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.
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.
Going on a study abroad program for field research can be a great opportunity for Biology majors, especially those that are Organismal biology or Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. On trips like this you can get field experience, conduct some of your own research, and get funding for your research and the trip through awards. Normally you would start a personal research project based on your personal interest (herpetology, ornithology, etc.), but sometimes on trips like these because of it being a first time and because of permits, it may be easier to find a research project in the field that the professor leading the course is focusing on. For example, although I am primarily interested in herpetology (study of reptiles and amphibians) because I am not too familiar with permits yet I have been conducting research on insects -- the professor I have gone on the study abroad trips with is an entomologist (studies insects).
So to begin, I would suggest meeting with your professor that is leading the trip and ask if they have any projects that you can do personally in mind, or to try and come up with your own research idea based on the research the professor concentrates on. From there you can come up with a research proposal to collect your ideas/info on what you want to research and how you are going to perform that research, and to present for obtaining research awards. At KU, good places to look for ways to fund your research are the Center for Undergraduate Research’s Undergraduate Research Award (UGRA), which is offered for the spring, summer, and fall semesters, and at the various awards that are posted on the undergraduate biology website. The ways to apply for these awards will be listed and are easy to follow. After applying and while waiting on the awards you have time to plan out the specifics of your research pertaining to the trip such as what traps you need to get, how you will collect the specimens, etc.
After the awards come through, which hopefully they will, you can then go out and get these things you will need for your research and the trip. During the trip you perform the basics of your research and collections, then after this is done you will change your research proposal to a manuscript and fill in the data for the research and extra information as you go along processing your collections and information. When finished with the manuscript you can then try to get it published and give presentations on your data either at KU or other places as well.
A common expectation in education involves accepting the information delivered in lectures and conveyed in textbooks. Students must accept that complicated chemical reactions proceed as described in the literature or that their ecology professor accurately describes how a rainforest functions. After all, authors and professors providing these educational materials devote their lives to investigating these subjects; why would anyone doubt their credulity? However, this often means that students are deprived of direct contact, only learning things indirectly via photographs or perhaps video footage as visual aids. I was exhilarated to witness one such phenomenon while touring the University of Costa Rica where the campus is filled with the extensively researched and tropically endemic leaf-cutting ants. Prior to this field expedition, I had only read of these extraordinarily complicated specimens and learned of them in KU biology courses like Principles of Organismal Biology (BIOL 152) and Evolutionary Biology (BIOL 412).
Leaf-cutter ants are tropical creatures that chew off the foliage of plants and transport the leaves back to their nest where they use the leaves to cultivate a fungus garden. In the picture above, you can see a group of leaf-cutter ants transporting nutritional leaves into their nest to cultivate their fungus garden. These colonies can consist of up to four million individuals. This fungus garden is what the ant colony uses to feed their maturing larvae.
This animal-fungus relationship is a typical example of a phenomenon called mutualism in which two species directly interact with each other in ways that substantially benefits both parties. However, this system is even more interestingly intricate. A separate, microscopic fungus, which I will refer to as a mold for the sake of distinction, parasitizes the fungus garden that the ants depend on for food. In response to this pest, these gardener ants have developed a pesticide to treat their garden to kill the mold. Within the crevices of the ant’s exoskeleton, colonies of antibiotic-producing bacteria reside and synthesize chemicals that prevent the garden from being destroyed by the parasitic mold. This interaction is suspected to have coevolved along with ants during their evolutionary history (Currie et al. 2006).
When this quadripartite system of symbiotic relationships was discovered, it excited biologists due to its embodiment of several different biological phenomena—mutualism, parasitism, and coevolution. Indeed, this system remains a developing corner of research and proves to be even more complicated than originally thought. It is exciting to observe a famous textbook model during my travel in Costa Rica.
Reference: Cameron R. Currie, Michael Poulsen, John Mendenhall, Jacobus J. Boomsma, and Johan Billen. “Coevolved Crypts and Exocrine Glands Support Mutualistic Bacteria in Fungus-Growing Ants.” Science 6 January 2006: 311 (5757), 81-83. [DOI:10.1126/science.1119744]
When most people think of herding, an image of a cowboy walking a herd of cattle across an open plain often comes to mind. The insect world, however, has a far more intriguing example of herding.
Despite having been in Costa Rica for only a few days, several groups of herding ants have been discovered in the various sites that the group visited. Looking from an outsider’s perspective, there seemed to be nothing more than a small size group of animals nestled together under the branch of a tree. Upon closer inspection however, one can truly appreciate the naturalistic relationship between the herding ants and their “cattle.” While out on the University of Costa Rica campus, the first group of herding ants was uncovered (see photo at left, by Kyle Clark). The animals being herded were the larval( or nymph) form of Florida, burrowers that dig into the branches to suck the nectar out of the tree. Because the branch contains high amounts of water, the bugs that are absorbing nutrients from the branch release a large volume of sugar filled urine. As these larvae suck out and secrete the excess sap for the ants to consume, the ants patrol the branch, protecting their herd from danger. The larvae continue to eat, the low nutrition-to-liquid ratio quickly leads to an excess of sugary liquid that develop around the animal’s rear. The patrolling ants can then “milk” their cattle, consuming the nectar off the larvae’s body.
The following day, the exact same interaction between more herding ants and aphids were observed on the stem of another small plant (see photo by John Kaiser, below). This "ant herding" interaction between the two species is a text book example of mutualism because both the organisms benefit greatly from the others exisistence and production. Relationships like these are truly fascinating to us because it shows how two organisms can co-evolve to survive and be successful! - Kyle Clark and John Kaiser
Costa Rica has approximately 110 out of 1,100 species of bats. Out of all the species of mammals in Costa Rica, bats make up approximately 50% of the mammals found in the country.
There are several different types of bats, classified by their diets. Found only in Central and South American countries, there is Desmodus rotundus, or the common vampire bat, which is a sanguivore, meaning they consume blood. There are also nectarvores, which eat the nectar of nocturnal flowers and are major pollinators. Fruitivores are fruit eating bats, and finally, carnivore bats, which eat frogs, insects, fish, and even other bats. Costa Rica is home to all of these kind of bats.
In 2006 renowned bat biologist Richard LaVal opened the Bat Jungle, a world-class bat exhibit. The attraction includes a microphone that can pick up on ultrasonic sound waves, allowing their guests to hear when the bats echolocate, a bat cave with 100 bats. They have feedings scheduled throughout the day and have a small bat that cannot fly that guests can see up close and personal.
Scattered around the reception area are several posters with lots of bat information, ranging from common misconceptions to skeletal structures of popular bat species.
After one long week of no bat sightings, we finally to got to see some bats. Our tour guide impressed me greatly. He was very well informed on current bat information. During the tour he told the group about the white fungus issue happening in North America and about the nearest information on how scientists are finally able to treat bats with it. This information was released about two weeks ago, so it was very current and a good thing to share when touring with a group of biologists. Our guide took us into the bat cave, which was amazing, and held a flashlight on the bats for us to get pictures of them. He even feed them so our group could see them dive in for some watermelon chunks.
After we left the bat cave he brought out Oscar, the little bat who couldn't fly, and allowed our group to pet him to feel his tiny body shake from his rapid heartbeat. As an aspiring bat biologist, this tour was the highlight of the trip so far.
Photos by Vickie Grotbeck and Kayla Yi
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?
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!
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!).
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.