car with us to put our stuff in during the survey. Ah well, at least we completed the tissue sampling successfully before the rain started! See the picture at left for Michael’s handiwork of tagged snails!

So this is it! The final site and the end of fieldwork… When I get back to California, I will be focusing on labwork and writing…


On the way back to our condo, we discovered that even if you do obey the traffic laws in Mexico, the policía will still pull you over. (Our car has a great big rental car company sticker on the back, which translates to, “We’re tourists! Pull us over!”.) The cop said that we were speeding: we just left a 70 kph zone and were now in a 60 kph zone. In reality, we had not reached the 60 kph sign… but keep in mind that even if we were still going 70 kph, which we were not, we would only be going 6 mph over the speed limit. So, the cop said that he would have to confiscate our license plate, and that we would have to go to the police station tomorrow and pay them 1,000 pesos (~$83) to get it back. After about 15-minutes of back and forth between Michael and the cop – the cop continuing to repeat that we would have to go the station, and Michael repeating that we were not speeding, but if we have to go the station then so be it – the cop told us that we could give him money now and avoid going to the station. Michael offered 200 pesos; the cop countered with 300 pesos ($25). So that was that. Another fun experience with Mexican cops – the first was when one of the cars in our Baja crew in 2006 was pulled over for crossing a white line, which cost $60 to avoid going to the station. The moral of the story? If you rent a car in Mexico, rent from a company that has a small sticker or no sticker at all. (The giveaway in 2006? Towing a trailer and having CA license plates.)


We head back home on Wednesday, so we have one day to enjoy the Yucatan. The plan: head to the Coba ruins… raincoats in hand (as the weather predicts thunderstorms).


Tissue Sample Tally: 199

Site Survey Tally: 3

Cittarium pica Count: 793

GRAND TOTALS (all four field seasons)

Tissue Samples: 1,346

Field Sites: 49

Cittarium pica Count: 7,622

I was really excited to pick up the rental car yesterday and begin exploring the rest of the peninsula… However, this was just not going to happen. First, Michael woke up rather ill. Not coughing or congested… but nauseous, dizzy, and cramping – I will not go into any other details, but let’s just say that he was not feeling well.

Second, the rental car company did not follow-through in arriving at our condo by 9:30AM. We did not hear from them until 11AM, when they informed us that they could not find us, which I find strange since DHL had no problem. They requested that we walk to town and meet the representative there. By the time we got to town, were taken to the rental car office, and got back to our condo it was nearly 2PM. The process of renting a car takes a bit longer when the representative has to confirm permission to rent to someone who does not have a driver’s license in hand…

Considering that Michael was feeling “under the weather”, staying home was probably the best thing for us to do today anyhow. Hopefully he will feel better tomorrow!


Well, with Michael feeling better… We decided to explore the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula today. Cittarium pica has previously been collected on Isla Holbox, so we figured that we would try the continental coast near the island first. We drove the 198 kilometers to Chiquila to find the coastline lined with mangroves and sandy beaches… and the ferry to Isla Holbox was not running (today is Sunday). From there, we decided to check out the coastline further west… however, there is no road that runs along the coast, so we had to drive another 115 kilometers to get to the next coastal town. Again, we arrived in El Cuyo only not to find suitable habitat. The inner coast is a wetland, and the outer coast (where the town is located) is a beautiful beach stretching as far as we could see. <sigh> We will have to move to plan B tomorrow; for now, we have to begin our long drive back to Akumal.

Our grand schedule today includes waiting around our condo for the arrival of a DHL delivery – our temporary credit card! Unfortunately for us, the card did not arrive until very late in the afternoon… so we have to wait until tomorrow to get the rental car. But at least this draws to a close the “fun” fiasco that began on August 7!

Because wordpress was down today, I was unable to get updated on posting, though. Instead, we finished reading Galapagos, and then I prepped for sampling tomorrow. Other than our grand waiting, we did not do much today… We took a brief walk to the grocery store in the evening and walked around town, checking out the local artwork.

The rental car folks are supposed to pick us up at our apartment at 9:30 tomorrow morning to arrange the rental. Hopefully, we will successfully find a second field site tomorrow afternoon!

Because we are currently without a car (due to the lack of credit card), we decided to explore the coast here in Akumal to look for suitable habitat and a population of Cittarium pica. After a relatively brief walk down the beach, we came to a fossiliferous limestone platform, extending ~10-30 meters offshore… and found a reasonable population of C. pica. This was likely the first good thing that had happened to us in days! We walked back to the apartment, to wait out the heat, and returned much later I the day.

