Field | Žumberak Mountains 2021

Hello everyone, and, after a longer break, welcome back to my blog! As the title itself suggests, I was a part of another BIUS field trip, which was again located at the Žumberak Mountains. For the adventures from the previous year, click here and here.

Quick reminder:
BIUS is an association that gathers many Biology students from our department and focuses mainly on field trips, excursions, and expert lectures, all in order to complement and expand our Biology-related knowledge about certain topics. BIUS is also a publisher behind In Vivo Magazine, for which I served as editor-in-chief and I am now an adviser.

Initially, I planned to write this post as soon as I came back, back in May, but I felt rather overwhelmed by everything in my life, especially health wise. I decided to postpone all of my posts, both on this blog and social media, because I just didn’t have enough energy to dedicate myself to creating content in a way I thought I should.

If you read my previous posts about Žumberak, you already know that, despite wanting to spend my life working in a lab, I also like to explore nature. During the last field trip, I was part of the Crustacean group, and this year, I was part of a Butterfly group, although I don’t know that much about either of these topics. However, one of my main reasons to go to excursions is to learn and experience new things, connect with other people, and make great memories. And I must say, I had wonderful four days. I would also like to thank to two other members of our group, Filip and Ivan, for selflessly sharing their knowledge with me and having patience to answer all my questions!

Frist photo: Asplenium scolopendrium (hart’s-tongue fern) sprouts. Forests were full of these and, honestly, I was feeling like I was a character in a fantasy novel, surrounded by magical plants.
Second photo: A bee and a wild orchid. I must admit that I'm very proud of this photo 🙂
Third photo: Caddisflies! Every stream was full of the caddisfly larvae; you might think these are just some silly rocks, but those are actually insects of the order Trichoptera, who make these protective cases in their larval stage.

I arrived at Sunday, just a little bit before noon, and immediately joined my group; they were strolling down the road, mostly checking environment and inspecting passing butterflies. My main task was taking photos, especially if anyone caught a butterfly. The Butterfly group itself was only recently revived, after Filip showed amazing initiative and interest in butterflies, so we were all actually new to the group, trying our best to wave our little nets. Our main tasks were:

  • confirm the already recorded species of day butterflies
  • investigate and record species of night butterflies, which are not very well known in this area

I should immediately note that, despite being successful at both tasks, we noticed an alarmingly small number of butterflies and insects in general, especially for that time of the year. I am honestly not sure what is to blame; we had a weird winter that jumped right into high summer temperatures and our country is, sadly, generally not very preoccupied with the protection of nature, species, and habitats.
There were also fun moments, with Ivan very decidedly running after every butterfly in sight. Also, the Botany group brought us a little caterpillar for determination, which Filip then successfully nurtured to the butterfly stage, in order to determine the species.

Zoom in photo of FIlip's hand expertly holding a butterfly (scarce swallowtail).
Iphiclides podalirius (scarce swallowtail)

A bug (Meloe sp) is seen in the middle of a picture, standing on a fallen leaf, surrounded by green grass and sprouts.

After returning to the camp that same day, I investigated an area around it, with my friend Paula, who used to be a leader of a Beetles group (and is now leading Marine Biology). She was, naturally, much better than me in spotting hidden insects and even caught some water newts after we stumbled upon a puddle. It was such a fun and interesting day, and my only regret was forgetting my straw-hat at home, because the sun was really too strong for my taste.

(Photo: Meloe sp, probably violaceus)


My next day was, however, my favourite experience of the whole trip, because I joined the Biospeleology group and went caving! The last time I visited a cave before this was in 2019, and I must admit, I missed it so much; that specific smell of the cave air, wearing three layers of clothes, fixing my helmet all the time, and walking through impassable terrain. Wait, scratch that last one, I never miss walking on the extremely narrow mud path through the forest, holding onto branches we are passing on the way, barely catching my breath, trying to finally reach the cave entrance. Luckily, everyone in the group was completely understanding and wasn’t imposing any type of time restrictions. Three of us were students, but we also had an expert mentor, who was so kind, patiently answering our questions.

First photo: Mia & Martina looking for spiders
Second photo: Grasshopper sp.
Third photo: A flying insect, perhaps a mosquito, starting to get... Calcified? Mineralized? I'm honestly not sure what is the right word to use here.

The cave in question is called Zidane pećine (roughly translated as Masonry caves), and it’s a cave you can access without the ropes (helmets and speleo overalls are a must). The main task of the group was to collect various insects and bugs that might live in the cave, mainly spiders. Now, the focus was on the creatures that might permanently live in the cave, and not on the ones that only sometimes enter the cave in search for a hiding place. I was, unsurprisingly, mostly taking photos: of my colleagues, cave walls, and various animals inside, which include creepy grasshoppers (not their scientific name) and bats. The cave is also apparently an archaeological site, although I can’t find any verifiable information about that, apart from one mention in a blog post which states that archaeological find dates back to the 16th century and Ottoman attacks. What locals did tell us it that the cave used to be a hiding place during the wars.

