Kayla Yi

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Food for Thought, part 2

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

On the way from San Jose to Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast, our group visited a spice farm, the Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation, to learn about sustainable farming practices that are used there. One of the spices they produce is vanilla. Vanilla is derived from three different types of orchid, all from the genus Vanilla. While orchids are the largest group of plants on Earth, only one genus is edible. The flowers of the vanilla orchid must be pollinated by hand in order to produce fruit, the vanilla bean. As one might imagine, it is a fairly labor intensive process.

In fact, a majority of spice production is very labor intensive. At this farm, we observed cinnamon, the inner back of the cinnamon tree Cinnamomum verum, being harvested by a machete. Then the shavings are placed in a tray to be placed in a large dryer. The final result are the curled cinnamon sticks which can also be powdered.

We also saw their production of allspice, Pimenta dioica, a spice commonly used in pumpkin pies and Caribbean cuisine. The berries were set out in small batches in the sun to dry alongside several other types of spices. With such small batches, the production of each spice could be monitored individually. Even the fruit from the cocoa pods, Theobroma cacao, was fermented in the sun and occasionally mixed by hand. All of these plants, from the vanilla to the cinnamon to the cocoa tree were fertilized with compost made on site. There were no chemicals treatments or machinery and very little, if any, as wasted.

The amount of time and care put into the farm was incredible, but it also brings up a question about our own consumption of goods. With nearly 8 billion people on earth, small scale sustainable farming simply cannot keep up with demand. Documentaries such as Food Inc. discuss the culture of excess and wastefulness that exists in modern society but farms like Villa Vanilla are taking a stance against this movement of mass production. Hopefully in time, other farms will begin to go more green!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Food for Thought

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Plants are everywhere in our lives. We walk through parks with trees or even plant gardens of our own to decorate our homes. But plants are also a crucial part of our diets as well. During our study abroad in Costa Rica, we have been able to see and taste a variety of foods grown locally. There are of course, fruits and vegetables that are easily recognized, but many others are also commonly seen in our grocery stores even if they take on a form much different than what is grown on a farm.

Even when working in the field, deep in dense jungle far away from cultivated land, it is possible to see plants that are related to our own dinner plates. Bananas, ginger and cardamom are all a part of the Zingiberales order, the group of plants that we are studying here in Costa Rica, but each is harvested from different parts of the plant. Bananas, from the family Musaceae, are easily recognized as the large yellow fruit which hang down the tree; ginger, from the family Zingiberaceae, is harvested from a part of the plant known as the rhizome which dwells underground; cardamom, also from the family Zingiberaceae, is a spice that is harvested from seed pods. While bananas, ginger, and cardamom is ready to be sold soon after harvesting, other foods require a little more processing. Chocolate and vanilla are both taken from the fruit of the cocoa and vanilla plant respectively and fermented. As a result, the chocolate and vanilla that comes to mind is very different from the original fruit.

All these foods originated from specific parts of the world but can now easily be found in supermarkets across the globe. Vanilla, chocolate and bananas seem to be very normal in the average American diet but such foods would have been rare just a few centuries ago. As early European explorers arrived in new lands, expanding both toward the East and West, they discovered not only new people and resources, but food as well. These foods today may be considered an ordinary part of cuisine. For example, tomatoes were unknown in Europe until the Spanish brought them over from the new world. Now it is hard to imagine what Italian food would be like without tomato sauce. Seeing both the indigenous and introduced species of plants in Costa Rica has made me think a little bit more about the history of the food I eat and the journey it took to end up on my plate.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ecotourism in Monteverde

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

During our final week in Costa Rica, our group traveled from San Jose to Monteverde to complete research at the field station. Dr. Chaboo had described Monteverde as a small town established by Quakers and a place very conscientious about the environment around them. What we had found was a town teeming with business and tourists. In a little over twenty years, Monteverde had been transformed from a small community to a bustling tourist destination.

