Graduate

Poem and pictures by: Anant Deshwal, OTS PhD Student from the University of Arkansas

Venture did we
Into the world unknown
Through the darkest tunnels to be
We the dwarfs, dreaming in the land of giants
Scared, unsure and insecure
Can’t help it, with the lust for research so pure


In our darkest hour and highest of mess
Appeared the majestic tropical angel
Call her pristine, snowy or simply OTS
Illuminating the path unseen
Scientific dilemma of significant p value to be or not to be
Call us whatever for we are the PhD

Bridging the Gap in the Monteverde Cloud Forest

 

by: Patricia Salerno, PhD (Co-Coordinator)

We woke up on June 6th atop the beautiful cloud forest in Monteverde, surrounded by tourists and birds and plants that live on plants. The students had a one day crash course in making podcasts. The rules of the game were simple. The groups of 2-3 people had to make a story about the projects that they had completed in Palo Verde only a few days before, and make it relatable and engaging to the audience at hand: ecotourists. They needed to interview at the very least two people. One of the interviewees needed to be an author of the paper, and another one a tourist. Target length, three minutes. Total number of hours to work on it, nine. Total technical instruction on production for building a sound clip and mixing it, about an hour. The results: brilliant. Couldn’t be more proud. They truly succeeded at what the entire exercise really was about: telling an engaging science story, and bridging the gap!

 

Tropical Biology: from The Cloud Forest to the Rainforest

Tropical Biology in Palo Verde

The Tropical Biology an Ecological Approach 17-3 group at Palo Verde Biological Station inside Palo Verde National Park

By: Patricia Salerno, PhD (Course Co-coordinator)

It’s week three of the course, and we are just getting settled in to our fourth site, La Selva Biological Station. Though we may be missing the fog, the quetzals, and the enormous epiphyte diversity that we got accustomed to in Monteverde, we are thrilled to chase around the many frogs and lizards, to network with an enormous variety of researchers, and to begin phase three of student projects and phase two of our science communication training.

We started out in Palo Verde, which graced us with low mosquito abundances and great faculty leaders: Dr. Chris Murray (Tennessee Tech U.), Dr. Jennifer Powers (University of Minnesota), and Dr. Oscar Laverde (Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá Colombia). After wrapping up three very successful projects and our first dance party (of course), we headed to Cirenas in the Nicoya Peninsula. The adventure of getting there – and almost not making it on the first night due to high tides and bad roads –  was competely worth it.  We spent four days learning about statistics in R and about writing and editing scientific papers in between running around the rocky intertidal and mangrove communities.

After the Pacific Ocean we headed to Monteverde, where we did a full day workshop on effective storytelling through podcasts. Afterwards our sixteen students split into five groups and developed their first independent projects – after a bit of back and forth with developing solid testable hypotheses given the available time and resources.

Our twelve day stay at La Selva will be packed with field and classroom adventures. The students will be carrying out a second faculty-led project while concurrently producing a film with our invited science communication crew, Nelson Saint-Hilaire and Eduardo Briceño. Later on they will develop their second independent projects. We are looking forward not only to working with our three guest faculty at La Selva (Dr. Carey Minteer, Dr. Beth Braker, and Dr. Jeanne Robertson) but also to our last two sites: the Oak forest in Cuerici and the Premontane forest of Las Cruces!

Fluffy birds

Following a whopping 72 hours of rainfall and flooding in La Selva, I was eager to get back out into the forest and explore. We only had two days left before leaving for Cuerici, and I wanted to make the most of my time left in the jungle. However even though the rains had finally come to an end, the forest was still closed. I mean, don’t get me wrong I expected it to rain (it is a rainforest after all!) but I never thought it would rain enough to close the forest for 3 days… especially in the dry season!

The biodiversity found at La Selva is spectacular, whether you love birds, herps, mammals, plants, you name it- there’s hundreds of species for you to get out there and see. I had been here for almost 10 days and I had seen so much, and yet… I was still feeling like I had barely gotten a chance to see the jungle. So, what kind of wildlife could I find while confined to the El Commodore? My hopes were not high, but I went out to explore anyways. And then I saw it…

A fluffy little Green Honeycreeper sleeping under a leaf outside the dining hall. So close that I could have reached out and touched it! I mean I see birds flying around during the day from tree to tree, in and out of sight and here one is right in front of my face, fast asleep! But wait, there’s more. 16 different species of birds to be exact. All roosting under the leaves of these decorative trees near our common area. A Blue-gray Tanager here, an Olive-backed Euphonia there ….3 Golden Hooded Tanagers over there. It was fluffy bird madness! I was so amazed by the diversity that was hidden right in the middle of the highest area of human disturbance at La Selva.

