When I signed up for the field biology course in Costa Rica, I knew some of the material might tend to go over my head. I was also slightly nervous to try to relate to a group of my peers interested in a field so different from my own. Biology may seem like an area of study perfect for the antisocial hyper-intelligent bookworm, but as I found out from this trip, biologists make for a very interesting, dedicated and entertaining group to go on an adventure with.
Studying life and living organisms in all aspects gives one an undeniable appreciation for nature. I found that my classmates were genuinely interested in an impressive range of life. Eventually, their love for biology wore off on me, and in the process I often overheard many conversations only biologists would endure. I’ve included some examples below for your reading pleasure.
- A 30 minute discussion on tapeworms…I mean nematodes
- Reptile or Amphibian?
- Come poot this!!
- What time are we getting up? I think I’ll wake up 2 hours early to go set my traps.
- Ooooo another leaf roll!
- You should write a blog about that.
- I know one really cool ornithologist. Just one though.
- I love snakes, bats, beetles, dogs, cows, cats, pumas, bats, trees, etc.
- Taxonomy is so cool.
- Hey, I’m a fungi.
- Let’s go identify some plants, that will be fun.
- I just want to make this clear, a panther can be considered a puma or a cougar.
- Ughh, business majors.
- I saw a cat, or a monkey, I couldn’t tell, I only saw its face.
- Can you get drunk off of this ethanol?
I am constantly astounded by the amount and diversity of nature in Costa Rica. As I vigorously attempt to record the bright colors and structure of plants, animals and insects in my sketchpad, the group scurries along to the next feature of the cloud forest and I am left to wonder at the thriving ecosystem that surrounds me. Attempting to recreate the beautiful scenery is proving more challenging than I thought due to its impressive variety.
“[He] will go mad if the wonders do not cease,” said Alexander Von Humboldt of his fellow traveller on their journey to South America in the 19th century. I can see why upon entering forests such as Zurqui and Monteverde. The abundance of vegetation is an overwhelming indicator of life. Upon closer inspection, the inner workings of a tropical climate emerge from leaf rolls, bromeliads and other popular insect hang- outs. I have chosen to capture my experience of Costa Rica primarily through photography, rather than sketches, due to its timely and accurate sensibilities. There is simply too much to render with just pencil sketches.
This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the investigative qualities of sketching the nature around me. So much is lost behind the lense of the camera if one doesn’t stop to have an intimate understanding of the plants and insects. Dr. Chaboo encourages us to fondle the plants, which may sound peculiar, yet this practice allows us to understand the texture, taste and smell of various plants that we would otherwise not fully comprehend.
Before arriving in Costa Rica, I only had a vague understanding of what a cloud forest could be like. I did not appreciate how unique tropical areas such as Costa Rica are until I squished the damp earth below my boots, cracked open the stem of a zingiberale or collected beetle specimens. We are studying one of the most diverse areas on the planet, considered by some as the apex of creation. I may be mad with wonder, but it only motivates me to keep searching. -Jake Kaufmann
We are back in Kansas now, and there is one main thing that I’m struggling to determine if I miss or not. I wake up in the morning to a strange silence now -. During our travel, we awoke every morning with natural alarm clocks —the calls of various animals.
It started off with multiple types of birds. They seemed to start chirping at 5:30 am. One day, we left our bathroom window open and one almost got in the room.
Another natural alarm was the howler monkeys. On a sign in the national park I read that a howler monkeys howl can be heard up to 3 miles away even through a dense forest. I thought this a very cool fact, until they started waking us up every day.
My third alarm clock was another species of monkey, a capuchin or white faced monkey. The way this monkey took to waking us up was actually fairly comical. He ran across the roof to the fire escape door, then bang on it, and run away. He did this continuously over the course of the morning. One day I stood at our room’s window looking for him and he came right up to it and stared at me, then ran over to the door. When I peeked out at the fire escape door, the monkey stared at me for roughly 10 seconds before banging on the door once and running off. I definitely lost that standoff with the monkey, seeing as he came back one more time to give the door a victory bang.
Although these natural alarm clocks seemed annoying at the time, now at home in Kansas I can honestly say I kind of miss those birds and monkeys.
- Tim Mayes
A good percentage of American students will take classes in a foreign language sometime in their educational career- usually French or Spanish, both being romantic languages, similar to English, and relatively easy to pick up. In my case, I took Spanish all throughout school- for eight years in total. As is usually the case, I retained little and practiced even less, and by the time I came to Costa Rica the language was a distant memory.
It’s no secret that the most effective way to learn a language is through immersion. Since I’ve been here, I’ve managed to dust off that memory and begin to apply my limited knowledge to daily situations, with much difficulty. Having never had any experience listening to native speakers, trying to keep up is extremely intimidating. Though I’m getting better at picking up on phrases, very often the words of a fast-talking native will escape me entirely.
Another difficulty is the fact that the language used by Costa Ricans is slightly different then the Mexican Spanish commonly taught in schools. The most notable difference is the use of usted in place of tú. Usted, which (to my knowledge) is generally reserved for more formal interactions in other Spanish-speaking countries, is used in nearly all situations here. I almost assuredly unwittingly offended with my use of tú, which conveys less respect to Costa Ricans.
