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.
So many people go into classes and don’t retain any of the information because they don’t care about it. They do not think that they need to know it. I felt that way when we learned about plants in Principles of Organismal Biology, but being in the cloud forests of Costa Rica have shown me so many things that we learned about, such as liverworts and ferns.
This experience has demonstrated that entomologists need to know a good deal of botany. We had a seminar by mammalogist/ecologist Erin Kuprewicz about her work with mammals and insects and their interactions with plants, titled "Seed Hoarding, Seedling Survival and Forest Dynamics." She needed to know a great deal about the plant life cycle for her study. This study abroad has given me a new respect for other disciplines that many people had previously dubbed unnecessary for their own field.
Carlos Garcia-Robledo also gave a seminar titled "Climate Change, Invasive Plants, and the Colonization of Novel Plants by Insect Herbivores." He brought up a phone application called LeafSnap (there is also a LeafSnap UK). This app is so cool. What you do is take a picture of a leaf and using 16 points (like a fingerprint), it will identify the species of plant! It will also connect your location to the plant so that they can see where these plants are! They have used it to track migration of plants across North America.
One side note: Tomorrow we are going to the beach! Many of us have never been to the Pacific Ocean before and one of us has never been to any ocean before. I am looking forward to the beach and his reaction! We also got to watch Jurassic World (for only $4). Apparently, the islands are actually (fictionally) off the coast of Costa Rica. I nearly cried at the beginning because it was so beautiful and amazing (the same reason I cried through most of How to Train Your Dragon 2) and because I was actually there!!! This place is incredible and full of nature. There is a creek running through the University of Costa Rica campus and a family of sloths living there! (Dr. Chaboo tried to trade them for KU squirrels!).
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!
Studying abroad in costa rica was probably the best decision I have made during my two years at the University of Kansas. The amount of information that I have consumed has been truly remarkable and I can already say that this course has taught me more applicable knowledge than any course I have participated in before.
In order to prepare for field research and the world of arthropods, we attended some lectures at the University of Costa Rica. The afternoon consisted of five lectures that all related to Costa Rican arthropods in some way, and ultimately would help us understand different aspects of arthropod research. Dr. Chaboo, from the University of Kansas, started out the lecture series by discussing some basic information on beetles and how certain ecosystems impact arthropod biodiversity. Her lecture was what set the foundation for my understanding of arthropod research and its importance on the modern world. The next lecturer was Paul Hanson, who was originally from Minnesota but decided to move to Costa Rica after he got offered a teaching job at the University of Costa Rica. Paul introduced us to the topic of galls, which are bubble-like abnormalities formed by different bug larvae that live inside plant tissue. I found this lecture to be extraordinarily interesting because I have witnessed galls on plants for years, but never thought it was being caused by a separate organism.
The next lecture introduced me to an aspect of learning that I have never had to deal with. Angel solis from the Instituto National de Biodiversity gave a lecture in Spanish on various beetles. This lecture was a bit of a challenge for me considering I do not know much Spanish. I tried my best to follow along and picked up on some basic words that allowed me to vaguely understand the topics Angel spoke about. Angel’s lecture did teach me about a foreign perspective that I had never considered. At KU we have thousands of foreign students that do not know English very well, and Angel’s Spanish lecture put me in the foreign students' shoes for an hour. it is incredibly difficult to comprehend a lecture that is not in your primary language, and after my experience I have a lot more respect for non-English speaking KU students!
The fourth lecture was taught by American Erin Kuprewicz from the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institute. Erin educated us on seedling survival studies and how placement of a seed can impact its survival. I found this lecture to be interesting because it opened my eyes to the different organisms that can affect a plant's reproduction. Erin indicated that both mammals and arthropods can consume seedlings, but placement of the seed can determine which organisms are able to consume it.
Finally we had a lecture from Carlos Garcia Robledo from the Instituto de Ecologia on how plants are affected by climate change, invasive species, and insect herbivores. Carlos had the most in-depth lecture out of the the five lectures. My favorite part of the lecture was when Carlos tied in modern technology such as apps and search engines with ecology. For instance, he spoke of a plant identification app for the iphone called leafsnap that allowed users to photograph a leaf to determine the species. I found the concept of leafsnap to be incredibly useful for beginner ecologists such as myself. Because I do not know many plant species this app would help me identify plants quickly in the field without having to use an identification book. Combining technology and biology is becoming more common and I think that concepts like leafsnap will be widely used in 5-10 years.
Listening to lectures at the University of Costa Rica has introduced me to new aspects of biology that I would not get a chance to experience at KU. All the ecologists that spoke during the lecture series provided direct data from their personal research, and showed us students what concluding research data should look like. Ultimately I really enjoyed listening to all the researchers speak because it got me much more interested in entomology research and all the possibilities of different research projects that are currently being conducted and what still needs to be researched!
Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here.
Villa Vanilla is a sustainable tropical spice farm focusing on growing their plants with a biodynamic approach. The farm is located near the beautiful Manuel Antonio national park and is over 150 acres, with 27 of those acres devoted to agriculture production. While at Villa Vanilla our class was given a personal tour by the owner himself, Henry.
During our tour Henry gave us a glimpse of what it means to be a sustainable farm including the history of Villa Vanilla. Sustainability begins with the soil. All waste is composted and monitored to ensure that the compost stays at the optimal temperature. Having a healthy compost eliminates the need for fertilizers. A brief history of the farm was given. During which we learned that this thriving spice farm once used to be a pasture! The owners had to turn the soil from a fungus dominated soil to a bacteria dominated soil, to encourage growth of trees. This process took years to accomplish.
