Friday, June 12, 2015

Bad Banana: Beautiful plant going bad?

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!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Update on Dormitory Housing for SSAR 2015

Still looking for a place to stay for the SSAR 2015 meetings in Lawrence? We still have space in the dormitories at prices ranging from $40-60 per person per night. All dormitory rooms must be reserved at least one week prior to the start of the meeting and will not be available for walk-ups. Because we have already sent out notices for room-mate preferences, we also may not be able to accommodate matches with preferred room-mates for late sign-ups. If you did not sign up for dormitory lodging at the time of registration you can still add a reservation to your registration by contacting the registration professionals available at (785) 864-5823 or toll free (877) 404-5823. Some photographs of the dormitory might give you a better idea of what life there will be like.

Dormitory lounge

The lounge on the first level of the GSP dormitory.

Entraceway to the dormitory rooms at GSP.

Double room in the GSP dormitory. Bedding will be provided to all attendees to sign up for a dormitory bed.

Shared bathroom in the GSP dormitory. Private baths are not available for guests in the dormitories.

Shared bathrooms in the GSP dormitory have private shower stalls.

Breakfast is included in the price of dormitory rooms and will be served in the "North College Cafe" dining area on the ground level of the GSP dormitory.

View from the porch of the GSP dormitory. The tall building in the background is the Oread Hotel, which will host numerous meeting events. The Kansas Union is just beyond the Oread. All meeting venues are a short walk from the dormitory.

View from the porch of the dormitory looking back toward downtown Lawrence. The large buildings in the middle of this frame are in downtown Lawrence.


Monday, July 13, 2015


Anyone wanting to participate in a field expedition must have a spirit for adventure, adaptability, and curiosity. Any travel takes one out of the familiar comfort zone; but if a participant is not happy, it negatively affects the entire group.  My task in selecting participants is tough, trying to determine the above qualities and the fit with the group (both for travel and in teams collecting data).  The biggest test comes usually with the first day of hiking —are you physically fit to hike for several hours?  Or, with the first rainfall—will you complain when we get caught in the rain?  Some students daydream of doing international fieldwork, but only when we try it out can we be sure that long hours with wet clothes and a soggy lunch are trivial compared to the exhilaration of being in the field, doing field research.  Fieldwork is not for every biologist; it is okay.....and okay to learn this sooner than later.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
Fieldwork goes on, rain or shine!
Daneil taking a break for lunch, during a shower
KU students in thermal spring pool, Costa Rica

Friday, June 12, 2015

Welcome to Villa Vanilla

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.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Food for Thought, part 2

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

On the way from San Jose to Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast, our group visited a spice farm, the Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation, to learn about sustainable farming practices that are used there. One of the spices they produce is vanilla. Vanilla is derived from three different types of orchid, all from the genus Vanilla. While orchids are the largest group of plants on Earth, only one genus is edible. The flowers of the vanilla orchid must be pollinated by hand in order to produce fruit, the vanilla bean. As one might imagine, it is a fairly labor intensive process.

In fact, a majority of spice production is very labor intensive. At this farm, we observed cinnamon, the inner back of the cinnamon tree Cinnamomum verum, being harvested by a machete. Then the shavings are placed in a tray to be placed in a large dryer. The final result are the curled cinnamon sticks which can also be powdered.

We also saw their production of allspice, Pimenta dioica, a spice commonly used in pumpkin pies and Caribbean cuisine. The berries were set out in small batches in the sun to dry alongside several other types of spices. With such small batches, the production of each spice could be monitored individually. Even the fruit from the cocoa pods, Theobroma cacao, was fermented in the sun and occasionally mixed by hand. All of these plants, from the vanilla to the cinnamon to the cocoa tree were fertilized with compost made on site. There were no chemicals treatments or machinery and very little, if any, as wasted.

The amount of time and care put into the farm was incredible, but it also brings up a question about our own consumption of goods. With nearly 8 billion people on earth, small scale sustainable farming simply cannot keep up with demand. Documentaries such as Food Inc. discuss the culture of excess and wastefulness that exists in modern society but farms like Villa Vanilla are taking a stance against this movement of mass production. Hopefully in time, other farms will begin to go more green!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Food for Thought

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.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ecotourism in Monteverde

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

During our final week in Costa Rica, our group traveled from San Jose to Monteverde to complete research at the field station. Dr. Chaboo had described Monteverde as a small town established by Quakers and a place very conscientious about the environment around them. What we had found was a town teeming with business and tourists. In a little over twenty years, Monteverde had been transformed from a small community to a bustling tourist destination.

This sudden influx of tourists has helped raise awareness about the decline in rainforests in places such as Monteverde. One of the most well known examples of the rainforests’ dire state is the extinction of the golden toad, Incilius periglenes. Once endemic to Monteverde, the species vanished by the 1990s. Tourists who visit the Monteverde Could Forest Biological Reserve come for the amazing sites and to learn about conservation. Now more that ever there is a drive to educate people and to protect the remaining rainforests.

But perhaps in a twist of irony, this sudden influx of tourists has also brought about new challenges for the environment. A larger population means more waste being produced, and more space required to dispose of it. As hotels, gift shops and restaurants appeared, land that once served as a self-sustaining ecosystem was developed into building space. In the height of tourism season, buses can line up from the reserve all the way into town. It is amazing to wake up each morning to see busloads of families, students and nature enthusiasts in the reserve.

Ecotourism is a double-edged sword. While it is a wonderful thing to see so many people eager to explore the cloud forest, such large numbers can also be a problem. But Monteverde has done an incredible job of finding a fine balance between the two. I have been amazed how the country of Costa Rica has been so environmentally conscious everywhere we go. The people here hold great pride in the biodiversity here and are eager to share it with the rest of the world.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Costa Rica Reflection

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

Reflecting back on my study abroad trip to Costa Rica, I can see all the beneficial knowledge and characteristics that I gained from the experience. My cultural view was broadened when we visited our first destination, San Jose. The city was large and densely packed, which gave me a chance to see how the Costa Rica population functions. The street were busy and frankly quite chaotic, compared to those here in Kansas.

Every night while in San Jose we went out for dinner, most of which were Costa Rican cuisine. The food in Costa Rica was far better than what I had expected. The meal sizes were not only larger than what I am use to back in America, but also presented delicious and healthy food. I noticed that the food in Costa Rica  lacked preservatives and processing that most American foods contain, which I found to be much more enjoyable.

I was surprised by the hospitality of the people in the big city of San Jose. Unlike many large American cities, the people were incredibly friendly and genuine despite the language  barrier. It was obvious that the people in Costa Rica value the revenue that tourism brings to the country. Tourism was especially apparent when we reached areas such as Manuel Antonio and Monteverde. In many instances there were more Americans in these two areas than native Costa Ricans. The towns where tourism was heavy flourished due to the high amount of money flowing from the travelers.

The cloud forest in Monteverde probably left me with the best memories because I was able to see the true beauty of the rain Forest. There was life everywhere you looked, and was just as I had imagined it prior to the trip. The cloud forest was a perfect location for our research because there was a large population of Zingiberales in the area. My favorite part of the trip was doing the research itself, and getting my hands dirty looking for bugs. It was amazing to experience biological field work for the first time and I am now interested in participating in an ecology field of some sort. My trip to Costa Rica is one that I will remember for the rest of my life, I had a truly fantastic time!

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


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.