Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Emma Overstreet

A good percentage of American students will take classes in a foreign language sometime in their educational career- usually French or Spanish, both being romantic languages, similar to English, and relatively easy to pick up. In my case, I took Spanish all throughout school- for eight years in total. As is usually the case, I retained little and practiced even less, and by the time I came to Costa Rica the language was a distant memory.
       
It’s no secret that the most effective way to learn a language is through immersion. Since I’ve been here, I’ve managed to dust off that memory and begin to apply my limited knowledge to daily situations, with much difficulty. Having never had any experience listening to native speakers, trying to keep up is extremely intimidating. Though I’m getting better at picking up on phrases, very often the words of a fast-talking native will escape me entirely.
       
Another difficulty is the fact that the language used by Costa Ricans is slightly different then the Mexican Spanish commonly taught in schools. The most notable difference is the use of usted in place of tú. Usted, which (to my knowledge) is generally reserved for more formal interactions in other Spanish-speaking countries, is used in nearly all situations here. I almost assuredly unwittingly offended with my use of tú, which conveys less respect to Costa Ricans.
       
After a little while in the country, and some help from bilingual locals (much thanks to Dennis and Daniel), I began to learn some colloquialisms unique to Costa Rica. How could anyone possibly get by without knowing mae, the local expression for ‘dude?’ And of course, there is the all-important Pura Vida, which would be impossible for anyone not to pick up on during their stay here, as it used constantly as a greeting, positive sentiment, and affirmation. The phrase, which translates to ‘good life,’ sums up everything that is quintessentially Costa Rican.
       
As I’ll be travelling on my own later, without the help of our skilled translators, I’ll hopefully continue to improve. Becoming at least somewhat fluent in Spanish is now an immediate goal of mine, and I suspect that the short amount of time I’ll spend  in Latin America will be more conducive to that than my many years of classroom education. 
-Emma Overstreet

Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Tim Mayes

We are back in Kansas now, and there is one main thing that I’m struggling to determine if I miss or not. I wake up in the morning to a strange silence now -. During our travel, we awoke every morning with natural alarm clocks —the calls of various animals.

It started off with multiple types of birds. They seemed to start chirping at 5:30  am. One day, we left our bathroom window open and one almost got in the room.

Another natural alarm was the howler monkeys.  On a sign in the national park I read that a howler monkeys howl can be heard up to 3 miles away even through a dense forest. I thought this a very cool fact, until they started waking us up every day.

My third alarm clock was another species of monkey, a capuchin or white faced monkey. The way this monkey took to waking us up was actually fairly comical. He ran across the roof to the fire escape door, then bang on it, and run away. He did this continuously over the course of the morning. One day I stood at our room’s window looking for him and he came right up to it and stared at me, then ran over to the door. When I peeked out at the fire escape door, the monkey stared at me for roughly 10 seconds before banging on the door once and running off. I definitely lost that standoff with the monkey, seeing as he came back one more time to give the door a victory bang.

Although these natural alarm clocks seemed annoying at the time, now at home in Kansas I can honestly say I kind of miss those birds and monkeys.
- Tim Mayes

Tuesday, June 23, 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

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.

Monday, June 22, 2015
John Kaiser

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.

Sunday, June 21, 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

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
Alexander Barbour

Near the end of our expedition to the cloud forest reserve in Monteverde, Kenji Nashida joined us for a day of field work. He is as an entomologist who studies insect life history, but he is also a talented photographer. I was thrilled to meet him because through the course of the trip I found that I really enjoyed photography.

The only problem was that I knew nothing about photography. I did not know what to look for in a quality camera. I did not know the proper techniques for taking photos. I did not know how to avoid washing out my pictures.

Kenji taught me as much as he could on our hike through the forest. The first lesson I received was on the taking close ups. He used a technique where he held the object with his hand, and then rested his camera on the same hand. This created one solid structure from the object being photographed to the camera itself. This allowed him to stabilize the object, and take a clear picture. If the object were to move, the camera would move in the same direction at the same speed. This prevented blurring of the picture.

After demonstrating that technique, he showed me how to prevent photographs from looking washed out. The simple fix was to avoid taking pictures in direct sunlight. He explained that the camera I have could not handle sunlight very well.  He went on to tell me that it is better to take a darker image than a lighter one. There is color and information that can be extracted in Photoshop from the darker areas of pictures, but in the white areas there is a lack of color and information to pull from.

In order to take brighter pictures that would not wash out, Kenji showed me various ways to take advantage of the sunlight without compromising the photograph. One simple technique he showed me was the use of a reflector. To brighten up a shot, you can reflect some light from underneath or from the side back into the shot.

After he had shown me many of his basic techniques for taking beautiful pictures, he taught me what to look for and what to avoid when purchasing a camera. One of the most important things he told me was that the larger the CCD or CMOS senor the better. A camera with a high number of megapixels and a small senor chip is a bit frivolous. Without a comparable senor chip the megapixels are somewhat of detriment. The way he explained it to me is that if you have a high number of megapixels and a small senor chip the image will become noisy. This is because the camera is attempting to put a lot of information into a small space. The cells of the sensor become oversaturated when megapixels are beyond what the chip can handle. The pixels become over crowed, and create a nosier image. The large chip allows for greater spread of the pixels which in turn results in greater clarity and sharpness. This also means that cameras with large chips perform better in low light situations.