Note: If you have never been to the Yucatan Peninsula before, then you are not familiar with the incredible heat here. Out of all of the places that we have traveled to this point, this is the only place that we have ever been that we, seriously, are instantaneously covered in sweat from the moment we step out the door. During the hottest time of the day, walking to the end of our street, which is about ¼ of a mile, is an exhausting activity. The temperature is not much hotter than any of the other places we have been, but with the near 100% humidity and pretty much no wind… Well, let’s just say, it is blistering.

We returned to the site in the late afternoon and quickly got started. The snails at the site are fairly dispersed, so we knew that it may take awhile to find 30 individuals large enough to sample. When we were about two-thirds of the way done with sampling, two, heavily armed (machine guns) policía began approaching us, and quickly. Now, you have to understand that machine guns are a regular accessory to policemen where we have been visiting this summer, so it really was not all that alarming. Thankfully, they were not after us. Michael said good evening to them as they approached, one of the officers smiled, and then they continued to hustle by. We thought that we might be on private property, as we were just offshore of several private homes and villas. Either they were actually looking for us, but then realized that it was a false alarm. Or they were heading elsewhere. We will never know.

By the time we finished getting tissue samples, it was too late to start a population survey, as the sun was setting. Thankfully, the site is very close to where we are living, so we should be able to easily return sometime later.

Tomorrow, we get to do something really exciting… sit around our apartment and wait for DHL to deliver our credit card! They will not leave it with anyone other than Michael, as the card is already activated… On the Brightside, we get a day to rest.


Tissue Sample Tally: 169
Site Survey Tally: 3

Cittarium pica Count: 793

Day two of our fiasco began at 1:30AM, when we woke, packed the car, and headed to the rental car agency. When we arrived, we were told by the security guard that no representatives would be there until 4:30AM – our flight was scheduled to depart at 6:15AM. We arrived at the airport, finally, at 5AM, to find that we had to stand in a rather long line to pay the departure tax… and then another rather long line to check-in for our flight. By the time we finished all this and got through security it was 5:45, but “thankfully” our flight was delayed so we had plenty of time to get to our gate.

After a 45-minute “stopover” in San Salvador, and a 2-hour layover in Miami, during which Michael arranged for the credit card to be delivered to our condo in Akumal, we arrived in Cancun, Mexico. We asked several airport employees, both in Spanish and English, whether there is a Western Union in the airport, or a place that can receive wire transfers, to which all of the people responded with a solid no. So much for picking up money upon arrival!

Instead, we exchanged what little American money we had left (a little over $100) into pesos, bought two tickets for the bus to Playa del Carmen ($26), and started our two-hour journey south to our condo, with nearly empty pockets. After we arrived in Playa del Carmen, we took a “colectivo” (kinda like a taxi-van) the rest of the way to Akumal ($6). After we arrived, we called our host, Jorge, who came to pick us up at the taxi stand in town. Thankfully, he offered to stop at the store so that we could pick up some food ($14).

When we got to our condo that evening, I checked my e-mail to find that Europ Assistance had e-mailed me wondering why I had not picked up the wired money. I wrote them back, not too happy of course, letting them know that they forgot to provide me with two very important pieces of information: (1) the name of the place from where I was to pick up the money and (2) the number associated with the transfer. So the saga continued…


At around 8AM, a representative from Europ Assistance called… I decided to answer in spite of the cost of the call on my cell phone, as at this point we were getting desperate for money. The woman seemed ignorant of my e-mail, so I explained to her why we did not pick up the cash yesterday… and also complained about the cost of her phone call to me. For the first time in more or less all of my correspondences with this company, the woman apologized… AND offered to send the wire transfer to a location closer to where we were located… AND offered to cover the cost of transportation to get there. I have a feeling that someone finally clued in to the fact that I am a client who is part of one of their largest accounts, UC Berkeley, so they had better try to do something for me.

So, Michael and I traveled to Tulum, via taxi ($20), went to the Banco HSBC, and finally picked up some cash… and just in time too, as we would not have had enough cash to get back to our apartment and to eat (only one or the other). To celebrate, we went out to lunch (delicious fish tacos), and then spent the rest of the afternoon at the Tulum Ruins.

Black Spiny-tailed Iguanas (Ctenosaura similis) were all of the grounds of the ruins and climbing on the ruins themselves. The one photographed above greeted us before we crossed the wall into the ruins.


House of the Northwest: This structure is located at the northwest corner of the compound – as you could have probably guessed by the name. It is not a temple, but rather a residence for “important” people, according to our guidebook.