Dimly lit photo of a part of the cave wall, it's partially hollowed out by the long-term effects of the dripping water.
A part of the wall inside the cave

Tuesday was a bit more challenging for me; our lovely group leader Filip decided we should check out a big meadow at a higher elevation, which doesn’t sound too bad, except the sun was plaguing me badly. However, we were hopeful we might find an interesting butterfly, but barely found any butterflies at all. As it turns out, it was simply too cold for them at that particular place. We spent the rest of the day mostly hanging around the camp, until evening, when it was time for the night hunt. And yes, it was as cool as it sounds. Around 10pm, a huge group of us gathered a bit further from the camp, in order to observe, and in some instances catch, bugs that are active during the night. To accomplish this, Mladen, mentor of the Beetles group, put up two pyramids, which are made of a metal construction with a simple fabric thrown over it, and a UV light in the middle of it. (Mladen also politely measured a safe distances for me, in order not to be harmed by the UV light, although I have to admit, I purposely got quite close couple of times, in order to take pictures). One of the pyramids was erected next to the road, and another couple of hundreds meters away, near the bank of a stream. It was really fun going back and forth, and taking pictures of all the insects and spiders we found on the road. This experience was also very educational for me, not only because this was my first night hunt, but also because I was surrounded by experts who gladly shared their vast knowledge about beetles, spiders, moths, caddisflies, and mosquitoes.

A night butterfly (moth) on a fabric of the pyramid; the front side is seen, showing moth's head, antennas, front legs, and a part of the body.
A beautiful night butterfly

My last day was Wednesday, and as a group, we honestly didn’t have much to do, due to changeable weather and very strong winds. We visited a bio-park nearby, where we saw llamas and walked next to donkeys and donkey-hybrids. It was overall a fun ordeal and we didn’t understand why are we the only visitors there. After a quick search on our phones, we realized that the park was a part of a small ecological scandal last year, so we left. The second part of the day was spent with the Crustacean group; together, we visited a beautiful creek, which was much bigger than I expected. Members of the Crustacean group were setting up traps, similar to the ones I was writing about last year, while the rest of us just walked around, amazed by the nature around us.

This is me (wearing an army jacket) kneeling, almost sitting on the riverbank and taking photos of newts and tadpoles in a muddy stream.
Here, I was trying to take photos of newts and tadpoles

As I was driving home that evening, I couldn’t help but smile reminiscing about the packed experience I just had, which included not only visits to the breathtaking places, but also learning more about the tiny world around me, taking numerous photos and videos, and meeting new people.


Here you can find social media of some of the members of the Butterfly group, as well as the link to official Instagram profile of the group. I am also sharing a social media link to Paula’s Instagram, who already shared impressive photos and videos on her profile.


Three people in embrace (two men, one woman) posing, on the road in front of the trees and thicket.
The Butterfly group

Field | Žumberak Mountains 2020

In a previous post about my time at the Žumberak Mountains I mainly focused on my time with the Crustacean group, but today I’d like to write a bit more about my general experience out there in the field. As I already mentioned, I was unable to attend for the whole week, and instead opted for four days only, but all of those four days were completely filled with exploring and socializing (which was, at the time, allowed in our country and county).

Žumberak Mountains, and its Nature Park, is only one hour drive away from Zagreb, however, due to the proximity to the Slovenian border, GPS can steer you in couple of wrong directions, so after collecting some extra things for the campsite, I called Petra, one of the camp leaders, to give me right directions. Everything went rather smoothly, until I almost hit a llama that was chilling in the middle of the road, just behind a steep curve. After my initial confusion cleared up, and the llama left the road, I cautiously continued to drive, wondering what all these llamas were doing in the middle of Europe anyway. As it turns out, there is a bio-park in close proximity, and I guess they escaped their enclosure.
Couple of kilometres down, the road suddenly turned into a macadam, as I basically entered the woods, followed by the sound of a strong stream that was following the road. Well, the road followed the stream, more or less. That evening wasn’t very eventful – I was mostly talking to colleagues and taking pictures; it was rather cold, so we lit up a big fire in the pit, the only one I experienced during my time in the camp.

As for sleeping arrangements, we had a huge meadow where most of tents were already erected. However, despite bringing my own tent with me (and later borrowing it to my friend Iva), I actually decided to sleep in the car. For one, I was already too tired, and it was way too dark for me to set it up, and I also hypothesized that, since everyone was in a very good mood, people could be loud at night, returning to their sleeping places. Since my strict medication schedule requires interrupted sleep, I rolled down my passenger seat, changed into warmer clothes, and slipped into my sleeping bag. I remember falling asleep slowly, feeling as if I was in a horror movie, as branches were slowly snapping and the big drops of rain were hitting the car.

My next day was a big crayfish adventure, as was the day after it. Honestly, remembering it after all this time, both days somehow melted into one big experience of driving around, asking for directions, walking too much for my taste, and laughing in the car, courtesy of the Crustacean group, who are ones of the funniest people I’ve met.
What I would like to write in a greater detail than I did in my previous post, is the “night-hunt”, or night-time crayfish catching & release session. We started the walk when there was still light out, but it got dark even before we reached the stream; during this year, due to heavy COVID-19 restrictions I couldn’t go anywhere, and it seems that I also forgot how dark it can actually get in the woods. Literal pitch black.
That, however, didn’t stop the group from catching crayfish (they also visually inspected them for the signs of the crayfish plague). We all had lamps, of course, but like I already pointed out, crayfish are surprisingly fast – catching them with your bare hands definitely requires skill!

My last day at Žumberak was magical as well. It was actually a day off, so most of groups decided to just go see-sighting, including the Crustacean group. We drove for an hour or maybe an hour and a half to reach a road with many stunning waterfalls. We set our own pace, and set to investigate and take as many pictures as possible. I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I wanted because I had a really persistent abdominal pain (at one point, I couldn’t even walk properly anymore, and had to wait in the car), but despite that, I still managed to take some photos and videos. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did!

