Today we visited the Sani community of the Quichua people. This community center is located on the Napo River. The common welcome phrase is Alipunja. When we arrived to the community center we were greeted by a few of the women. A leader of the women’s group took us around their gardens. We stopped and saw their turtle sanctuary for Yellow Spotted Amazon River turtles. We next visited their school and learned about their education system. After the school we visited the farm and harvested the native crop of yuca and weaved head bands with leaves that are also used to make the Panama hats. We tasted fresh sugar cane that was so sweet it was almost candy. After this, we went to the kitchen to see what was for lunch. They had a traditional cooking fire with food roasting above. We tried the native chicha drink while three people were brave enough to eat a live grub. For lunch we ate locally caught fish (a variety of paraña) with heart of palm wrapped in a leaf that had been cooking on the fire. Behind the kitchen was a full size soccer field with local teams competing with one team from Sani lodge. As we were getting ready to leave our guide painted our faces with natural oil paint from a fruit. Finally, we had the opportunity to adopt a Yellow Spotted Amazon river turtle and name it before we released it into the Napo river. We really enjoyed this opportunity to learn about the indigenous Quichua people. Not only have we had the opportunity to explore the endemic biodiversity of the Amazon, but we also were exposed to the culture that is unique to Ecuador.
Photo: Mmmmm grubs!
~ Virginia Tech students Erin Dailey and Emily Reasor
Follow the Adventure! You are invited to follow the VT Ecuador students as they report back from South America during their 3-week journey, May 16-June 7. They will be blogging @VTResearch and posting to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using the hashtag #VTEcuador. – See more at: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/ResearchBlog/#sthash.ZgBtKYWz.dpuf
The best time for birding is early in the morning. We rose well before the sun and everyone stumbled down to breakfast. Stomachs full, slowly beginning to wake up we hopped in canoes and headed down the lagoon. The shorelines were littered with birds, anticipation building as we neared the boat landing.
A short hike through the jungle brought us to the base of a massive Kapok tree. The tree rose high above the canopy and was straddled by a 90 foot metal staircase, which we promptly climbed. A massive platform sat atop the tree, yielding breathtaking views of endless rainforest. With no mountains in sight, only a few clouds could be seen on the horizon.
Binoculars in hand we quickly spotted a Great Potoo resting just above our heads; tanagers chasing each other through the tree top; macaws and toucans soaring above the canopy it was hard to know where to look.
All of the sudden our Quichua guide, Javier, noticed something in the distance and ushered over our American guide Rudy. Rudy called over Ignacio and Bill, who were overcome with excitement as they gazed upon one of the most exciting birds in the bird world. In the distance we could see a white speck, with closer examination we made out a massive bird of prey. With talons the size of a human hand, with a crown of gray-white feathers surrounding its head, it sat still as a statue giving everyone an opportunity to admire it. The harpy eagle was the main focus of our group for half an hour as it remained perched for us to observe the illusive creature, and after about an hour it had disappeared into the mist.
Photo: Amazon kingfisher at Sani Lodge.
~ Virginia Tech students Matt Lacey and Caman Skelton
Follow the Adventure! You are invited to follow the VT Ecuador students as they report back from South America during their 3-week journey, May 16-June 7. They will be blogging @VTResearch and posting to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using the hashtag #VTEcuador.
It’s late January in central Namibia, the time of year when heavy rain showers become a regular source of relief for many animals. If the rains arrive, a green carpet spreads across the landscape and food becomes plentiful for all, providing the necessary resources for many species to reproduce. If the rains fail to show, dehydration and starvation sweep through the land like a plague. All individuals suffer, but the young and old, the weakest and most vulnerable, become the most common victims to drought. During these times, pining parents will often fail to rear offspring and may forego breeding altogether, forced instead to focus entirely on survival.
