“Iguana be with you”, but Jenny said “no”

By: Siddharth Shrikant Kulkarni, OTS PhD Student at George Washington University

I took the Tropical Biology course to learn what the title suggests. We all went through bonus training of time management and discipline. In CIRENAS, while we had about a zillion dishes to do with Fuller (Ryan) and Dang it (Anant), Jenny said “Guyyyyyyys, you have ten minutes…” and I joked “This is military training”! Six hours of sleep and rest working on field or lab work with deadlines for presentations and write-ups, it was a rigorous but worthy exercise. I am still realizing many of the impressions I have caught during the course and I’m sure that I will become aware of more after the course.

Post course, I went to La Selva Biological Station to collect spiders (the coolest organisms, of course). On a Friday, and as usual, it rained heavily while I was in the field, and I had to return for safety concerns. When it rains (or not), coffee is must, so I walked down the bridge, noticing that the rain was extraordinarily heavy and the water level had risen quite a bit, coffee colored itself.

On the bridge, I heard someone screaming “Ooooooooooooooh….poor little Iguana, Oh my gosh, I feel so bad.” That scream was almost ultrasonic, any higher frequency and the bats would have started gathering. It was a juvenile Iguana on a fallen tree branch, surrounded by water, finding a way to escape or possibly just chilling. It reminded me of a Tuatara trying to survive the Oligocene submersion, but this had nothing to do with the current situation, because I needed coffee. I too felt bad for the Iguana, but did not ‘try gathering bats’. I took some pictures and went for some coffee.

On the way back, the water level and the flow velocity had increased and I wanted to do something. Given my normal thoughts, I thought of diving in the water and getting it out, because “Iguana rescue you”. But then strangely, the clouds thundered and I heard a strict Jenny voice in my head “No, that’s a poor choice. There are crocodiles in the river.”, followed by scary Patricia voice “I am watching you”.

“I mean seriously! Even after the course is over?”, was my reaction.

Then it occurred to me that is important; these impressions of Jenny and Patricia that I carry are worthy in the career that I have chosen. They will always make me aware of the risk I want to take during fieldwork and reconsider if it is really necessary to do it. Thanks, Jenny and Patricia, my strict and scary pals.

While this thought process was going on, I took a video of the surrounding situation. The water flow was still rising and suddenly the fallen tree moved about a meter and got stuck somewhere else, which shook the Iguana badly. It reminded me of Adolfo saying “You can die here!”. I clicked my camera just as the Iguana jumped into water. It was forced across the bridge, but then grasped another fallen tree closer to the bank.

Given that I wrote six papers during last six weeks, there’s this habit now: the author would like to acknowledge the Iguana for participating in this study, the dining hall for the coffee, and the virtual Jenny-Patricia duo for the impressions they have scared me with for life.

What happens in Costa Rica doesn’t stay in Costa Rica?

By: Siddharth Shrikant Kulkarni, OTS PhD Student at George Washington University

“What happens in Costa Rica doesn’t stay in Costa Rica?”- Gustavo Hormiga, The George Washington University

I inferred many meanings from what my advisor said just before I left for the Tropical Biology course. But, this is an apt title for what I experienced throughout this course.

Quick backstory: India is a large country which accommodates huge biodiversity, mostly concentrated in the two hotspots, the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. I come from the Pune District, right in the Ghats. The mountains, full of diverse animals and plants, were unnoticeably part and parcel of daily life. I first missed those mountains and the biodiversity in 2015, during a short trip to Leiden, Netherlands. “Leiden is so flat”. Then, I missed them again in 2016 during my trip to Washington, D.C., this time for doctoral study.