With the year we have, with pandemic still raging, this expedition is the only one I was able to be a part of, but I surely hope 2021 will bring new expeditions, new adventures, and new opportunities 🙂

Asplenium scolopendrium – hart’s-tongue fern


Field | Crayfish alert at Žumberak Mountains

Hi everyone, and welcome back to my blog. I took a month+ long break, during which I focused on my health and final exams at my University. At the same time, BIUS – Biology Students Association was preparing for their annual field trip, that I really wanted to be a part of!
BIUS is an association that gathers many Biology students from our department and focuses mainly on field trips, excursions, and expert lectures, all in order to complement and expand our Biology-related knowledge about certain topics. BIUS is also a publisher behind In Vivo Magazine, for which I serve as editor-in-chief.


Firstly, however, I would like to write a bit about my love for scientific (and a little less scientific) field trips. My primary love is the lab, after all. However, I grew up in a tiny village, surrounded by a living world – woods, animals, endless fields of tall grass… I actually started to think about studying something science based, perhaps Biology even, way back in the primary school, after wanting to identify all the bugs and spiders I would find in my front yard.
During my first two years of Bachelor’s degree, the thought of going out to the field didn’t really cross my mind, but it all changed in the middle of my third year, when I realized that something was lacking in my life, and that something turned out to be raw nature.

Photo by Đina Nola

This year’s big field excursion lasted for eight days, but I was only able to attend for the last four. Usually, BIUS organizes this kind of excursions twice a year, in May and September, but due to the pandemic, it was completely moved to the end of September, when situation in Croatia improved. Every year, a new terrain is explored, usually switching between continental and marine area. For this year, the leadership chose the Žumberak Mountains which are located on a border with Slovenia, and are approximately one hour drive from Zagreb. Žumberak is a mountain range divided into two parts, the Samobor Hills and the Žumberak Hills, both comprising the protected nature park Žumberak – Samobor Hills. It is home to many plant, fungal, and animal species, some of which are endangered or sensitive.


At first, shortly after arriving I was planning to spend every day with a different group, but in the end, I spent all the days driving around with the Crustacean group. I wasn’t sure how much fun is that going to be, since I knew very little about freshwater crayfish, apart from researching crayfish plague for a little while as an undergrad during an elective lab course.
I was already familiar with two members, Lena and Ljudevit Luka, since we are the same generation and took multiple classes together, and I also knew Anita and Karla a little bit; the whole group was very determined to carry out their research but with the sprinkle of carefreeness. I didn’t feel excluded for one bit and they were extremely patient with me taking photographs and filming videos.

So, what did Crustacean group actually do? Anita kindly explained their goals:

  • monitoring of the species Austropotamobius torrentium, also known as stone crayfish (how many specimens, in which streams are they located, what gender…)
  • taking swabs of crayfish cuticles in order to check for crayfish plague pathogen; this is later investigated by using the PCR method
  • taking water samples using special filters in order to check for crayfish presence; this is later investigated by analyzing the eDNA (environmental DNA)

How does that actually look like out in the field?
The first thing we did every morning, was to check the map and the roads; sometimes, we drove for more than one hour to reach a destination. Then we walked up to a stream, which sometimes proved to be rather tricky, since some seemed to dry up overnight. The most important thing we did before and after walking in every stream, creek or puddle was to disinfect our rubber boots, in order not to accidentally transfer pathogens to different habitats.

The group was very active even before my arrival, so we checked some permanent streams where they already set up special crayfish traps, that were actually made of old plastic bottles, with some tasty hot dog sausages in them. (Don’t worry, those traps are reusable! They just have to be washed thoroughly.) After taking out crayfish, one by one, they are measured and gently rubbed with a toothbrush, in a special buffer, to collect possible crayfish plague pathogen. Every tube containing that buffer is then labeled and safely stored. Crayfish are carefully released back into the stream, at the same place where they were found.

However, sometimes we went to streams for the first time, which meant no traps. So how do you catch a crayfish then? With hands. Usually they were hiding under rocks, but what most people probably wouldn’t expect, is that they are freakishly fast. Still, even during night-time catching & release, every member of the group was highly skilled in catching them. They could also easily discern female from male specimens, and Ljudevit Luka readily explained how, and also sent additional images (the ones below). In short, the main difference is that male crayfish have gonopods, while females don’t. (Gonopods are modified legs that are substantial during mating.)

A female stone crayfish

In four days that I spent with this wonderful group, I learned a lot and had a really amazing time. I wanted this post to focus mostly on crayfish, but I’m planning to post another one, where I will write a little bit more about travelling, our camping site, and wonderful nature I was able to document. I also took many videos, which I’m currently editing in one coherent, presentable, work, which I initially planned to release at the same time as this article, but life got a little bit in the way.
I sincerely hope you liked this write-up, and will read my next one as well!


Here you can find social media of some of the members of the Crustacean group, as well as the KarioAstacidae website, a student project led by Ljudevit Luka and Lena, which focuses on Astacidae populations in Zagreb.

RTŠB 2019 – biospeleology field trip – PART 2

I hope you liked part 1 of my biospeleology field trip in Slovenia, because here is part 2! Here I write about other days & share the rest of my experiences.

Day 5

The day started with making some spreadsheets and entering coordinates for various water springs. After that, we visited the Rivčja jama again, but unfortunately we found no Proteus (or anything else for that matter) in our traps. However, we found a very narrow entrance to the other part of the cave, aaaaand I got stuck. Like properly can’t-move-in-any-direction stuck. Most of you who never visited a cave probably wonder what kind of feeling that was. I don’t have a straight answer for that, since it’s more a range of emotions being experienced all at once; I wouldn’t describe it neither as panic nor fear, although parts of that were present. It was more a desperation that I’m not strong enough to wiggle out, mixed with frustration and adrenaline rush. I didn’t feel claustrophobia, but that feeling might sometimes be present as well. In the end, I managed to drag myself up that hole, and enter another part of the cave. Tjaša went even further, to my amazement, but I stayed back with Ester & Eva and collected as many pieces of another fox skeleton I could. This was was almost hole, but I only took few limb bones, skull, jaw bones, and vertebrate. *expect a video about it soon
After this ordeal, we went back to swimming in beautiful Krka and went back to school for quasi picnic (a barbecue on the school meadow).