House of the Halach Uinic (“Real Man” or king): The sculpture/carving above the doorway is a depiction of the “Descending God”. According to our guidebook, “The exact identify of the personage is not known, although some historians have related him to a divinized lord, the setting Sun, an avocation of Venus, a swallow god or a bee god, since the region was an important produce of honey and wax.”


Temple of the Frescoes: This structure is located nearly in the center of compound, and was built three phases, adding the columns around the first floor and the temple on the second floor. Our guidebook suggests that, “both for its particular architecture and for its decoration and paintings that cover its walls, this structure is considered as having a vital social and religions function in the ancient settlement.” Large masks were carved into the southwest and northwest corners of the temple (see below). This mask possibly represents Itzamná, an “old god, with decoration round the lower eyelid, a curved nose, prominent chin, turned down corners to his mouth and fangs.”


The walled area in the background is called the “Inner Precinct” and contains the castle and three temples. The upper temple of the castle, the one above the flight of stairs, has three very unusual columns… They are carved in the shape of serpents, with the heads as the bases and the rattles as the capitals. This is difficult to see in our photograph (and even when visiting in person), but quite recognizable in our guidebook. The stucco masks on the corners of another temple in precinct are different from those on the Temple of the Frescoes – instead of having turned-down noses, they have turned up noses, along with opened mouths, bared teeth, “large, stylized eyes, and wear elaborate feather headdresses”. These characteristics are indicative of kings rather than gods.


After several hours at the ruins, we headed to cheeseshop and the grocery store… and then back to Akumal. Tomorrow, we can finally start back to work and check out the rocky coast near our condo… But the saga continues as we wait to receive our new credit card – cross your fingers!

Day one of dealing with the aftermath of our experience with thieving teenagers was the first of several frustrating days infected with the disease of incompetence, so common in US businesses and bureaucracies today. (I can only speak to US ones, as I do not regularly interact with either in any other countries.) Thankfully, our first phone call, that to the US embassy in Costa Rica, was quick with information and brief: we could definitely get new passports, but not until Monday (tomorrow) at the embassy in San José. The marine with whom Michael spoke gave him the address of the embassy, which we figured would be quite useless (more on this later).

The following phone calls (and e-mails) were when the infection of incompetence was brought to our attention. First, I called the EuropAssistance international hotline – this is the company with whom all UC Berkeley employees and students “have” travel insurance whenever they register a business trip with the university. After I explained the situation to the woman on the line, she said, “There is nothing that I can do for you.” Not, “I’m sorry about your situation”, not “What can we do to help?”, not “Wow, that sucks”. No she simply said that she could not do anything. I asked whether they could help me get money to cover the cost of new passports, whether our stolen gear were covered, whether she could contact the embassy to confirm our identity… No, she could not help me with any of that, as none of that is covered under my policy. Uh… just a reminder: this was my travel insurance company to whom I was speaking.

From there, I began composing an e-mail explaining our situation that I sent to several representatives at UC Berkeley who are the liaisons for the travel insurance company. Considering that it is currently Sunday, I was not expecting to get a response. I also cc’d my advisor, the head of my department, the business services manager of my department, and the department manager. I also e-mailed my parents and my in-laws to let them know the situation and that we may need them to wire us money. All for good measure. Now begins the waiting game…

We decided to check out the US Embassy website to see if there were any forms that we could fill out ahead of time – and there was one. We then asked the folks at the front desk of the biostation if we could use their printer to print out the forms… AND the scans of our passports that I had on my computer. (For these, I have to thank the many permitting agencies in South and Central America who required that I send them photocopies of my passport in order to get a permit. Without this requirement, I would not have had them on my computer.) We then looked on GoogleEarth for the location of the embassy, as the marine who answered the phone at the embassy only gave us the cross-streets, which from our experience when we arrived in San José, would most likely not be labeled. We entered the lat/long coordinates for every turn that we would need to make to get to the embassy into our GPS. After reading several accounts online of folks attempting to find the embassy in Costa Rica, we decided that we would need all the help that we could get. At this point, there was nothing further that we could do than wait…

To help pass the time, we went for a 2.5-hour hike through the woods at the station, during which time we saw the following:

Bullet Ants (Paraponera clavata) – The individual that we saw was >1”! They have one of the most venomous “stings” of all ants, and is said to be as strong as being shot with a bullet. Have you seen the National Geographic special on these ants? The Satere-Mawe tribe in Brazil fills “gloves” with these ants, into which would-be warriors must insert their hands… What a lovely way to “become” a man. Thankfully, neither of us got to the ant’s sting first-hand, although Michael says he is curious what it feels like… (He is also interested in experiencing all of the worlds natural disasters first-hand and was bummed that we have yet to experience a hurricane or volcanic eruption during our field exploits.)

