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In the Wild: Discover the wonders hidden within Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula
Photo courtesy of Brandon A. Güell

In the Wild: Discover the wonders hidden within Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula

Postdoctoral researcher Brandon A. Güell shares some of the stories behind his photos and how he uses photography in his research.

June 13, 2024 at 10:43am

Nature Photography Day is June 15. To celebrate, FIU News sat down with just a few of the Panthers who love wildlife so much that they're using photography to share the wonders of the natural world with everyone.

In this piece, we feature Postdoctoral Researcher Brandon A. Güell, whose photography sheds light into his research and provides a window for him to unravel and document discoveries about wildlife such as gliding treefrogs. Tune into FIU News this week to read the entire series, spotlighting various Panther photographers and the stories behind some of their favorite photos. Nature Photography Day is designated by the North American Nature Photography Association and is meant to promote an appreciation of nature photography and the role photography plays in helping people learn about wildlife. 

Can research be strengthened — or in some cases powered — by photography? For Brandon A. Güell, the answer is yes.

A postdoctoral researcher at the FIU Institute of Environment, Güell first began using photography as a tool to document his research. He used photography to study the behavioral and reproductive ecology of gliding treefrogs on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula.

Last year, one of his photos of the gliding treefrogs' massive mating events earned him the student award in the 2023 Caputring Ecology Photography Competition, run by the British Ecological Society. 

"The Osa Peninsula is really an amazing place," he says. "I worked at a pond in the middle of the jungle. What makes this frog really interesting is that they breed explosively, which means they come all at once in the thousands and lay eggs on these leaves over the pond. A lot of my photography has revolved around this massive breeding event. There’s just so much going on, even besides the frogs."

Güell explains that caiman regularly lurk the waters underneath the trees, waiting for frogs to fall from the leaves and land right into their mouths (Güell himself waded in those same waters to take photos, by the way). Cat-eyed snakes have learned to prey on gliding treefrog eggs. There's also the question of the embryo development itself — what happens when the Osa Peninsula experiences a dry spell? How does that affect the eggs? He has used photography to document, explore and learn more about all of these aspects. 

But he didn't stop with gliding treefrogs.

Güell is now a researcher-photographer who enjoys challenging himself to capture all kinds of wildlife moments, whether he's researching about them or not. 

"As a field biologist, my real passion is working with wildlife in wild places," he says. "I really just can’t get enough outside time. Photography is such a wonderful hobby, skill and tool that pushes me to get outside, challenges me to capture rare animal encounters and motivates me to explore that new remote site."

He adds that one of the key reasons he photographs nature is because "it’s the best way to get people to care about it in the same way I do. The same goes for my research — I’ve found that photography and videography are the simplest and most effective ways to communicate my work."

Photo courtesy of Brandon A. Güell

Oh baby!

Ever wonder how a tadpole develops? Did you know that you could look into their transluscent eggs and peer into the tiny wonder that is an embryo before its hatched?

Güell used his visual arts skills to create a series of photos detailing the developmental stages of the embryos. In the photo above, you can see the embryos' eyes and external gills. These eggs, Güell explains, are healthy. They lie in stark contrast to other eggs Güell has photographed — eggs that have dried up, been damaged by insects or snakes, or felt the devastating effects of a slight dip in humidity. Learn more about the frogs' development and Güell's experience studying the treefrogs.

Look into (all) my eyes

This whip spider, also called a tailless whip scorpion, is something many of us have never seen. It casts a striking figure in this close-up. But what is it exactly? 

"It's not a scorpion, and it's not a spider," Güell says. "It's a different type of arachnid that is related to them. These animals are only maybe three inches across. It’s got multiple eyes, two eyes [in the center that seems like a nose] and two more sets of eyes at each side. Its front legs are really dramatic and spiky. It looks like an alien when you look at it up close, but that's what I love about macro photography [a type of photography that focuses on close-ups of small subjects]."

The two little white circles (one on top of the whip spider's "head" and the other near its mouth) are actually white mites, little animals related to ticks and spiders.

This photo is one of many Güell snapped as he spent months in the Osa Peninsula. As unique as this bug can look to some, Güell says, "It's just a really common terrestrial animal there."

Just hanging out

This photo of an hourglass treefrog is another prime example of some of Güell's macro night photography, in which he uses an external camera flash to create a striking studio-like effect. 

In reality, this photo was taken in the field at Osa Peninsula. The hourglass treefrog is known for its golden-brown color and a back decorated by a pattern that resembles an hourglass. 

"Hourglass treefrogs are literally everywhere [in the Osa Peninsula]," Güell says. "They are one of my favorites because you can find them pretty much on any day, rain or shine, and they are stunning. They are really small compared to the treefrogs I’ve studied [the gliding and red-eyed treefrogs], which means you can often find them hiding inside of tall grasses and smaller leaves and lilies, even in the middle of the ponds and marshes — not up in the canopy like most larger treefrogs!"

He adds, "I like this photo in particular because my off-camera flash really helps draw your attention to the frog itself, including its bright colorful eye and skin and its fun toe pads."

Photo courtesy of Brandon A. Güell

Predator vs. alien

If you thought the whip spider looked like an alien, this little invertebrate takes it to another level. Or, better said, this close-up photo brings into perspective a more alien-like view of an animal that lives not on the Osa Peninsula but close to home in the Everglades. It's an invertebrate that Güell is now studying closely: crayfish. 

Güell's most recent research investigates the ways that invasive species affect the ecological cycle and how prey can become confused — and unaware of the danger posed — by an unfamiliar species. The invasian of the Asian swamp eels in the Everglades has been associated with a 95–99% decline of several native fish and macroinvertebrates, like crayfish. 

"I study predator-prey relationships to understand whether native slough crayfish recognize and respond to the invasive eel, or if behavioral naïveté may help explain the crayfish’s apparent vulnerability to the eel," he says. 

Güell uses photography and videography to document crayfish behavior with different predators, including native predators and the invasive eel.