After a little while in the country, and some help from bilingual locals (much thanks to Dennis and Daniel), I began to learn some colloquialisms unique to Costa Rica. How could anyone possibly get by without knowing mae, the local expression for ‘dude?’ And of course, there is the all-important Pura Vida, which would be impossible for anyone not to pick up on during their stay here, as it used constantly as a greeting, positive sentiment, and affirmation. The phrase, which translates to ‘good life,’ sums up everything that is quintessentially Costa Rican.
As I’ll be travelling on my own later, without the help of our skilled translators, I’ll hopefully continue to improve. Becoming at least somewhat fluent in Spanish is now an immediate goal of mine, and I suspect that the short amount of time I’ll spend in Latin America will be more conducive to that than my many years of classroom education.
Costa Rica is one of the world’s most environmentally forward-thinking nations. Some global indices rank it among the top performers in terms of renewable energy, air and water quality, and biodiversity protection. The average environmental footprint of a Costa Rican citizen is less than a quarter of that of a person living in America.
After spending any amount of time in Costa Rica, it’s impossible not to notice the abundance of recycling and composting programs, energy-efficient buildings and facilities, and similar programs, such as Payments for Environmental Services, which raises urban and rural poor individuals out of poverty while encouraging sustainability.
Green space is everywhere- spreading out in the middle of cities, nestled on university campuses, and surrounding popular tourist locations. In fact, nearly one-fourth of the country’s land is under environmental protection of some sort.
The commitment to environmental protection becomes even more readily apparent in rural areas. Large tracts of farmland are maintained by hand, many without the use of pesticides and herbicides. Cattle graze on the sides of country roads, keeping grasses and weeds under control while providing a food source with minimal environmental impact. The typical diet consists overwhelmingly of locally- and sustainably-grown foods.
As Costa Rica continues its development into an ever-more stable and globally important nation, it will face many challenges in maintaining its status as a ‘green’ country. Perhaps the largest enemy to this placid way of life will be a rise in consumerism. As more and more Western ideas are imported into the country, consumption can realistically be expected to rise. This shows itself in the establishment of malls and superstores, in an increased interest in the younger generation in clothes and electronics, and in the continued rise of an economically stable middle-class.
As long as the positive, life-affirming and nature-loving spirit that is characteristic of Costa Rican citizens endures, however, the country will continue to overcome any problems that it will undoubtedly face and continue leading the way in securing the future of our environment. - Emma Overstreet
The second week of our trip is being spent at the Monteverde Biological Reserve. We had another seminar, this time by Dr. Joseph Alan Pounds, about the impact of climate change on cloud forests.
During the talk, I was looking around the classroom and noticed two mammal skeletons, an ocelot and a quati. As I looked at them more closely, I noticed that their rib cages were not closed like ours. It seemed baffling at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. When walking on four legs, your chest is not exposed, but while walking on two legs, your chest is very exposed. When your chest is more exposed, you are more likely to get impaled there. My hypothesis is that throughout our history as we began to stand more upright, those hominids with a mutation for a more encompassing rib cage were more likely to survive being impaled with a spear, stick, talon, or horn than those with more open rib cages. Your rib cage protects your heart and lungs from getting stabbed as something is more likely to hit the ribs than go between them. On this trend, some day we may have a fused rib cage.
Today my amigo Dennis took me on an extraordinary adventure. We set off from the lodge at Monteverde Reserve on his motorcycle through a heavy rain. Upon arrival at Selvatura Adventure Park we were soaked and eager to begin our tour of the cloud forest canopy via zipline. This unique Costa Rican attraction offers an impressive network of ziplines including the longest in Latin America at 1,590 meters. It is safe, affordable, and environmentally friendly. It also contributes to the Costa Rican economy with little environmental impact.
There were 55 adventure seekers from around the world in my group alone. Each of us paid 45 dollars to witness the beauty of the cloud forest on 7 different lines, including two superman style cables and a terrifyingly fun Mega Tarzan Swing.
I will never forget soaring above the canopy flapping my arms like the wings of an eagle below. I think experiences such as this relate directly to biological conservation. The canopy tour allowed me to realize the importance of sustaining this environment, as well as ways in which we can enjoy it in a mutually beneficial way. The next step will be for the funds acquired by the zip lining company to aid in the conservation of the tropical paradise that attracts so many adventure seekers every year.
During our visit to the University of Costa Rica campus, we had some time to explore a small area outside the Biology building. As I’m interested in spiders, I had a look around to see what I could find. Given the incredible biodiversity in Costa Rica, I expected to find a few specimens. However, I found amazing diversity even in the small area we explored. On a single tree, both a hunting spider (Figure 1) and several orb weavers (Figure 2) could be found. It seemed that every structure that could support a web had at least one arachnid resident. One tree even hosted a small aggregation of spiders (Figure 3), which I had never gotten the opportunity to personally see before. The sheer number of species that could be found in a cursory survey was simply astounding.