I’m outside Otjiwarongo, studying the local cavity-nesting guild, a specialized and highly diverse community of animals that use tree cavities for nest sites. Found in forests worldwide, cavity-nesting guilds are composed of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and, my favorite, birds. I will call this area home from December through May over the next few years as I attempt to understand the structure of this particular cavity-nesting guild. Do certain species prefer certain types of cavities? How do species interact with each other while competing for cavities? How might human management impact these communities, and how can we ensure that our actions don’t jeopardize their persistence?
Hopefully I can strike it rich and obtain crucial insight into these questions. But before I can strike gold, I must first strike water. Dams have been empty for months, parched from a drought the previous year, and withered carcasses become more and more common sites in the field. Everything is looking to the sky for rain, myself included. If I’m to have any success in my research, I need the rains to come and help kick start the breeding season.
On this afternoon, it seems prayers have been answered. Two hours after gray clouds first crept into view, the sky is a dark, bulging waterbed waiting to burst. Before you can grab your raincoat, the monsoon begins. Downpouring, deluging, raining cats and dogs; throw out your best idioms, just run for cover as you do. The storm doesn’t last long, thirty minutes at most, but that’s plenty of time for two inches of rain to fall. Rivers form wherever they please, Oryx splash about like children at a water park, and hope is seemingly restored to the land.
In the days following the rain, the landscape is vastly transformed. The previously barren earth sprouts a green mane, while acacia trees finally look more leafy than thorny. Animals have also responded. Roadside puddles are filled with enormous African bullfrogs, Leopard tortoises race across roads with re-energized vigor, and the hordes of antelope, once concentrated in mass at man-made water holes, are nowhere to be found, having dispersed to newly formed pools throughout the landscape. The birds are lively as well. Prospective passerines gather grasses to build nests within barbed branches. A second visit to our nest boxes reveals that almost a dozen new female hornbills, the largest cavity-nesters here in Namibia, have begun to build. Things are looking up.
But it’s still too early to say if the weather will be fruitful. One heavy rain is far from adequate for the animals here, which are accustomed to and hoping for regular downpours from December through April. If only they knew the weather projections.
A strong ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation), as is predicted for 2016, usually correlates with even drier weather in southern Africa. So while California finally climbs out of a drought, Namibia may be set to plunge deeper into its own.
To make matters worse, climate change models predict increasing aridification of Namibia over the coming century. This means less annual rainfall, and more frequent and severe droughts. The current circumstance may severely hamper my own research, but these projections intensify the overall need for research on cavity-nesting guilds. How will species respond to more frequent droughts? How will less rainfall impact tree growth and cavity availability? How will these changes alter the interactions between species? If there is to be any hope of preserving these communities, it is vital that we understand their structure so that efforts can be made to maintain them.
Guest blogger David Millican
Ph.D. Student, Department of Biological Sciences, Virginia Tech
Interfaces of Global Change Fellow
Photos of cavity dwellers in Namibia (in chronological order): (1) Yellow-billed hornbill, (2) grey-billed hornbill nestings in box
The primary mission of the Ted and Karyn Hume Center for National Security and Technology is to educate the next generation of leaders in national security technologies. One way they do that through is through outreach across the K-12 spectrum—to students who may not know, yet, that they’re already engineers at heart.
The Science Museum of Western Virginia’s Science Girls! summer camp offers elementary-school girls hands-on experience with science. Dr. Kira Gantt, the Hume Center’s Associate Director of Outreach and Education, visited the camp to talk about careers in science and engineering.
To learn about the kinds of things they might do as an engineer, rising kindergarteners, first-, and second-graders experimented with basic coding, instructing the computer to display text and to perform arithmetic equations. They also learned about cybersecurity, including geo-tagging of cell phone photos. A second visit, to rising third-through-fifth graders, focused on basic coding, cybersecurity and general online safety practices—including knowing what information is included in those posted selfies.
