This past August, I returned to the University of Kansas – and Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute – becoming the new Collections Manager in the Division of Herpetology. August couldn’t have made for a better homecoming, as KU was celebrating 100 years of herpetological research by hosting the annual SSAR (Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles) meeting. The meeting offered a perfect opportunity to connect with so many whom have helped build this division into one of the greatest centers for herpetological research in the country, if not the world.
Over these few first, short months I’ve received nothing but support from students and colleagues, making the transition from student to employed researcher nearly seamless. This support has afforded me the flexibility to take on the responsibilities associated with managing a collection of more than 340,000 herpetological natural history specimens, while simultaneously wrapping up dissertation work towards a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology.
With the aid of a stellar group of undergraduate volunteers, an incredible curatorial assistant, and a cohort of graduate students that are second to none, we’ve been able to close outstanding loans of material that are years and even decades past due. We’ve also accessioned and incorporated into our collections several thousand specimens of amphibians and reptiles from the Philippines, Kansas (US), and Madagascar. Over the next few months, we’ll be doing the same for recent collections from the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Cameroon. Additional projects on the horizon include continued digitization of specimen photographs, calls, and other ancillary data, and a complete inventory of our tissue and dry collections.
I’m very much looking forward building on the storied history of herpetology at the University of Kansas. From modernizing the use of the collection, to maintaining it’s availability for researchers in the international community, and even contributing to it directly through my own research endeavors, I hope to play an integral roll in the future of herpetology here at KU.
In additon to the diverse ecology, rich cuisine, and wonderful coffee, Costa Rica is admired for its colorful culture. Diverse gifts, from woven hammocks to handmade ceramics, reflect this. On our way back to San Jose we stopped in Sarchi, a town referred to as Costa Rica’s handicrafts capital. Inside one of the local shops was El Galeron de los Pintores, where several local artists hand-paint intricate designs on a variety of art pieces.
Among the art on display were selections of full-size and miniature oxcarts, or carretas, decorated in an array of bright colors. These recall traditional oxcarts used in Costa Rica during the 19th century. As the demand and production of coffee grew, carretas became the primary means to hauling goods from plantations. In the early 20th century, people began painting the carts with colorful displays. Since everything is done by hand, no two are exactly alike. Nowadays the carts are reserved for special occasions, such as the Oxcart Drivers Day held annually in Escazu.
The carretas, a national symbol, represent a unique aspect of the history of Costa Rica. The people of Costa Rica live to the motto pura vida, meaning pure life, a simple phrase with a profound meaning. The display of bright colors on arts and crafts perfectly captures the country’s vibrant culture and lifestyle.
Today we had a day of fieldwork capped off with an insightful talk discussing ecotourism as a tool for conservation. It was conducted by the general manager of the University of Georgia-Costa Rica, Fabricio Comacho. He presented with passion, as he is heavily involved with sustainable development in his home country of Costa Rica. Fabricio touched upon how ecotourism in Costa Rica is an integral part of the country’s income. He stressed how sustainable attractions impact the very environment tourists come to see. Water stress, for example, was a key issue that Fabricio said became more problematic than other issues in recent times. As development increases in rural regions of Costa Rica, the demand for water stresses many of the fragile ecosystems surrounding large resorts or hotels, and therefore also stresses the organisms trying to survive in those areas. Fabricio also mentioned other important component of sustainable development, including the creation of biological corridors, and the nationwide switch to renewable sources of energy. Costa Rica currently boasts approximately %90 of its energy as strictly renewable and aims to be %100 carbon independent by 2030. Seeing this level of respect for the natural environment in the people I met in Costa Rica made me realize what is possible when there is a nation-wide effort in maintaining the health of the environment. From the standpoint of an American living in a much larger and carbon-hungry nation, I felt saddened and more aware of the apparent apathy the U.S. as a whole applies to the concept of environmental sustainability.
While researching my previous blog A Dry Rainforest? I learned that Costa Rica is having a more extreme dry season than most and is actually experiencing a drought. To the untrained eye (like mine and most tourists) the forest appears fine; the plants are green and the lack of rain is assumed to be due to the dry season. For those familiar with rainforests, however, the signs are everywhere. Plants have fewer new growths than usual, deciduous trees have lost many of their leaves, and there have been many days with no precipitation at all. The cloud forest in Monteverde, normally a place of constant precipitation even in dry seasons, has received no precipitation for the past five days.
The drought has consequences reaching far beyond the rainforest. Hydroelectric dams generate approximately 82% of Costa Rica’s energy. The dropping water levels caused by the drought result in less water pressure to power the dams, reducing their total hydroelectric power. Costa Ricans must compensate by shifting to fossil fuels, hindering their goal to become the world’s first carbon neutral nation by 2021. It is believed that this drought is the result of a severe El Niño – the same weather system bringing floods to southern California – but the effect is exacerbated by recent climate trends. Global climate change has affected the region by increasing the number of completely dry days during the dry season. Since 2011 the area began experiencing over 100 dry days a year. Ironically, Costa Rica’s forced use of more fossil fuels only exacerbates the issue. If they are to achieve carbon neutral status, Costa Ricans (and the entire global population) will need to find a way to avoid regressing towards using fossil fuels.