Frog 1 (Craugastor megacephalus) – This individual hopped into view as we were inspecting and photographing the bullet ant. This frog is commonly found in leaf-litter, which is where we saw it too. It is currently listed on the IUCN red list as “Least Concern”, but listed none-the-less.




Frog 2 – I am not sure what species this frog is, but we also found it in leaf-litter. It stopped just long enough for Michael to snap this photo. It has orange “toes”, striped gray legs, a brown back, and light-colored line down the center of its back. Its belly is light-colored, like the line on its back.




Frog 3.

Frog 3 (possibly Craugastor sp.) – This frog was, again, spotted in leaf litter. A rather beautiful individual that did not seem at all affected by our presence.


Unknown large spider – I spotted this rather large (~4” from tip-to-tip) spider resting on a leaf near the trail… I have no idea what kind of spider it is… but Michael says that he has finally seen a spider worthy of my fear.


Leaf-cutter Ants (Atta cephalotes) – This is a picture of one of the many nests of the leaf-cutter ants at the station. These ingenious ants have paved over 200 kilometers of paths throughout the park! Quite spectacular for such a small animal.



.White-throated Capuchin (Cebus capucinus) – A group of capuchins greeted us about half-way down the trail, by rustling the treetops, and throwing fruit at us! We couldn’t take photos, though, because they were too far up in the trees, and the sun had begun to set.

Unknown bird (possibly a tityra?) – We spotted this bird on the way back from our hike, along with Chesnut-mandibled Toucans (Ramphastos swainsonii), Keel-billed Toucans (Ramphatos sulfuratus), and a flock of parrots (unknown species).




Through all of this frustration… at least we have each other… and the surrounding biodiversity!


We woke up early, as usual, today, this time with the plan to head to the US Embassy in San José. We ate breakfast, grabbed our to-go lunches, the GPS, and our paperwork… and headed out at around 7:00.

The GPS coordinates of the turns that we needed to make turned out to be invaluable: without them, we never would have found the embassy as none of the turns were marked in any way. Much to our pleasant surprise, getting new passports was a rather painless and not time-consuming process… just money-consuming. To purchase new passports cost us $274, including the cost of pictures, which can be taken at a little booth within the embassy for $2/each. Thankfully, a nice couple who were staying at the research station loaned us $100, so this trip to the embassy didn’t quite clear us out of all of our money. We left the embassy with our new, temporary passports, and arrived back at the research station at 12:45! Amazing.

After lunch, we found ourselves spending the rest of the day (from 1PM straight through until 11PM) on the phone and e-mail, dealing with the thoroughly inefficient and unhelpful customer service representatives at both Europ Assistance and Visa.

I was trying to negotiate for Europ Assistance (the UCB travel insurance company) to wire money to the airport or some other location in Mexico for us to pick up after we arrive there. This was probably the most frustrating and debilitating experience of the entire ordeal. As to not remind myself of how ridiculous the process was, I will not spend the aching time to rehash what I went through, but let’s just say that spending 10-hours e-mailing back and forth is rather ridiculous when wire transfers take all of 5-minutes to set-up these days. After all of that time, the representative informed me that they would transfer money to the Western Union in the Cancun Airport for us to pick up upon arrival tomorrow.

As for the Visa phone calls, Michael was informed by a representative that they could mail an emergency card to us in Mexico – this is important because we cannot rent a car without a credit card. After the first 45-minute conversation, they asked him to call back in an hour. When he attempted to call back, he found that the international number provided didn’t work, so he had to call the general number again… and re-explain the case (even though we had a case number)… only to find that no progress had been made. This went on for two more phone calls that evening, and was still not resolved. He was asked to call them back tomorrow during our layover in the Miami airport.

So, now it’s time to pack… and get two-hours of sleep… before we wake up at 1:30AM to drive to the airport… What a day.

Like the day before, we headed to the coast, but this time on a shorter trip. Unlike any previous day on this trip (or any previous field trip), this day was the beginning of a several-day-long period of frustration… which all started with five teenagers.

We arrived at Playa Bonita, after 2.5-hours of driving and reading (on Michael’s part) / listening (on my part) to Vonnegut’s Galápagos. Little did we know what was to come a few hours later, or we might have continued driving down the coast. Instead, we parked.