The Tropical Biology course gave me an opportunity to live the tropical life again, “pura vida”. And of course, the mountains reminded me of the Western Ghats. I presented my hardcore love for spiders and phylogenetics during the Tropical Biology course. In fact, as discovered (with evidence) by Patricia Salerno, the “cappuccino high Siddharth” draws phylogenies. Christine Pardo said that “sleepy Siddharth” wakes up upon hearing “spider”. A short 45 day period was enough for my company to realize the extremity of my interest. This sounds good, however, I was becoming a narrow specialist with less of an idea about other fields, and life might have been leading to a monotone.

Like a citizen of any country, I have always wanted to contribute to the betterment of my nation through my profession. Of course, documenting spiders and their phylogenetic relationships does contribute to the understanding of the biodiversity that we have in India. However, several threats to biodiversity like mining, poaching, deforestration, fires for pasture land, etc. exist without any concrete solutions. We have gads of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working towards conservation. We all have good motives to conserve the region. However, what we lack is a solid foundation of informative and long-term data about the biodiversity, habitats, and impacts of the current threats around us. Without proper information, our conservation strategies will most likely go wrong, sometimes even against what we had aimed to fix. For example, we introduced the guppy fish Gambusia sp. to control malarial Anopheles, but this fish also eats up copepods, ostracods, and small crustaceans, many of which are native and have short-range distributions.

Taking the OTS course gave me unparalleled experience in studying biodiversity and changed my perspective towards developing conservation strategies. I believe that every biology student should take it. Unlike many other countries where conservation is recognized only as a career field, it was amazing to learn that the Ticos practice it as a part of their culture. According to the survey we conducted in San Vito and my discussions with Don Carlos and Don Alberto in Cuerici, generations have transformed themselves from their habits of hunting animals to striving for their restoration. In addition to the 48% of the Tico-land protected by the government, many individual citizens have maintained the forest on their private lands which sums to about 60% of the area of Costa Rica.

The generosity of common people who donated lands to OTS for conservation of biodiversity is just remarkable. And of course, the three OTS stations, Palo Verde, Las Cruces and La Selva are centers of rigorous research activities. I found that in these stations, which contain dense forests of more than a thousand hectares, there is always some researcher to answer your question, be it about plants, animals, invasives, natives or just anything! Even in the most remote parts of these forests, I saw flagging tape hung up, indicating that someone is studying something here. And then, when one has to make a decision, say to construct a bridge or figure out what if some plant is invasive, OTS researchers have an enormous amount of data which can precisely show ‘what is happening’ and suggest ‘what can be done’ and ‘how it should be done’. It took time to realize that conservation decisions should not be made based on the human feeling, but on proper evidence and knowledge about the organism. For example, because deserts are a dry habitat, it would not be intelligent to put camels in the swamps, based on a feeling that they would have more water that way. A proper knowledge about the organism’s habits and habitat would clearly demonstrate why this action is inappropriate.

OTS has conducted 100s of courses led by established biologists, taken by students from all over the world. This gives the students a unique experience of studying along with contribution to studies in the stations. The funding comes mainly through the course fees and donations, and this massive organization has thrived in that way for more than 50 years now.

Before summing up, I would like to make a suggestion to include the enthusiastic Tico citizens in documenting local biodiversity. In India, two prominent citizen science initiatives are DiversityIndia and the India Biodiversity Portal (www.indiabiodiversity.org/) where different animal and plant groups are being documented by citizens and monitored by the experts. Both of them can be accessed through an Android phone. The SpiderIndia group on Facebook (www.facebook.com/groups/SpiderIndia/) has more than 7,000 members and has about 25 posts daily, recording pictures of spiders and their location. Similarly, we also have InsectIndia and TreesIndia documenting other taxa. Cumulatively, this will form an excellent database to study the patterns and processes of these taxa in coming years.

Having said this, I think it would be an excellent idea to understand the way that the OTS system works and try implementing it in India. Doing so could establish a strong baseline of data for further studies and guide us on real sustainable development.

The Invited Professors

This course would be a pale version of itself without the fantastic help of the invited professors. We all want to thank them so much for sharing their time, energy, and expertise with us!

