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]
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.
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.
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!
The 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.
My name is Kristen Bontrager, I am a senior at Washburn University majoring in Biology with a focus in ecology. Currently I am working on expanding our herbarium collection and documenting the species of oaks in our research plot in Topeka, Karlyle woods.
My interests include growing plants, the soil composition that they are able to grow the best in including biotic and abiotic matter. In the summer I am usually in my garden, which I bring inside in the colder months and continue to grow in my own semi-greenhouse all winter long. I have a passion for eating food that I know where it comes from, and what exactly the nutrients are. I also enjoy hiking throughout the entire year. As long as I have the proper clothes to wear, I can manage to hike in the snowy months with my dog.
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.
Before 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.
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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I am a soon-to-be junior majoring in organismal biology and minoring in Spanish. I enjoy sports, traveling, and trying new things. I am a pre-med student and have recently taken to the task of learning more about the health care of different regions of the world. Going to Costa Rica will hopefully give me a chance to observe firsthand some differences and similarities between the systems there and in the U.S.