Check us out on National Geographic’s Explorer’s Journal. Thanks for such a wonderful and thoughtful article, Neil!
Its quiet. The students are either on their way home, already home, or decompressing on a beach somewhere in Costa Rica. Its strange that the course is done. Its 6:23pm and I am ready for a research talk at 7pm. I guess this feeling will pass and in a week (or maybe even just a few days), it will feel more distant. So while its still fresh, a few group photos to remember how much we all learned and how much fun we all had.
And a bonus video from Chelsea, Nick, and Sarah’s caterpillar project.
I don’t want to say more about this month.
I used to live in city.
This time, I got here to look for a jungle,
But, in the end,
I got much more than a jungle.
I got you guys.
Someone may think “Sean never dance and drink.”
In fact, in these days,
I never stopped dancing and drinking for even one second.
Thanks guys, thanks OTS, thanks jungle.
(By the way, who saw my slippers ?)
The clouds racing across the azure sky and piling up against the mountains like whipped cream
The gentle, crinkly eyes of Don Carlos smiling out from under his hat
Waking up to bright sunlight illuminating the pile of pink woolen blankets on my bed
The smell of wood smoke seeping up through cracks in the wooden floorboards
Fog sliding down the mountain through three hundred year-old trees encrusted with mosses and ferns
An intrepid cinnamon-colored doggy tearing unafraid up the mountain
Soft pink endangered moss forming soggy pillows in the treeless paramo.
In the last 4 weeks, as we’ve come further and further south in Costa Rica, it has felt a bit like rolling faster and faster down a science hill, gathering speed and skills along the way. Now very suddenly, the course is in its final days and we’ll soon be coasting to a stop. Today the students are wrapping up their 5th and final research project of the course, and they will present the results after dinner. There is also a faint buzz in the air from the drafts of various research reports being emailed back and forth between coordinators and students, and you can almost smell the learning happening there. Stress levels are up, and crunch time is now. I imagine it will be released this evening, as some festivities are brewing along with the Spanish OTS Grad Course that is here at the same time. Tomorrow morning we will head back north on the bus to San Jose for a final dinner and the completion of the course. It has been a truly enjoyable and educational ride, getting to know this group of 18 students. Its been wonderful to relive my own OTS grad course experience from the other side, and also to push myself and help Jane to push the course into themes and activities where we’ve never gone before. I’m crossing my fingers for a few final wildlife sightings before ending this month of station life and before the coming goodbye hugs of the unforgettable students from 14-1.
Anthropologists have shown that the advent of human farming was approximately 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. Farming, however, actually originated 40,000 years prior to this – in ants!
The leaf cutter ants are common species tropical rainforests. You first see them when you notice a parade of fingernail-sized leaf confetti moving steadily down the path. The 2-3 inch wide path itself is a moss and debris-free ant highway. Upon close examination, you see tiny red ants clasping bits of leaves above their heads moving in one direction, while leaf-free ants scurry in the other. In some cases even smaller ants piggy-back on the leaf bits to clean and protect the precious cargo in transit.
So what is so special about this? Seeing ants foraging is not unique. Any picnic-lover has watched ants carry off potato chip bits or crumbs of sandwiches.
But unlike picnic-crashers, these ants aren’t collecting leaves for food; they are collecting leaves to feed their fungus. In many-chambered underground nests, the ants grow fungus in a giant farming operation. The leaf pulp (chewed up by the ants) is used as the base to grow the fungus.
“But wait, the human farmer might say. “I spend a ton of time doing a lot more to crops than just fertilizing them. I have to harvest, weed, apply pesticides, and save seeds for next year.”
Yep, the ants do that too.
The ants harvest fungal fruit (hyphal fruiting bodies) from their fungal gardens to feed the colony and the larvae. They weed through fungus crops to get rid of waste and parasitic mold, which they take to special earthen rooms at the edge of the farm, their trash piles. They apply antimicrobial compounds to the fungus to inhibit diseases. And when they move out of their current many-roomed colony, the ants carry spores from their fungus crop and cultures of their antimicrobial compounds.
Leaf cutter ants and their fungi are a classic example of coevolution – how different critters of all sizes and stripes have changed together throughout time. Coevolution is interesting because it helps us understand more about species and how they interact with each other.