Summer camps organized by Virginia Tech’s Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED) introduce middle- and high-school students to engineering; this summer, as in years past, Hume Center scientists lent their expertise to the program. Zach Leffke, a research associate at the Hume Center, taught middle-school students in CEED’s Imagination camps and high-school girls in the CTECH2 program about how versatile radio communications are—including how software-defined radio can be used to listen in on land-based radios as well as satellite communications.
Hume Center faculty Dr. Joey Ernst and Dr. Chris Headley, along with graduate students Deirdre Beggs, Kayla Straub, and Seth Hitefeld, led demonstrations on topics including satellite communications, software-defined radio, and wireless security. These outreach programs gave students a taste of the cutting-edge technology that’s used in national security—and Virginia Tech research that they could, one day, be involved in themselves.
Written by Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.
A research scientist and a medical student from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and the School of Medicine are back from a scientific journey of a lifetime at Palmer Station, a United States research station in Antarctica. What they learned might shed light not only on the biological systems of the icefish, but also on the global impact of climate change.
Iskander Ismailov and Jordan Scharping are a part of a multi-university team of heart and brain researchers investigating the mechanisms that threaten the survival of a species that represents 90 percent of the biomass in the great Southern Ocean – icefishes.
Icefishes are unique as the only vertebrate species on Earth that lack hemoglobin in their blood. Instead, icefishes developed a type of antifreeze in their blood that allows oxygen to dissolve directly rather than having to be transported to their organs by hemoglobin. However, all is not well for the icefishes.
The Southern Ocean is warming rapidly above the freezing point of water. While we still find the water extremely cold, it’s too warm for the icefishes’ physiological systems to operate efficiently, which leads to deleterious changes in their biology and behavior and causes their ultimate demise. We believe the primary problem may be that the icefish heart malfunctions because of excessive stress, or a failure of the signaling mechanism of the nerve cells in the brain to generate normal patterns of electrical signals, or a combination of the two.
The expedition, funded by the National Science Foundation, is populated with experts aiming to elucidate the primary precipitating mechanism. That’s how the expedition, at least for Iskander and Jordan, started in my laboratory at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.
When I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, working in the laboratory of C. Ladd Prosser, we conducted pioneering studies on the effects of temperature variations on the molecular biology, physiology, and behavior of goldfishes. Although my current research tends to focus on mammalian brain plasticity in development, learning, and injury, the Antarctica team approached me to participate in their expedition. Unfortunately, for me, I couldn’t personally make the commitment of several months in Antarctica, with my responsibilities at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, at the Virginia Tech Carilion the School of Medicine, and on the main Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. Instead, Iskander and Jordan volunteered.
Iskander, originally from Russia and accustomed to the cold, volunteered instantly. He’s an excellent neurophysiologist in my laboratory, as well as adventurous, so I wasn’t surprised at his enthusiasm.
I was more uncertain when it came to offering the opportunity to medical students, who typically pursue research more immediately and directly related to human health. Yet, to my delight, several volunteered. Jordan, a native Californian, was selected and began an intensive training period of 15 months to learn how to perform the delicate procedures necessary in brain research. He did this while also taking medical school classes, attending patient case presentations, and studying for the national board exams.
Jordan and Iskander did outstanding work in preparation for the expedition. All of our delicate instrumentation, microscopes, and surgical setups had to be sufficiently miniaturized and made durable for the flight to Punta Arenas, Chile, where it was transferred to a ship and taken south to Palmer Station. As such, the last year has been as much a systems engineering and design project as an experimental biology project.
Iskander and Jordan solved numerous problems, overcame obstacles, and engineered solutions throughout the process. Now, they’ve finally carried out the experiment. Iskander was in Antarctica for three months, while Jordan was there for six weeks. They’re due back in the United States this week.
It’s winter in Antarctica, so the conditions are cold, windy, and dark, with heavy seas on the crossing. The multiple research teams, including Jordan and Iskander, worked around the clock in a laboratory hut equipped with the necessary instrumentation for their research. The living conditions are Spartan, but wholesome meals were provided and the station was staffed with a surgeon in case of medical emergencies.