Palo Verde: Jennifer Powers, Oscar Laverde, Chris Murray

CIRENAS: Ariadna Sanchez

La Selva: Jeanne Robertson (and Gigi!), Andres Vega, Carey Minteer, Beth Braker, Orlando Vargas, Nelson St. Hilaire, Eduardo “Gancho” Briceño

Cuerici: Catherine Cardelús, Esteban Brenes-Mora, Darko Cotoras, Carlos and Ana Solano, Albert Torres

Las Cruces: Rebecca Cole, Antonio Castilla, Nathan Muchhala, Rodo Quiros

The Group

By: Jennifer Stynoski, PhD; Course Coordinator

From my perspective, the major highlight of the 17-3 Tropical Biology: An Ecological Approach course was the group itself, so it seems appropriate to make a quick post here sharing some of our group photos, both the pretend-calm-professional ones and the jumping ones (showing our true colors).

All photo credit goes to Ryan Fuller, unofficial but designated tripod jockey for the course.

Palo Verde

CIRENAS

Monteverde – Oops, the forest was too beautiful and we forgot a group photo at this site.

La Selva – Oops, we were all so exhausted that we also forgot a group photo here.

Cuerici

Las Alturas and Las Cruces

How dare they?

By: Diego Garcia Olaechea, OTS PhD Student at the University of Florida
I first heard about OTS courses when I was an undergraduate student in Peru, many years ago. I have always had the desire to apply to one of these famous six-week courses in Costa Rica. Six weeks in which approximately twenty graduate students from different countries would be immersed in books, scientific literature, and critical thinking; conducting research projects, designing and carrying out experiments, and writing scientific articles. Six weeks in which students would be working with little free time, breaking their limits and extending their comfort zones to areas they would never have imagined. Six weeks doing non-stop and intense science.
To my satisfaction, I was accepted in the 2017-3 version of this course, and I was able to live out, without anyone telling me, every piece that I had heard about those courses. However, curiously, there was something else that I had not noticed before, maybe because of the excitement of the academic level of the course and everything I was going to learn, or because of traveling to the country with the most successful conservation history on the planet, or maybe because one tends to underestimate certain things. “One” does not make the course “alone.” We were a group of sixteen students plus three teachers who lived together for six weeks. We traveled all over Costa Rica, from the Pacific to the Atlantic slope, from lowlands to mountains, from dry forests to rainforests. This aspect of the course was what I had not anticipated: the human factor. This is why I strongly criticize OTS and the organizers of the course. How dare they to bring together nineteen strangers for six weeks, make them experience a thousand adventures together, get them to worry about each other, allow them to make bonds, perhaps for life. And then, abruptly, rip them apart and send them back to their countries of origin? Did they take into account what that would mean for each of us? How dare they?!
Academically this course was as expected, intense, productive, and with a thousand new tools to apply to our daily science. But something that exceeded all my expectations were those 19 strangers becoming friends, building a friendship that now crosses borders.

A Creature Lurking Among Us

By: Emily Powell, OTS PhD Student from the University of Miami

While visiting La Selva Biological Station, many visitors enjoy night hikes into the depths of the rainforest to look for frogs and nocturnal mammals, but a surprising diversity of herpetofauna can be found by simply looking around the walls and roofs of laboratory buildings. Mexican tree frogs (Smilisca baudinii) and Snouted tree frogs (Scinax sp.) sleep in nooks around rafters, and Cane Toads (Rhinella marina) hop around awkwardly between buildings, gulping at insects attracted to the lights. Little house geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus) crowd around light sources to snatch moths. But if you stay up really late past 10 or 11 o’clock, the real monsters come out.