This sudden influx of tourists has helped raise awareness about the decline in rainforests in places such as Monteverde. One of the most well known examples of the rainforests’ dire state is the extinction of the golden toad, Incilius periglenes. Once endemic to Monteverde, the species vanished by the 1990s. Tourists who visit the Monteverde Could Forest Biological Reserve come for the amazing sites and to learn about conservation. Now more that ever there is a drive to educate people and to protect the remaining rainforests.

But perhaps in a twist of irony, this sudden influx of tourists has also brought about new challenges for the environment. A larger population means more waste being produced, and more space required to dispose of it. As hotels, gift shops and restaurants appeared, land that once served as a self-sustaining ecosystem was developed into building space. In the height of tourism season, buses can line up from the reserve all the way into town. It is amazing to wake up each morning to see busloads of families, students and nature enthusiasts in the reserve.

Ecotourism is a double-edged sword. While it is a wonderful thing to see so many people eager to explore the cloud forest, such large numbers can also be a problem. But Monteverde has done an incredible job of finding a fine balance between the two. I have been amazed how the country of Costa Rica has been so environmentally conscious everywhere we go. The people here hold great pride in the biodiversity here and are eager to share it with the rest of the world.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Vanishing Act

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Rainforests are among the richest biomes on the planet. We have observed this first hand on our daily excursions as we collect insects and search for plants. However, there are also pressures being placed on the environment that threatens the diversity within the rainforest.

During the first few days of our stay in Monteverde, our group listened to a lecture by Dr. Alan Pounds of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Dr. Pounds first came to Monteverde because of his interest in herpetology but as time passed, his research shifted from herpetology to climate change, spurred by the extinction of the golden toad, Bufo periglenes, a species that was once endemic to Monteverde. The last individual was recorded in 1989 and the species has since been declared extinct. A number of other amphibians also vanished from the area around the same time, including many species of harlequin toads, from the genus Atelopus.

This mass extinction of amphibians may be attributed to a type of chytrid fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. The fungus can be spread between individuals through their skin. And because amphibians breath through their skin, the fungus inevitably suffocates the individual. The B. dendrobatidis outbreak that had killed so many amphibians may have been spurred by climate change but more research is required to fully understand the cause of the mass extinction.

 

Further readings: Pounds, J. A., Bustamante, M. R., Coloma, L. A., Consuegra, J. A., Fogden, M. P., Foster, P. N., ... & Young, B. E. (2006). Widespread amphibian extinctions from epidemic disease driven by global warming. Nature, 439(7073), 161-167.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Searching for the Art of Science

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

When I told friends and family members about the field biology program in Costa Rica, I was usually asked what sort of work I would be doing and what I would be studying. But once the term ‘zingiberales’ or the mere mention of insects was thrown into the conversation, the enthusiasm died down.
 
There is often the idea that biology is a secluded island cut off from the rest of the world where the inhabitants speak a strange language that only other biologists can understand. Because of this, many people assume that science is far removed from their lives and is impossible to understand. But biology and research both have long lasting implications for many difference disciplines. Rather than an island, biology is a web that branches out toward math, reading and even the arts.
 
As a biology student also interested in art, I am working on a project to combine art + science and bridge the gap between those who study biology and those who do not. I plan to create cut-away sculptures of zingiberales to show what types of environments these plants create for other organisms. By illustrating or visualizing the research done in this field biology program, other people may gain a better understanding without feeling intimidated by scientific papers. In doing this project, I hope to not only teach others about biology but to also encourage them to study abroad and conduct research of their own.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Costa Rica 2015 blog: Introducing Kayla

KaylaMy name is Kayla Yi and I will be a junior this fall as the University of Kansas. I am studying biology but I am also very interested in visual art. Much of my inspiration comes from nature and I like to explore the use of non-traditional materials. I wrote several grants for my research proposal that will combine art + science to make the subject of science more accessible to a wider audience. During my study abroad experience, I plan to document Zingiberales and the microenvironments they create for other organisms in order to create a large-scale model that can be used for education.