lessons learned in Costa Rica

by Laura Toro, University of Minnesota

Today I am having a delicious Costa Rican coffee while I am watching the landscape that surrounded Las Cruces. I can see the palm trees from the dining hall area, they make me nostalgic, I cannot stop thinking about my home country. This area reminds me of El Valle del Cocora, one of the most beautiful regions of Colombia, where the tallest palm tree in the world can be found. Sadly, this species is critically endangered, and although several measures have been taking in order to protect the current population, the future of this species does not look promising. I wish we could have a conservation system like the Costa Rican one.

After spending six weeks studying different ecosystems, from Dry Forests to Paramos, and working with frogs, butterflies, lizards, and invasive gingers I have realized how lucky Costa Ricans are. This peaceful Central American country is an excellent example of progress and goodwill. People from different nationalities and organizations from around the world have been working together in order to conserve thousands of species that can be found across Costa Rica. Their power and determination have been able to change laws, and to recover what was left after the explosive expansion of monocultures in the 70s.

The stations we visited during this adventure were an excellent example of the potential that community projects have. Every place was full of passionate people willing to conserve and protect what they had no matter how difficult or costly it seemed. Every person I met was proud of their accomplishments, and most important they were excited to share their successes and failures with us. Their welcoming smiles made me feel at home and their motivational speeches encouraged me to take advantage of this incredible opportunity. They said that we were the future, and that our findings would help them improving their projects. I do not know if we were able to fulfill those expectations, but I cannot be more grateful for this experience and for what I learnt in the process.

Even though the process was not what I expected, I learnt that everyone not matter their background have always something important to add, and that her or his perspective could make what could seem as a good project and excellent one. Working in groups is not always easy, we could all speak the same language, but misunderstandings frequently happen. So being able to talk and express our feelings is necessary if we want to have a healthy environment. If we all were able to leave our egos behind we could all learn more about the ecosystems we studied and enjoyed more the opportunities we have.

These weeks also made me aware of the importance of self-caring. We all were adults, and we were supposed to know our limits, but sometimes I saw people fainting or struggling with lethal infections. That scared me and made me realize how naïve we are. We are not unbeatable, we also need to sleep and eat well, and by the way DRINKING WATER in the tropics is mandatory. I hope we all have learned the lesson!

Thank you Pati, Sofi, Ronny, Jorge, Oscar, Esteban, Mariana, Marcelo, Becca, Pablo, Darko, Sean, Jenny, Susan, Adriana, David, Nico, Nicole, Elaine, Alana, Faith, Laura, Ana, Anna K, Anna P, Anna M, Amanda, Sage, Patrick, Harshad, Dipsy, Amy, Tiffany and Becky for being my family these past weeks and sharing your passion and love with me!! Also, thanks to the staff in every station!! I loved the gallo pinto and the tortillas you made for us <3

a group of strong women

by Anna Kudla, Duke University

Around 8:30 am on Wednesday June 24th, up in the mountains of Costa Rica in a tiny field full of newly blossomed clover and next two a small red house, you would have seen three figures standing still. The three had their eyes transfixed on the grass, and then practically out of nowhere, one of them would swing a large insect net or plastic bag over a clover plant and yell excitedly, “I got one!”.

This memory stands out to me for some reason. As one of three figures in that field that day, I would call it a meditative collecting of bumblebees for the third and last Faculty Led Project. It took me a minute to realize why it was so powerful because there have been so many memories built into my repertoire that will always be Costa Rica OTS 2018. So, what about this field on that particular day did I realize? Yes, the field was beautiful in the region of Costa Rica just below the Paramó. Yes, the fresh air tasted wonderful after an evening of fireside bonding. Yes, the sun felt just right after a chilly night and blankets that weren’t quite warm enough.

But there was something else. There was something impactful about the two strong women I was with and the three of us working together as a collective to get something done. And then I thought about the FLP group working on this bumblebee project—five strong women working together. Still even more, our Trop Bio 18-3 group consisted of seventeen strong women, all from different places, all working on different aspects of biology or environmental studies, and all committed to contributing to a broader scientific community. And our group was led by two outstanding and strong females in science.