This site, like so many others, consists of a fossiliferous limestone platform, extending on either side of a public beach. The beach was covered in locals and tourists consumed by their merriment, while we worked diligently nearby to find, sample, and survey C. pica. Work at this site started like every other site: I set-up camp and prepared to take tissue samples (e.g. unpacked & organized sampling instruments, took a GPS point, recorded information about the physical and biological aspects of the site, etc.), while Michael began searching for snails, carefully navigating along the rocks and avoiding crashing waves.

About 2-hours into the site (or 12-tissue samples), two teenage locals were approaching where I was working. I saw them and as a precaution, called Michael back to the “camp”. Michael arrived near me at about the same time that the teenagers were near our camp. The two said (in Spanish), “Hello”, and signaled that they meant us no harm, and then continued to climb up a large bolder near our camp, and then disappeared down an alley, about eight-feet above us. Michael and I both felt a little guilty for suspecting them, profiling and all, as they seemed like they genuinely did not care that we were there, one way or another and seemingly would not come back.

After a short while, Michael headed back down the coast to look for more snails, and I remained to take more tissue samples. After Michael was about 300 meters away, which is farther than he normally goes (but the snails are very dispersed at the site), I noticed three more teenagers approaching, but I didn’t want to suspect that they were up to no good after feeling guilty last time… so I didn’t call Michael back.

Shortly thereafter, two individuals said, “Hola”, distracting me, while a third grabbed Michael’s backpack, and one of our snorkel-equipment bags, quickly tossing them up to (you guessed it), the two teenagers seen “disappear” down the alley only a short while before. The two with our bags ran off, after which I heard a car engine roar to life. The other three stayed around, staring at me blankly as I yelled for Michael and continued to angrily shout at them in my own form of Spanglish (meanwhile making sure that I stood between them and the rest of our stuff). When Michael neared, the other three darted away from us down the coast, and Michael climbed up to take off down the alley to see if he could spot the car or any suspicious teenagers.

Some people in a nearby restaurant (the building in the picture above), signaled for me to come over, as they observed the whole incident – or at least heard me screaming at the teenagers. They seemed to completely understand what happened… Aside from the important piece of information that I have left out: both of our passports, along with our wallets, were in Michael’s now-stolen backpack. This was the first and only day that we have ever been out doing fieldwork in four years and 23 islands/continental sites on which this was the case. We typically leave our passports at our accommodations, cleverly hidden somehow or locked in safe, and our wallets at least in our separate backpacks. However, our M.O. changed when we were in Panama and Costa Rica, as there are police checkpoints periodically on the roads at which you must present your passports or driver’s licenses or both upon demand. Today, Michael grabbed the back that was in the glove compartment, containing all of our ID, and stuffed it in his bag… after which, we both promptly forgot to split it up.

At the restaurant, I found that they had called the police for us. I explained in my Spanglish and hand-gestures that my husband was out looking for the teenagers. After only a short time, I saw Michael outside the parking lot of the restaurant talking to the police. The police continued their search for the teenagers, but I am sure that my descriptions matched just about every teenage boy in the area, and there were many. Surely by now, they had ditched the bag and likely most of its contents, which included our passports, binoculars, coolpix camera, hats, towel, and waterbottles. Michael talked (in actual Spanish) with the folks at the restaurant, who then offered for us to get online to get phone numbers for our bank and credit card company… and then further offered for us to use their phone to call and cancel them. (A special thanks to the Cocori Beach Hotel & Restaurant!) We called and canceled our cards, and attempted to call the US Embassy in Costa Rica, but no one was answering the emergency line. Fun. We are now without any form of identification, without access to any more money, and unable to get in touch with the embassy while in a foreign country…

After about half an hour, the police returned, not successful in their search for the perpetrators (not surprisingly). One of the officers returned to his headquarters to get the “report document” for us, which Michael had to fill out in detail. (This would mainly serve the purpose of a supporting document at the US Embassy when we petitioned for new passports.)

Thankfully, the keys to our car (and the keys to our room) were in my backpack, and thus not stolen. (The teenagers also did not steal our expensive digital SLR camera, or my samples.) However, after checking the fuel gauge, we found that we did not have enough fuel to make it back to the station… Whereupon one of the employees of Cocori, Lenny, proceeded to loan us CC$10,000 (~$20), without which we would have been stuck. (An extra special thanks to Lenny!)

We got back to the station and decided to make a few more phone calls, but we found that we could not make any phone calls internationally from the field station. We tried the embassy again, but still no answer. So we ate our dinner, trying not to think about the “fun” that awaited us tomorrow… Let’s hope we can get some sleep.

To be continued…


Tissue Sample Tally: 139
Site Survey Tally: 3

Cittarium pica Count: 763


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