Blogs

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Warm Welcome to the Tropics

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

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After our time spent marveling over the natural wonders of Costa Rica, I remained for another week to explore its cultural side a little more. My time travelling alone in Costa Rica led me to a much greater appreciation of its residents.

Everyone seemed eager to help in any way they could, from small favors and gifts to even just taking the time to try and talk to you, something that has become a rarity. Even though I could barely speak the language, warm conversations with taxi drivers, with waiters and waitresses, and even strangers on the bus were to be expected, and I realized this is sadly lacking from my life in America.

When I left my camera on a public bus, a woman hurriedly followed me off to return it to me, a kindness I would never expect. On more than one occasion, perfect strangers intervened on my behalf. Perhaps there were other dynamics at work that I was unaware of, but having traveled abroad before, my experiences have never been so overwhelmingly positive.

In addition to being more friendly, people seemed more outwardly happy. I think this may have something to do with the beautiful, lush landscape of the country. Who could be unhappy in such a picturesque setting?
This outgoing, cheerful and friendly attitude is possibly the most memorable thing I’ve experienced here, and it’s certainly something worth holding onto as I return to my daily life in the States.  
 

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Rich Coast

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.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Volcanology

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Carpe Diem

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

Botanist Willow Zuchowski joined us on one hike through the Monteverde Biological Reserve.  I learned more about identifying plant families from her in five minutes than I did in the first week and a half.  Willow is from the United States and moved here after her bachelors degree to work on a hummingbird project; she loved Monteverde and Costa Rica so much that that turned from a year and a half to three years to living here for the past 30 years.  She actually does not have a masters degree or a PhD.  What she does have is the motivation and interest to learn about her field in a non-traditional setting.  She has been a field assistant on many projects here and her colleagues here respect her knowledge without a formal graduate degree.  She has travelled back to the states a few times to take courses in biological illustration and desktop publishing because she is interested in those things.  She has now illustrated and co-authored a book called An Introduction to Cloud Forest Trees: Monteverde, Costa Rica

The moral of this story is that if you love something enough and are motivated enough, you can make it happen.  I intend to "carpe diem" by going on many more study abroad trips to see the world, and I may even find a place that I want to settle down like Willow did.  Carpe diem everyone.  Seize the day.

Left to right: Willow Zuchowski, Dr. Chaboo, Willow’s husband Bill, and Kenji Nishida

Friday, June 26, 2015

Aftermath

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

My experiences in Costa Rica were unforgettable. I have learned much about myself, the world, and about field biology. The past two weeks have been not only incredibly informative, but lots of fun as well.

Field biology is vigorous; it really makes you realize your limits. Getting muddy and hiking on rather steep trails is difficult. Going off trail to collect specimens that are behind several other plants is hard. Despite all this, it is also rewarding, getting some rare insect in your collection jar or seeing something incredibly rare on a leaf; it is all something that you will never forget. I will never forget seeing a beetle larvae eating a snail, nor the first time I aspirated my first bugs.

My cultural experiences abroad were also enlightening. It was amazing to see how other countries are, from their societal conventions to how they view Americans. I met one person from Costa Rica, he shared much insight into how young adults behave, along with views on culture, both his own and how he views Americans. I have a whole new respect for how tolerant people are, and was pleasantly surprised at how Americans were treated.

Now that I am back in the United Sates I have noticed a few changes in my behavior. I have noticed myself being more active; I take my dog on more regular walks, especially in the morning. I find that I have been craving the food we had while in Costa Rica, ranging from the delicious rice and chicken to the fried platanos. I plan to learn how to make some of the things we ate, and I also plan on keeping up my personal fitness. I hope to participate in another study abroad experience, this experience has opened my eyes to many new experiences, and now I want more.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Vanishing Act

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.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Searching for the Art of Science

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.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Climate trends in Kansas and Costa Rica

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. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Careless Travels: The Return to "Home"

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

As an Army brat, the concept of home is an idea that differs drastically from the views held by many of my classmates. Since the day I was born, my family has moved around to countless different locations, stayed a few months to possibly a few years, then packed up everything and left. As such, a single location that I can call home is completely foreign to me.

Take, for example, this new place that I am living at now. It’s an army base in Wiesbaden, Germany, a place that I have never seen before in my life. My dog is here, all the stuff that I decided not to bring to college is here, and even my family whom I have not seen in over ten months is here. I’ve lived here for less time than I’ve lived in Costa Rica, yet I already consider this place to be my home. When I told this to several of my classmates, they found this to be absolutely implausible. How could a home be a place I’d never seen before? To me, I’ve always found a home to be a place that makes me comfortable, a place that I can come home to after a hard day and just relax.

This brings me to my trip in Costa Rica. 

Every single day I would undergo some new thrill, some new adventure that very few people get the opportunity to enjoy, from playing with local dogs that randomly decided to include us in their pack, to spotting a sloth on a walk down to the beach, all the way to discovering how some of the best coffee in the Western Hemisphere is prepared. Although I was given the opportunity to do this, a new discovery or adventure is nothing without people to uncover it with.

My classmates were without a doubt an important part of this voyage, from their roles in uncovering exciting new sights out in the wild to being roommates for two straight weeks. Although many wanted to get out of Costa Rica by the end of the two weeks, I was ready to stick it through for quite a while more. Costa Rica had become a place of new friends, vast stores of knowledge and countless adventures. Which brings me back to the ultimate point of this blog post; Costa Rica had become, without a doubt, my home for the past two weeks.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Hummingbirds: the vampires of the plant world

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

A single flower lay out in the Costa Rican jungle, peacefully photosynthesizing and opening its petals in an effort to attract its arthropod pollinator. The woods were quiet except for the occasional rustling from a KU Field Biology class that was inexplicably tearing apart flowers in the nearby vicinity.

Suddenly, a flurry of wings appeared out of nowhere, beating with enough force to convince an uneducated individual that what you were hearing was an angry wasp. If a plant were capable of thought, it would understand that the horrible droning in the air was not coming from a measly wasp but from something much more horrifying. The plant would understand that it had become the victim of the hummingbird, otherwise known as the Vampire of the Plant world! Horrified, the plant could do nothing but remain still as the hummingbird plunged its ferocious bill into the depths of the flower and lap up all of its precious nectar before zooming off into the jungle to find its next victim

For those who don’t know much about hummingbirds, allow me to shed some light on this ferocious species, but be warned; vampires like having light shed on them just about as much as I like vampires. The hummingbird is a common bird species found throughout the New World where it can often be seen out in the wild, sucking the vital nectar from local flowers. The hummingbird’s metabolism is incredibly high and typically requires a single bird to consume up to three times its body weight in nectar on any given day. Smaller hummingbirds will also often substantiate their diets with alternate food sources, terrorizing insects when the larger and more territorial hummingbirds claim nearby flowers as their own. The energy garnered from this is used up almost immediately as it is diverted into the hummingbird’s wings, which can beat up to 100 times a minute according to a Monteverde guide.