I certainly do not want to exclude the gentlemen who were part of the course and contributed greatly to the group dynamics. However, there was something wonderful about being practically surrounded by women, strong intelligent women. We learned from one another, we made each other laugh, we listened to one another, we took care of each other, we grew sick of one another, and we reconnected. There is no doubt in my mind that each of the women with whom I became colleagues and friends is going to have an impact on any and all of the communities of which they are a part. I am so excited to follow their stories and to think back on shared memories of projects, long bus rides, clammy rubber boots, rice and beans, and tiny rooms full of flying insects. And of course I will think about the bumblebees, the ultimate representation of strong women working together to survive and that have an profound influence on the environment in which they are in.

To Catch a Hummingbird

by Sage Rohrer

I first set out to Costa Rica for the OTS Tropical Biology course almost six weeks ago (or years ago??) filled with excitement about seeing hummingbirds. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird found in my temperate zone home of Missouri is respectably flashy, but no lone species can compare to the brilliant colors and diversity found in the tropics.
So we reached our first field site at Palo Verde National Park and saw lots of monkeys, crocodiles, trogons, and mosquitoes… but basically no hummingbirds. And then we went to CIRENAS and saw manakins and more monkeys and antlions and a sea turtle laying eggs… but no hummingbirds. And then we went to the cloud forest of Monteverde….
and the world changed.
A tiny, idyllic café set in the foggy mountains had feeders arranged along the porch, which were swarmed with flashing jewels of all shapes and colors.

Well after this, I was sure I had reached the zenith of OTS hummingbirds. Seven gorgeous species in an hour, all sufficiently close and fearless to let me photograph them. Day made. But this was just the beginning.
We left the cloud forest (too soon), collectively holding our breath as our top-heavy bus lurched its way down narrow mountain roads with smoking brakes, until at last we reached the hot lowland rainforest of La Selva. During our time there I saw many ant species and learned the fun fact (through experience…) that trap-jaw ants have a tiny anterior hairlike sensor that triggers their mandibles to slam shut with one of the strongest proportionate forces on earth, but the hummingbirds were a bit sparse. However, I did at least get my first hummingbird pollination action shot of the trip.

With the final OTS weeks in sight, we made our way back up the chilly mountains to explore more cloud forests and the new tundra-like ecosystem of the páramo. On our way we picked up the last set of brilliant scientists to lead our final faculty projects. And one happened to specialize in hummingbirds!
Our faculty leader wanted to examine possible reasons behind a surprising dominance hierarchy existing between the four most common species on el Cerro de la Muerte – the most dominant species (the Fiery-Throated Hummingbird) is not the largest! We decided to measure proportionate bill size, wing shape, and agility to see if any of those things might provide an advantage in aggression interactions.
To do this, we built an obstacle course – AKA the “torture box”- to measure agility, set up mist nets at another excellent cloud forest café (I guess cafés and hummingbirds are a theme here?), and waited for the hummingbirds to land in the net.

As you can see, conditions were tough.

We captured about 35 hummingbirds and a number of other accident birds who also flew into the mist nets. After analyzing our data, we found some exciting results – dominance in hummingbirds does seem to be related to agility! Relative speeds in completing the obstacle course occurred in the same order as the dominance hierarchy, with Fiery-throated Hummingbirds completing the course faster than other species, regardless of size.

Though I have mist netted other birds before, working with tiny stunning hummingbirds for the first time was the highlight of an already incredible trip. Plus they were pretty cooperative photography subjects.

Until next time, Costa Rica.

only two days left.

by Laura Bizarri, University of Connecticut

Only two days left. Piranha is playing the guitar on the porch. Elayna, our wild country girl, is starting the bonfire, or “bondfire” as Pati called it. I look around and see the faces that have been part of my life for the past six weeks. Pati and Sofi told us at the very beginning of the course that this would be a life changing experience not only professionally but also on personal level. Some of us don’t like to admit it, but it’s so true.