The teams even got to go on fishing trips – to catch their laboratory specimens.
The teams are returning with treasure troves of data to analyze over the coming years. We will likely not only learn about the stresses that icefishes experience, but we should also gain valuable new insights into how extreme low temperatures affect brain and heart function in general. We could learn new things from these amazing critters that may apply to human health, including strategies for treating conditions such as stroke, drowning, traumatic brain injury, myocardial infarction, and heart failure.
I am extremely proud of Iskander and Jordan for their dedication to this project, innovative work, and willingness to carry out fundamental research that will likely lay the foundations for future medical breakthroughs as well as enhance our understanding of our planet. If we can help inform rational decisions about managing our precious planet and the species that we share it with as well as learn new principles that may benefit human health, it will be a good day at the office.
On Friday, we attempt a trip to the Atlantic site again, and we are successful this time! We drive to a site just outside the city of Colon, and the Caribbean influence of this area is hard to miss. This is tropical beach life at its finest. You can see coral mixed in with rock on the forest floor (photo, right).
Angie has chosen this site because her Smithsonian collaborator Roberto Ibanez said it is good frog habitat—he visited back in the 1990s and left a flag to mark the spot.
We use Angie’s GPS to attempt to navigate to that spot, but a lot has changed in the past few decades. We are unable to find the flag and also very few frog species. Angie and Daniel find several slightly moist ravines that may have once been home to streams for frogs to live in, but they are nearly dry and it’s hard to tell how long they have been.
On Saturday, we visit a final site—Plantation Road in Soberania National Park—which is just outside of Gamboa. Angie had previously determined that this was a good site and she wants to mark it out for her visit in May, when she will swab frogs here. We measure out 200 meters of a stream beside the trail, placing flags at each 10 meter mark.
It is important to be precise when sampling in the field, and Angie keeps detailed records about each field site, such as environmental conditions and morphological details of the frog—its weight, size, life stage, species and distinguishing characteristics. Angie will then take a swab that will provide information on bacterial makeup and of course whether or not it tests positive for chytrid fungus. Comparing this sort of detailed data over significant periods of time and seasons will yield the sort of insight that conservationists need to make smart decisions that lead toward successful frog conservation.
Angie will be back in May (sadly, I will not!) to continue to set up her sites and begin the long process of repeated sampling. With data from 4-5 sites in Panama, she will paint a larger picture of the frog disease epidemic in the lowlands.
Towards the end of marking the sampling area off Planation Road, Daniel and Angie notice a small group of tadpoles just removed from the stream—they are in a dry spot that the stream is barely skirting. They will ultimately die if they don’t receive water.
“Should we help them?” Angie wonders aloud.
And then, they are both on their knees scooping the soil away so that the stream floods into the tiny tadpole nursery and their long tails begin to flick and flutter like fire flames, refreshed by the water.
“There you go guys!” Daniel says.
“You are free!” Angie exclaims.
I can’t help but smile to myself. This is serious work, and Daniel and Angie are dedicated scientists who work long, hard hours and agonize over details in order to get the facts straight. But, at heart, they are also conservationists— and two people who really, really love frogs.
On Thursday graduate students Angie Estrada and Daniel Medina need to spend some time at the Smithsonian arranging transport of the swab samples back to the United States. They arrange for me to visit the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project in Gamboa—a place that is very special to them.
Both Angie and Daniel were lab technicians at the center for several years (some overlapping) when they lived in Panama. They were responsible for managing and caring for a variety of frog species (most of them endangered) by feeding them and regulating ideal living conditions such as constant moisture and the correct kind of light.
I visit the center on Thursday morning and am greeted by Jorge Guerrel and Rigoberto Diaz (photo, right), two members of the center’s staff team. I am blown away by the number of frogs species they have in what amounts to a relatively small space. There are shelves and shelves of brightly colored frogs and tadpole aquariums.