Being able to spot a bird roosting up in the trees is nearly impossible, especially in the lush and complex canopy of the Jungle. The fact that we were able to see so many birds, all scattered right outside our cabins was a pretty magical experience for all of us. It just goes to show you that you don’t have to venture out to the furthest edge of the jungle to see incredible wildlife. Sometimes, all you have to do is walk from your cabin over to the dining hall for dinner!

 

Olive-backed Euphonia (aka rainbow fluffy butt) roosting by the dining hall

Olive-backed Euphonia (aka rainbow fluffy butt) roosting by the dining hall

 

Sara Piccolomini 

On top of mountains and beneath the stars

Unlike the other locations we have visited during our travels, Cuerici was by far the most surreal locations. During our stay at Cuerici we had a chance to decompress from our busy schedules and enjoy some downtime by taking a hike to “El Mirador” to enjoy the vista and taking a day to travel to Cerro de la Muerte and reach the top of the 3,451 meter mountain overseeing the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

The nights were cold but they could not take away from the beautiful night sky, the tranquility of the mountain, and the company of my friends. The sunrise was majestic as the warmth of the sun began to breathe life into the mountain and lifted the fog away. I made it a point to wake up each morning to take a seat on a rocking chair and sip a black cup of coffee while taking in this beauty. These experiences plus the conversations had with Don Carlos and Albert reminded me that we are constantly surrounded by natural wonders but rarely do we take the time to sit, listen, and marvel.

[Pictures to come]

-J

A call for connectivity in tropical ecology and conservation

My dad says, “There is no such thing as tropical ecology.”  My dad is an ecologist who sometimes works in the tropics.  His point is that, however many emergent differences there are between temperate and tropical regions, the underlying ecological principles are the same.  I would extend this further.  Tropical and temperate zones are part of an ecological continuum.  Participating in the OTS Field Ecology course has reinforced my conviction that we need more multinational collaborative research and outreach.  That is the only way to understand and protect species that do not recognize—but are affected by—political boundaries.rangemapsDead Snakes and Dead Anteaters

I am a birdwatcher.  Last August, I went to Nicaragua with my family.  We caught a bus before sunrise and took a seven-hour ride to the southern end of Lake Nicaragua.  We then took a two-hour boat ride down the San Juan River and stayed at a small lodge billed as a bird preserve.  I saw a lot of birds while I was there.  I also saw a lot of arthropods, but no snakes.  I took many pictures.  During my stay, one of the lodge dogs attacked and killed a young anteater.

When we returned from Nicaragua, people said, “that sounds interesting, but I would never go there.”  Why? Because it was difficult.  Even when I said it’s possible to skip the seven-hour bus ride and instead fly to the southern end of the lake, I was told it wasn’t worthwhile. Why?  Because there aren’t any snakes at the lodge preserve, which probably means the locals kill them as they pass through the preserve on their way to town.  Also, there was that incident with the dog.  The lodge should do something about that dog, people said.

After my trip to Nicaragua, I was asked why I didn’t go somewhere easier, like Costa Rica.  The place I went was just over the border, and I could have seen a lot of the same bird species in northern Costa Rica.  I don’t deny that Costa Rica would have been easier.  I also don’t deny that there is an overlap in bird communities.  I went there because I wanted to know what it was like.

sabalos

The Sábalos Lodge on the Rio San Juan in far southern Nicaragua. Open-air cabins are on or close to the river, and the property has a high diversity of arthropods, birds, and mammals.

Migration to the Tropics

This OTS course marks my fourth visit to Costa Rica.  The first time that I visited Costa Rica was with my grandmother in 1997, and we stayed at La Selva for a couple of nights.  I stayed at La Selva again with my parents a few years later.  Returning as a student this winter, I saw the station from a different perspective and was awestruck by the volume of work that goes on at La Selva, as well as the cumulative knowledge and wisdom of the individuals (past and present) who work there.  I also got to thinking a lot about Nicaragua.

In addition to being a birdwatcher, I am an ornithologists.  Specifically, I am interested in avian biogeography, or the environmental features driving bird distributions.  Many North American birds are migratory, traveling between temperate and tropical regions and sometimes stopping en route to fuel up.  The majority of research on migratory birds takes place in temperate regions, where many migratory birds breed.  We know so little about what happens to them on the wintering ground.

