Field studies fail sometimes (and that’s okay!)

by Anna McPherran, Stony Brook University

Shortly after arriving at the beautiful CIRENAS campus in the Nicoya peninsula, my group (with Anna P. and Tiffany L.) began brainstorming potential ideas for our first independent project. Anna became interested in moths after one of our orientation walks, so we tried to come up with a project involving them. We each had limited experience working with moths or insects in general, but together we were able to design a project that we were excited about that examined moth wing size and shape in different habitat types.

Excitement was high the night before our first field day. We MacGyvered a light trap using PVC pipes, bed sheets, an emergency blanket, and binder clips. We experimented with different lighting configurations and thought through a billion different scenarios that we might encounter in the field. There were plenty of cool moths hanging around our room that night, so we practiced our photography skills. Our bags were carefully packed with all of the right resources and we felt ready to face the next day.

Our first field day (6/5) went a little something like this:
06:00 Wake and prepare
06:30 Breakfast
07:15 Select and set flags for 10 sites
10:00 Pitch our project plan to the course coordinators, who approved it after giving some helpful suggestions
11:00 Practice handling and taking measurements using butterflies
12:00 Lunch
13:00 Set flags for 10 more sites, took densitometer and understory density measurements for all 20 sites, all through BUCKETS of rain
16:00 Badly needed showers and snacks
17:30 Prepare plans for data collection
18:00 Dinner
19:30 Back out to the field for data collection…
20:30 …or maybe not, next to zero moths arrived after an hour waiting
21:00 Added another sheet set up in hopes of improving our sampling rate
22:00 Still next to zero moths, even after an hour of waiting at each site
22:30 Set up our final traps and started to think about alternative projects to start (and complete!) the next day
23:00 Return to campus after realizing we weren’t getting any data and needed to abandon our project
23:30 Collapse onto bed

We attracted some insects, but little to no moths using our makeshift sheet trap (Photo credit: Tiffany Lum)

We knew already from the planning process that our project was going to be field intensive, but I still don’t think we were prepared for how exhausted we were going to feel. For the most part, aside from meals, we spent the entire day outside and on our feet, much of it hiking through mud and dense forest in the rain. My feet were killing me and my brain felt like mush by the end of the day. We decided to leave out our traps with the lights on and just get them the next morning because we couldn’t get muster the energy to go out again and retrieve them.

I think we were exhausted more than anything, but our facial expressions must have looked dejected because Oscar and Sophia seemed concerned about us when we finally arrived back to the classroom. We let them know that we failed to collect any data and floated a few of the new project ideas that we had started to brainstorm. We were definitely a little disappointed that our project didn’t work out, but we knew we had to plow ahead and work under the conditions that we were presented with.

Oscar and Sophia gave us a bit of a pep talk that night, which we all appreciated after such a long day. They brought up several points that I think are worth sharing here, and that any seasoned scientist knows to be true:
1. Your study system/the weather/luck will not always cooperate with you
2. Field work is notoriously tough for a reason
3. There is always something to learn from your failures
4. There are always alternative paths that can be taken
5. Don’t take the failure of a project as a statement of personal failure
6. This happens to every scientist at some point

Anna P. (left) and I taking densiometer measurements in soaking wet clothes (Photo credit: Tiffany Lum)

When you spend enough time around scientists, you hear stories about failed projects or experiments all the time, but it definitely felt different to experience it myself for the first time. Like I mentioned, we were all a little disappointed, but we knew the stakes were relatively low in this situation and that we had nothing to lose in the long run from one day of a failed project. The independent project is meant to be a learning exercise more than anything else. Of course, this is not often the case for scientists. Many people spend years and thousands of dollars of grant money before realizing that a project is failing. Sometimes those lost years extend time spent on a doctoral degree that is already a huge investment of time and resources. It’s hard not to feel frustration or failure as a scientist sometimes.