I came into this experience not really knowing what to expect. I leave a changed person with a heart full of emotions, full of memories. While I have definitely learned many valuable things that will help me throughout my career, for me the change was more personal. I have experienced, seen, felt, so many things that never in a million years I thought I would see, experience, feel. I have tested so many of my personal limits with some failures but many successes. I have met so many cool people that I hope will stay in my life beyond the course. I have made a new best friend. Someone that sometimes seemed to know me better than I do even though we had just met. Because this is what spending every moment of every day for six weeks together does. It lets you get to know people, whether you like it or not. It strips your soul naked. The hardships, both physical and mental, really expose people for who they truly are, and that is the beauty of this course.

Two more days. Some people can’t wait to go back to their lives, to their families. Me? Not so much. Missing my families is one of those uncomfortable feelings that I’ve gotten used to, or rather that I’ve learned to hide, mostly from myself. For me going back to my life means going back to La Selva, to my work, my research. But after all the things I’ve seen, experienced, felt, is it possible to go back? I’m scared I won’t be able to, mentally. I’m scared after all the adrenaline that I got from constantly moving around and experiencing new things almost every week, going back to the doing the same thing every day won’t be enough. And maybe that’s the point. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe I’ll love the routine like I did before. Maybe I won’t. All I know is that while it scares me, maybe for the first time in my life it doesn’t petrify me. If there’s something, anything, that this course has taught me, it’s that nothing ever goes the way you planned. But it’s OK.

So, with a full heart, full of all sorts of things, I say thank you!
Thank you to Pati and Sofi, this experience would have been so different without you both.
Thank you to my dear friend Ana, I can’t even express how much you have meant and will continue to mean to me.

Thank you to all the wonderful friends I have met on this eternal and yet too quick journey.

In the Name of Science

by Harshad Karandihar, University of California at Berkeley

‘It’s a family of organisms that is data deficient and endangered. We collected ten specimens from the streams and rivers in Las Cruces and analyzed their stomach contents,’ the presenters enthusiastically explained.
‘So it’s endangered, nobody really knows what’s going on with them, and you just killed ten of them?’ I asked, horrified.
‘Yeah, but the REU group is killing them anyway. They’re killing 30 of them. We’ll just contribute our samples to them,’ they explained, with a shrug of their heads.
‘But… never mind.’ I shook my head in disbelief.

The next group presented. They had collected 20 macro-invertebrate specimens from a river in the station. They didn’t know what these things were. The specimens were spread across a water-stained sheet of paper with splotchy number tags for each of them.

I was myself party to this massacre. As we excitedly found our first spider in our plots, Nicholas swiftly dunked it in a vial of ethanol, my hesitant protests petering out into the cold forest air. He had a permit to collect, he explained. And he was fast becoming, or probably was, one of the world’s leading experts on Ctenid spiders. He’d discovered over a dozen species previously unknown to science, and had six or so more waiting in the wings.

It was all for science. Who was I, a mere conservationist, a bleeding heart, to question these time-accepted methods? I didn’t have a single publication to my name; I am not even sure that I have conducted any ‘real’ research in my life. I am not sure I have the locus standi to question these things, and yet, throughout this course, it is something that has deeply affected me. Does an organism deserve to die just because killing it is necessary to ‘discover’ it? Does it deserve to die just so that we can learn how to ‘do’ science? Isn’t this but an extension of the sheer arrogance that our species demonstrates to the rest of the planet and its denizens? Where does it stop? Why do experiments that involve killing or capturing large mammals need to pass through ethics committees, but ones involving ‘lower’ organisms happen without what seems to be a modicum of hesitation and thought about the appropriateness of our actions? How, then, are we different from the masses whom we often look down upon as unaware and indifferent towards the fate of this planet? An obvious response is that these killings don’t really matter in the larger scheme of things; they do not significantly disturb the system or affect its equilibrium in any way. But as important as the ultimate impact is, it is the attitude that troubles me. A lack of sensitivity towards other living beings sounds to me as a terrible ethical framework to base anything planet-saving magic that you might conjure up during the course of your career.