The Turnip-tailed Gecko (Thecadactylus rapicauda) grows to about 9 inches in length and has a camouflaged pattern that allows it to blend seamlessly into its natural tree bark home. It has a long banded tail, that frequently breaks off when a predator tries to catch the gecko, and regrows in a particular turnip-like shape. We examined one of these geckos and were astounded by the tremendous power of its toe pads. These sticky pads are covered with adhesive lamellae which are comprised of tiny hairs called setae that are about 80-100 μM long. These tiny hairs allow the geckos to use Van der Waals forces to cling to flat surfaces. These huge geckos have such strong gripping ability that we actually had trouble removing their toes from our clothes. If one of these geckos leaps to avoid a predator, even a single toe pad is strong enough to catch the full weight of the gecko and help it scramble to a safer surface. When the gecko walks, it must curl its toes slowly off of surfaces at a particular angle to detach the forces of the setae. These geckos are a spectacular example of the way that evolution can act as an inventor, more powerful than all the imagination of mankind.

For more information on geckos and their amazing lamellae, see

Pianka, E. R., & Sweet, S. S. (2005). Integrative biology of sticky feet in geckos. BioEssays, 27(6), 647-652.

But wait! What happened between San Jose and San Jose?

By: Brittany Harris, OTS PhD student from Florida International University

Day 1, San Jose: Naïve amateur ecologists, uncertain, stubborn, a little nervous, perhaps.

Day 43, San Jose: Confident, well-rounded scientists, now skilled, selfless, with life-long friendships.

But wait! What happened between San Jose and San Jose?

Well, we left the sounds of the city, exchanging car and noise pollution, for fresh forest air and six weeks of ecology boot camp. We worked relentlessly in the most beautiful and diverse tropical ecosystems: dry forests, rainforests, cloud forests, coastal forests, high altitude oak forest, and paramo. I would say fresh, silent, forest air, but with this group, there was never a dull or silent moment. Perhaps in the beginning…

Palo Verde: Too much time on our hands, hah! Here I had the luxury of waking up early for solo leisure walks (i.e., pollinator watching).

C.I.R.E.N.A.S: Where the forest meets the mountain and the river meets the sea. Here, even birders can become botanists (Yay, Anant!). Don’t think it was all beaching and no work, but at least we got a beautiful view and local cocos frios during those stats & writing workshops.

Monteverde: Epiphytes!!! Bromeliads, Orchids, Peperomia, Columnea, Clusia, oh my! Ferns growing on ferns! Sensory overload for any plant lover.

La Selva: Queen of the Jungle! The only field station where you can go from people-overload in the comedor to lost in complete solitude in this beautiful rainforest. We learned to make science communication videos (see: https://vimeo.com/223520155), worked with amazing faculty members, did an independent project, and turned another birder into a botanist (Yay, Diego!). A lot of work and a lot of play = little sleep.

Cuerici: Winding down with good company, fantastic hosts, a toasty fire, bad-ass faculty projects, and a Bollywood dance off. Yeah, that’s right. I got to see Puyas, work with bromeliads, and smell earthy (more than usual) after climbing some trees. If the quaint atmosphere didn’t get us feeling relaxed, the altitude sure did.

Las Cruces/Las Alturas: We did it!!!! And we saved the best projects for last. Our profs really chose some awesome faculty leaders to mentor us (Thanks, Jenny & Patricia!). Antonio and Nathan forever go down in Brittany’s book of bad-ass scientists. Even the six-foot tall dense pastures couldn’t break my adventurous spirit.

I feel fortunate to have worked with the most amazing peers, faculty, and professors. I’m not sure if we just got really lucky this year, or that if you stick a bunch of eager scientists in a jungle and say…’ok go,’ you’re bound to end up with the amazing group dynamic that we did. If I had to do it over again, I would not change a single second. I would still trade in the sleep for the things I learned, the fun that I had, the people I grew with, and the endless adventures from one forest to the next.

As I said, never a dull moment. I miss it all already. Thanks Jenny, Patricia, Alvaro, Nalleli, Carrie, Jannnnet, Ryan, Diego, Anant, Siddharth, Theodora, Adolfo, Emily, Laura, Erika, Christine, Steph, Cat, Antonio, Nathan, J. Powers, Oscar, Beth, Jess, Nelson & Gancho!

