In the cloud forest

Our fifth day here began with a delicious smell coming from the kitchen, which we followed to find French toast, Adam’s favorite breakfast food. Sunshine, new to us in such quantities since we arrived at Monteverde, also greeted us in the morning and stayed around for much of the day. Luckily my group still had some data collection to do, so we could remember what sunlight felt like for a while before sitting down to input our data and figure out what it all meant.

After lunch various papers were edited and adventures were had- a few ventured in the park to see the waterfall, others ran to the continental divide, some just caught up on sleep or work before joining back with their most recent project groups to get ready for our symposium that evening. As my group sat outside to talk about our presentation, a coati (a very cute tropical mammal) interrupted us, attempting to get inside. Amelia bravely fought him off with a chair.

At dinner we discussed the exclusivity of the fear of snakes and the fear of spiders and the universal fear of writing another paper. Then we trekked out to the classroom to hear what each group had been off doing for the past week. We learned about hummingbird aggression, ecosystem engineers in the forest, orchid biodiversity and tradeoffs in leaf inclination (or, as some would prefer to say, declination). The quality and energy of projects pushed us well past the expected time.  Finally we ended so that groups could finish writing some papers and start others until the Internet went down and we decided it was a sign to sleep.

-Lexi

Pura Vida, Santa Rosa

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After turning in all of our final projects at Palo Verde, we woke up early Friday morning and headed to Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa is a beautiful national park hosting, among other beaches, Playa Naranjo- a sea turtle nesting hotspot and surfing paradise. We hiked around 8 miles from the park entrance to the beach, starting in a tropical dry forest similar to Palo Verde and ending in the mangroves near the beach. We were totally unplugged for the weekend, camping near the beach and swimming and relaxing during the day. It was a much needed break from our experiments, but we did get some great lectures on sea turtles, vertebrate biology, and mangrove ecology.

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Playa Naranjo was not only a beautiful beach, but also has some crazy biodiversity. Before we hiked in we were warned that the day before a jaguar had hopped onto the hood of the park ranger’s car on that very trail! We were also incredibly lucky with nesting sea turtles – Ryan warned us that they haven’t seen sea turtles on this FSP in the last five years, but as a group we saw 3+ nesting mama sea turtles (Olive Ridleys and Hawksbills) and then stumbled across a nest hatching our first night! It was such an incredibly organic and awesome experience to watch the little hatchlings fight their way down the beach into the ocean.

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We’re in the cloud forest of Monteverde now, nursing our sunburns and going out of our minds about this brand new ecosystem- wet, muddy, and cool, with hummingbirds overhead and so much plant diversity I just can’t wrap my mind around it. Today we did some orientation hiking and started brainstorming ideas for our new projects. More on the bromeliads, orchids, epiphytes, and hummingbird projects to come!

– Emily Goodwin ’14

Learning the Ropes

Hi all! This is Annie Fagan ’15 coming at you live from the dry forest of Costa Rica. Here’s a quick update on our way out of Palo Verde National Park this morning. (Next stop, Santa Rosa!) 

Costa Rica is a small country, but it has ~4% of the world’s biodiversity, and that became obvious within the first 24 hours. In the last week I’ve seen coatis (kind of like raccoons), actual raccoons, geckos, deer, herons, whistling ducks, crocodiles (6-7 feet long!!!), peccaries, ctenosaurs (huge lizards that can run on 2 feet if you make them move fast enough), howler & capuchin monkeys, scarlet macaws, snakes, king vultures, fire ants, scorpion spiders (the love children of scorpions & spiders, if that wasn’t clear from the name), and so much more. It’s mind-boggling what you can find around here when you’re not even trying. One night, we saw a coral snake (super poisonous, thank goodness we didn’t step on it) and a tarantula bigger than the palm of my hand. We’re definitely not in Hanover anymore.