Migratory birds don’t distribute themselves uniformly across the tropical landscape.  Chestnut-sided Warblers and Summer Tanagers were some of the only migrants that I saw at La Selva.  At Cuericí—in the mountains—these were replaced by Black-throated Green Warblers and Wilson’s Warblers.  Birdwatchers who live in temperate regions like to claim these birds.  They are “ours,” and they just go to the tropics for vacation.  But the truth is that many of these species probably evolved as resident species in what are now tropical regions.  Migratory behavior was likely developed with glacial retreat as a way to take advantage of new resources.  The Wilson’s Warblers at Cuericí really belong to Costa Rica.  More specifically, they belong to the mountains in Costa Rica.  Chestnut-sided Warblers belong to wet forests lower down.  I find these distribution patterns fascinating, and it highlights the importance of sometimes narrowly-distributed habitat.

Wilson's Warbler, Frontera Audubon, Weslaco

Wilson’s Warbler, photographed by my father (John Thomlinson).

Nicaragua is Important

Nicaragua has many of its own migratory birds that visit temperate regions for “vacation” and breeding.  I didn’t see any of them when I was there last August, because all of those birds were up north, breeding or attempting to do so.  I went on day trips to explore the area.  The lodge is on the river, with no major roads nearby, so the river is the highway.  I hired a guide, Julio, who took us out in a boat.  During a nocturnal search for caimans, I asked about his background.  He said that he used to be a hunter but that now he prefers to make money by showing animals to people, not killing them.

There are bird research projects in Nicaragua, as well as science outreach organizations.  However, the volume of avian research appears small compared to Costa Rica.  A 19-year-old publication shows Nicaragua has one of the highest numbers of bird species among neotropical countries, but between 1979 and 1995 only seven papers on Nicaraguan birds were published.  This hasn’t changed dramatically. A quick literature search revealed a handful of recent publications on Nicaraguan birds, compared to dozens of studies in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is Important

Costa Rican research is clearly important, and I’m impressed by the research culture that has formed here.  I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with visiting Costa Rica as a tourist, even if one of the key motivations is that it’s “easy.”  But I worry about what happens to “our” birds and other migratory and wide-ranging animals when they cross borders.  There is a definite movement in Nicaragua to study local ecosystems and educate the public about nature.  But to achieve these goals they need intellectual, monetary, and physical support.

I think that in order for successful long-term research/outreach programs to form, they require a nucleation point.  They require dedicated individuals to visit places that might be hard to get to, go back repeatedly despite obstacles, reach out to the local community, and communicate compulsively about the work that’s going on there.  Sometimes these movements form from within, as we learned at Cuericí.  Other times, they are fed by a combination of internal and external resources, as seems to be true at La Selva.  Always, they depend on passionate individuals.

Here, I focused on Nicaragua because many important habitat corridors cross the border between the two countries.  I focused on birds because I think they’re really cool.  I waffled, because I’m still processing these ideas.  I think that these concepts apply to many other countries and are definitely not limited to birds.  We need more large scale projects, finding ways to bridge the information gap between well-studied and under-studied regions.  We need to encourage local conservation efforts, rather than boycotting those communities because they haven’t quite figured it out yet.  And we need to be incredibly passionate and persistent.  That is all.

-Amber Carver

PhD Student, University of Colorado Denver

 

50 Years of DATA: OTS legacy for young scientists

It has only been a week since the OTS field ecology course has started; yet everyday is more overwhelming than the day before. Every single day students are exposed to different areas of ecology, the great diversity of Costa Rica, the amazing facilities of La Selva Biological Station, and the tico’s culture.

yaffar1

OTS courses open the door each year to young scientists to interact with tropical environments in a way I have never experienced before. La Selva Biological Station provides a wide range of areas to study, from stream macroinvertebrates, to plant carbon fluxes. Besides the close natural environment that we find among the station (monkeys looking at us near the bridge, birds interacting with us in the comedor), the facilitates are high quality standard!, including great variety of laboratories, technological equipment, library, confortable rooms, laundry service, large range wifi connection and a wonderful variety of food that even provide vegetarian options.

yaffar2

As wonderful and comfortable as it sounds, La Selva Biological Station was not always as accessible as it is now. When OTS bought this land in 1968 the access was not essay and the stay was not as comfortable. Nevertheless, ecologists, botanists, zoologists, and other nature lovers started making science with the available resources and the magnificence forest life.

yaffar3

Through the years, great scientists left their seed of knowledge in this natural resource for science. Big characters including Holdridge, Clark, Liebermann, Wilson, and Chazdon, among many others, contributed enormously to science with research taken place in La Selva. All this data and discoveries encourage young scientists like myself towards the future development of science. (D. Yaffar).

yaffar4

Magia Cuericí

It has been an intense two weeks of study, planning, and project execution, but at last we have completed our time at La Selva and have headed for the hills, leaving the wetforest heat far behind. Now I am curled up under three blankets in the bunkroom of a rustic cabin in the cloud forest of the Talamancas.