Cuericí magical oak forest: lessons learned

By: Nayeli Carvajal, OTS PhD Student at the University of California, Irvine

Although I am not a fan of cold weather, Cuericí ranks among my top favorite Biological Stations visited while on the OTS course. Cuericí is a privately-owned conservation area located in the oak forest of the Cordillera de Talamanca. The founders and site managers, Don Carlos and Albert, serve as an example of conservation, sustainability, and education. The reason I decided to write about my Cuercí experience is because – aside the astonishing beauty of this place – I learned valuable lessons from my stay there.

Lessons about Conservation

Don Carlos and Albert grew up in a time when deforestation and hunting were the norm. After a complete change in their mindsets, they decided to acquire the 750 acres of land that now constitute Cuericí to conserve their beloved mountains. This area acts as a refuge for threatened animals such as the Baird’s tapir and acts as a biological corridor for migrating species.

View of the Talamanca mountains from one of the trails at Cuericí Biological Station.

Their example confirms to me that no matter our cultural backgrounds or the family values we might have been raised with as children, we all have the capacity for change and the potential to have a positive impact in the environment.

Lessons for Education and Outreach

The station hosts scientists conducting research in this area as well as school groups seeking to learn about this ecosystem and sustainable practices. Don Carlos also leads nature walks through pristine and secondary oak forests where he teaches about the importance of preserving the primary forest.

Spider crew (Erika, Darko, Christine, Emily, and Anant) admiring the view at the overlook deck.

Before visiting Cuericí, I felt discouraged about the general public’s attitudes towards conservation and science. After all, what can only one person do to convince others about the importance of conservation? This experience taught me that only a couple of individuals can have tremendous power to influence younger generations, scientists, and members of their local community.

Don Carlos in one of his guided nature walks through the Oak forest with OTS students.

Lessons for Sustainability

In addition to hosting scientists and students, Don Carlos also grows organic blackberries and raises trout on the property to supplement the station’s income. Blackberries are organically grown and trout are raised naturally. For example, instead of commercial food, trout eat nocturnal insects attracted by lamps placed above the water reservoirs. Environmental impacts such as water contamination is minimized by separating the organic sediment before discharging into the water stream.

One of the water reservoirs of the trout farm at Cuericí Biological Station.

In one of the conversations that I had with Don Carlos, he said, “The problems arise when we become greedy and try to profit more and more at the expense of the land; then, what are we passing down to future generations?” For me, the blackberry and trout farm served as a concrete example of how commercial practices can be carried out without harming the natural resources we all depend on.

Life Lessons

One of the most inspiring and memorable moments that I had in Cuericí was when Carlos told the story of he and his son reforesting an abandoned pasture site on their property. While they were planting the trees, he told his son that he one day will use the wood from the planted saplings to build his own home. When his son grew up, he constructed his house (shown in the picture) using the trees he planted as a child.

The house of Don Carlos’s son, built with trees from personally reforested pasture land.

This story was very inspiring because it showed me that we can see the results of our positive actions within our lifetimes, and that these actions can yield tangible benefits within a single generation.

Stories from the Clouds

By: Ryan Fuller, OTS PhD Student from the University of Chicago

Atop the wetlands of Palo Verde National Park and the apex of Sendero La Roca (‘The Rock Trail’).

I’m sitting in my San Jose hotel room on the final day of our six-week journey, surrounded by the highest level of city sound pollution since May 21, 2017. It’s a tad bit hard to concentrate as we’ve been blessed with pristine views and peaceful soundscapes for longer than I can grasp. Our travels have taken us to almost every portion of Costa Rica’s majestic landscapes, all while performing small scientific studies and revealing her small secrets along the way. We dipped our toes in tide pools of the Pacific Ocean, witnessed the raw beauty of Palo Verde’s wetlands, walked among the clouds of Monteverde, discovered the power of the rainy season at La Selva, survived the Cerro de la Muerte, and danced in the Jardín Botánico Wilson of Las Cruces.