cave
Inside of the cave


Day 6

Day six was day off; Bruno, Paula, and me went to Ljubljana and visited huge mall complex. Why? Because they have Whoop!, a trampoline park. In our defense, we were not the only adults there. After an hour, we went on our merry way to Burger King, and then a bit of shopping around. The most important thing I bought were hiking shoes. Paula helped me choose a pair (she specializes in orientation running, so knows a great deal about it), and they are pretty neat. But why Emina, why didn’t you already have ones? Well… That’s a long story, but I never had to walk this much before, and didn’t have to constantly change from my boots to rubber ones. So yes, before buying this pair, made for walking around in the forest, I wore my black combat shoes, with metal caps. One boot weighs almost 1 kg, so you can imagine how easy I suddenly walked everywhere. Just a note, specialized shoes exist for a reason.

wasp-spider
Wasp spider, Argiope bruennichi, in the grass


Day 7

On this particular day, I was on duty. I already wrote what that means, and it was exactly like that – preparing breakfast and making lunch&dinner. Nothing interesting happened, after my group returned we talked a little bit where they went, some determination of specimens happened, and we also had another lecture, about climate strike.


Day 8

This day was special because we were joined by Teo. I think he was Ester’s mentor for her Master’s thesis, but I’m not sure. In any case, Teo is an achieved biospeleologist and obviously knows a lot. First cave we visited, Jama pod Gradom, was nice, but I honestly don’t remember much, apart from the fact that we were walking around for kilometer or two, before realizing we parked in front of it. The second one, Blatna jama v Šici, was, to me, quite a difficult one. We spent more than 2 hours inside, climbed up, and down, and up and down, we crawled, and had to use the before-installed rope in order to pass some sections (not with equipment, just good old hold-the-rope and walk really closely to the rock). Well, the fact these were old lead to the unfortunate fact that Bruno fell in the water, after part of the rope tore. I wish I caught it on the video, but, by then, my camera was already completely out. We did caught quite a lot of Proteus, and I honestly didn’t realize how big they can sometimes be. *I have to check, but if the footage is salvageable, you can expect some kind of video
In the evening, I did some more determination with Anja & Tjaša.

spuder
Did you know spiders can also live in the caves?


Day 9

First cave (Vodna jama pod Zijalom) was flooded, so we were hanging out in the front, trying to catch some more Niphargus (them) or taking videos (me). Then, we went back to Velika jama pod Trebnjem, the first one we visited and where we laid traps for infamous Leptodirus. Unfortunately, we found nothing, every trap was empty. Of course, we went back, and then some of us went looking for bats with bat group. This catch-mark-release activity has taken place a bit further from the school, near the small pond. The pond which also connected to a cave system, but had no entrance big enough for us to go in. So, two wild-life cameras were put up, as the word from the village was that at night, Proteus came out to play, um feed? Swim? Enjoy the moonlight? I’m still not sure, but next day I was told that they were captured on video. All-together, 23 bats were caught, with 10 different species being noted, which is a lot. Like huge, because when we first started, the bat group was optimistic with the estimate of “maybe 10 bats, and maybe 3 species”. I didn’t handle any bat, because 1. I don’t know how and 2. I have a perfectly rational fear of rabies.

 


Day 10

No caves today! I switched, and spent the day with amphibian group. And since it was the last day, we mostly chilled. We did try to visit one pond, but it turned out it doesn’t exist. The second one was actually really close to the cave I visited previously (Pekel pri Kopanju), and there we found quite a lot of frogs (all stages) and salamanders. Honestly, they looked really cute too! Afterwards, we went to Krka for quite a long time (*and quite a nice footage!). For dinner we actually had a whole dinner&party, but I had to miss that one due to migraine.


Last day was un-adventurous, we packed, ate a lot at McDonalds, and finally arrived home. And I’m looking forward to going again.
I would like to say a big thank you to Ester, Tjaša, Anja, Eva, Teo, and Živa, as well as our organizers.

RTŠB 2019 – biospeleology field trip – PART 1

Finally, I write about this astonishing field trip which has taken part from 17th to 27th July this year in Ivančna Gorica, a small town south of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Me and Bruno were part of biospeleology group, and my friend Paula, who was the only other participant from Croatia, was a part of reptile group. Paula has a nice Instagram page about biology as well.
This camp, organized by student’s biology group from Ljubljana is very popular with students from the ex-YU countries, and this year there were also colleagues from France. Also, being a biology student is not a must, we had humanities student as well.

cave
A detail from one of the caves

How does the camp work?

First, you have to apply; you can choose between three groups (my choices: biospeleology, reptiles, botany) and with the application you pay the 93€ fee that includes breakfast and dinner every day and driving around during the camp. When there, we sleep in our sleeping bag in the gym of the nearby school. Breakfast is every day 7-8.30am, and dinner was usually 4pm+. There was also one rest day (during which us three went to Ljubljana) and one day when couple of us were on duty – we were cleaning and cooking for that day.
One group usually consisted of 5 members, and every day we went out to field, trying to find caves or catch some cave dwelling insect.

gym
Our place in the school gym

We travelled, you guessed it, by train. I have already mentioned 9€ one-way-ticket from Zagreb to Ljubljana, and then we went to Ivančna Gorica, that ticket was around 3€. The way back was almost the same, with the difference we went by bus to Ljubljana, since there were no trains at that part of the day.

How was my experience?