I understand that it is not an easy question to answer. Do we stop all use of animals? That is clearly impossible, given the role animal testing plays in the development of vital drugs, and possibly for some other stuff that my evidently simple, bleeding-heart mind is completely unaware of. But what I want to really question is the line in the sand that we have drawn for ourselves. Mammals and most vertebrates – not cool to kill them (although you are more or less free to imprison them and torture them for behavioral studies to understand how they and their societies work. Irony, anyone?). Everything else – yeah, whatever. As scientists keep realizing (much to their chagrin, I suspect), more and more non-human organisms are sentient beings who think and feel and have emotions. Isn’t it time that we questioned science and the scientific process itself? How is it absolutely ok to deliberately inflict pain on another organism, unless it is the question of your very survival? I’ll end with a quote from Gandhi: ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’ Just like the no swimming rule, can OTS have a no killing rule?

A passion for the natural world

by Alana Rader, Rutgers University, New Jersey

We all came here to feed our passion for the natural world. At every station and throughout every project I gain more and more appreciation for the complexities of ecological processes. Growing up I always heard about Costa Rica’s natural beauty, but it’s a completely different experience to be here and see it for myself- we’ve all been so lucky! However, what I’ve been finding most striking are the continuously deep and inspiring relationships that community members, hosts and researchers have with their surrounding environment.

Strongly founded human-environment relationships are critical for sustainable functioning ecosystems. These relationships may not even be something we consider having every day, or something that we’ve worked for. They build within and around us from life histories, personal experience, and values. Take, for example, Romelio and the capuchin monkeys at Palo Verde Biological Research Station. Romelio is the kitchen manager and head chef of Palo Verde, and one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. He was shockingly patient during our conversations, allowing me to interrupt his day to practice my fragmented Spanish. One afternoon a few of us were working in Romelio’s comedor when we heard banging on the roof and fruit falling from the trees outside. We looked out to see a troupe of capuchin monkeys eating in the trees! It was our first monkey sighting of the trip, up close and personal! We ran with cameras, fighting for the best view, staring in awe, laughing at their antics, recording their behavior… you name it! Romelio emerged from the kitchen to see what the fuss was about. He laughed when he saw us all. For Romelio, visits from monkeys to the comedor was a frequent occurrence, coming to bang on the roof, and feed in the trees outside. Romelio shared how once they even broke into the comedor and raided the kitchen! And yet, he stood with us laughing and watching them with a look of total appreciation and contentedness on his face, as if he were seeing them for the first time. To me, this example shows that small moments of appreciation for day to day natural wonders and a connection to environmental places goes hand in hand. In turn, a connection to place facilitates a strong relationship between humans and their surrounding natural environment.

White faced capuchin monkey on the roof of the Palo Verde Biological Research Station Comedor. Photo by: Anna Kudla.

Weeks later in the course, we found ourselves at Cuerici Biological Station in Cerro de la Muerte. Cuerici was opposite of Palo verde in almost every way. It was cold, there were no mosquitos, hot showers (mostly), and surrounded by a small community. However, like Palo Verde, the residents of Cuerici had a strong sense of place, passed down through generations of ecological knowledge. Here, Don Carlos, proudly shared his property, hosting some of Costa Rica’s last standing old growth oak forest. Don Carlos accounted the many changes in forest habitat that he observed while he hunted tapir years ago. These changes motivated him to establish the biological station and to restore his family’s pasture into second growth forest. During morning hikes in the forest and paramo, his daughter, Anna, and family friend, Alberto, recounted generations of cultural value and benefits of various plant species. From teas, to filtered water, to anesthetics, it was easy to see that Don Carlos’ passion stemmed from a combined necessity and respect for services provided by a healthy, diverse, and functioning ecosystem.

View of Cerro de la Muerte at the top of the hill above Cuereci Biological Research Station.