The frogs are kept moist with wet paper towels and are even manually misted from time to time. The temperature of the water for the tadpoles and the lights above the aquariums must be constantly checked and regulated.
Meanwhile, in a nearby room, a huge feeding operation is underway—dozens of crickets, moth larvae and other small insects are reared to feed to the frogs. A special algae mixture is grown for the tadpoles. There is so much life jumping, twitching, and crawling in a small space.
The center’s staff works with ANAM—Panama’s version of the United States Environmental Protection Agency—to decide which frogs to house, explains Rigoberto. These decisions are made based on the level of endangerment of the frog, and whether or not the frog is native to Panama or only found in Panama.
Right now, the center has a special frog in its care. It is Andinobates geminisae—a special reddish-orange frog that was discovered last year in the Caribbean lowlands of central western Panama. Because it is a new species, scientists and conservationists are trying to learn as much as possible about it.
The center is special to Panama and the Gamboa community—many of the staff members are volunteers. PARC is one of the main reasons that both Angie and Daniel decided to continue their studies and get a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech—they were able to see firsthand the importance of amphibian rescue and conservation and the challenges that caregivers face.
One thing is for sure: field research is messy. Not just in the sense that nature is full of mud and water and bugs, but in terms of logistics. You have to learn to expect the unexpected.
On Wednesday, we leave Gamboa bright and early—around 6 a.m.—and head north to visit a national park site near the Atlantic Ocean recommended to graduate student Angie Estrada. On the way we discover that the highway is curiously closed so we take the closest exit through a series of towns toward the city of Colon, stopping off at a grocery store to grab snacks.
As we get closer to Colon, traffic gets slower and slower. Finally, it comes to a stop. Graduate student Daniel Medina calls to a pedestrian who informs us that there is a protest in the middle of Colon that has resulted in the epic traffic jam. Taxi drivers are demanding that their cars be equipped with better security so they are not stolen from.
Panama is currently in a state of political agitation after suspected corruption during the last presidential term. Now that a new leader is in power, people are feeling more empowered to exercise the right to protest, Angie and Daniel explain. The roads are impassable: we have to turn around and head back to Gamboa.
Angie is bummed. She only has a small amount of time to visit all of her sites in order to get an accurate portrayal of frog populations in the dry season here in Panama. She decides that in no way will the day be wasted. She and Daniel head back to the Pipeline site to lay transects, or measure out the space for frog swabbing for another day.
Around 8:30 p.m. that evening—Frog Prime Time— we embark on another field excursion that is a first time for me: night swabbing.
It takes a great deal of convincing for me to step into my rubber boots, long sleeved shirt, pants, and bucket hat with net (not pictured: massive amounts of Deet-filled mosquito spray). To say that shuffling around an unfamiliar jungle at night is unnerving to me would be an understatement. As a kid I spent a lot of time playing outside in the dark, but adding jaguars and venomous snakes into the equation is a game changer for me.
Nevertheless, I decide to go because this is an important part of the research project that Angie and Daniel want me to see.
We drive about ten minutes out of Gamboa and park on the side of the road in a spot that Angie and Daniel must know by memory, because it all looks the same to me. Angie pulls aside a branch on the side of the road and there it is: Ocelot Pond glimmering in the moonlight. It’s a short but steep trek down to the small pond and the researchers tell me which trees to grab onto and which to avoid (the spiny ones).
We are three little headlamps in the night moving towards the water, some of us more gracefully than others. I feel like a water buffalo in my big rain boots on the uneven ground. We have to be sure to shine our lights on any branch we aim to touch or pull for leverage—that’s the nature of a rainforest at night. On the forest floor, we see colonies of leaf-cutter ants hoisting their leaves overhead and marching in the straightest assembly lines: nighttime shift work.