Don Carlos shares the wonders of the forest

The place where I take my rest is Cuericí Biological Station, a two-story building pieced together from the wood of fallen trees collected in the surrounding forest. Carlos Solano, known to many as “Don Carlos” manages the station and is part owner of the 200-hectare property encompassing the habitat of such creatures as the elegant quetzal and the elusive tapir.  My class is to stay at the station for three days, far too little time to absorb what Don Carlos and Cuericí have to offer. “I went to school for two years” Don Carlos told me earlier in the day “and then my education ended.”  Following him on a hike through the woods, however, it becomes apparent that this is patently untrue. We eagerly soak up the ecological, zoological, and ethnobotanical knowledge he effuses, expertise that was acquired not from a professor but from the classroom of the forest.

Multicolored lichens drip from trees and rocks, birds and insects shake the occasional bush, and ancient oaks soar to the canopy, silently holding secrets unknown to all.  After the bursting vibrant commotion of La Selva, Cuericí  seems full of a cool and quiet mystery. Content and brimming with a delicious homemade meal, I nestle deeper under my blankets. We have been told that elves dwell here, and I feel them, tugging at the edges of my consciousness, whispering and humming, sweeping me into a deep slumber. ~Libby Sternhagen

Fog and mystery of the páramo, uphill from Cuericí station

A Cachete

Three weeks into the course entitled Field Ecology: Skills for Science and Beyond, and I can confidently say the title is fitting. We spend a vast majority of our time in the field, learning about focal ecosystems (dry tropical forests (a forest where it doesn’t rain for much of the year), wet tropical forests (the jungle with lots of rain), premontane wet forests (the jungle but on a mountain and with lots of rain), and Páramo (or alpine tundra, or grass and shrubs on the top of a mountain, also with lots of “precipitation”)). Much of this is through casual walks along well maintained trails, but most of our time is spent out in the field collecting data as part of our three-day lighting science projects. We have five of these projects over the nearly 4 week course, and this time in the field is an incredible opportunity to get to know ecosystems that many of us only read about from our packed grad student cubicles. But it also offers a chance to try methods we may not be familiar with, maybe something we are thinking about doing back at home as part of our graduate theses. These trial and error sessions, in a constructively critical environment, are a crucial component of scientific education and development. Which brings us to the subtitle of our course, skills for science and beyond. The five research projects that are part of this course repeatedly push us into the scientific method, allowing us to very quickly experience and practice the steps that will define our careers. We 1) observe our surroundings and ask questions about what we see, 2) research our questions and construct hypotheses about our questions, 3) design an experiment that can best answer this question, usually by predicting what should happen if our hypothesis is true, and carry it out, 4) analyze our data, using statistical methods that will provide some level of confidence to accept or reject our hypothesis, and 5) communicate our results. These will be the primary points by which we will be judged for the rest of our scientific lives, so it helps to have lots and lots of practice. But maybe more importantly, we are learning to live together while also effectively and productively cooperating on these projects. It is this skill that is becoming more and more important as a professional scientist (look at trends in the number of authors on scientific papers…(its increasing)). So even though most of us won’t be publishing super significant p-values in prestigious journals (the number one predictor of scientific “success”), we will be learning the beyond skills that will be important in making us productive members of the scientific community.

Ben Branoff

Canopy, Cuericí

Canopy, Cuericí

Science and BEYOND!

palo-verde
In this course we have had the opportunity to visit, in a very short time, the main Costa Rican ecosystems. It is amazing how in less than two hours heading northeast from the capital you can be in one of the most exuberant and diverse rainy forest of the country in the Sarapiquí lowlands. As well in less than five hours you have the possibility to visit one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world, the Tropical Dry Forest located in the northern Pacific of Costa Rica. If you head southwest the magnificent oak trees and the delicate páramo forest of the Cerro de la Muerte in the Talamanca mountain range will amaze you.

Most of these places have been preserved thanks to the effort of a few people concerned about the proper management and conservation of our natural resources. As history has proven, ambition, the lack of consciousness and overall lack of education would have turned these forests into big monocultures, pastures for cattle and even uncontrolled urban areas; as it has happened in all of the unprotected areas of the country.

Therefore, as a researchers and a nature lovers we have the capacity not only to generate high quality scientific information about these ecosystems, but also the duty to translate it so it could be understood and used by rest of the citizens. If we really want to preserve the natural resources and at the same time have a good life quality, the gap between science and society has to disappear.

Gabriela Quesada Ávila