My accounts of inspiring human-environment relations from all the places we’ve been could go on and on. Now we find ourselves entering the last week of the course, starting a workshop on community engagement and involvement. Facilitated partially through reflection of the course and partially through the workshop, I’ve been considering my personal view of the importance of biological and ecological work. To me, my ecologically based research and conservation strategies in general should emphasize and celebrate the deep rooted and influential relationships that humans have with the natural world. These relationships are often the basis for successful conservation measures, but most importantly, act as a reminder that humans are not separate from ecological process. My connection to an environmentalist and conservationist state of mind stems from the day to day interaction with alpine forest in my hometown of Boise, Idaho. Every weekend my friends and I would head to the mountains to run, ski, camp, hike, etc. We would constantly visit our favorite trees, look outs, and search for our favorite animals. It’s been almost a decade since I moved away from where I grew up and am only now realizing that a deep connection to environmental place (which I very much took for granted!) is largely responsible for my being here today.

The Meaning of La Selva

by Amy Cottrell, Auburn University

When I was first introduced to OTS and all that it stood for, the one recurring theme amongst my friends who had participated was the glorified reputation of La Selva. I know folks who have participated in the course from 1968 through present day, and they all talked about La Selva as if it were some magical, otherworldly place. Knowing nothing more than that it was this overwhelmingly beautiful and diverse rainforest, I was full of anticipation when week four came and we headed to the world-renowned research station. Upon arriving, the obvious visual beauty of this place was evident everywhere. However, we were shuffled into our normal weekly schedule, and things started to go along as usual. Five days into our stay, we were properly introduced to La Selva by its current director, Carlos de la Rosa. My classmates and I were very excited to hear about the history and legacy of La Selva from someone who knows it best, hoping to get that feeling everyone had described.
Carlos began detailing the history of La Selva and how the research station was formed. He made sure to point out there are multiple long-term studies currently being conducted at La Selva, some with over 40 years of data. The contribution of La Selva to science is overwhelming. Over 4,500 publications and over 260 theses/dissertations have been completed within its borders. It’s incredible to think of the scientific contributions that have come out of this small pocket of forest, and what has yet to be discovered. I left the talk finally feeling enthusiastic and eager to experience the awe of this place.
However, the next night I had a moment on the cross bridge where I felt like there was still something I was missing – something about La Selva that was really special that I just was not seeing or understanding. I sat there looking up at the stars, then glanced down at the light coming from the river station and thought about all of the influential scientific researchers that have stayed there. I looked back at the entrance to the bridge and imagined every person and animal that has crossed the bridge, trying to force myself to grasp the surreal intensity of this place. I made it to La Selva, yet I wasn’t getting the feeling that others had described. Ecologically, I understand what makes it special. Though I felt so frustrated that I truly didn’t get it. Did I not care about biodiversity? Am I not a true ecologist after all? Do I not understand what all these scientific contributions mean?
And then I looked down at the river and I was taken back to my field site in Georgia. I thought about the two creeks that I study fish on, and how I initially perceived them as incredibly beautiful creeks, though that’s all they were to me. I didn’t know anything about them and nothing was familiar. I was just floating downstream, tracking my fish. My perception of and connection to both creeks during week one of my field work cannot compare to how I feel when I traverse them now. Now, as I paddle, every bend tells another story. Everywhere I look, another memory floods in: the tree stump where I saw wood ducks nesting each spring, or where we would often see coyotes and white-tailed deer cross the creek, or the pools where spotted gar congregate before spawning, or the tiny inlet stream where we were certain to find a cottonmouth on the bank, or that one cool, shaded spot where mountain laurel blooms earlier than any other. A beautiful place is just that until you establish a connection with it. I started to feel a little bit better. I hadn’t missed something along the way – I was just looking for something that I had absolutely no way of experiencing yet. I was new to La Selva. No matter how hard I tried, I could not feel the splendor that my friends and colleagues have felt from months or years of time spent here. And I realized that was okay.
My mind floated back to something Carlos mentioned at the end of his talk. He said, “if people don’t understand what we do here or why we do it, they are going to want to use this land for something else”. I believe this is one of the most difficult fallacies for ecologists, both in communicating our science and applying our results. Many of us enter this field because we have made it personal. Something happened in our lives where we felt this strong connection to our environment, and we dedicate our lives to protecting those wild spaces – for today and the tomorrows that follow. It is that simple – people protect and fight for what they love. To encourage that connection to our wild surroundings is one of the most rewarding and powerful acts us as ecologists can perform.

