Because of Hannah’s broad interest in Herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) and our shared general love for animals, we always pay attention to the fauna around us when we travel to such a biodiverse place as Costa Rica.
When we began our trip in San Jose during our stay at Ave del Paraiso, there were geckos near most of the places you looked. During our drive from San Jose to Manuel Antonio, we stopped at a bridge famous for being a resting spot for multiple crocodiles at a time. It was a very interesting sight to see not only the amount of crocodiles resting so close to a semi-populated area, but also how many people were stopping to attempt to catch a glimpse of them.
When we went further into the rainforest for our stay around Manuel Antonio National Park in the lowlands, there were some geckos, but iguanas were the most likely creatures to spot, even if you were just hanging out by a pool. During our visit to the park we came upon some herpetologists studying the impact of tourism on the iguanas there. This was an intriguing topic, and makes sense to study due to the fact that when walking the trails in the park I came across multiple different breeds of iguanas on the path. They did not run from me until I was roughly a foot away which is quite a bit closer that I’ve been able to get to lizards in less touristy areas. The researchers' topic also plays into a local article I read about the crocodiles being forced out of their natural habitat and into more populated areas because tourists want to travel to more secluded areas.
As you move to higher elevation there are fewer reptiles to spot immediately but the amphibians in Monteverde seem to be well studied. When we first came to Monteverde we met Dr. Alan Pounds who has done revolutionary work on the extinction of the golden toad, which was endemic to Monteverde until it became extinct in the late 1980’s. This work reflects our continuous need for and marks some of the beginnings of conservation biology. This extinction shows the need for climate change study, which many biologists are dealing with today in all different aspects.
-Tim Mayes and Hannah Boyd
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 natural world is full of many wondrous things. None of these things however is as beautiful as the gift of life. For those not yet bestowed with this wonderful gift, the only way that they can receive it is from certain biological processes that those already bestowed with this gift need to engage in.
While on our trip, we were given the perfect opportunity to witness this beautiful act among several groups of beetles. During our third day out in the field, we saw an enamored tiger beetle couple engaging in the precursor activity to the miracle of life.
Down on the ground, a strapping young male lay atop the iridescent carapace of a husky larger female, trying with all his might to penetrate using his mighty aedagous deep into the warm depths of the female’s ovipore.
When we interrupted the beetles, the insects’ bodies squirmed, writhing with the combined energies of their powerful biological urge to grant life while at the same time trying to save their own. Another group member opened the bag, quickly stuffing star-struck lovers into the bag full of unforgiving ethanol. Shocked yet amazed by the beetles, our group crowded around the bag to watch the insects continue their dance of life and death. As the ethanol continued to suck out all their life energy, the beetles finally released each other, trying their best to crawl to the top of the bag in a futile attempt to escape from their cruel prison. Despite all their best efforts, the unforgiving bag provided no escape. The beetles floated to the bottom of their bag, the beautiful gift that they had been trying to grant to other beetles now completely gone from their own bodies.
Currently, we are staying at the field station within the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The reserve is covered in hiking trails that snake across the mountains in every direction. The southernmost path will lead you to the continental divide. This geographical feature spreads from the northern Alaskan shore to the southern shore of Argentina, and is comprised of various mountain chains. We are most familiar with the Rocky Mountains which make up the American portion.
The name continental divide is derived from the transactional nature of the mountains. The continuous chains of mountains separate the Americas into two watersheds which empty either into the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. The patterns of weather throughout the Americans can be attributed to the moisture rolling off each side of the divide.
Tuesday morning the group walked the trail to the continental divide. The hike was about 2 kilometers (that's 1.24 miles for those back home), and took approximately thirty minutes. For the majority of the hike, we traveled through dense cloud forest, but once we approached the top of the mountain the canopy gave way to wind sculpted shrubs and stout trees. Without the protection of the larger trees, we felt the full power of the trade winds. The bellowing winds sprayed our faces with rain at 50-65 kilometers an hour (about 30-40 miles an hour). The winds pulled the clouds over the mountain tops, and spilled them into the valleys.
Apparently, we were quite lucky to experience such forceful winds. Trade winds normally occur in December when the rainy season gives way to the dry season. The strange weather could be attributed to the shifting weather patterns Monteverde is currently experiencing.
Images: top, Panorama of the Continental Divide; middle, Alex at the Divide; bottom, a clowning Jake holding Tim, who is playing the part of Rose in Titatic.
