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)
Currently, we are staying at the field station within the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The reserve is covered in hiking trails that snake across the mountains in every direction. The southernmost path will lead you to the continental divide. This geographical feature spreads from the northern Alaskan shore to the southern shore of Argentina, and is comprised of various mountain chains. We are most familiar with the Rocky Mountains which make up the American portion.
The name continental divide is derived from the transactional nature of the mountains. The continuous chains of mountains separate the Americas into two watersheds which empty either into the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. The patterns of weather throughout the Americans can be attributed to the moisture rolling off each side of the divide.
Tuesday morning the group walked the trail to the continental divide. The hike was about 2 kilometers (that's 1.24 miles for those back home), and took approximately thirty minutes. For the majority of the hike, we traveled through dense cloud forest, but once we approached the top of the mountain the canopy gave way to wind sculpted shrubs and stout trees. Without the protection of the larger trees, we felt the full power of the trade winds. The bellowing winds sprayed our faces with rain at 50-65 kilometers an hour (about 30-40 miles an hour). The winds pulled the clouds over the mountain tops, and spilled them into the valleys.
Apparently, we were quite lucky to experience such forceful winds. Trade winds normally occur in December when the rainy season gives way to the dry season. The strange weather could be attributed to the shifting weather patterns Monteverde is currently experiencing.
Images: top, Panorama of the Continental Divide; middle, Alex at the Divide; bottom, a clowning Jake holding Tim, who is playing the part of Rose in Titatic.
My name is Emma Overstreet and I'm in my fourth year at KU. I'm currently majoring in Genetics, but I have broad interests in organismal biology and particularly entomology. I love travelling and hiking and am always looking for ways to spend time in nature. While in Costa Rica, I hope to broaden my knowledge of ecology and appreciate the incredible biodiversity the tropical climate has to offer, while gaining useful insight into the process of field work and research.
Despite the fact that my group’s research focused on insect communities in plants, I witnessed a variety of mammals throughout my time abroad. These animals ranged in familiarity from incredibly common to previously unseen. However, many of them shared the unique nature of being wild, making their behaviors unique to the unexposed eye.
The first thing I noticed of familiar life in Costa Rica is that the country is filled with presumably ownerless dogs. These canines frequently follow any stranger for kilometers in hope of receiving affection and food. While it’s often medically advisable to avoid petting these unkempt mutts to avoid the parasitic worms they may potentially harbor, it’s admittedly difficult to resist their adorable begging for attention. Another familiar animal I encountered was a cat ambitiously hunting a sizable lizard. Raccoons also participate in their typically mischievous practices of scavenging through beach-goers affects.
As for unfamiliar encounters, the bulk of my experiences occurred at a tourist attraction park. At this spot, our group enjoyed observing all three of the monkey species that live within the park — howler monkeys, white-throated capuchins, and squirrel monkeys. Upon seeing a pack of capuchins jumping through the trees, a single mother began to intimidate me away from her baby.
Later, at the Monteverdi Cloud Forest Reserve, I was awoken by the not-so-soothing sounds of the rainforest, those being the noisy antics of other howler monkeys and capuchins. Howlers are named for their characteristic vocalizations which are territorial displays. Unfortunately, they often choose to begin this behavior at five in the morning, persisting for over an hour. On a different day but at the same time, a capuchin decided to climb the balcony and roof of the reserve, banging on the door for some unknown reason.
While these animals often act unpredictably and strangely, it was exciting to observe so many creatures that common to Costa Rica.
Photos by Vickie Grotbeck.