Friday, June 12, 2015
Kristen Bontrager

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.

Friday, June 12, 2015
Caroline Chaboo

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.

Musa velutina, an introduced ornamental banana growing in Costa Rica
Musa velutina seeds are viable, unlike the bananas we eat
Bird food!

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Friday, June 12, 2015
Tim Mayes

Tim MayesBefore 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.

Friday, June 12, 2015
Kayla Yi

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.

Friday, June 12, 2015
Vivek Patel

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.

Friday, June 12, 2015
Alexander Barbour

McDonalds in CRThe 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. 

Friday, June 12, 2015
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

Prior to colonization by the Spanish, Costa Rica did not have a single, unified ancient society, as was seen in other Latin American countries with civilizations such as the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas. Instead, the country consisted of isolated tribes, living in peaceful abundance and harmony with nature, each with their own unique culture.

These tribes used the bounty of their land to develop advanced systems of agriculture, ceramics, and metalworking. Some developed skilled techniques for casting gold into jewelry, religious icons, and symbolic representations, particularly of animals. We saw several examples of this amazing goldsmithing at the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum in downtown San Jose.

This system of isolated ‘chiefdoms’ proved to be an advantage when faced with the threat of Spanish conquest. Although colonization wreaked havoc on the country’s natives, as it did all across the New World, the effects were less violent. Many tribes were able to flee to the Southern edge of the country, where they still reside today, and others were integrated into the new Spanish colonies.

After a few weeks in Costa Rica, I started to wonder how the country’s remarkably nonviolent history has contributed to its current state. It seems to me that the citizens of Costa Rica are overwhelmingly peaceful and good-natured, and there is little crime, I’m told, even in urban centers. In fact, Costa Rica even abolished its military over 70 years ago.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Kristen Bontrager

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Many years ago I spent one summer learning the flora of Kansas prairies during a systematic botany course. I learned hundreds of plant families, their ecological importance to Kansas, and which species were native and which were introduced. Currently I study prairie composition. I thought this Kansas-focused knowledge would be useless in Costa Rica because I anticipated knowing little about the flora of the tropical rainforest.                    

To my surprise, I discovered many remarkable similarities between the floras of Costa Rica and Kansas. Costa Rica has a lot of pasture land, which means, that there are a lot of different species of grasses, as in Kansas. This is strange to me because Kansas has a dry continental climate with low rainfall, in contrast to Costa Rica’s Tropical climate with high annual precipitation. This following diagram on the right shows the peak temperatures and precipitation in Kansas.

Costa Rica however has the least amount of rainfall in June with the rainy season beginning in August; the graph at the bottom shows average rainfall and temperature of both San Jose and Monteverde.  The temperature of Costa Rica at varying elevations is consistent with varying rainy patterns whereas Kansas experiences true seasons of varying temperature. This knowledge brings to light the question of how many plants of the same genus can survive in both Kansas in Costa Rica with such extreme differences in year round weather. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Caroline Chaboo

I am Caroline Chaboo, Director of this 2015 program to Costa Rica.  Normally, I head to Peru every June with students.  However, this year Costa Rica is on the menu due to several factors and opportunities. The University of Costa Rica and the University of Kansas have a long established relationship of collaboration in research, education and visits.  This program is supported by KU's Office of International Programs.

In 2014, I expanded one aspect of my Peru research, arthropod communities on Zingiberales plants, and sought a  second site for comparative study.  Two UCR colleagues, one I met more than 10 years ago, developed a grant proposal which was funded.  One UCR collaborator visited KU recently (his first visit to the USA). Our plan is to develop a Central American site and study the diversity (taxonomic and food web relations) of the arthropods that are associated with these distinctive Zingiberales plants (familiar ones are bananas and ginger, but flowers are also sold in shops).

The field course program developed as a way to initiate a joint education program alongside the larger research so we could bring KU and UCR students together, conducting research towards their first scientific publication as they gained exposure to rich tropical habitats and acquired several field skills. 

Some KU participants opted to pursue grants for research, which they were awarded. We have met several times to discuss everything, from travel medicine to hiking shoes.  I am excited to renew collaborations with the excellent UCR biology faculty and to expose KU students to Costa Rica = "rich coast" = rich biodiversity. 

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Kaitlin Neill

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 day after our arrival in Costa Rica, we went to a volcano!!  We went to Irazu Volcano National Park (here is a map of the volcanoes of Central America; this one was number 28). It is still an active volcano.  The last time it erupted was in 1963 and happened to coincided with former US President John F. Kennedy visiting the country .  The last activity was in 1996.  Irazu is the tallest volcano in Costa Rica, reaching over 11,000 ft!  While there, we saw our first mammal of the trip: a coati! 

The volcanoes in Central America are part of the ring of fire, a ring of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean.  The volcanoes are closely spaces and easily accessible, as well as running generally parallel to the Cocos Plate (a tectonic plate).  Those factors make Central America a great place to study geochemical variance, especially those caused by plate tectonics.  

Later that day, we went to a coffee plantation that had a pool fed by a hot spring!  John Kaiser translated what the owner was telling us about the processing of coffee.  They grew some of their coffee on hills that were stair-stepped (pictured below).   When walking down from the processing building, we saw a rock with carvings from the aboriginal people!  The hot spring pool had quite a view.