The tour then led us to the vanilla beans! Vanilla is an orchid which has to be hand pollinated in order for the bean to be produced. This process of hand pollination is what makes vanilla expensive.
Next on the tour were cocoa and the process of turning raw cocoa into the sweet decadent chocolate which we know and love. The cocoa beans must be dried and fermented before they are processed and combined with vanilla and true Ceylon cinnamon (which is bark of a tree!) to make fine chocolate.
Before we left Villa Vanilla we were given teas and desserts prepared by the pastry chef. The desserts began with gourmet chocolates made entirely from the spices grown on Villa Vanilla, next was iced cinnamon tea made with true Ceylon cinnamon. As were finishing the tea we’re given an incredible light, creamy vanilla cheesecake. If it couldn’t get better, we are served vanilla ice cream made in house with a cookie. Those of us that were brave enough were offered hot chocolate with cayenne pepper.
After the desserts and tea we walked to the on-site spice shop where we were able to purchase these sustainable crops. As the class is prepared to get onto the bus and contemplate what we wanted for lunch, we had yet another surprise, a traditional Costa Rica meal prepared and waiting for us. The meal consisted of rice and beans, marinated veggies, a fresh salad with carne, a slow cooked marinated beef.
Being at Villa Vanilla taught me a lot, from the process of hand pollinated vanilla to the difference of cocoa and chocolate. Most importantly I got to experience first-hand the quality of food that can be grown and processed on a sustainable farm.
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.
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.
Before the start of the program I had to pleasure of traveling around Costa Rica with my dad. It was an experience unlike any I have had before. First off I loved all the different chances to experience the difference in culture. For a little while we lived with a Costa Rica family. That was a very eye opening experience, because it showed me that their everyday life isn't that different from ours in the states. Also, eating home cooked food every day we were with them gave me good insight to the typical meals; breakfast never changed, and dinner was essentially the same every time but with a different protein. The other thing I now find very cool is the plants. When I was traveling with my dad I saw a lot of the plant order that we are here to study and didn't even know it. However, now that I have some field experience under my belt I realize I was surrounded by them. I didn't realize how abundant they were here, and I never would have guessed at all the different organisms that live on the plants. I'm looking forward to the rest of our research. All in all it has been a great time so far, and my favorite place was the Manuel Antonio National Park, so I am excited to be returning there for the weekend.
Bounding Biodiversity in Zurqui
On Tuesday the ninth we visited the Zurqui field site for the second time. This time we were going deeper into the park in order to collect specimens from various Zingiberales plants. As Dr. Chaboo of our University of Kansas and Dr. Mauricio of the University of Costa Rica guided us deeper into the forest, they educated us on the visible biodiversity. The site were in is labeled as a cloud forest, as its high elevation is in close contact with the clouds, prompting periodical misting and precipitation on a daily basis. We were walking along a steep inclined rocky road and the climate was warm and humid, perfect weather for spotting insects.
One of the first insects of the day, a stag beetle, was spotted by John. Never before, save Dr. Chaboo’s lab, have I seen a beetle that large. Without even a close look, its sharpened mandibles menaced from the ground. Dr. Mauricio advised against making contact with the insect, but a couple of students dared nonetheless and let the beetle make its way up their arms, scurrying all the while. Since the specimen did not come from a Zingiberales, the order of plant of our study, there was no need to collect it. As it was let go, the beetle scurried back into the forest, and I was given my first glimpse of the breadth of taxonomic variety to come.
On the walls we were able to see liverworts, a common name for one of the first plants to colonize land. Dr. Chaboo reminded us that we were in the presence of one of the oldest living species of plants, also one of the first major sources of terrestrial oxygen. This was taught to us all in introductory biology, but this on-site view of these important organisms truly gave a unique perspective on the history of life. Everyone always seems fascinated with dinosaurs (especially with Jurassic World coming out in theaters) and older terrestrial animals, but rarely appreciates the truly crucial importance of plants in the grand scheme of life on land. As I continue in this field course, I will view more organisms that I’ve only ever read about, and I hope to appreciate a new perspective of their role in both history and environment.
Image above: Dr. Chaboo showing the Biol 418 class liverworts on rock wall in Zurqui. Photograph taken by Vivek.
The day I left my father warned me I would be subjected to major culture shock. He was right, but I did not suffer from what is traditionally defined as culture shock. I was not astonished by the differences between our cultures, but by the similarities. I was amazed by the number of American food chains, the western clothing, and by the programs on television. You will see Taco Bell, Denny’s, and McDonald’s as frequently as you would in the United States. The food court in the mall near our hotel in San Padro consisted of ninety percent American fast food chains.
According to Thomas Friedman, the author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, the arrival of the American fast food chains in developing nations is a sign of stability and prosperity. Freidman dubs it his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”. He noticed that no two countries with McDonald’s stores have gone to war with one another. Thus the existence of McDonald’s in a country can be interestingly used as a measure of stability and economic progress. Costa Rica has not only McDonald’s, but nearly every American fast food joint including even Nathan’s Famous hotdog stand.
Aside from the American fast food, Costa Ricans all dress in the latest styles of western clothing. The mall also contained western clothing stores and brands. I saw Forever 21, Adidas, and shoe stores filled with Nike and Puma. On television, I saw UFC fights, American cartoons, and National Geographic Channel just to name a few. All of these infusions of culture could be used as a measure of national stability and wealth. In turn you could look at the Americanization as a sign of overall wealth; however, the Americanization may also mean a dilution of native culture. The rise in national wealth may go hand in hand with the loss of native culture.