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Chaboo taking the zany zip-lining plunge in Costa Rica.
In June 2015, I visited Costa Rica with 14 KU undergraduates for the annual field course. The research part, funded by KU’s Office of International Programs, was to examine the arthropod communities of Zingiberales host plants (bananas and ginger are the most familiar examples). I personally enjoyed the country so much, that I returned with my family for Christmas holidays, spending the week at the spectacular Manuel Antonio National Park in the Pacific coastal town of Quepos. We enjoyed the adventurous personality of Costa Rica, with beaches, hiking, and zip-lining. Then came my eight KU undergraduates for the field course and new adventures in this beautiful country.
The banana family, scientifically called Musaceae, comprises two genera and about 80 species from Africa and Asia. Edible bananas and plantains both belong to the genus Musa. The bananas we eat do not grow on a banana "tree". Rather, the plant is an herb, with an underground rhizome, a "stem" made of tightly-packed stems of the large showy leaves, and the inflorescence where each flower produces one edible banana. Bananas are thought to have been domesticated about 8000 BC in southeast Asia; those soft tiny black specks at the center of the banana fruit are sterile - they cannot be planted for new plants. The plant forms suckers (root sprouts) that help create a clump of banana plants or that are separable for new plants. While bananas are eaten raw, plantains must be cooked. Both are delicious and of immense value in the tropical larder. Scientists believe that these edible bananas are actually hybrids from two wild species, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. Costa Rica is a major exporter of bananas; forests have been cut to grow large monocultures and high pesticide use is implicated as a threat to caiman populations.
Banana plants are beautiful! It is not surprising that we see ornamental bananas commonly planted along roads and in gardens - those big showy leaves and big colorful infloresences bring that lush "tropical" touch. One spectacular introduced ornamental banana is Musa velutina. I noted this beauty commonly grown on our route and I am wondering if native arthropods on native Zingiberales can expand their host range to this exotic. I also wonder if the viable seeds of M. velutina can grow - perhaps spread in bird droppings. It is not uncommon for beautiful garden plants to break free, run rampant, and become scourges, no matter how "pretty" they appear.
Anyone wanting to participate in a field expedition must have a spirit for adventure, adaptability, and curiosity. Any travel takes one out of the familiar comfort zone; but if a participant is not happy, it negatively affects the entire group. My task in selecting participants is tough, trying to determine the above qualities and the fit with the group (both for travel and in teams collecting data). The biggest test comes usually with the first day of hiking —are you physically fit to hike for several hours? Or, with the first rainfall—will you complain when we get caught in the rain? Some students daydream of doing international fieldwork, but only when we try it out can we be sure that long hours with wet clothes and a soggy lunch are trivial compared to the exhilaration of being in the field, doing field research. Fieldwork is not for every biologist; it is okay.....and okay to learn this sooner than later.
In our daily walks along trails at the Zurqui de Moravia site near San Jose and here in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, we take advantage of fallen trees and broken tree limbs to test out our botany knowledge, add a few more families to our life lists, and poke around for hidden snakes, frogs, and especially insects. I don’t have the heart to peel off the carpet of mosses, filmy ferns, and flowering orchids to find beetles and bugs. Documenting the arthropod community living in the phytotelmata of a bromeliad is destructive sampling – tearing leaves apart and using forceps to spread the soil. Fortunately, this is not the focus of my current research nor permitted by my Costa Rica research permit; thus, I am spared the conflict of attacking these gorgeous bromeliads for cryptic insect treasures.
I visited Monteverde in June 1994, as a student in a field course led by former KU professor, Dr. Michael Greenfield. This was before my own current students here were born! Back then I was enchanted by the forest, its birds awaking me as they began singing from about 4 am, by the clouds drifting in with their misty moisture, and the overwhelming diversity of plants. The old field station inside the reserve was a wooden 2-story construction, with poorly lit rooms and scary showers. My student companions and I then complained of the wet and cold, while enjoying being far from home in this extraordinary forest.
In 1951, 11 American Quaker families migrated to this area in protest of the Korean War. Costa Rica had abolished its army and was an attractive destination. As the community established and grew, developing a low-key farming model, biologists began arriving for research. The reserve was established in 1972 to protect one of the world’s most diverse and virgin forests, with 6 ecological life zones and more than 2500 species of plants.
Today, Monteverde has grown, like Costa Rica, into a super-successful model of nature tourism and conservation. The road, now paved, passes through the towns of Santa Elena and Monteverde. My jaw dropped with the number of shops and hotels. The new field station offers fine dining, its own gift shop, and a small army of workers and guides. The forest is still a wet and cold place and the station still has heart-stopping frigid showers.
It is a remarkable site to view the busloads of school groups and families and their uniformed guides arriving early, even before 7am, paying the entrance fees and heading off on the trails. More wondrous is that over 70,000 visitors come here annually to learn about biology and ecology!