Still, science as an enterprise relies on learning from and moving on after failure. Great ideas are often born out of failure. One of my favorite examples is of the cleaning product 409. It’s called 409 because the creators of the product went through 409 different iterations of ingredients before arriving at their final formula. If they gave up halfway through their process, the final formula would not be as effective. Whether a project fails because of human error or because of the complex system involved, it is always worth it to evaluate your progress and to move forward, even if it means changing your project completely. We ended up doing an entirely different project the next day that compared herbivory in native and nonnative plants, and thankfully everything went smoothly. On top of everything else, I am super grateful to have worked with such awesome teammates who were just as determined not to give up.

forest sounds

by Faith Chonko, St. Edwards University

Before I set off for the 6 week Tropical Biology course, I was sure of only two things – it would be a mental and physical challenge and there would be little access to the internet. In preparation, I did something I’d been meaning to do for about 3 years. I downloaded all of my favorite music to my phone.

As cliché as it may be, certain artists, albums, and songs have carried me through the most difficult (and joyous) times in my life. Being fairly introverted, I knew having escape music accessible on this trip would be key to staying focused and grounded. What I didn’t expect was the new context some of my favorite songs would hold in a novel environment. With Palo Verde Biological Station, CIRENAS, and the University of Georgia campus at Monteverde behind us, La Selva Biological station will be our home for the next two weeks. Our time here at the most prolific tropical research center will mark the course’s halfway point.

So far, I have been inches away from animals I’ve dreamed of seeing my whole life, completed a handful of demanding but rewarding field projects, and been exposed to new ecosystems. Trying to describe this experience is difficult, but by sharing some of the music that serves as my soundtrack maybe you’ll get a taste.

The five songs included here are representative of my journey so far.

Voyager (Daft Punk) – The time I spend traveling to new places, usually alone, is when I feel most certain of who I am. Listening to this song now feels like a reset button when the stress of a deadline or lack of sleep begins to creep in. The bouncy instrumentals are strangely both energizing and meditative, similar to being immersed in nature. It helps me pause before taking the next step on whatever is at hand.

The Heat (Jungle) – The title says it all. The heat of the tropical dry forest and rainforest can be difficult to deal with at times, especially when dressed head to toe in field clothes and covered in a cloud of insect repellent (or mosquitoes). However, at CIRENAS, a station with a beach nearby, the heat actually added to the enjoyment. For our first independent field projects, I was part of a group focused on whether or not a lack of large seashells limits hermit crabs. We evaluated the relationship between shell size availability and hermit crab growth by measuring individuals’ ability to fit in their current shell. Most of our time was spend measuring over 400 hermit crabs at night, but we also had the chance to watch a beach sunrise. We also spent a whole day wandering the beach looking for seashells in the name science, but I can assure you this was not our entire motivation.

Dreaming of You (L’Impératrice) – As wonderful as this time has been, being away from the comfort of home and the company of friends is never easy. The syrupy sentiment of this song reminds me of the support offered by the people I am closest to even when a phone call or text is not possible.

These Chains (Hot Chip) – Earlier this week, our course focused on Science Communication. We were tasked with creating a five-minute podcast based on our fellow students’ previous projects at CIRENAS. The group I worked with reported on a project observing antlion behavior. When we first arrived at CIRENAS, I was surprised to see so many people were unaware of antlions. As a part of the podcast, we interviewed students and guests at UGA to see what they knew about antlions. Similar to the previous response, many were unsure, so we used the opportunity to teach them about a new organism. The two-day project was such a fun way to think about how we can reach different audiences with simple tools and make sometimes complex research accessible to others. My group incorporated this song as a part of our podcast.

Disparate Youth (Santigold) – I am one of 21 students taking this course. We all come from different backgrounds and will be heading down varying career paths following our time together in Costa Rica, but in these six weeks, we are collaborators. Normally, when I go hiking or camping with friends back home, I am the one holding us up to look at a tiny bug or to point out a weird leaf. Here is a different story. For the first time, people who are just as excited as I am to see a mushroom surround me. It is encouraging to be in a group with vibrant and passionate energy. For this reason and others, the Tropical Biology course has already been so unique – a trip I will not soon forget.