Ghost-like Oaks rise out of the mountain mist at Cuerici near Cerro de la Muerte.

But, let’s shift gears for just one second. Despite the awe-inspiring views, beautiful creatures, and endless botanical wonders, we also immersed ourselves into the processes of modern science. Science, as a body of evidence-based inquiry, is finding itself at the mercy of lesser informed skeptics, political bias, and corruption of facts. It’s important that we arm ourselves with the best evidence we can in order to inform policy making. But, one could argue that scientists currently collect evidence with extreme precision. So, what’s the issue? How are we finding ourselves in this harsh, highly skeptical environment? One piece lies in our inability to communicate the importance of our findings! We tend to disappear into the exciting and interesting parts of our research, failing to disseminate knowledge to the general public once we find our fascinating conclusions.

Tide pooling in the Pacific Ocean — CIRENAS.

A portion of our course was dedicated to sharing our research findings through creative means like blogs, podcasts, and short films. It was an incredible experience for me as I was able to work with people from around the world (USA, Costa Rica, India, and Peru) on a podcast and a short film. Additionally, I was fortunate enough to be the main character of a kid’s-style video about the Red-eyed Tree Frog and the research we performed on their anti-predatory behaviors at the La Selva Biological Research Station (click here to watch the videos our course produced). Combined, the two workshops and experiences gained therein have impacted my outlook on sci-communications. As the course winds down, our lives return to what we might define as normal, and we disperse to our respective homes, I feel as though my scientific toolbox has been enriched. Not only have I learned a diversity of scientific tools such as statistics, ways to be a better writer, and more efficient project design but I have also learned many ‘left-brained’ skills as well. My creativity, wonderment, and excitement for storytelling have all received a boost from my course leaders who encouraged us to broadcast our messages.

A clip from the short film “Scott’s Science!” at La Selva Biological Station.

I’ll leave you with a little thought that hopefully inspires you in whatever you do — even if you are not a professional scientist. If you feel like what you are doing could never be interesting to the ‘outside world’, think again! What you do has the power to inspire others and further the causes you believe in. I never thought I would have the capacity to put together scientific communication in a fun and creative way but, I did, and my fellow course members did too! We need that enthusiasm and confidence to spread throughout the scientific community. For me, it started here at OTS 17-3. I’ll forever be thankful for the experiences, skills, and friendships this course has gifted me. To quote the final line of my podcast:  “Get out there, learn something new, and then go tell the world about it!”

Silver Throated Tanager (Tangara icterocephala) from Jardín Botánica Wilson at Las Cruces.

Where the Ocean, River, and Forest Meet

By: Jannet Vu, OTS PhD student from Stony Brook University

We all just loaded up on some gallo pinto for breakfast and are off to explore Caletas-Arío National Wildlife Refuge, which is adjacent to CIRENAS. The sun is shining overhead and the weather appears perfect for our trek. Despite, I have my rain jacket tucked away in my trusted backpack and am sporting timeless rubber rain boots. Cause if I’ve learned anything yet, it is that, in Costa Rica, the weather can switch from calm and tranquil to violent and stormy in an instant.

We make it down CIRENAS’ steep dirt driveway, which is lined with patches of reeds that house the singing frogs we heard last night, and shade trees that have anoles ducking in between the branches as they hear us approaching. We make a right onto a wider dirt road and soon after cut left through some indistinct posts made of chest high tree branches. On the other side, we find the park ranger’s house and the entrance to the park. The house is a wooden cabin with hammocks slung across the deck. Two dogs play underneath it, frolicking between the beams that support the whole structure.