Character death and fallen trees

by Tiffany Lum, university of Hawaii, Manoa

Along with five other graduate students, I had the opportunity to work with botanist Dr. Susan Letcher, at La Selva Biological Station. Together we were doing a short research project on the impacts of a recent storm. As observed from the path, staff had documented 70 fallen trees. These tree fall events often occur in groups with many trees falling together like dominos, creating large gaps in the canopy.

We walked through the old growth forest and measured different traits that we thought might increase the likelihood that a tree will fall during a storm event, including presence of lianas, buttresses, trunk width and wood density. We also considered whether the trees fell individually or the fall was a chain reaction of trees pulling each other down and whether the tree was upturned, with the roots pulled from the earth, or if the tree snapped mid-trunk.
During this project, I learned a great deal from Dr. Letcher about the forests at La Selva where she has been working for the past 20 years. But the real challenge was yet to come as we set upon the task of making a video to communicate our findings to a general audience.
Our guides in this endeavor, Nelson Saint-Hilaire and Juan Carlos Herrero, provided us with a good framework of storytelling in a visual medium. This was my first time making a movie and my first time doing a creative project with five other people.
They gave us lots of tips:
Be engaging!
Catch the audience’s attention from the start!
Include a surprising element!
The main character should go on a journey, overcome obstacles and grow!
Play with tempo and rhythm!
Be subtle and elegant!
We didn’t know what we were doing. They showed us Werner Herzog’s documentary, Encounters at End of the World, for inspiration. We knew that in two days our video would not be as polished or insightful.
Initially everyone had different ideas, we bounced them around between us, accepting and rejecting them, turning them over and inside out, eventually things began to coalesce or fall away; and the project started to take some shape.
Then we pitched them our storyline. Nelson and Juan Carlos were not impressed. They told us it sounded like something for church. We weren’t sure what that meant, but we knew that we had just rehashed the results of our research project. There was no story, no main character’s journey, nothing attention grabbing and no surprising twist.
So we started just joking around and we started getting loose and creative. Harshad had the idea for a storyline to create obstacles and drama. Finally, we had our main character to draw in the audience.

He would gather together researchers to find the cause of tree fall after the storm.

And our surprising twist would be the sudden death of each researcher

Once we started having fun things just came together organically. While we didn’t make a great masterpiece in two days, we managed to share our results in a memorable way.

Who would come for help? – Responses to distress calls in birds

by Amanda Wu, University of Missouri, St. Louis

Imagine that you got a snake bite during fieldwork, and that your friends are some distance away from you, what would you do? Of course, you would yell out for help. What’s likely to happen is that once your friends, or passers-by hear that, they would try to yell back at you, so that they can locate where you are, and check out your injury.
Now let’s put this scenario to the birds. Imagine a resident sparrow in the forest is caught by a hawk, and the sparrow is desperately calling for help using a series of high-pitch “screech”. This is a special signal to notify the nearby birds, perhaps families and friends, about the danger, and ask for immediate help. After hearing this SOS signal, some birds might start to call back to the sparrow, saying that “hold on buddy! I’m coming to help you out”. They would fly closer to the sparrow, checking out what is happening, and even mob and attack the predator. These are the typical responses to distress calls in birds.
For humans, responses to the help signal might originate from an innate sense of sympathy for desperate calls: it does not matter whether the person is calling in Spanish, English, or Chinese, humans might be able to sense the anxiety of the caller who needs help in urgency. However, we are also more likely to respond to a person who speaks the same language than us: for example, a person speaking in Spanish might misunderstand the “help” in Chinese. Nonetheless, if a Spanish speaker had been learning Chinese for quite some time, and he/she understood “help” in Chinese, he would be more likely to help out a Chinese when the Chinese is signalling for “help”. In a nutshell, responses to the SOS signal might reflect the intrinsic ability to recognize help signals, and also a learning component. The question is, does it hold true for the birds? To find out the answer, my teammates and I conducted a very interesting experiment in La Selva rainforest in Costa Rica this summer.
We set up speakers in the forest to play the distress calls of two birds, one resident sparrow species (Melozone leucotis; orange-billed sparrow) and one alien sparrow species (Arreman aurantiirostris; white-eared ground-sparrow). We marked a 5-m “magic range” to record how many birds approached during the playback and three minutes after the playback (see the below photo). To measure the responsiveness of local birds to these two types of calls, we recorded the time of first call-back, time of first approach, time within 5-m range of speaker, number of individuals and species approached.