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some truths about my travels

by David Henderson, Washington University, St. Louis

Let me start this blog post with a disclaimer. No, a quote. How about a disclaimer then a quote? Disclaimer first. Most of what I say in this blog post is the mostly truth. There. The rest will take care of itself.
“There is a thin line between a vagabond and a traveler”. I figured that out a while ago. What I haven’t figured out yet, though, is where that line actually is. I am on the road again, in Costa Rica (again), this time for a graduate ecology course. But let me start at the beginning.

I love to travel, I love putting one foot in front of another. And I love the feeling of freedom that I feel when I am on the move with no destination in sight. When I was younger, I would go to far off places, pulled forward by a burning curiosity. I always had to go just a little further, always had to see what was around the next curve, to experience what the next destination held. At first, I wouldn’t tell anyone where I had been or what I had done. It seemed too crazy. Eventually though, I opened up and started telling the people closest to me about some of the places I had been and some of the things that I was doing. They all though I was crazy, that I was lying, or both. But, as the years went on, even though their opinions have not changed, they began to look forward to and to greatly enjoy my stories. Anyway, most of my stories are mostly true.

With that in mind, when I found out that I had been accepted into an Organization for Tropical Studies course taking place in different locations all around Costa Rica, I knew I had to go. I will admit that I was a little apprehensive about coming at first. I do not have much research experience and I would be going to a graduate level course when I had never actually been to graduate school before. Also, my traveling style is a bit looser and less planned out in advance. Dorm beds are the norm when I’m on the road, and I have come to love the wild, extemely free, fun-loving (sometimes insane?) people I share them with. I didn’t really know what to expect from a group of ecology students.

I felt some trepidation as I headed over to the Ave del Paraiso hotel in San Jose to meet the people I would be spending the next six weeks with. There was no need to worry though. I was truly grateful to find myself among fun, intelligent, nature loving people possessed of (for the most part) great senses of humor. I was even more relieved to find that the course was headed by two cool, fun-loving ladies, who like frogs a lot for some reason.

Well, now, I have been here for three weeks already, and it feels like it has been three months, but in the best way possible. I have seen a laundry list of animals while I’ve been here, including koatis, crocodiles, vipers, all kinds monkeys and many rare birds that a birdwatcher would (probably) kill to see. My favorite was the turtle we saw nesting on the beach by Cirenas. Speaking of the beach at Cirenas, I had a moment, watching the sunset there, that took be back to another time and place. As I looked out over the Pacific, I recalled standing in that same ocean, looking at it as the sun rose and wondering if I would ever see it again. It was a heavy moment. If this were someone else’s story, there would have been a tear or two in my eye.

Before I finish, let me share with you one last story. Currently, I am, here at La Selva Biological station, in the humid tropical forest, working on a project led by botanist Dr. Susan Letcher. I am right where I want to be! Well, the other night I almost saw a jaguar. Its true. I took a walk by myself and must have taken a wrong turn or something because I didn’t recognize where I was at and there were no lights to speak of. I heard a rustling in the brush not far from where I was and I froze and dropped into a crouch before shining my headlight in the direction of the noise. I didn’t see anything at first, but then, I saw several squat shapes moving in the underbrush. It was only a group peccaries. I rose to my feet smiling and continued to walk back the way I had come. Not even a minute after that I heard a crash behind me followed by the startled squealing of pigs running in all directions. I picked up the pace but found it nearly impossible to put the event out of my mind. I knew I had walked a long way, and it would be about 30 minutes before I could get back to somewhere familiar. Sure enough, as I continued on, I began to hear intermittent clumps that I had come to recognize as something large moving through the forest. Determined to keep my cool, I told myself that it was only peccaries. But, the sounds were too quiet and too fluid, plus the creeping feeling in my gut told me that I was being stalked by something. And it was considerably larger than a peccary. I kept up my pace every so often I heard a clump coming from behind me. I shined my light into the forest around me but did not dare stop. After 20 or so heart-wrenching minutes I heard a clump nearly right on top of me and quickly dropped and flashed my light in its direction. What I saw moving in front of me was bulky and completely dark with dark spots. By the time I saw the distant lights of the estacion del rio, I was covered in sweat and nearly running. I had heard several more clumps since my encounter and wanted no more. Thankfully, I made it back to the Cabina Iguana shaken, but in one piece. Of course, I did not even think about trying to
take a picture of my mysterious stalker, but I know what I saw. I guess you’re just going to have to take my word for it 😉.