We are told that before CIRENAS was built, students were housed here and that sometimes student groups and researchers still stay there. One can tell how new CIRENAS is by how clean and unworn their classroom and bedrooms appear. The place looks more like a hotel than a research station, yet to be touched by time – we’re not complaining though!

After several “UPE!” calls, the park ranger emerges. In Costa Rica, knocking on someone’s door is much too intrusive and can get dangerous when people have guard dogs. Thus, it is customary to call out “UPE!” when one is visiting a neighbor. The ranger is in his 50s and clad in casual wear—shorts, sandals, and a half buttoned short sleeve shirt. While CIRENAS helps with conservation efforts, he is the only on-site guard for the entire park, which extends 313 hectares on land and 19,846 hectares into the sea. If we are only considering the land portion, that’s one man guarding an area the size of 300 football fields by himself! This pattern of understaffed on-site management is reiterated throughout Costa Rica’s park system.

Just in our brief exchange with the ranger, we find a whiptail lizard thrashing about the leaf litter. Some people try to pick it up, but it is too fast and drives into a thicket of broken branches. As we venture forward into the dense jungle, the sunlight fades into light specks and the canopy grows thicker and taller overhead. The dirt gravel turns into soft-wet mud, painting our rain boots brown. The wildlife is endless, from the frogs and toads that cross our paths to the, flocks of birds flying through the trees. The birders don’t take long to fall behind, enthralled in the plethora of diversity here: herons, vultures, and hummingbirds to name a few. The plant people follow suit, observing striated leaves, half-inch thick spikes running up entire tree trunks, and nodules larger than their fists sitting at the tree bases.

The rest of us continue and happen upon a wood turtle, right in the middle of the path! Some of us passed right over it, including myself. But it was not the easiest spot because it was half concealed in a hole and blended in with the fallen log in front of the hole. We take turns transferring the mud from its shell onto our hands, as we hold it for pictures. Its legs are powerful, pressed up on our stomach and hands; we bring it closer to our bodies and secure our grip to ensure it does not pop out of our hands.

Progressively, the light specks turn into patches as the trees shorten and thin. We are entering the transition between forest and mangrove. Small holes are interspersed about the ground and in our peripheries we see forest crabs with orange tops and white bottoms scuttling across the floor. The holes shrink, but grow in number as odd-looking nickel-sized crabs with one claw larger than the other replace the forest crabs. These are fiddler crabs! The hundreds of crabs can sense us approaching from 50 meters away. We can see them collectively diving into their holes and part to the sides of the path, attempting to avoid us. While it would be lovely to examine each of them, the blood-thirsty mosquitoes grow in abundance as we journey deeper into the mangroves. They swarm us from all sides and we must resist our urges as biologist to stop and observe, in order to not be eaten alive.

That is not the only danger that lurks in these parts; there are also crocodiles, which is one of the main reasons why swimming in the ocean is not advised here. We can see the river to our right and someone alerts the group of a crocodile sighting in the distance. Despite the mosquitoes chasing us, we dart towards the river and stop, for this is too grand of an opportunity to pass up. We lurk for about 10 minutes, swatting our arms as much as possible, and keeping one eye on the bank in case a crocodile spontaneously leaps up and the other scanning for the sighting. Disappointingly, all we gained were more bites.

Unable to handle the swarm much longer we trail-blaze forward, nearly running away from the mosquitoes. Then, in an instant, the canopy completely opens and we emerge in a field of brush with the serene sound of crashing waves. The mosquitoes remain in the forest and the mud turns to soft sand. Within minutes the brush also disappears and we reach our own piece of seemingly untouched paradise. The sun still shines above, the birds soar overhead, and the refreshing salt water hits our ankles as we walk along the shoreline. About 400 meters to the left we can see where the river meets the ocean. The brown river water drains into the ocean, creating an ombre of brownish-pink and blue waves that whirl together. This place is truly a slice of heaven and I hope that this rare ecosystem, where the forest, river, and ocean still meet, will remain unspoiled for generations to come.