In class I learned to classify a rainforest as a forest that receives ample precipitation throughout the year. I was confused then to find out that the Carara National Forest, while still a vibrant green, is currently in its dry season. We learned that there are different formations, or classifications, of rainforests that depend on factors including climate, soil, and elevation. Carara, for example, is a seasonal forest because it experiences a wet and dry season.
The seasonal changes in Carara are not due to Earth’s axial tilt, like the seasons we are used to in temperate climates. Instead, the seasons are a result of wind patterns over the mountainous continental divide. During the summer strong trade winds drive clouds from the Caribbean side of Costa Rica over the continental divide to the Pacific side. On their journey up the mountains the clouds lose much of their precipitation and create a rain shadow effect in Pacific forests like Carara. In the winter, the trade winds die down and allow clouds from the Pacific side to rise up over the central mountains, thus beginning the wet season.
Photo credit: Tracey Funk
On a night hike at the University of Georgia field station, I encountered a hairy friend, Edith. Edith is a Costa Rican Orange-Kneed Tarantula (Brachypelma smithi) that has inhabited a miniature triangular cave for the past year. Female tarantulas live up to 20 years, and occupy a cave or burrow where they wait to ambush unsuspecting prey.
Bradley Hiatt, our night hike guide and a resident naturalist, explained that Edith had been sitting on her egg sac for 6 months. Only one baby tarantula could be found beneath Edith’s wooly legs, the rest left the burrow after their first molt. The male tarantulas pursue females, so they have a lower survival rate than the females who wait in their burrows.
Costa Rican Orange-Kneed Tarantulas are omnivorous and will eat anything, from insects to small rodents. Irritating hairs on the tarantula’s body are used for protection and to catch prey. When attacked, a tarantula will flick the hairs off into a cloud of dust and hairs so it can quickly escape. Edith has been attacked and used these flicking hairs; the evidence is the bald spot on her abdomen. If the tarantula is backed into a corner, it will perform a threat display before biting its attacker with its malicious fangs. This tarantula species’ bite is not lethal to humans but you may have a nasty wound or allergic reaction.
Edith is one of many extraordinary creatures I observed in Costa Rica. Seeing Edith in her natural habitat positively impacted my perception of peculiar or misinterpreted organisms.
On Tuesday morning we traveled to hike at Carara National park, near Punta Leona. Our nature guide for the day, Maurice Vasquez told us about his line of work and its required education. Maurice has worked in the park for 18 years. He explained the challenging path to become a nature guide in Costa Rica. Certified guides have a unique I.D. indicating they received proper training in Costa Rican biology and culture, environmental and social ethics, communication, first aid, and education. This impressive array of communicative skills was gained while working toward a post-bachelor's degree in a biological field for three years, which is required to become a guide. Maurice told us he is fluent in Spanish, English, German, and French. He explained that he attended university in Hamburg and took up German there. Maurice's dedication to his career and to wildlife was contagious, and he stopped and taught anyone he could while on the trails. I think he is the embodiment of Costa Rica's motto "pure life." He really seemed to embrace the astounding biodiversity of the country with pride.
En route to Jaco from San Jose there is a bridge over the Rio Tarcoles made famous from the large population of American Crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) that gather down below. The bridge has become a popular ecotourist stop, and after going there I see why. The bridge is just wide enough that people can exit their cars and walk alongside the road. We counted 26 enormous crocodiles in the water below us!
The reason for the large population is unclear, but their presence is evidence of the respect Costa Ricans hold for the environment. The crocodiles thrive because they are protected by the Costa Rican government. In 2012, a law was unanimously passed to ban all sport-hunting in Costa Rica. Not only was this the first law of its kind in the Americas, but it was also the first bill in Costa Rica to be proposed by popular initiative. Because of the widespread value Costa Ricans place on their environment, there is a large public movement to protect wildlife. The petition for the law submitted to Congress had 177,000 signatures.
While exploring Lankester Botanical Gardens, we came across a Yucca tree. Yucca is a genus in the Asparagaceae family, comprising an estimated 50 species. Yucca is native throughout Central America and in parts of South America. Due to its high adaptability, yuccas are often spotted in diverse climatic and ecological conditions. Its most notable characteristics are the branching blade-like leaves and when in bloom and assortment of white flowers. The assembly of the leaves creates a canal system for water to travel to the roots for storage. Most species also encompass a dense, waxy coating that assists in preventing water loss.
Yuccas are typically cultivated as garden and even architectural plants. The yucca flower is the national flower of El Salvador and it is often brought to cemeteries. Many parts of the yucca are edible, from the seeds to the flowers. In Costa Rica, for instance, the flowers are cooked with eggs for a traditional dish, especially during Holy Week and Easter. In Native American cultures, the roots of the Yucca elata, also known as the soaptree, are used as a shampooing agent. In other cultures, dried yucca leaves serve as a handy apparatus to start fires. Just as there are a wide variety of species in this genus, there is an equal diversity of uses by different cultures.
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.