Honestly, I would really like to go again next year, but honestly I don’t know how I made it. I was not in a shape I should have been, I had migraines, I got stuck, I had very suspicious bruises and I strongly disliked walking around under sun.

How many caves I visited?

Number of caves: 9
Total number of cave visits: 11
Number of water springs visited: 4
I also spent one evening with bat group & one day with amphibians group.

ich
Me, before first cave visit, unaware what was waiting for me

A short summary of my days in Slovenia

Day 1

We  met other members of the group: Ester, group leader, Tjaša and Eva. Anja was also part of our group, but she joined us couple of days later. Apart from going to the field, every evening we were supposed to try and determine our specimens we collected in caves, label them, and fill out special documents about our visit (who, when, why, where, what was collected and how).
We also prepared live traps for small insects. The traps we made consisted of putting tuna fish with gorgonzola in small tubes and closing them off with cotton pads.  The insect we were trying to catch was Leptodirus hochenwartii, member of Coleoptera, the only beetle that lives in the caves. This species is endemic to Slovenian, Croatian, and Italian caves. For other creatures we had prepared small tubes filled with 70% ethanol which we held in the pockets of our overalls, together with pincers.

live-trap
One live trap, buried in the ground – it also needs to be covered with a big rock.

Day 2

Frist cave we visited was Velka jama nad Trebnjem. The way up to the cave was steep and exhausting; it was very hot & moist in the forest. However, I took my camera with me, and took many pictures. I was surprised how many invertebrates live there, since Croatian caves I visited were almost completely empty. However, these animals are not usually found in the caves, here they are living kind of opportunistically, since the cave was also filled with garbage. We set up the traps for Leptodirus, and went back. We had a small lunch next to our car, and then went to the cave number two, called Rojska jama 2. We had GPS coordinates, but Ester was sure they are wrong (they were), so we asked a local villager for help. He kindly led us to the cave entrance, where we suited up, and in we went. The cave was quite interesting, we spent an hour or so inside. After we returned, mr. villager welcomed us back with home-baked strudels and soda. It was honestly, very nice. We also visited two water springs, and went back to the school. After dinner, Ester taught us how to fill out the papers I mentioned, and we tried to the best of our ability, determine all the specimens. The most important we had to discern were small freshwater crabs called Niphargus and Gammarus. The main difference is that Gammarus have eyes, and we really wanted to collect the other one.

skakavac
Caves were usually full of these grasshoppers, and they were scary huge!

Day 3

During day three, we visited one cave, Pekel pri Kopanju. We did find some cool animals, like Colembolas, but our trip was short, since main channel was full of tree branches and garbage. We tried visited the cave number two, but soon realized that we would need a 40m rope to climb down, so we gave up on that. We also visited two water springs, and headed back earlier, since one of the mentors had a lecture about global warming. After that, back to determination. We found some Niphargus (yay!), Gammarus (fine), and rat-tailed maggots. What are those, you wonder? Those are the larvae of certain species of hoverflies. What are hoverflies, you wonder? Those are flies that pretend to be wasps.

fly
The great pretender

Day 4

This day was tough for me, we walked 5-6km on the trails and through the woods, but we also visited three caves! First two (Dolnja vodena jama & Antokov skedenj) were close one to another and extremely spacious inside. I roamed around with my action cam (results were so-so, not enough light) and Bruno and me found a bunch of Niphargus in one puddle. I also saw some fox bones, and Ester was kind enough to fetch them for me! The third cave (Rivčja jama) was the one we visited three times all together and was really interesting. The walk towards it is around 1km on the forest trail, next to beautiful river Krka. The entrance to the cave is enormous – I would use the phrase “you need to be blind not to see it”, but that’s incorrect – even from the trail you can feel temperature drop and the specific smell of cave air.And this cave had bats. Bunch of bats (Myotis myotis), and they were loud, much louder than people would expect. We climbed up, on mountains of their poop, in order to take pictures, and the temperature soared at least 10 degrees there. Afterwards, we went through a narrow passage (here I took neat footage) and tried to catch some Proteus anguinus, the olm (I wrote about them here!). These traps were different, since they live in the water. We also tried to lure them with pet cookies (can’t remember if it was cat or dog food, sorry!).
After all this, we went swimming in Krka, water was around 15 degrees, but it was so nice and relaxing. The river is truly beautiful, and I would like for everyone to experience this kind of nature at least once in their life.

ich
The only not-blurry photo of me in the cave

End of part 1

I hope you liked this not-so-short overview of my time in this summer camp, part two will be up soon. Please tell me what you liked the most and about what would you like me to write more! I would like to thank all of you who read this, thank you for time and attention!

us
All of us; photo by Ester Premate

Another Vienna adventure!

Hi everyone, if you follow me on Twitter and/or Instagram, you have probably already seen my pictures from Vienna this last weekend. However, I would like to share a bit more, and write about it too!

At Saturday at 3.30 in the morning, my sister & me boarded the bus in Varaždin, and started our one-day adventure. Our destination? Vienna, capital of Austria! With the trip we booked through Galileo Travel came scenic sightseeing of the city, and a visit to Schönnbrun castle, but we skipped that and with U4 headed directly to city centre, Schwedenplatz more correctly. After short breakfast in McDonald’s (I know, I know), we headed to Natural History Museum. On the way there, we took some typical tourist pictures, in front of Stephan’s Cathedral, at Hofburg… And then we finally reached NHM.


I’ve visited the museum two times before, but my enthusiasm was still through the roof. Firstly, the museum is huge. Permanent exhibition spans two floors and numerous specimens. Roughly divided, first floor is mineralogy and second floor is dedicated to zoology. I took some pictures, which I will share with you, but I didn’t take my camera; everything is taken with my Huawei mobile phone.