As I mentioned in my introduction, I am working on my own project in addition to the research we are doing as a group. During our time in Monteverde, I’ll be setting out traps to see if parasitoid wasps in Costa Rica are attracted to a chemical called cantharidin. Cantharidin is a toxic chemical produced by blister beetles and false blister beetles as a defense (Hashimoto & Hayashi). Previous similar experiments captured a few of these wasps, but not nearly enough to definitively establish that some are attracted to cantharidin. At the suggestion of Paul Hanson, a professor studying hymenopterans (ants, bees, and wasps), I started planning an experiment to discover if any could be found.
Earlier in the summer, I set several traps in prairie areas of the KU Field Station, but a cloud forest in Costa Rica is considerably different from the grasslands the traps were originally designed for. A few elements had to be changed from the original trap to be better suited for the new environment. The initial traps were inverted funnel traps made of 2 liter soda bottles with cantharidin-impregnated filter paper as bait. An inverted funnel trap works on the idea that many insects will be able to climb into a hole, but will fly straight up when trying to escape. Having a small hole allows insects to enter, but prevents them from leaving. The bottle was made into a trap by cutting off the top where it starts to curve, then putting it upside down. In both locations, I put alcohol in the bottom of the trap to kill whatever insects landed in the bottom and then preserve them until they could be collected. Traps were attached to a wooden stake with waterproof duct tape to ensure they would stay upright.
The big difference between the traps was how I dealt with the issue of keeping the bait dry. I was told that filter paper holding the bait could not get wet. In Kansas, I focused on minimizing the problems caused by water getting the traps. To keep the bait dry, I suspended it from a wooden dowel put through holes in the side of the trap. With the bait in a safe place, I only had to prevent the trap from flooding. To do this, I made a few holes slightly above where the alcohol was and covered it with mesh to allow any excess liquid, likely rainwater, to drain out. In Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to prevent rain from entering the trap at all. To accomplish this, I made several rain covers using garbage bags, duct tape, and twine. This allowed me to suspend the bait with a strip from a ziplock bag and some tape. The advantage of this method is that I can put the bait directly under the hole in the trap, which makes it more attractive to insects. These traps can be seen in Figure 1.
One thing to note is that with the exception of the bait, all the materials used in the traps can be purchased at a grocery store for a few dollars. Science experiments don’t have to cost a fortune to carry out. A few household products and a little bit of preparation can answer plenty of questions.
Hashimoto, K. and Hayashi, F. (2014) Cantharidin world in nature: a concealed arthropod assemblage with interactions via the terpenoid cantharidin. Entomological Science 17: 388-395.
Image: Insect trap set-up used at all three sites in Costa Rica (Photo credit: Eric Becker)
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
The second week of our trip is being spent at the Monteverde Biological Reserve. We had another seminar, this time by Dr. Joseph Alan Pounds, about the impact of climate change on cloud forests.
During the talk, I was looking around the classroom and noticed two mammal skeletons, an ocelot and a quati. As I looked at them more closely, I noticed that their rib cages were not closed like ours. It seemed baffling at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. When walking on four legs, your chest is not exposed, but while walking on two legs, your chest is very exposed. When your chest is more exposed, you are more likely to get impaled there. My hypothesis is that throughout our history as we began to stand more upright, those hominids with a mutation for a more encompassing rib cage were more likely to survive being impaled with a spear, stick, talon, or horn than those with more open rib cages. Your rib cage protects your heart and lungs from getting stabbed as something is more likely to hit the ribs than go between them. On this trend, some day we may have a fused rib cage.
Imagine walking down the street. You notice several people giving you sideways glances or double-taking as you go by. You see older people glaring, and others seem to think you look like a side show attraction. You have tattoos and piercings that are quite visible and people don't seem to know how to act when they see you.
Now imagine this: you are walking down the street. Everyone is in a hurry to get where they need to be or are talking joyously with their group of friends. You can walk for a great distance and no one really gives you a second thought. The group that you are in stands out as a bunch of gringos, but no one is overtly rude by staring.
The first scenario is a typical day for me in the United States. The second is my experience in San Jose, Costa Rica. While back home people seem to judge me for my body modifications, here they don't seem to really care, which is surprising to me because I was expecting it to be worse here, in a very Catholic country.
Several people have tattoos in Costa Rica, but facial piercings are a tad more scarce. Either way, the crowds of people you pass in the street seem more interested in going somewhere than to be bothered by someone who looks different. It is a pleasant change from how Americans act.
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.
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.
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]