Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here.
The natural world is full of many wondrous things. None of these things however is as beautiful as the gift of life. For those not yet bestowed with this wonderful gift, the only way that they can receive it is from certain biological processes that those already bestowed with this gift need to engage in.
While on our trip, we were given the perfect opportunity to witness this beautiful act among several groups of beetles. During our third day out in the field, we saw an enamored tiger beetle couple engaging in the precursor activity to the miracle of life.
Down on the ground, a strapping young male lay atop the iridescent carapace of a husky larger female, trying with all his might to penetrate using his mighty aedagous deep into the warm depths of the female’s ovipore.
When we interrupted the beetles, the insects’ bodies squirmed, writhing with the combined energies of their powerful biological urge to grant life while at the same time trying to save their own. Another group member opened the bag, quickly stuffing star-struck lovers into the bag full of unforgiving ethanol. Shocked yet amazed by the beetles, our group crowded around the bag to watch the insects continue their dance of life and death. As the ethanol continued to suck out all their life energy, the beetles finally released each other, trying their best to crawl to the top of the bag in a futile attempt to escape from their cruel prison. Despite all their best efforts, the unforgiving bag provided no escape. The beetles floated to the bottom of their bag, the beautiful gift that they had been trying to grant to other beetles now completely gone from their own bodies.
While staying at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, we met with many experts from the surrounding community. Dr. Pounds was one such expert. He studied the Golden Toads and their mysterious decline. Our group had the chance to listen to a lecture given by Dr. Pounds after a day of field work. He spoke of his work with Golden Toads and the possible causes of their decline. He also lectured about the changing meteorological landscape of the cloud forest.
I found this portion of his discussion quiet interesting. These days it is difficult to speak to someone about climate change without things becoming political. It was refreshing to hear a lecture that presented facts, and didn’t attempt to promote a particular agenda.
Dr. Pounds began his lecture by discussing a variety of animal species from the forest that have died off. These die offs occurred during particularly dry periods. These die offs promoted Dr. Pounds to research the changing climate of Monteverde. He investigated the frequency, duration, and intensity of wet and dry periods. Over the course of about 40 years he has discovered that on average the amount of rain fall has remained the same, but the frequency and the intensity of the rain fall has become more variable. For the most part, Monteverde has received more or less the same amount of rain over the course of a year, however; the rainfall is more infrequent, and more falls when it does rain. Dr. Pounds describes this weather as more variable than ever before. I wonder if similar trends can be observed around the world. Are we experiencing the same trends here in Kansas?
Near the end of our expedition to the cloud forest reserve in Monteverde, Kenji Nashida joined us for a day of field work. He is as an entomologist who studies insect life history, but he is also a talented photographer. I was thrilled to meet him because through the course of the trip I found that I really enjoyed photography.
The only problem was that I knew nothing about photography. I did not know what to look for in a quality camera. I did not know the proper techniques for taking photos. I did not know how to avoid washing out my pictures.
Kenji taught me as much as he could on our hike through the forest. The first lesson I received was on the taking close ups. He used a technique where he held the object with his hand, and then rested his camera on the same hand. This created one solid structure from the object being photographed to the camera itself. This allowed him to stabilize the object, and take a clear picture. If the object were to move, the camera would move in the same direction at the same speed. This prevented blurring of the picture.
After demonstrating that technique, he showed me how to prevent photographs from looking washed out. The simple fix was to avoid taking pictures in direct sunlight. He explained that the camera I have could not handle sunlight very well. He went on to tell me that it is better to take a darker image than a lighter one. There is color and information that can be extracted in Photoshop from the darker areas of pictures, but in the white areas there is a lack of color and information to pull from.
In order to take brighter pictures that would not wash out, Kenji showed me various ways to take advantage of the sunlight without compromising the photograph. One simple technique he showed me was the use of a reflector. To brighten up a shot, you can reflect some light from underneath or from the side back into the shot.
After he had shown me many of his basic techniques for taking beautiful pictures, he taught me what to look for and what to avoid when purchasing a camera. One of the most important things he told me was that the larger the CCD or CMOS senor the better. A camera with a high number of megapixels and a small senor chip is a bit frivolous. Without a comparable senor chip the megapixels are somewhat of detriment. The way he explained it to me is that if you have a high number of megapixels and a small senor chip the image will become noisy. This is because the camera is attempting to put a lot of information into a small space. The cells of the sensor become oversaturated when megapixels are beyond what the chip can handle. The pixels become over crowed, and create a nosier image. The large chip allows for greater spread of the pixels which in turn results in greater clarity and sharpness. This also means that cameras with large chips perform better in low light situations.
Kenji taught me quite a bit in a short period of time. He told me it takes time to develop an eye for photography, and that the best way to improve my skills was, like anything else, to continue to practice. -Alex Barbour
Above: Image of fungus Kenji took using Alex's camera. Right: Here you can see Kenji using his hand, arm and camera to create on solid structure, so that he can take a clear picture even when the object of the photograph moves.
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.