So, there you have it. Beautiful beaches, bone chilling night hikes and everything in between. And all within the first three weeks of this OTS course. I can’t wait to see what the next three weeks will bring!

The First-time Researcher

by Adriana Lee, St. Edwards University

We are in our second week of travel and research and things have been very adventurous. Palo Verde had a ton of mosquitos and wildlife, but the food was amazing. CIRENAS was a bit rainy but the facilities were very nice. Now we are at the UGA campus and man I have never been so excited for a hot shower in my life! This is my first time out in the field in a different country and I am ready to see and learn about everything this beautiful country has to offer.
I am a notorious over packer so I wanted to do my best to stick to the strict suggestions of the OTS packing list. As you can see I still packed a lot; I am the one in the middle.

Early into the trip I found that I was going through my clothes rather quickly having to wash clothes every two days. While we were at CIRENAS I decided to wash my clothes so that they would be ready to go for our next stop. Because of the high humidity and how much it rained my clothes did not dry AT ALL. My clothes were all soaking so I was down to only my pjs. I had to pack up all of my wet clothes and get on to the bus heading to UGA wearing my pjs. Embarrassing. I was the only one with this problem I didn’t know what I had done wrong. Turns out most people didn’t follow the suggested list and packed way more than recommended. I was one of the few who had never done anything like this so I was unprepared.
Naturally when our professors informed us we would be writing a blog post I instantly knew what I wanted to write about, the OTS packing list. The list is long and has some good points but I do feel that it leaves out a lot of important clarifications. So, I am writing to tell you what you should actually bring for a summer with OTS. I hope this finds anyone that may need it so that no one else ends up with a suitcase full of wet clothes while wearing only her pjs.