I am Caroline Chaboo, Director of this 2015 program to Costa Rica. Normally, I head to Peru every June with students. However, this year Costa Rica is on the menu due to several factors and opportunities. The University of Costa Rica and the University of Kansas have a long established relationship of collaboration in research, education and visits. This program is supported by KU's Office of International Programs.
In 2014, I expanded one aspect of my Peru research, arthropod communities on Zingiberales plants, and sought a second site for comparative study. Two UCR colleagues, one I met more than 10 years ago, developed a grant proposal which was funded. One UCR collaborator visited KU recently (his first visit to the USA). Our plan is to develop a Central American site and study the diversity (taxonomic and food web relations) of the arthropods that are associated with these distinctive Zingiberales plants (familiar ones are bananas and ginger, but flowers are also sold in shops).
The field course program developed as a way to initiate a joint education program alongside the larger research so we could bring KU and UCR students together, conducting research towards their first scientific publication as they gained exposure to rich tropical habitats and acquired several field skills.
Some KU participants opted to pursue grants for research, which they were awarded. We have met several times to discuss everything, from travel medicine to hiking shoes. I am excited to renew collaborations with the excellent UCR biology faculty and to expose KU students to Costa Rica = "rich coast" = rich biodiversity.
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Ever since Steve Goddard, KU’s Spencer Art Museum, introduced me to Sunprints during our 2011 field class at the CICRA Biological Station, I have incorporated this art/science activity with subsequent classes. Sun-printing, developed by 19th century artists, uses the sun’s UV rays to make prints of objects on photographic paper. [UC Berkeley sells convenient kits].
After a morning of tough high-elevation hiking and a rich lunch of quinoa soup, we needed a quieter diversion. My kit had 15 sheets, enough for my KU students as well as others conducting research here. Each person collected some leaves and flowers and spent a few minutes designing their layout. Then we got to “printing”, essentially exposing the plate to sun for ~4-6 mins.
The end-product is beautiful and frame-able. Indeed, some appeared in our 2012 Spencer exhibition, http://www.spencerart.ku.edu/exhibitions/39-trails.shtml. This fun art/science exercise opens various discussions, e.g., about sunlight traveling down through forest layers* and leaf morphology**. No winner of our competition was selected since we could not agree on a single most beautiful plate from so many.
– Caroline Chaboo
* John A. Endler. 1993. The Color of Light in Forests and Its Implications. Ecological Monographs Vol. 63, No. 1, pp. 1-27.
** AP Coble, MA Cavleri. 2014. Light drives vertical gradients of leaf morphology in a sugar maple (Acer saccharum) forest. Tree Physiology 02/2014; DOI:10.1093/treephys/tpt126
During our eight-day stay at the Villa Carmen Biological station, four days were a wash-out. The unusual weather, with rain there and drought here at Wayqecha, is being explained by the locals as probably due to this being an El Niño year. What is a researcher to do with time to sit around? We finally can flesh out our data (digital or notebooks), have time to explore the station’s library, or chat with other visiting researchers. Inevitably, one gets a little desperate for rain to stop falling in the rainforest. The students are glum and I am anxious.
Set-backs crop up: an important piece of equipment borrowed by another researcher is missing; humidity affects one computer; other trap batteries are not charging well on solar panels, so one student must switch project plans; a student gets a minor cut but requires stitches at the local clinic (US$3/3 stitches); and inevitably, two students get the stomach bug. Today was the last collecting day; we took down traps and I sorted the equipment to return to KS and those that will stay for next year’s fieldwork. More bad news – my export permit won’t be ready until Tuesday, after I fly out on Monday night.
Fieldwork isn’t always smooth and I have no choice but to keep calm and carry on. -Caroline Chaboo
Lima (sea level) to Cusco (3400 m) to Wayqecha (3000 m)…..Quite a change in one day! We were off and running in Cusco with quick stops at the grocery and hardware store for last supplies before heading to more remote areas. Our drive on the winding Manu Highway (a gravel road) to the Wayqecha Biological Station was super dusty. It turns out that it has not rained in these cloud forests for over three weeks. A short dry season usually occurs in August-September so this drought was unusual. The clouds have been coming in over the Amazon Basin, but dropping their moisture at lower elevations. As in Kansas, a dry season means reduced insect activity. Our first 3-hr trail walk today through cloud forests turned into a botany exercise since I point out the forest structure, physical characteristics, and plant composition. We go slowly, testing our fitness at this elevation; the students are breaking in their new clothing and shoes. I aim to introduce the forest structure and its plants, to learn some familiar plant families and some rare/unusual ones—Orchids and ferns, mosses and lichens, Proteceace, Bamboo, Solanaceae, Rubiaceae, Selaginellas, and tree ferns. The filmy ferns (Hymenophyllaceae) are just one cell thick, transparent and rely on damp conditions; well, they were crispy ferns, dried and dormant, awaiting rain. We got far out on the trail, when the clouds rolled in and poured! The intermittent canopy slows the drips, but we were still quite soaked by the time we returned to the station buildings. We might be huffing and puffing on the first walks at this elevation, but we had a glorious morning of botanising. And the filmy ferns are happy again.