Our first spotting isn’t a frog at all—it’s a Common Basilisk, more commonly known as a Jesus Christ lizard for its ability to run on water. We saw one sprinting over a stream at the Pipeline site, but this one is in no mood for exercise: he has found a comfy spot on a branch partially sunk in the pond. Up close, he is fascinating and bigger than I imagined, about the size of a small iguana. I am struck by the fact that he lets us get within inches of him and Angie tells me it is because he is sleeping.
It’s not long before Daniel is clued into the calls of the frogs—he is an expert at this—and he is able to name the species based on their calls. We continue around the pond, with Daniel and Angie combing branches, leaves, and the pebbly soil for signs of webbed feet.
We are looking for two key species at the pond: the hourglass frog and the glamorous red-eyed tree frog that has long served as a rainforest poster child. These species are important because there is two years’ worth of swabbing data for them, and therefore a strong line of comparison.
Luckily, we find both of these species for swabbing, but not without also finding the grandfather of the frog pond (pictured left): Leptodactylus savagei (Savage’s thin-toad frog). This frog is HUGE, anything but thin! And also fast. We try to catch him for swabbing but he makes a getaway.
In the back of the truck, Angie and Daniel organize the supplies to ensure a quick and efficient swabbing station. It’s not good to keep the frogs in their sampling bags for too long. Daniel handles each frog with laboratory gloves, turning it so that Angie can swipe its belly, back and legs. The procedure must be exactly the same for each frog.
They sample a total of seven, and this is low, even for the dry season. During the rainy season, the forest is full of frog calls, Daniel explains.
The swabs are important because they reveal the microbial communities on the skin of the frog and whether or not the frog is infected with chytrid fungus throughout the dry and wet seasons.
The researchers are also interested in the frog population dynamics of each site, because it helps them understand the spread of chytrid fungus in the same way that human population dynamics help us understand how we spread of the flu to each other.
Many factors are at play, including frog behavior, biological defenses, and environmental conditions. This is complicated by human-driven changes such as climate change, invasive species, pollution, and habitat degradation.
Daniel, Angie, and other scientists studying the disease across the world have their work cut out for them, but we are done for tonight. The frogs are released back into Ocelot Pond and we head back to Gamboa with a cooler full of samples.
Hello from the extremely bumpy backseat of a white pick-up truck that is barreling down a washed-out pothole-ridden trail known as Pipeline Road (left, below) in Gamboa, Panama. This is a famous road— known for its wildlife viewing capabilities and accessed by thousands of scientists around the world who come to study and work at the nearby Smithsonian facility in the tiny research town of Gamboa.
It is a wild road—the wildest I have ever been on. The forest is green and thick and heavy with moisture and heat. It is home to jaguars, pumas, vipers, anteaters, sloths and a variety of monkeys—including spider, howler, and capuchin species. Birders the-world-over come to this spot to see thousands of brightly colored species, including manakins, parrots, and toucans. Today, we are hoping that the forest is full of frogs.
Periodically, we stop to listen to their calls. My companions—Virginia Tech biological sciences Ph.D. students Angie Estrada and Daniel Medina—are pros at this. They grew up in Panama and know these forests well. Now, they work with Virginia Tech researcher Lisa Belden to study the spread of chytrid fungus among frogs, which has globally resulted in mass amphibian extinction.
There’s a lot that can be discovered in a sample from a frog’s skin. Angie is here to gather samples that she can then take back to Blacksburg to analyze. She is comparing incidence of chytrid fungus on various species throughout the seasons. Her hypothesis is that disease spread will be more prevalent in the dry season of the tropics (January-April) when frogs are drawn together in close quarters by scarcer water sources.
Yesterday, we spent most of the day at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, gathering supplies for frog swabbing—gloves, swabs, plastic bags, and sterile water. We also talked to one of Daniel and Angie’s former professors there—a researcher who has studied frogs for more than thirty years. He gave Angie tips about sites near Gamboa where we might find an abundance of our favorite amphibians.