———————————————–MODIFIED LIST————————————————
• Field clothes should include quick dry materials and preferred would be the long sleeve light weight Columbia shirts. Even though it is hot in most places and you would never want to wear a long sleeve shirt, the mosquito situation is so bad that its practically a requirement. Field pants vary in preference but it was nice to have the ones that go from pants to shorts on those hotter days. You can get by with 4 pants and 7 shirts but that might include you wearing them twice* before you get to do laundry.
• Lounging clothes is important. Have shorts, pants, legging variations and tanks, tees, and long-sleeved shirts to go along. You will need at least 5 bottom pairs and 7 tops to get you through. This may also require you to wear some things twice* before washing.
• Under-clothes. Quick dry is best. Make sure to bring plenty of both underwear and bras. Thinner bras are better because they dry faster but it all depends on your preference. Black socks are great because you can’t see the grime as much. Long socks are a must! What is meant by long is knee high. Your rain boots will rub and it will be very uncomfortable so this is important.
• Cold weather clothing means cold weather clothing. You will need warm pants or leggings. Lon sleeved shirts and jacket. Because you will be out in the field in these clothes be sure to bring enough to last the five days.
• Sleeping bag will probably be beneficial but a small blanket and pillow/neck pillow is useful on the long chilly bus rides.
• Laundry bag is extremely useful when laundry is sent out they keep it organized by bag. If you don’t bring a bag you may have a difficult time finding a trash bag to put your stuff in.
• A hat is really great, but wide brim is really key here. If you have a hat that has the neck and ear cover that is best!
• Bandanas are good for wiping of sweat in the field in the hot locations and keeping your nose warm in the cold locations. Some used cotton scarves for the same purpose.
• All rain gear will be used. Make sure your stuff is waterproof and NOT water-resistant.
• Boots – You will primarily need muck boots and I highly suggest you buy a pair of comfortable ones with a to of support or an insole because you will do a majority of your hiking wearing these boots. Don’t bother bringing hiking boots because you will not be allowed to wear them on a majority of your hikes so they just take up space otherwise.
• A pair of tennis shoes
• Sandals (Chacos or Tivas) are best.
• Quick-dry towel
• You can find most toiletries and brands in CR. They will be slightly more expensive but can be purchased. A blow dryer and straightener is nice as it may be difficult to towel dry your hair in some places.
• First-aid kit and medical supplies. Basic medications such as sinus medication, Excedrin, Midol, and Advil. Afterbite for insect bites. Extra band-aids
• A cheap pair of sunglasses for the field.
• Sunscreen. It doesn’t have to be high in SPF but be prepared to reapply. Equate offers the most bang for your buck and works well.
• Small sewing kit for basic repairs.
• Flash drive (or 2) with plenty of memory. You will often be turning in projects and data on this for multiple projects so ensure you have plenty of space.
• Camelbak and water bottle (wide mouth Nalgene) are very important.
• Headphones for music and drowning out noisy roommates.
• A flashlight and headlamp are crucial. In most places you can’t see at night without them. The recommended head lamp is a rechargeable LED with at least 1000L. If you plan on seeing turtles or scorpions you will need a red light and black light.
• Pack rechargeable batteries that fit your devices.
• Day pack will be used. If you don’t have a waterproof bag bring a dry bag and a rain poncho to keep things dry in the field.
• Pocket knife
• Water resistant wrist watch
• INSECT REPELLENT – the organic eco-friendly kind is nice and all but even the deet kind only fends the mosquitos off a little bit.
• Lecture notebook with pens and pencils.
• Rite in the rain field notebook with the proper writing tool. It is highly likely that you will need to write in the rain. Many notes washed away from not using the correct pen.
• Binoculars – they don’t have to be fancy
• Camera – the better the camera the better the photos. Just bring something to protect it as most of the time it is raining in CR.
• If you bring your laptop pack silica packets to prevent water damage or carry it in a waterproof case. MAC users be ware that within the first two weeks we have already lost 3 computers. The course has computers for you to use. Bringing a tablet is a much better choice.
• Snacks are important if they can only be purchased in the US but otherwise there will be plenty of snack stops throughout.

————————————ADITIONAL SUGGESTIONS——————————————
• Clothesline or paracord with clips
• Wash bag (scrubba)
• Laundry soap
• Torso bug net
• Small power strip
• Sun dress
• Compact camping fan
• Sleep mask
• Sharpie
• Duct tape
• Aloe with Lidocaine
• Non-cheap phone chargers
• Portable speaker
• Mug for coffee
• Hanging toiletry bag
• Baby wipes
• For fun books
• Compression socks or stockings if you have circulation problems
• Get phone unlocked iPhone, android good and then get a sim card

***To some wearing something twice without washing isn’t so bad. However these places are so hot that you step out of the shower sweating. Every time you take off your clothes there is a good chance they are damp.

Pack as much as you think you will need just remember that you will be required to carry all of your own stuff and there are often no sidewalks. Most importantly have fun and don’t worry about it too much. If all else fails you now have a huge new group of friends whom are always willing to help out with whatever you may need. Also, you aren’t completely done for if you forget something there are stores here that you can get stuff.