While I was surprised by the diversity of the spiders in the area, I noticed that despite being thousands of miles away from Kansas, many common traits could be found between spiders from the two regions. While I cannot say with complete certainty without examining specimens under a microscope exactly what genera some of these spiders belonged to, but many showed morphological characteristics that I had seen in field work in Kansas before. Micrathena is a genus of spider that has a carapace with characteristic spikes. A spider with such spikes was living between two of the trees (Figure 4). Another genus, Cyclosa, was likely represented as well (Figure 5). These spiders use parts of prey and plants to decorate their web as camouflage, as can be seen in the attached picture.
Costa Rica has an incredible level of biodiversity and seeing just how many species can be found in an area has been an unforgettable experience. However, recognizing genera of spiders from previous fieldwork has shown me that while not every country can have as diverse of wildlife as Costa Rica has, you can see some pretty amazing animals in your own backyard. - Eric Becker
Because of Hannah’s broad interest in Herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) and our shared general love for animals, we always pay attention to the fauna around us when we travel to such a biodiverse place as Costa Rica.
When we began our trip in San Jose during our stay at Ave del Paraiso, there were geckos near most of the places you looked. During our drive from San Jose to Manuel Antonio, we stopped at a bridge famous for being a resting spot for multiple crocodiles at a time. It was a very interesting sight to see not only the amount of crocodiles resting so close to a semi-populated area, but also how many people were stopping to attempt to catch a glimpse of them.
When we went further into the rainforest for our stay around Manuel Antonio National Park in the lowlands, there were some geckos, but iguanas were the most likely creatures to spot, even if you were just hanging out by a pool. During our visit to the park we came upon some herpetologists studying the impact of tourism on the iguanas there. This was an intriguing topic, and makes sense to study due to the fact that when walking the trails in the park I came across multiple different breeds of iguanas on the path. They did not run from me until I was roughly a foot away which is quite a bit closer that I’ve been able to get to lizards in less touristy areas. The researchers' topic also plays into a local article I read about the crocodiles being forced out of their natural habitat and into more populated areas because tourists want to travel to more secluded areas.
As you move to higher elevation there are fewer reptiles to spot immediately but the amphibians in Monteverde seem to be well studied. When we first came to Monteverde we met Dr. Alan Pounds who has done revolutionary work on the extinction of the golden toad, which was endemic to Monteverde until it became extinct in the late 1980’s. This work reflects our continuous need for and marks some of the beginnings of conservation biology. This extinction shows the need for climate change study, which many biologists are dealing with today in all different aspects.
-Tim Mayes and Hannah Boyd
As I mentioned in my introduction, I am working on my own project in addition to the research we are doing as a group. During our time in Monteverde, I’ll be setting out traps to see if parasitoid wasps in Costa Rica are attracted to a chemical called cantharidin. Cantharidin is a toxic chemical produced by blister beetles and false blister beetles as a defense (Hashimoto & Hayashi). Previous similar experiments captured a few of these wasps, but not nearly enough to definitively establish that some are attracted to cantharidin. At the suggestion of Paul Hanson, a professor studying hymenopterans (ants, bees, and wasps), I started planning an experiment to discover if any could be found.
Earlier in the summer, I set several traps in prairie areas of the KU Field Station, but a cloud forest in Costa Rica is considerably different from the grasslands the traps were originally designed for. A few elements had to be changed from the original trap to be better suited for the new environment. The initial traps were inverted funnel traps made of 2 liter soda bottles with cantharidin-impregnated filter paper as bait. An inverted funnel trap works on the idea that many insects will be able to climb into a hole, but will fly straight up when trying to escape. Having a small hole allows insects to enter, but prevents them from leaving. The bottle was made into a trap by cutting off the top where it starts to curve, then putting it upside down. In both locations, I put alcohol in the bottom of the trap to kill whatever insects landed in the bottom and then preserve them until they could be collected. Traps were attached to a wooden stake with waterproof duct tape to ensure they would stay upright.
The big difference between the traps was how I dealt with the issue of keeping the bait dry. I was told that filter paper holding the bait could not get wet. In Kansas, I focused on minimizing the problems caused by water getting the traps. To keep the bait dry, I suspended it from a wooden dowel put through holes in the side of the trap. With the bait in a safe place, I only had to prevent the trap from flooding. To do this, I made a few holes slightly above where the alcohol was and covered it with mesh to allow any excess liquid, likely rainwater, to drain out. In Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to prevent rain from entering the trap at all. To accomplish this, I made several rain covers using garbage bags, duct tape, and twine. This allowed me to suspend the bait with a strip from a ziplock bag and some tape. The advantage of this method is that I can put the bait directly under the hole in the trap, which makes it more attractive to insects. These traps can be seen in Figure 1.
One thing to note is that with the exception of the bait, all the materials used in the traps can be purchased at a grocery store for a few dollars. Science experiments don’t have to cost a fortune to carry out. A few household products and a little bit of preparation can answer plenty of questions.
Hashimoto, K. and Hayashi, F. (2014) Cantharidin world in nature: a concealed arthropod assemblage with interactions via the terpenoid cantharidin. Entomological Science 17: 388-395.
Image: Insect trap set-up used at all three sites in Costa Rica (Photo credit: Eric Becker)