The Organization of Tropical Studies consists of several field stations where many classes take place and extensive research is conducted. Hundreds of people, including researchers, scientists, students, and tourists come and go from these field stations, busy with their projects and concerned about collecting enough data for their research. But we often forget to acknowledge the individuals that are essential to the function of these stations. Let me give you an idea of what is taken care of at and between these locations:
Driving: Specifically for OTS Courses, we have a comfortable tour bus and a jeep that drive us around to the various stations, while additionally letting us stop at grocery stores and shuttling instructors back and forth to the airport. In San Jose alone, the maneuvers this enormous tour bus on a dime. I hold my breath each time, and each time he nails it. In addition to helping with field work, our driver Carlos, who has accompanied us the entire time with a 4-wheel drive truck, has prevented several precarious situations. One example is on our last day at Cuericí. Cuericí is a biological station that is set back 5km down a mountain dirt road and only accessible only by 4-wheel drive. The morning we had to trek up the steep canyon back to the main road, it rained. The clay and dirt became thick and slippery. Did I mention it was narrow – only room for one vehicle – with blind curves? With at least 14 people in the truck, he told us to hang on and watch our heads as he expertly maneuvered up this crazy hill. We made it safe and sound, of course, and we couldn’t help but give him a round of applause as we emerged at the top.
Cleaning: I have seen mostly women doing the cleaning. There are classrooms, bathrooms, and cabin or rooms that get cleaned daily, with fresh linens provided. Especially at the larger stations, when there are a lot of people, however, the bathrooms can get rough between cleanings. Many of these stations have septic systems that do not perform well under the pressure of toilet paper, so it instead gets placed into trash bins. So not only does this cleaning staff have to scrub, sweep, and mop, but they have to remove some pretty intense trash. One woman in particular at Las Cruces, Naomi, saw us collecting moths for an experiment. We asked her if she knew where the moths like to hang out, and pointed us in that direction. Then, she even started collecting and bringing us moths! It was so great to have her help and enthusiasm about our sometimes ridiculous research.
Food: First of all, we get fed 3 times a day, with fantastic food, plus unlimited coffee and tea throughout the day and night. It is amazing. At Palo Verde, we had an amazing head cook named Romelio that, along with his other assistant cooks, prepared incredible food with care and love. Romelio was acutely aware of everyone’s dietary restrictions, and never failed to ensure that everyone was well fed. The staff at Cuericí was also smaller and relatively tolerable of our varied diets. La Selva and Las Cruces are a bit bigger, but the food is still fantastic. I felt like I got lost in the shuffle a bit at La Selva because they serve so many people, but at Las Cruces, I notice the cooks coming out to tell people with very specific dietary restrictions what contains dairy or gluten. The food has been quite good, and has often surprised me with creativity. A few dishes to note: fresh, local trout from the Cuericí trout farm literally 100 meters from the door, garlic basted fried yucca, tres leches cake (my favorite was Romelio’s – he makes it with rum), bean sprout lo mein, and of course all of the rice and beans you can manage to consume.
Directors/Guides: Most of the interactions with the directors/head guides have been during our orientation walks and introductory presentations. Every director is passionate and enthusiastic about the station and the work being done there. They are often researchers themselves. Don Carlos, who is the owner of the Cuericí biological station, has lived there for 30 years, has raised his family on that land, and knows the forest like the back of his hand. A soft-spoken man, he was enthusiastic about the projects being conducted around his station, and was happy to share his expertise in helping us located and identify focal species. Since we were the only group at Cuericí, we shared more intimate interactions with him, however, everyone who plays a more management role of these biological stations have been welcoming and excited about their station.
Our guides at La Selva were mind-blowingly knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna. It is obvious that they take pride in the field station and truly enjoy sharing their knowledge with people who visit. Kenneth, our guide, was so well-versed on the scientific names – I would be so intimidated taking a group of graduate students on a tour – but he fielded our questions like a professional. He also dropped so much knowledge on us. For example, there are many plants that live on other plants, called epiphytes. While walking through the forest, there are all these vines hanging off of trees. Well, Kenneth schooled us: they were not in fact vines, but roots growing from the epiphytes trying to get nutrients and moisture that they lack by not having roots in the soil. Wow.
All of these people play a critical role in creating not only functioning, but also ensure smooth-operating and pleasant field stations. We want to bring attention and highlight these incredible individuals who work so hard to keep these stations going. Yes, a lot of amazing science gets done at these various places, but nothing would be happening without this remarkable support system. For this, I believe I can speak for all of us to extend huge thank you to these incredible people who work so hard and bring so much love and joy to these stations.