That thought has been passing my mind on a daily basis since I arrived in Costa Rica to do biological research in the tropics as part of Dartmouth’s foreign study program. For six weeks, we’ll be going across the country, jumping from field station to field station as we conduct scientific research from the planning stage to the final paper. Having focused my research on the Arctic up until this point, I was both excited and curious to start my coursework.
The minute we got off the bus at our first station – the Palo Verde National Park – I immediately felt a wall of intense heat smack me in the face. This was an experience unnatural enough to be having in January, but do be doing research in anything but chill weather seemed alien to me.
As I continued with my week, I was struck at the similarities I felt between my work in Greenland and the Tropics. These regions might not be that different after all.Soil research is deeply relevant to understanding both ecosystems – yet soils aren’t usually the first parts of the landscape that come to mind when people think of either the Arctic or the rain forest. I definitely wasn’t expecting to be doing more soil research upon arriving in Costa Rica – just as I wouldn’t have expected to be doing soil research in the tundra as Julia’s field assistant – and yet that’s exactly what I found myself doing.Here are Julia and I collecting samples in July 2013:
And here I am in Costa Rica, measuring soil moisture in the same way I analyzed our Greenlandic samples back in Hanover!
Both the Arctic and the tropical rain forest are incredibly beautiful. Research is pretty distracting when faced with these views:This photo was taken in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland at 1AM:And these ones were taken at sunset at Palo Verde, Costa Rica:
The vegetation types, while on opposite extremes, are entirely different from what you’d see back home. While in the tundra you can see miles and miles into the distance – and the immense span is shocking…… here in the tropics, the trees are bigger than I’ve ever seen anywhere – especially in primary forests. And you can barely see 100 feet ahead of you when the forest is thick:
Both regions are significantly affected by climactic changes. Arctic and tropical ecosystems are some of the most vulnerable to tipping points and thresholds, wherein global warming may cause irreversible changes to our environment. Interestingly, though, I haven’t heard talk of either region among both communities of researchers.I still have so much to learn about these regions and others around the world, all of whom contribute to a better understanding of climate change. (Stay tuned for more reflections as the weeks pass by!)As a budding climate scientist, I recognize how important it is to acknowledge that our world is deeply interconnected – from the poles to the equator. And I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to conduct research in these places, hoping to gain the skills that will form my work as a scientist, understanding the world’s collective future.
And the circle of life goes round and round… get ready for some (sad? gory? awesome?) photos of a jaguar eating a – you guessed it – green sea turtle!
We were incredibly fortunate to have met Erik, who works for WIDECAST and helps monitor sea turtle breeding on the beach, while we were in Santa Rosa. The introduction wasn’t planned, but he was wonderful and responsible for many of the very very amazing turtle nestings and hatchlings we saw over the weekend. (He also let yours truly tag along at 5AM and dig baby green turtles out of the clutches of ghost crabs!)
Before we left, he shared some incredible game camera photos and videos with us, of a jaguar chomping on a yummy female adult green sea turtle who’d come to the beach with the hopes of laying her eggs. Little did she know that she’d become the breakfast, lunch, and dinner for one of the dozen-plus jaguars who call that same beach home…
Here, we see a turtle carcass to the right, and a black vulture striking a pose: (notice the time stamp)
Later that night (3:08AM, to be exact), a new friend stops by:
This jaguar, one of two females who are tracked and collared, is seen here munching on the dinner she’d caught the day before.
… and now she’s brought it back to a more remote location so that she could keep eating:
Quite an eventful night! Little did we know as we were walking along the beach and sleeping a few metres away…
We sadly didn’t see the jaguars, but they definitely saw us!
As Tom Jr. and the other baby sea turtles braved the breaking waves, we followed them into the water. With the sun shining, the waves breaking on the beach, and magnificent frigate birds soaring above, the idyll was complete as the baby turtles valiantly pushed on towards the open sea. Suddenly, disaster struck.
One after one, the frigate birds swooped down over the waves, picking up the baby sea turtles, and we saw Tom Jr. soar to the great beyond.
Tom (Sr.) and others cursing loudly at the frigate bird as Tom Jr. goes airborne. Photo by Amy Zhang.
At a loss. Photo by Amy Zhang.
As budding scientists, we of course took a neutral and objective view on the whole thing (okay, one or two of us may have cursed under our breaths and/or screamed at the birds for a few minutes), since this isn’t at all out of the ordinary. Almost all organisms produce many…
The morning after the great egg laying, Erik (who we met by chance the previous night) came by camp in the middle of breakfast with a surprise: in a cooking-show-esque move, he had brought us baby sea turtles (incubation normally takes two months). He left the baby turtles in our care with instructions to bring them to the beach and send them on their way. Not surprisingly, most of our breakfast remained uneaten for hours as we scooted off to the beach.
“Tom Jr.” practicing his strokes. Photo by Ann Dunham.
Miranda with Tom Jr. Photo by Ann Dunham.
…and beyond! Both photos by Leehi yona.
Amy and Abby with Tom Jr. Photo by Ann Dunham.
Tom Jr. and Stinky racing to the ocean. Photo by Ann Dunham.
It gets dark quickly at the equator. Sunset lasts only 15 minutes, but the red glow of the beach continued through the night as our group ventured across the sand with reading lights lit on our headlamps.
After just a few minutes, we found what we were searching for: an Olive ridley sea turtle slowly emerging from the swell and making its way up the beach. Here we met Erik, who works with the sea turtle conservancy Widecast. The turtles get confused by white light, which is why we use red (one hypothesis holds that they navigate with the help of stars).
Sea turtle spotted! Photo by Leehi Yona.
Raided nest. Raccoons were probably the culprits. Photo by Leehi Yona.
Although surprisingly agile in water, sea turtles aren’t exactly what you’d call well-adapted for life on land. This mother struggled across the sand, leaving a deep track in the sand. Maybe 10 meters…
After tracking and studying a troop of capuchin monkeys for two and a half days, I experienced one of my first rights of passage as a field primatologist in the making. After a long day of observing the monkeys, I was perplexed by the feeling of something wet falling on my face. I looked up and hesitated. Was it raining? No, wait, it doesn’t rain in the dry season in Palo Verde. By the time I realized what was happening, I already had a face full of capuchin pee. Tom says I can’t be a real primatologist until I get peed on, though, so I guess I’m one step closer! And while I don’t know which member was the culprit, Matt assures me that I made that monkey’s day.
Brad, Patrick and I spent the past week at Palo Verde research station, where we looked at plants we wouldn’t have imagined seeing in the dry forest: cacti!
The research topic was sparked when we noticed that some cacti were in “weird” places: in the middle of the forest, on limestone outcrops, and even near the wetlands. We wanted to find out what types of environments made it more possible for cacti to exist and flourish. We decided that we would visit sites throughout Palo Verde and see if there were any factors in common at the different environments that cacti inhabited.
We created a 1 km by 2 km grid in which we randomly selected 50 plots that we visited.
At each plot, we surveyed for cacti nearby and, if there were any, took a canopy photo (check out the one below!) and a soil sample.
Later, in the lab, we analyzed the samples for acidity and moisture.
The project was both more eye-opening and more challenging than we’d expected. Little did we know that our field site encompassed very steep cliffs that were an adventure to climb, or that we’d have to learn to improvise with some of our equipment acting up when running analyses. But we also saw a part of Palo Verde that we never would’ve encountered otherwise: we saw spectacular views, incredible creatures, and amazing flora (and the cacti were cool too!). All in all, a wonderful lesson in field research.