The experimental set up of the study.

Teammates at work!

We found that birds in La Selva call back to resident and alien distress calls in the same amount of time, but birds approached quicker to resident species calls, and also stayed longer within the 5-m range for resident species calls. What does this mean? It means that there might be some innate element to call back to distress calls, regardless of whether the birds are familiar with the calls or not; perhaps they are able to identify that high rate of repetitions in alien calls as in resident species calls. However, birds might hesitate to approach because they do not get enough information from alien species calls, and they are not sure if that is an authentic distress signal or not. Interestingly, we also found that regardless of alien or resident species calls, similar number of individuals and species approached the speaker at the end. This shows that birds might think it’s necessary to come check out the situation if the call continues for a long time, regardless who signals for help: if the call lasts that long, it might be a reliable signal of some serious issues! As an analogy, if we hear a baby crying for a long time, it would mean that the baby needs for some care really badly! In this case, we cannot help but check out the situation regardless of whether we have a personal relationship with the baby or not.
For me, this work reminds me a lot of the similarities between human society and bird communities. On the other hand, we should know that they are not completely the same: the analogy helps us understand the bird community, but the human society does not really share the same processes as a bird community. In a bird community, we are dealing with multiple species, but in human societies we are dealing with only homo sapiens. So why do unrelated species in birds help out each other? This is because spotting and removing a predator as a potential danger for the whole community is important! If they could develop a warning system that works to scare away some bullies, that is a benefit for all the birds in the community.

Going back to the question “who would come for help”, the answer is that both innate ability and learning is important to recognize a help signal!

Of Choices, and Not Always Getting Them Right the First Time.

by Dipanjana Dalui, University of Connecticut

Life to me is about the journey, because the destination is nothing but an illusion of stability. I have been on the move as far back as I could remember. Every time I think this is the last time, I am only lying to myself. I know the feeling of stagnation way too well. Even though my immediate reaction to the news of another move is frustration, I live for the thrill of the journey and the sheer excitement of not knowing anything or anyone. A clean slate. A new beginning. And let me tell you, it is an addictive feeling.

Before I delve into my story, let me tell you briefly about the last 4 weeks of my life. I flew from New York to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, on 27th May. The next day, I took a bus with 20 more enthusiastic biologists, and 4 faculty members, to Palo Verde – a wet forest, and wetland. After spending 5 days here, our team moved to a coastal site in the Nicoya peninsula on the Pacific side, the CIRENAS station. After 6 days here, we moved again. This time to the cloud forests of Monteverde, at an elevation of 1100m above sea level. In about another week, we moved to La Selva Biological Station, on the Caribbean plains. La Selva is the Mecca for tropical biologists, a place of pilgrimage for everyone who has ever dreamt of the pristine rainforest. Among caimans and crocodiles, hummingbirds and quetzals, sloths and turtles, what was I doing here?

The Kanchanjunga range, Himalayas. Photographed from Darjeeling, WB, India.

Today I will not talk about the geographic journey, rather delve into the sequence of unpredictable events that led me to where I am right now, sitting and writing this.