Student’s entrance fee is only 7€ (~8$), and taking photographs is allowed. The whole museum is, honestly, overwhelming. I have never before seen so many specimens at once place. My sister, who visited it for the first time, often commented that a building itself could be a museum, due to it’s rich, ornate walls. First floor is, like I already mentioned, full of minerals. I don’t have much interest for them, but I made me think about how old our planet is, and what makes it. Also, one of the rooms is completely dedicated to jewellery, both modern and historic.

The floor dedicated to zoology was full of models and real specimens of animals around us, as well as evolutionary artifacts. As is common, first rooms were dedicated to invertebrates, building it’s way up to vertebrate groups. I was particulary amazed by the size of dinosaur bones – no matter how many times I see it on the TV, or visit this museum, I stand in awe in front of them.


Unfortunately, due to morning sun, I wasn’t able to capture nice photographs of invertebrate collections, but trust me when I say those are so beautiful. Everything is o neat and organized that, since then, I’ve been toying with idea of collecting my own specimens. There are also rooms dedicated to fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds… Those are usually held in special containers or stuffed. There are also many skeletons on display on the walls. With dinosaurs, there were also animatronic models, which both excited and frightened children in the museum.

Latimeria
Latimeria chalumnae, a living fossil!


There is also a separate room dedicated to evolution of human. I already posted that interesting picture where an app transformed me into an early human, but in this part of the museum, you can see many different skulls belonging to Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo habilis… I consider this part of the exhibition very important, especially in today’s time, when so much misinformation is present on the Internet.
Another important historic specimen is Venus of Willendorf figurine, which is dated to 30 000 years BC.

Venus
Venus of Willendorf

 

What would you like to see, if you could go to Natural History Museum in Vienna? Would you like me to write about something in more details?
Please let me know in the comments 🙂

Biology & informatics &… olms?

Last Friday (8th of November) I was fortunate enough to hold a workshop (with Bruno) called “Little workshop of Bioinformatics” – the title is a bit wild, but we purposefully chose an “exotic” name in order to arouse curiosity.
This workshop, held in House of Velebit in Krasno, is actually a continuation of a two workshops we already held (one in a City Museum Samobor and another one at my old primary school) and which we designed to introduce school children of all ages to primary concepts of molecular biology & genetics. Of course, kids in 7th and 8th grade were already familiar with it.

We first designed the workshops, with the help of our mentor Dalibor Paar, associate professor at Department of Physics, Faculty of Science, and were nominated for Rector’s Awards in 2019.

Where is the informatics part, you ask? In the using of micro:bits, cute and small mini computers that are easily programmable in Python or JavaScript (we chose Python). Bruno wrote a very elegant code and I designed the rest of the workshop: ciphers to de-code, phenotypes, core of the workshop… In terms of design, my BFF Ivana generously lend her drawing skills and we were all set.

fbt


How the workshop works?
First, I introduce students to basic concepts of the molecular biology: what is DNA, what is a protein, and that DNA codes for proteins. This part, depending on the ages (and attention) of children can last up to 15 minutes, then the fun begins. Every kid gets a cipher, which consists of four or five lines, each of those consists of nine differently coloured arrows that can point in one of four directions: up, down, left or right. micro:bits have motion sensors that pick up in which directions they are pointed and display one of the four letters: A, C, T or G. We also coded for a second program, in which kids enter those letters (DNA bases) and they show three letters that represent a very short amino-acid sequence (in this example, a protein). When they are finished with this part, we give them another paper, where they are supposed to find what is encoded by their protein (blue or green eyes, blonde or red hair…).
For the workshop in Krasno, we switched things up a bit, and our “proteins” encoded for different characteristics of two different olm subspecies: a pink one and a black one.
This might seem a bit complicated in theory, but in practice, children picked up everything really fast 🙂

Olms & micro:bits!
Olms & micro:bits!


So, how many of you have heard of olms, or proteus? And how many of you knew there is a black subspecies? 🙂
Olms (Proteus anguinus) are amphibians (like frogs), they are completely aquatic and live in dinaric caves. Noted sightings include Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. They have elongated bodies, external branchiae, and no eyes. The black subspecies (Proteus anguinus parkelj) is, well, black, and has eyes. The other notable difference is that pink olm lives in colder waters (up to 11° C). Another interesting fact is its name in Croatian: “čovječja ribica”, which roughly translates to “human fish”.

I think the name is appropriate, and you?

Neuro & speleo

As promised (to my two and a half readers and myself), I’m diligently writing another post, and this one combines my two greatest scientific loves – neuroscience and biospeleology!

Last weekend, I attended two very important conferences – 3rd Rijeka forum on neurodgenerative diseases – diagnosis and treatment in early stage of disease and 2nd Dinaric symposium on subterreanean Biology. There was one day overlap between the two, so I chose to spend my Friday in Rijeka, but more about that later on. Since this trip included a lot of walking and transport, for the simplicity I packed only the bare necessities, which included only one pair of booties (this comes in play later on).

The topic of neurodegenerative diseases is something I would really like to do all my future research in, and it’s also a subject of my master thesis (precisely, neurofibrillary tangles in rat brains). Also, there was no attending fee, which is pretty much amazing for the students. We (Bruno and me) arrived in Rijeka (from Zagreb) very early in the Thursday morning by bus and set to find the University campus where forum was taking place. This wasn’t my first time in Rijeka, so we didn’t have any problems with finding the venue. The forum consisted of plenary lectures held by renowned professors from all over the Europe (Sweden, Italy, Slovenia, England) and Croatia of course, and it was roughly divided into two parts, basic neuroscience and clinical research. As a biologist, I didn’t pay too much attention to clinical part, and instead was dutifully solving my programming homework. However, it was amazing to be there for both days, and just listening what was new in the world of neurodegenerative diseases. I didn’t find courage to ask questions (during the Q&A time, or even after), but I hope that one day I will. We didn’t “touristly” roam around Rijeka, but we stayed overnight in the most gorgeous apartment in the centre, I was seriously impressed!