Now to the projects! They are real fun. So fun that it’s hard to believe we’re getting credit for doing them. Apparently the only difference between playing around in nature and science is writing down your results. My favorite project from the last week involved tracking monkey troops – a logistical nightmare. My group had to get up at 5:30 every morning to find them, as they are most active before it gets hot, and we had nothing to go on but a) hearing their calls or b) coincidentally sighting them in trees. There was a lot of bushwhacking required, and I think we probably all hiked ~15 miles in two days. But the rewards made all the hard work so, so worth it. Sometimes the monkeys came so close to us that I forgot to breathe. We saw lots of howlers, lots of capuchins, baby monkeys, female/male monkeys… and lots of interesting primate behaviors. One howler male got really aggressive towards us and started howling, pooping on us and dropping branches on our heads. It was AWESOME. Howler monkeys can poop on me any day as long as I get my data. 

As for the scorpion experiment, well, that was crazy. A few nights ago I found a baby scorpion in my room (about the size of my thumbnail) and had to get Lars, another FSPer, to kill it with his hunting knife because I was so nervous. 24 hours later, I was helping my teammates to design a study that would require us to go out into the park at night and catch 3″ scorpions. (If any of you can follow my logic there, please let me know.) Before we left, we consulted with Park Ranger Sergio, and he told us that these scorpions are poisonous but wouldn’t land us in the hospital if we were stung. Instead it would just hurt a lot, and we might feel dizzy and nauseous for a couple hours. I think he was trying to be reassuring. He then gave us 1 piece of advice for reaching down to pick up a scorpion: “Don’t miss”. With this in mind we set out into the night, and ended up finding & capturing about 15 scorpions over 2 nights. Then we proceeded to do science, which in this case consisted of us constructing forts in the library (to simulate darkness since scorpions are nocturnal) and feeding crickets and grasshoppers to our scorpion prisoners. The trials were simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying and inspired lots of would-you-rather questions about scorpions (would you rather fight a cat-sized scorpion or 200 regular-sized ones?).

Scorpion update: After 2 days of safely capturing and handling finger-sized, very angry, scuttling, fast-moving scorpions, my friend Amelia reached into her backpack and got stung by a scorpion hiding at the bottom of it. The irony was so great that she laughed through her tears. Sergio’s response? “Welcome to the tropics!”

Stay tuned to hear more about our adventures over the next 9 weeks!

Over and out.

Annie

 

Another beginning

Nearly everyone that goes through the Dartmouth Biology Foreign Studies Program (FSP) longs to repeat the experience. As a course faculty member, I very nearly have the monopoly on that honor (along with my 2014 colleagues Matt Ayres and Celian Chen). This is my fifth consecutive year on the Dartmouth Biology FSP. Each year has been special and this year is no exception. The group just finished its first week and we’ve already passed through a series of exciting transitions. Perhaps most noteworthy was the transition from Boston to San Jose, which for one student and one TA (Annie and Jessica respectively) took an abysmal three days and a super-human degree of patience from both. Trapped in Boston, first by weather, then by an over-worked pilot, and finally by “failed hydraulic lift” and a change of planes, the two eventually reached Miami. There they spent another night (if you can call it that when arriving at 3 a.m.) in transit before finally showing up in Costa Rica. Bored but unbowed, they loaded their gear onto the bus. We rolled away from the airport and FSP 2014 had officially begun.

The learning curve in Costa Rica is steep and the rapid uptick in scientific maturity comes at the cost of some sleepless nights. Those hours are never lost on the students. Time seems to pass on a different scale here, as students become enthralled with their projects and collaborations. Breakfast, lunch and dinner become opportunities to discuss ideas before heading back to the field. Fatigue is eclipsed by fascination with some new problem. As a faculty member, this transition is the most exciting to watch unfold.

The transition to mature scientist is also certain to be only partially captured by the pages of this blog. Our hope however, is that whatever small part of the experience is actually conveyed here, you the reader will share in the joy of discovery and the wonder of work in the tropics.

-Ryan