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?
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.
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.
During our visit to the University of Costa Rica campus, we had some time to explore a small area outside the Biology building. As I’m interested in spiders, I had a look around to see what I could find. Given the incredible biodiversity in Costa Rica, I expected to find a few specimens. However, I found amazing diversity even in the small area we explored. On a single tree, both a hunting spider (Figure 1) and several orb weavers (Figure 2) could be found. It seemed that every structure that could support a web had at least one arachnid resident. One tree even hosted a small aggregation of spiders (Figure 3), which I had never gotten the opportunity to personally see before. The sheer number of species that could be found in a cursory survey was simply astounding.
While I was surprised by the diversity of the spiders in the area, I noticed that despite being thousands of miles away from Kansas, many common traits could be found between spiders from the two regions. While I cannot say with complete certainty without examining specimens under a microscope exactly what genera some of these spiders belonged to, but many showed morphological characteristics that I had seen in field work in Kansas before. Micrathena is a genus of spider that has a carapace with characteristic spikes. A spider with such spikes was living between two of the trees (Figure 4). Another genus, Cyclosa, was likely represented as well (Figure 5). These spiders use parts of prey and plants to decorate their web as camouflage, as can be seen in the attached picture.
Costa Rica has an incredible level of biodiversity and seeing just how many species can be found in an area has been an unforgettable experience. However, recognizing genera of spiders from previous fieldwork has shown me that while not every country can have as diverse of wildlife as Costa Rica has, you can see some pretty amazing animals in your own backyard. - Eric Becker
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.
Because of Hannah’s broad interest in Herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) and our shared general love for animals, we always pay attention to the fauna around us when we travel to such a biodiverse place as Costa Rica.
When we began our trip in San Jose during our stay at Ave del Paraiso, there were geckos near most of the places you looked. During our drive from San Jose to Manuel Antonio, we stopped at a bridge famous for being a resting spot for multiple crocodiles at a time. It was a very interesting sight to see not only the amount of crocodiles resting so close to a semi-populated area, but also how many people were stopping to attempt to catch a glimpse of them.
When we went further into the rainforest for our stay around Manuel Antonio National Park in the lowlands, there were some geckos, but iguanas were the most likely creatures to spot, even if you were just hanging out by a pool. During our visit to the park we came upon some herpetologists studying the impact of tourism on the iguanas there. This was an intriguing topic, and makes sense to study due to the fact that when walking the trails in the park I came across multiple different breeds of iguanas on the path. They did not run from me until I was roughly a foot away which is quite a bit closer that I’ve been able to get to lizards in less touristy areas. The researchers' topic also plays into a local article I read about the crocodiles being forced out of their natural habitat and into more populated areas because tourists want to travel to more secluded areas.
As you move to higher elevation there are fewer reptiles to spot immediately but the amphibians in Monteverde seem to be well studied. When we first came to Monteverde we met Dr. Alan Pounds who has done revolutionary work on the extinction of the golden toad, which was endemic to Monteverde until it became extinct in the late 1980’s. This work reflects our continuous need for and marks some of the beginnings of conservation biology. This extinction shows the need for climate change study, which many biologists are dealing with today in all different aspects.
-Tim Mayes and Hannah Boyd
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
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.
Currently, we are staying at the field station within the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The reserve is covered in hiking trails that snake across the mountains in every direction. The southernmost path will lead you to the continental divide. This geographical feature spreads from the northern Alaskan shore to the southern shore of Argentina, and is comprised of various mountain chains. We are most familiar with the Rocky Mountains which make up the American portion.
The name continental divide is derived from the transactional nature of the mountains. The continuous chains of mountains separate the Americas into two watersheds which empty either into the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. The patterns of weather throughout the Americans can be attributed to the moisture rolling off each side of the divide.
Tuesday morning the group walked the trail to the continental divide. The hike was about 2 kilometers (that's 1.24 miles for those back home), and took approximately thirty minutes. For the majority of the hike, we traveled through dense cloud forest, but once we approached the top of the mountain the canopy gave way to wind sculpted shrubs and stout trees. Without the protection of the larger trees, we felt the full power of the trade winds. The bellowing winds sprayed our faces with rain at 50-65 kilometers an hour (about 30-40 miles an hour). The winds pulled the clouds over the mountain tops, and spilled them into the valleys.
Apparently, we were quite lucky to experience such forceful winds. Trade winds normally occur in December when the rainy season gives way to the dry season. The strange weather could be attributed to the shifting weather patterns Monteverde is currently experiencing.
Images: top, Panorama of the Continental Divide; middle, Alex at the Divide; bottom, a clowning Jake holding Tim, who is playing the part of Rose in Titatic.
As I mentioned in my introduction, I am working on my own project in addition to the research we are doing as a group. During our time in Monteverde, I’ll be setting out traps to see if parasitoid wasps in Costa Rica are attracted to a chemical called cantharidin. Cantharidin is a toxic chemical produced by blister beetles and false blister beetles as a defense (Hashimoto & Hayashi). Previous similar experiments captured a few of these wasps, but not nearly enough to definitively establish that some are attracted to cantharidin. At the suggestion of Paul Hanson, a professor studying hymenopterans (ants, bees, and wasps), I started planning an experiment to discover if any could be found.
Earlier in the summer, I set several traps in prairie areas of the KU Field Station, but a cloud forest in Costa Rica is considerably different from the grasslands the traps were originally designed for. A few elements had to be changed from the original trap to be better suited for the new environment. The initial traps were inverted funnel traps made of 2 liter soda bottles with cantharidin-impregnated filter paper as bait. An inverted funnel trap works on the idea that many insects will be able to climb into a hole, but will fly straight up when trying to escape. Having a small hole allows insects to enter, but prevents them from leaving. The bottle was made into a trap by cutting off the top where it starts to curve, then putting it upside down. In both locations, I put alcohol in the bottom of the trap to kill whatever insects landed in the bottom and then preserve them until they could be collected. Traps were attached to a wooden stake with waterproof duct tape to ensure they would stay upright.
The big difference between the traps was how I dealt with the issue of keeping the bait dry. I was told that filter paper holding the bait could not get wet. In Kansas, I focused on minimizing the problems caused by water getting the traps. To keep the bait dry, I suspended it from a wooden dowel put through holes in the side of the trap. With the bait in a safe place, I only had to prevent the trap from flooding. To do this, I made a few holes slightly above where the alcohol was and covered it with mesh to allow any excess liquid, likely rainwater, to drain out. In Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to prevent rain from entering the trap at all. To accomplish this, I made several rain covers using garbage bags, duct tape, and twine. This allowed me to suspend the bait with a strip from a ziplock bag and some tape. The advantage of this method is that I can put the bait directly under the hole in the trap, which makes it more attractive to insects. These traps can be seen in Figure 1.
One thing to note is that with the exception of the bait, all the materials used in the traps can be purchased at a grocery store for a few dollars. Science experiments don’t have to cost a fortune to carry out. A few household products and a little bit of preparation can answer plenty of questions.
Hashimoto, K. and Hayashi, F. (2014) Cantharidin world in nature: a concealed arthropod assemblage with interactions via the terpenoid cantharidin. Entomological Science 17: 388-395.
Image: Insect trap set-up used at all three sites in Costa Rica (Photo credit: Eric Becker)