My Jane Goodall experiences in Costa Rica, as told to a father

by Becky Woodward, St. Edwards’s University

I was really excited to come to Costa Rica because it has always been a dream of mine to study primates. Growing up and throughout my college years, Jane Goodall has inspired me to follow my dreams and I always go back to one of her quotes when I am feeling frustrated and hopeless about the anthropogenic changes seen throughout the world. Luckily, I have a father who supports my passion for the environment and encourages me to seek changes that will improve quality of life across many taxa and for humans. Our lives literally depend on it. When I got to Palo Verde, I was ecstatic to meet Sarie Van Belle, an inspirational primatologist who focuses on black howler monkeys (she can salsa pretty well, too). I was excited to pick her brain and even happier when I was on her faculty led project following the mantled howler monkeys to determine the efficiency of their foraging habits. I knew that my father would be happy to hear that I was finally achieving my dreams and studying primates, so I sent him many photos and videos throughout the first week. We also saw white faced capuchins and spider monkeys which I also shared pictures of. For some reason, I was not getting a response from him which is pretty uncharacteristic but I did not think anything of it because the time with internet service was limited and I figured he may not be getting them or remember how to use WhatsApp. I was sending pictures so he would know I was alive, but planned on telling him all about it when I got home. I also called him a few times but never got through, but again, I assumed it was because of the poor connection.

After the week at Palo Verde, we went to CIRENAS. What a beautiful surprise it was to view the class room and cabins we were staying in. It looked like a tropical resort and very connected with the nature around it. Although it was beautiful, I did not have cell phone service for the week we were there. I did not mind it at all, but when I got to University of Georgia at Costa Rica and had cell reception I wanted to share some of the experiences with my dad. I began to call him and a man answered the phone who was not my dad. I told him I was sorry for bothering him and that I had the wrong phone number. It was no big deal. Then I tried to call my dad again and the same guy answered the phone. I apologized again, hung up, and tried to call my dad one more time. Again.. this guy! I was so confused until I remembered about a year ago when I lost my phone in the river (floating in Texas yee-haw) that one of my friends let me use her tablet and we accidently synced all of our contacts. Truth be told, I was sending a lot of my pictures to her dad and calling him instead of my own. I will say that I was confused when I got to UGA and received a message from my dad saying “Earth to Becky are you alive.”

I finally got in contact with my father and had an embarrassing conversation explaining what happened and even decided to chat with my friend’s dad for a little while. I mean, he did download WhatsApp and made an account and everything because he said he was worried I was “locked up in jail in Mexico or something.” I’m not sure why he would think anything like that because I am so innocent (sarcasm). This was a funny, yet embarrassing, experience for me but it is something that may happen while here in Costa Rica. The communication with friends and family back home is not always the best, but if you’re lucky you may get to know someone very well that you are accidently contacting.

Coming back to Costa Rica

by Elayna Grove, St. Edwards University

I heard about his course through my Master’s program at St. Edwards University. Waking up in the rainforest to the sound of Howler Monkeys and a variety of tropical birds is quite spectacular. For my first applied research project I chose to work with Mantled Howler Monkeys. Being able to work along side with Dr.Sarie Van Belle who studies primate ecology and behavior and collecting data on this species was truly a life changing experience. We collected behavioral data and recorded different movement coordinates. Working with primates has always been a dream of mine. Even though it was a small research project, I have learned so much about this incredible species. This course is helping me strengthen my hypothesis writing skills. Learning to work better in a team will be very beneficial in my field down the road.