Kenji taught me quite a bit in a short period of time. He told me it takes time to develop an eye for photography, and that the best way to improve my skills was, like anything else, to continue to practice. -Alex Barbour

Photos
Above: Image of fungus Kenji took using Alex's camera. Right: Here you can see Kenji using his hand, arm and camera to create on solid structure, so that he can take a clear picture even when the object of the photograph moves.

 

Saturday, June 20, 2015
Eric Becker

During our visit to the University of Costa Rica campus, we had some time to explore a small area outside the Biology building.  As I’m interested in spiders, I had a look around to see what I could find.  Given the incredible biodiversity in Costa Rica, I expected to find a few specimens.  However, I found amazing diversity even in the small area we explored.  On a single tree, both a hunting spider (Figure 1) and several orb weavers (Figure 2) could be found.  It seemed that every structure that could support a web had at least one arachnid resident.  One tree even hosted a small aggregation of spiders (Figure 3), which I had never gotten the opportunity to personally see before.  The sheer number of species that could be found in a cursory survey was simply astounding. 

While I was surprised by the diversity of the spiders in the area, I noticed that despite being thousands of miles away from Kansas, many common traits could be found between spiders from the two regions.  While I cannot say with complete certainty without examining specimens under a microscope exactly what genera some of these spiders belonged to, but many showed morphological characteristics that I had seen in field work in Kansas before.  Micrathena is a genus of spider that has a carapace with characteristic spikes.  A spider with such spikes was living between two of the trees (Figure 4).  Another genus, Cyclosa, was likely represented as well (Figure 5).  These spiders use parts of prey and plants to decorate their web as camouflage, as can be seen in the attached picture. 

Costa Rica has an incredible level of biodiversity and seeing just how many species can be found in an area has been an unforgettable experience.  However, recognizing genera of spiders from previous fieldwork has shown me that while not every country can have as diverse of wildlife as Costa Rica has, you can see some pretty amazing animals in your own backyard. - Eric Becker

Photo album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kubiodiversity/sets/72157655015121791

Saturday, June 20, 2015
Jake Kaufmann

Today my amigo Dennis took me on an extraordinary adventure. We set off from the lodge at Monteverde Reserve on his motorcycle through a heavy rain. Upon arrival at Selvatura Adventure Park we were soaked and eager to begin our tour of the cloud forest canopy via zipline. This unique Costa Rican attraction offers an impressive network of ziplines including the longest in Latin America at 1,590 meters. It is safe, affordable, and environmentally friendly. It also contributes to the Costa Rican economy with little environmental impact.

There were 55 adventure seekers from around the world in my group alone. Each of us paid 45 dollars to witness the beauty of the cloud forest on 7 different lines, including two superman style cables and a terrifyingly fun Mega Tarzan Swing.

I will never forget soaring above the canopy flapping my arms like the wings of an eagle below. I think experiences such as this relate directly to biological conservation. The canopy tour allowed me to realize the importance of sustaining this environment, as well as ways in which we can enjoy it in a mutually beneficial way. The next step will be for the funds acquired by the zip lining company to aid in the conservation of the tropical paradise that attracts so many adventure seekers every year.
-Jake Kaufmann

Saturday, June 20, 2015
Jake Kaufmann

When I signed up for the field biology course in Costa Rica, I knew some of the material might tend to go over my head. I was also slightly nervous to try to relate to a group of my peers interested in a field so different from my own. Biology may seem like an area of study perfect for the antisocial hyper-intelligent bookworm, but as I found out from this trip, biologists make for a very interesting, dedicated and entertaining group to go on an adventure with. 

Studying life and living organisms in all aspects gives one an undeniable appreciation for nature. I found that my classmates were genuinely interested in an impressive range of life. Eventually, their love for biology wore off on me, and in the process I often overheard many conversations only biologists would endure. I’ve included some examples below for your reading pleasure.

#ThingsThatBiologistsSay

  • A 30 minute discussion on tapeworms…I mean nematodes
  • Reptile or Amphibian?
  • Come poot this!!
  • What time are we getting up? I think I’ll wake up 2 hours early to go set my traps.
  • Ooooo another leaf roll!
  • You should write a blog about that.
  • I know one really cool ornithologist. Just one though.
  • I love snakes, bats, beetles, dogs, cows, cats, pumas, bats, trees, etc.
  • Taxonomy is so cool.
  • Hey, I’m a fungi.
  • Let’s go identify some plants, that will be fun.
  • I just want to make this clear, a panther can be considered a puma or a cougar.
  • Ughh, business majors.
  • I saw a cat, or a monkey, I couldn’t tell, I only saw its face.
  • Can you get drunk off of this ethanol?

-Jake Kaufmann

 

Saturday, June 20, 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

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.