This is primarily Angie’s research project. Daniel, a second-year Ph.D. student, also studies frogs, but has already gathered samples and is here to serve as first-year Angie’s field assistant. This project is special to Angie and Daniel: this is their home. They have worked and studied in these forests (often times, together) for more than ten years and are passionate about conserving the abundant biodiversity here.
Today is mostly an exploratory trip to scout out good frogging sites so we can come back and swab. We drive about six kilometers along the road, into Soberania National Park. We hike down to a small stream, scouring the rich soil and pebbles. It is literally hopping with frogs! Angie and Daniel locate 11 separate species along this stream alone, including a glass frog (pictured below, right) which is a unique find because it is primarily nocturnal and it is only about 10 a.m. now. Glass frogs are really cool because some species have translucent bellies, allowing us to see their hearts and other internal organs through their skin!
While wading in the river, we hear a commotion in the trees—branches break and a flurry of leaves flutter to the forest floor. At first, Daniel thinks it might be a monkey but as we get closer and climb the stream embankment, we find that it is an anteater, making his way along the canopy. While in the forest we also encounter an agouti, a native rodent about the size of a house cat who is sniffing along the forest floor. He seems interestingly unphased by us, and comes pretty close!
Angie decides that this is definitely a good field site and that we will come back later. We head back about a kilometer towards the park entrance and stop at a second site, also by a stream. This one is not as good for frogs—Angie and Daniel find only about four species here, and the deeper stream makes it harder to locate amphibians. With the sun now high in the sky, most of the animals are resting and hiding, doing whatever they can to stay cool in the intense humidity and heat.
We jump into the truck and head back to Gamboa, confident that we’ve found at least one good site and that we’ll be back soon.
Virginia Tech Ph.D. students Daniel Medina (left) and Angie Estrada, both of Panama City, Panama, search for frogs off Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park in Gamboa, Panama. The students are working with Lisa Belden, an associate professor of biological sciences, to study the spread of chytrid fungus among tropical frog species.
Warring factions broke out online Thursday night, angrily waving flags of white and gold or black and blue. A bad photo of a striped dress popped up on Tumblr yesterday, and it exploded social media sites through the night, even splitting families into conflicting camps. Others swore the colors shifted back and forth in an optical illusion worthy of David Copperfield.
The black and blue supporters were vindicated when another photo of the same dress, in slightly better lighting, definitively showed its true colors. Still, knowing the colors doesn’t necessarily change how a person perceives the dress.
“Your brain perceives different colors in an image based on their context within that image and based upon our previous experiences with daylight and shadows,” said Michael Fox, a neuroscientist at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. Fox is an expert on the neural circuits underlying visual system function. “If your brain assumes the dress was photographed in a shadow, it compensates and you perceive a white and gold dress. If your brain interprets the photo as being overexposed or in extremely bright daylight, your brain compensates in the other direction and you see the black and blue colors.”
Our eyes aren’t playing tricks, then. We’re all taking in the same visual information – we all see the same colors. It’s how our brains rank the surrounding information that decides the colors we perceive.
Then why do the colors seem to shift for some people? There’s a lot of surrounding information that we’re taking in. It’s not just the apparent shadow cast on the dress, or the light flare to the right of the dress. There’s also the light from the rooms we’re sitting in, the light from the devices on which we’re viewing the dress, the tilt of the screens, the tilt of our heads, whether we’re wearing glasses. All of these little things heavily influence how our brains choose to interpret the image. The image above, from Wired, shows how the dress can appear to change colors.
Basically, we’re all right. Just some of us are more right.
For more fun and confusion, check out these color illusions from the Lottolab Studio, a perception research group.
Disclaimer: I’ve seen the other photos. I understand the optical illusion of colors and shadows. I know, empirically, the dress is blue and black. And, yet, I still see white and gold.