On Friday, after lecture, I stayed in the venue for a little while (internet access!) and then we went to the train station. I love travelling by trains, and I try to do it as much as possible. Luckily, this train to Ljubljana (yes, Slovenia again!) also went through our next stop, Postojna. If that name rings a bell, that’s surely because of the Postojna Cave, one of the most famous caves open to tourists in the area. It is also special because there are many blind cave salamanders, which are part of the vivarium as well. Our plan was to visit this cave at Sunday, while Saturday was reserved for the Dinaric symposium. The symposium was held in Karst museum in Slovenia, and we caught the last plenary session and some posters. There was a short break (we went to the town centre to stock-pile some food) and then, the excursion!

Blonde haired woman sitting in a train (with a green background and glass reflection on the right).
It’s just me in a Croatian railroads train.


We were driven by car by our hosts, Teo and Ester (who we met during this summer – I will write about that in the next post!) to Rakov Škocjan. I would like to use this opportunity to say that Slovenia is really beautiful, full of intact nature and small roads. In Rakov Škocjan, we set for a quite a long walk to visit two natural bridges and caves near them. I had my shiny new camera with them, so I was taking as much photos and videos as possible, and honestly, I also used this as an excuse to stay behind, because I had a hard time keeping up with the rest of the group (I’m chronically out of shape). The trails itself is beautiful, a part of it also goes near the river Rak. Soon we came to the first natural bridge, which is completely made of stone. The only thing human hand built were protective barriers, so people don’t fall down. The story behind both bridges is that they used to be huge caves, but they collapsed, leaving only the bridges. Parts of the caves still remain, so most of the group went down to enjoy the cave and river that goes through it. I stayed behind, because I assumed it would take me too long to climb down and back up, and I didn’t want to hold back the whole group.

A stone natural bridge, infused with forest; green and grey colours are dominant.
Little Natural Bridge of Rakov Škocjan


After the first bridge, we went back to the meeting point, which was the hotel where we had lunch. Next, the second bridge, which is 5-minute-long car ride away, and about 20 minutes by foot from there. Usually, the passage under this large natural bridge is almost completely under water, but we were lucky, as it was completely dry. We carefully walked in the river canyon, up the entrance of the second cave. Since Bruno and I didn’t bring any headlamps, one of the organizers kindly borrowed us spare helmets with the lamp on. Which lamp, you may ask? Scurion, the best of the best! I was so excited to wear it that I made Bruno take countless pictures of me!


Then, we naturally went to explore the cave, which wasn’t as dry as the canyon. Sometimes, it was really hard to see how deep the water level is, and that’s how I ended up with a very wet right foot. Like, full on water in my boot, because the water level was just a bit too high then I anticipated. This didn’t stop me to try out my camera, and I was very satisfied with the photos, since they are a big step forward from the ones I took this summer (again, this will my next post!). The light from the Scurion was on occasion so strong, that some of the photos look almost burned, I couldn’t believe it.

speleo
Biospeleologists in a cave


Some folks went through the whole cave, but I wanted to go back the same way, to take more pictures of the bridge and cave entrance, since I didn’t have enough time to do it the first time we went through. Honestly, at moments, I felt like everything is a bit too fast, especially for someone who wanted to take a quick break and just enjoy the nature or take a few snaps for the photo album. The whole time however, I was thinking only how wet my sock is, and couldn’t wait to go back to our apartment and change. However, the group had other plans and first we went to the small café close to the big lake, which I honestly didn’t see. We did say to Teo that we would like to go back and would skip dinner (programming!), so he organized a transport back for us, which we were quite grateful for.


The next day, the big day! Postojna cave, or at least we thought so. After waking up, we realized we should walk two kilometers up to the cave, with both of our backpacks and I also had a bag full of photography equipment. There were some taxi companies, but no one answered, and we also didn’t have almost any cash, since I’m used to paying with a bank card. This was actually a problem in Postojna – apart from big chain stores, everything was to be paid in cash, and all ATM-s were located in the city centre. All of this, combined with our train schedule and my sill wet boot, contributed to us giving up on Postojna cave, and heading for a train station… Where we realized that the ticket office is closed, and we can’t pay with bank card in the train. So, Bruno quickly headed back to the centre, and came back with some pastries as well. Our way back went smoothly – first train to Ljubljana, trying out new burgers at McDonalds, and then train to Zagreb. During that time, we decided to come back to Postojna during the winter, and explore that cave, as well as going back to Rakov Škocjan on our own, setting our own pace and excursion plan. However, apart from finishing my homework assignment, the most important thing, excluding pretty photos, is the fact that I finally finished reading Dracula, the book I struggled with for almost two years, for the reasons I still don’t understand.

A view from inside to outside of the cave; framed arch with the blackness of the cave forming an outside frame, and sky and forest being the picture in the centre.
The cave near the Big Natural Bridge; a view from the inside.


 

A short adventure in Pula

Pula is a small town located in Istrian peninsula (Croatia), famous for it’s film festival, beautiful sea, and rich history. As such, it’s also a great choice for many symposiums, meetings, and congresses – I have visited it twice this year only!

My Pula adventure lasted for four days, during Croatian Neurological Academy, a medical congress dedicated to neurology (and neuroscience). The Academy was held in Histria hotel, on Verudela beach – this setting is wonderful, we were surrounded by sea for miles. Also, the food was superb; many choices for main dishes and desserts (sea food, vege options, pasta, various meats, pastries…).

