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 | 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.

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!

 

 

NeuRi – Student Congress of Neuroscience

Hii everyone, and welcome back to my blog!

For this week’s post, I have decided to write about NeuRi – Student Congress of Neuroscience. I write about this particular meeting because I have been part of it since 2015. However, I believe any kind of involvement with this kind of events is extremely important to students, and I would like to encourage all my friends and colleagues who might read this piece to get involved!

NEURI-2019-67
Day 1 of NeuRi 2019 – many happy reunions; Petar&me, we presented together in 2017!


NeuRi is a congress aimed at students who have interest in neuroscience; neurobiology, neuropharmacology, molecular neuroscience, neurology, neurosurgery, neuroinformatics, psychiatry, neurolinguistics… For nine years, it has been held in Rijeka, a city in the middle of Kvarner. It also includes an excursion to island Rab and visit to Psychiatric Hospital Rab. At NeuRi, students have an opportunity to present their work, form new friendships, and participate in the biggest gathering of young neuroscientists in the region. The congress lasts for three days; it consists of plenary lectures and workshops held by professors in their respective fields (from neurology to psychiatry and neurobiology), and oral and poster presentations by students. Student presentations include scientific investigations, case reports, and reviews. And there is a lot of free food 😊
Organisation of such event starts one year before, with writing projects for grants, brainstorming, inviting plenary lecturers, and of course, registration for passive and active participation, which is my job. I personally process and answer to all registrations and organize them in special tables, which are later used for logistics and accreditations. This might not seem like a demanding work, but at times, there are more than 80 registered participants in one day, and I have to process all of them. Which, again, might not be so demanding, if people could remember to input their contact details correctly 😉

NEURI-2019-97
Day 2 of NeuRi 2019 – on a ferry to island Rab!


Apart from being part of Organising Committee, I was also an active presenter for the last four years, because I believe this is a unique opportunity to practice my presenting and gain input from my peers. First year, I submitted a review about different mechanisms of neurotoxins; in 2017, together with my colleague from Zagreb School of Medicine, we talked about levels of N-cadherin expression in human meningioma; last year I had a review presentation about possible role beta-Methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) plays in neurodegenerative diseases, and this year, I, together with my lab partner from Department of Biology, presented about various bioinformatics tools used to manipulate proteins in silico. As an example, we investigated tau, showed how to find the gene in NCBI database, how to choose the right protein file from Protein Data Base, and how to run that same file through multiple simulations. In the end we compared healthy tau protein with mutated version and also got the audience award for the best presentation!

NEURI-2019-213
Day 3 of NeuRi 2019 – we are presenting!


I’m interested about your experiences with student science manifestations? Do you like to go to a congress or a symposium? How did you prepare for your first active presentation? 😊 Let me know in the comments!

For more details, visit NeuRi official web-site

All photos by Helena Balaž

National Park – Plitvice Lakes

Since it is winter and exam season is closing in, I am not spending a lot of time in the lab (or anywhere interesting). Because of that, I wanted to write a short throwback post about last time I visited one Croatian National Park. Despite being a very small country, Croatia is rich in intact nature and preserved areas. The most famous of those areas are National Parks, and Croatia has eight! I also must mention, that in spite of popular belief, there are two areas more protected than National Parks – “strict reserves.”

The National Park I’ve paid a visit more than a year ago (November 2017) is called Plitvice Lakes, or simply Plitvice. The area is a National Park since 1949 and it’s Croatia’s biggest and oldest Park. It consists of 16 lakes that are connected by many waterfalls and cascades. The specificity of the Park is tufa – yes, I checked, that’s the word! 🙂 Tufa is a calcareous rock (meaning it is mostly made of calcium carbonate) and is porous. It is generated by precipitation of carbonate minerals out of water, and generally this type of rock is very sensitive to changes in pH. Why is it so special? Tufa forms barriers between the lakes! Those barriers are the reason why Plitvice are also part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.

dsc_0011_
Picture 1. A famous view on Plitvice Lakes

dsc_0040_Picture 2. Amazing waterfall in Plitvice

For the Chemistry lovers, here is a chemical formula of tufa formation:

Ca2+ +2HCO3 ↔CO2 + H2O + CaCO3

Apart from environmental factors, small organisms play very important role in the formation as well. There are bacteria, small multi-cellular organisms, blue-green algae (not algae at all) and diatoms (actual algae). Mosses are part of this ecosystem as well, together with many other smaller organisms, both animals and plants.

As I already mentioned, there are several factors important for the formation of tufa rocks, and pH of the water is the one you have probably heard about. The reason why is it almost exclusively mentioned is pollution that changes pH of the lakes. One of the main problems? Tourism. Yes, tourism. I won’t get in the detail about not-so-well-made sewer system in the whole area, but Plitvice are one of the most famous places in Croatia, and as such, receptible to huge numbers of visitors every summer. And sometimes, that people don’t follow basic rules of spending their time in nature, so a lot of littering and wild-life disturbance occurs. Don’t get me wrong, this National Park is open to the public and meant to be enjoyed, but sometimes it seems more emphasis is put on money, rather on educations. Because of that, I would sincerely like to ask all of you, to take care of our environment, especially when visiting a foreign country.

dsc_0068_Picture 3. Calm lake and some rocks. And trees.

dsc_0109_Picture 4.  View of a lake, before the boat drive

Anyway, back to my excursion! I was part of the group from my Department, as a part of the field trip for subject “National Parks.” It was a one-day trip, and we walked approximately 10 km around the lakes. The biggest lake is called Kozjak, and it is also a deepest lake. All lakes are beautiful blue-green colour and surrounded with walking paths and breath-taking views. The weather was a bit cold-ish, since it was November, but enough to walk around in a jacket and winter hat. And a camera of course! I tried to picture most of the nature and wildlife around me, but we didn’t see as much (again, because it was almost winter). However, Plitvice are rich in both flora and fauna – its symbol is a brown bear! Grey wolves and lynxes are also natural to the habitat, as well as many bird species – I’ve seen robins (Erithacus rubecula), some sparrows (Passer domesticus), and mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), but falcons (Falco peregrinus) and pygmy owls (Glaucidium passerinum) are regularly sighted. From other flying creatures, the Parks is full of butterflies (Phengaris alcon), bees (Apis mellifera), and similar (Calopteryx virgo), as well as bats (Barbastella barbastellus; there are also many caves in the Park!). There are many salamanders (Salamandra atra), otters (Lutra lutra; that I very sadly haven’t spotted), and fish. A lot of fish. I would also like to mention, that an endemic species was found in this area, in one of the caves – a small bug, Machaerites udrzali, which belongs in order Coleoptera. Forest(s) around the Lakes are full of common beech (Fagus sylvatica), but there are also firs (Abies alba), pines (Pinus sylvestris), and Ostryas. In fact, when it comes to flora, there are more than one thousand registered plant species, including dead-nettles and orchids. Mushrooms also have an important presence in Croatian forests, and Plitvice forest is famous for being a home to another rare species – saprophytic fungi Camarops tubulina.

dsc_0080_Picture 5. Mallards humbly asking for bread

So, what do you think? Did you know that this National Park is so full of life? Because I honestly didn’t, despite living in Croatia, well, my whole life. Of course, we were taught about some general facts during our schooling, but I was really surprised to learn how many different species live here.
Apart from such an important biological aspect, Plitvice Lakes are important in Croatian history as well, but I might talk about that next time!

Did you visit Plitvice, what were your experiences? How about some other Croatian National Park? Which one should I visit&write about next? 🙂

P.s. Yes, the header picture of my blog was also taken during this trip!