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]
When most people think of herding, an image of a cowboy walking a herd of cattle across an open plain often comes to mind. The insect world, however, has a far more intriguing example of herding.
Despite having been in Costa Rica for only a few days, several groups of herding ants have been discovered in the various sites that the group visited. Looking from an outsider’s perspective, there seemed to be nothing more than a small size group of animals nestled together under the branch of a tree. Upon closer inspection however, one can truly appreciate the naturalistic relationship between the herding ants and their “cattle.” While out on the University of Costa Rica campus, the first group of herding ants was uncovered (see photo at left, by Kyle Clark). The animals being herded were the larval( or nymph) form of Florida, burrowers that dig into the branches to suck the nectar out of the tree. Because the branch contains high amounts of water, the bugs that are absorbing nutrients from the branch release a large volume of sugar filled urine. As these larvae suck out and secrete the excess sap for the ants to consume, the ants patrol the branch, protecting their herd from danger. The larvae continue to eat, the low nutrition-to-liquid ratio quickly leads to an excess of sugary liquid that develop around the animal’s rear. The patrolling ants can then “milk” their cattle, consuming the nectar off the larvae’s body.
The following day, the exact same interaction between more herding ants and aphids were observed on the stem of another small plant (see photo by John Kaiser, below). This "ant herding" interaction between the two species is a text book example of mutualism because both the organisms benefit greatly from the others exisistence and production. Relationships like these are truly fascinating to us because it shows how two organisms can co-evolve to survive and be successful! - Kyle Clark and John Kaiser
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!
So many people go into classes and don’t retain any of the information because they don’t care about it. They do not think that they need to know it. I felt that way when we learned about plants in Principles of Organismal Biology, but being in the cloud forests of Costa Rica have shown me so many things that we learned about, such as liverworts and ferns.
This experience has demonstrated that entomologists need to know a good deal of botany. We had a seminar by mammalogist/ecologist Erin Kuprewicz about her work with mammals and insects and their interactions with plants, titled "Seed Hoarding, Seedling Survival and Forest Dynamics." She needed to know a great deal about the plant life cycle for her study. This study abroad has given me a new respect for other disciplines that many people had previously dubbed unnecessary for their own field.
Carlos Garcia-Robledo also gave a seminar titled "Climate Change, Invasive Plants, and the Colonization of Novel Plants by Insect Herbivores." He brought up a phone application called LeafSnap (there is also a LeafSnap UK). This app is so cool. What you do is take a picture of a leaf and using 16 points (like a fingerprint), it will identify the species of plant! It will also connect your location to the plant so that they can see where these plants are! They have used it to track migration of plants across North America.
One side note: Tomorrow we are going to the beach! Many of us have never been to the Pacific Ocean before and one of us has never been to any ocean before. I am looking forward to the beach and his reaction! We also got to watch Jurassic World (for only $4). Apparently, the islands are actually (fictionally) off the coast of Costa Rica. I nearly cried at the beginning because it was so beautiful and amazing (the same reason I cried through most of How to Train Your Dragon 2) and because I was actually there!!! This place is incredible and full of nature. There is a creek running through the University of Costa Rica campus and a family of sloths living there! (Dr. Chaboo tried to trade them for KU squirrels!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.