Now, this blog is called Science Pit, because you know, science; however I also like to travel a lot, and I am a self-proclaimed history buff. So, this particular trip was a bit less neuroscience, and a bit more “look at that historic statue!” (Don’t worry, I went to a gorgeous science museum as well!)

When thinking about Pula, most of people immediately think about Pula Arena, an amphitheater distinct by being the only one that has all four towers still preserved. It was built between 27 BC and 68 AD. This was my first time visiting the Arena, and honestly, it’s impressive. Walking inside something so old, imagining what have taken place in this structure, which famous Romans were part of the fights… It’s a breath-taking experience, and words don’t do it justice.

Huge stone arches of Amphitheater in Pula; with sky seen through the arches.
Amphitheater in Pula; 2000 years old.


After Arena, I visited Temple of Augustus, a temple dedicated to Augustus (formerly known as gaiusu Octavius), first Roman emperor. The Temple has been standing in its place for 2000 years (give or take a few years). When you are in front of it,  the Temple seems as it was built couple of years, and not two millennia ago. The third historical landmark I saw was an arch – not Arch of the Sergii, but Porta Gemina (rough translation = Double door).


After all this, I headed back to the direction of the hotel, with a twist – Aquarium Pula is just 15 minutes by foot from my hotel. At first, I was a bit taken aback by the ticket price (student ticket is 90HRK =12€), but my mom encouraged me to go with her anyway. And honestly, it was worth it. I was a visitor once before, as a part of my obligatory Field Trip during my Bachelor’s. Surprisingly, I was as fascinated this time, as I was the first time – the abundance of sea life in Croatia is staggering, and it always reminds me how little we know about our oceans. The aquarium also has reptile and butterflies sections, but those include species not found in Croatia (such as caiman). I would absolutely recommend visiting, and take your time while you’re inside – photography is allowed!
This photo is just a small glimpse of photos and videos I’ve taken – they deserve their own post, or even a video. P. s. Of course I’ve found a cave!

 

 

A weekend in nature, with a sprinkle of cave!

Speleology adventure continues, if just for a little bit! Last weekend in March, as a part of this year’s speleology school, I visited a cave in Tounj, that is actually part of a quarry. And yes, for all of you wondering, my curse did strike again, and I fell. Again. And I hurt myself. Again. I guess this is the time where I realize this is some kind of a message from the Universe?

I would like to specially thank to two amazing women in science, that are still attending university, but are amazing scientists already! They helped me with the determination of the wildlife photos I took – Iva studies Environmental Sciences, is an expert spider lover and extremely talented artist! Petra Vizec determined all the plant species; she studies Botany and can determine every plant in Croatia and surrounding area 😊


Anyway, in the Saturday morning, we started our excursion, from Zagreb to Tounj. The car ride lasted for around two hours, and after a communal breakfast, we put up the bivouac, for five people. During the school, tents are now allowed, as I already mentioned, so we are basically improvising one with two tarpaulins. The Saturday was really interesting for students, because they were learning the basics of using rope. It was interesting for me as well, because I decided to try out my phone lenses and shoot wildlife. Honestly, the results were better than expected! Many plants, many spiders, some insects, and even a lizard. I honestly wasn’t sure it was warm enough for reptiles, but even snakes have been spotted in the area. This part of the day is not really interesting to write about, so I will let the pictures do the talking 😊


During the evening, we lit a nice fire for dinner, and socialized a bit, and then of course, went to sleep. I can say I had a really cozy night, since just before the excursion, I bought new sleeping bag (more about this in another post AND YouTube video!). In the Sunday morning, students had some additional lectures, and around noon we finally set for the Tounj quarry cave. Part of the cave is also underwater, and during this particular excursion, one of the speleo-divers from my association dived down and proved that two caves, Tounj and Tounjčica are in fact, connected. I have to admit I had quite a big problem with walking to the cave entrance – we went at the noon, with the Sun high up, and the light reflected so hard from the rocks around us, I could barely see. However, my attitude changed the moment I entered the cave. This one was just “walking”, without any ropes or anything similar. Of course, when I use verb walking, I don’t mean old fashioned walking on the streets – this involved a bit of light uphill climbing, crawling, wriggling… And a lot of strength and flexibility and rolling a bit in the mud. At least my new overalls proved quite water-resistant! Tounj cave is, at least to me, very similar to Veternica – if someone put me there in the middle of the night (or day, really), I wouldn’t be able to distinguish between two, just that Tounj seemed to be a tad more spacious, at least when compared to the part of Veternica I visited. We saw only one ne bat and a lot of stalactites – I even brought some that have broken off back with me. Almost end of the story, right? Doesn’t seem too impressive, not even with the anecdote of me somehow slipping and hitting my right arm so hard I stopped feeling my fingers for couple of minutes.


The thing is, to experience the cave, you should visit the cave. More experienced speleologists could probably describe the visit much better, but for me, entering the cave is something so profoundly special I lose all my words. All of a sudden, I enter a part of this world that always exist in total darkness, where moisture seems to mean almost the opposite thing, where water drops are as loud as my heart beats, and after I turn on my head-light, everything is in calming, monochrome beige colour. Everything stops, it’s just me and the cave, absorbing my surrounding and focusing intensely on walking forward, until I see the sunlight again.

Left picture: exhausted, after trying to actually catch some lizards
Right picture: exhausted, after spending half my day in the cave; also sunburned!


Would you like to know more about plant and animal species I found? If yes, please let me know in the comments!


DSC_1337
Pisaura sp; nursery web spider