I took biology in my high school out of lack of choice, and because I did not want to do computer science. Fast forward 10 months, and I was in love with the subject. I owe, even to this day, this shift in my life to Mrs Indrani Kailash, my high school biology teacher. I was fortunate to have a mentor like her, who went out of her way multiple times and never gave up on me. But I still loved mathematics, and made the conscious decision of doing my BS-MS in mathematics. I was again fortunate that the course structure at my university ensured that I did not have to give up on my love for biology altogether. So, to quickly summarise, I was doing pure mathematics, and taking biology courses on the side, and sobbing and crawling through the compulsory computer science courses.

It was a hot day in September, just after I finished my second consecutive summer working on Algebraic Number theory, and was looking to do a semester long project on it. I was sitting in the grad office, a small air conditioned cubicle, staring up at the ceiling, thinking about the theorem at hand. And that is when it struck me. Like a sudden flash, all I had worked for for the past 2 years fell apart when I realised that how small the proportion of people is who would actually understand what I do, and even smaller is the proportion of people who care about it. Then I tried asking myself if anything I do would ever be directly useful, in one last attempt to justify doing it. Maybe in another 100 years? Maybe 200? But there will be nothing left in 200 years if humanity continues on the path of exploitation we had been on for the last 100 years.

I couldn’t pretend to not care anymore. I tried to bury myself in the abstractions of rings and fields, classes and domains, but I kept growing restless with every passing day. I could not turn a blind eye to the burning world. I wanted to do something immediate, something more grounded, something that would help the planet and humanity. I finally approached my supervisor at that time, a pure mathematician. I told him about my conflict, and asked him very directly how can he do what he is doing day after day, year after year. Doesn’t he see that what the elite mathematicians do are out of the grasp of almost everyone, and other sciences aren’t catching up fast enough – our work will not see the light of day in any form or service in decades to come. The rainforests don’t have decades. The ice caps aren’t going to wait. The clock is ticking, and I cannot pretend to not care anymore. He respected my decision to switch my research focus, though I cannot say he was very happy about it. My department let me do my master’s thesis in an interdisciplinary field, but I still had to complete every credit requirement for a mathematics degree.

The transition was far from easy. Yes, I had some bachelor level biology courses, but that was in no way enough. My initial target was to work for the Indian Forest Services (IFS), for forest and wildlife conservation. But having an IFS grandfather, I knew the bureaucracy was not something that suited a person like me who has only trained to be a scientist. Ecology and evolution had always been my love, so I decided to take my chances. I soon realised that the best bet for me would be to embrace my quantitative skills, and find a way to apply those in a primarily qualitative science that is ecology and evolution. This required me to teach myself coding. Even though I had taken requirements, I was no good. And hands down, those were the most painful months of my career so far.

It was during the penultimate semester, and right about the time I was reconsidering a PhD as an option after having juggled with the idea and scraping it a few times, that I happened to get interested in disease ecology. It was also around this time that I stumbled upon the lab website of Dr Robert Bagchi. Dr Bagchi, or Robi, as he likes to be called, was advertising for a PhD student at the time, a student who would work on theoretical disease ecology – on transmission, evolution, and effects of climate change. It was a role that suited my interest and the lab complemented my expertise. The interview, proposal, and application went pretty smoothly. Another 8 months, and I flew halfway across the world to join my new Uconn EEB family.

The learning curve has been a very steep one. And I am grateful to the people in my department who haven’t still lost their patience with me when I ask something very stupid and very obvious. From identifying tiger beetles using morphology, to teaching introductory biology to freshmen, from Thursday seminars, to giving tours of our collection facility, I am slowly molding into an ecologist. And this is where the current OTS course becomes relevant. I am lucky to have a supervisor who shares my views that in order to become a true ecologist, I have to gain experience of fieldwork and learn skills of the field, and what better option that a course dedicated to just that. So, here I am, on the fourth week of a six week long Tropical Ecology course, three projects, two papers, one podcast, and one video later, writing about what brought me here.

A Milksnake, UConn EEB. University of Connecticut, Storrs, USA.

I will leave you with the following words from one of my favourite songs. I take it as a reminder that there is only one life we are given, and what we make of it depends on what we choose to do in it. Our actions will be the legacy we leave behind not only for our children, but for every other being on this planet.

“And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death”

– Time, Pink Floyd.