Costa Rica has always been a place I have returned to so I can work with different wildlife. The unique culture, biodiversity and beauty of this country are hard to stay away from. For my senior High school project I went to the OSA peninsula and volunteered for a company called WIDECAST (Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network). I mainly worked with Hawksbill and Green sea turtles. We would go and put a net out and wait for a turtle to get stuck in the net and tag the turtle and bring it back to the station and remove any parasites on their fins. We would also clean their shells and take blood samples, identify gender, and measurement of shell size. While I was there I also did Mangrove restoration. We planted our young mangroves from the nursery along the coast where the sea turtles prefer to lay their nests. These mangroves act as a safe nursery for young turtle hatchlings and also acts as a buffer when natural disasters happen. A different time in high school I went to a different part of Costa Rica, where I worked with Leatherback Sea Turtles and we went on beach patrols for 2 weeks and actually got to see 4 or 7 Leatherbacks laying their eggs. We would go behind them and collect their eggs in a plastic bag and relocate them to a safe location where people were watching them 24/7. We ran into poachers on the beach who if they got to the turtle first it was their prize. It was the “law on the beach”, since we were in such a remote location, there was no police or ranger presence. When I sat down and talked to one of the local volunteers, who turned out to be an old poacher, he told me how it is their culture and how it helps support their families. They kill the turtle, turn the shell into jewelry and sell the eggs for money or eat them. He told me that he never saw anything wrong with what he was doing. Once he learned how endangered and how his actions have affected this species in the long run, he turned over to help conserve them and help educate the locals to change their ways. I truly believe that the key to success with conservation and helping people realize their actions starts with education. I have seen first hand how even small educational classes to small rural communities have made a huge impact in conservation and people changing their ways to better their surrounding environment and cultural ways.

Being able to create and propose many different research projects in the span of 6 weeks is only going to improve my scientific writing and presenting skills. One of my favorite projects so far that I created was plastic waste hermit crabs. Showing the negative effects on Hermit crabs was eye-opening. This picture that I shot in CIRENAS was a hermit crab that created its home from a plastic cap from a bottle. I have always had a strong passion towards conservation and plastic waste pollution while trying to educate the public on the impacts of human actions on the surrounding environment. Seeing first-hand how bad the plastic pollution was on a small section of the beach where I conducted my hermit crab research was quite shocking. This beach is a popular nesting location for many species of sea turtles. There was not one inch of the beach that didn’t consist of micro plastics. Having the opportunity to work along side different scientists and teachers with such diverse backgrounds is a very important aspect to this program in my mind. Another benefit from this program is having the opportunity to work in groups and create projects with people from all over the world and learn from their different perspectives and ideas.

My Costa Rican summer “vacation”

by Nicole Moore, St. Edwards University

When I first told people that I would be spending half of my summer in Costa Rica doing biological field work, lots of friends and family said “oh how exciting, like a vacation, you will be so relaxed when you come back.” Well…kind of. We are absolutely getting nature in her most raw and beautiful form complete with her temperamental sense of humor particularly, during our short field work independent projects that made us change hypotheses on the fly and scrap projects half way through. It feels important this second week in to step back from the frustrations and rainy season weather blues to celebrate the small of every day accomplishments such as, I remembered to bring my head lamp today and don’t have to walk in the dark or I remembered to put sunscreen on my whole back instead of just what I could reach leaving me odd sunburn marks. I have also never been in any place with so many different brilliant people who are absolutely willing to listen to you geek out for a few moments of time.

My most recent field work project was at CIRENAS field site which is a few 100 meters off the Pacific Ocean. Several others in our group noticed hermit crabs using plastic trash as “shells” on our introductory hike. We then decided to test whether the overabundance of plastic waste on the beaches was affecting their “home” choices when they molt. Since we only had two days to run this short independent project we decided it would be more advantageous to study their behaviors in trash shells vs natural. We ended up studying differences in buoyancy, predation, climbing and crawling speed. We did notice a preference was crabs to have natural shells; when we paired a plastic shelled crab with a natural shelled one for our comparison tests, the plastic shelled one would fight the other for their shell. We also noticed a significant difference in sizing such that the large crabs were found more commonly in plastic shells than smaller ones after three separate trips to obtain field specimens. We found no significant difference in predation except that plastic shelled crabs sometimes did not fit well inside their “homes” causing half or more of the crab body to be exposed even when they tried to tuck inside. We found the most significant difference in buoyancy, all of the plastic shells floated to some degree making them much more of a target for predators.

It was really interesting to see firsthand how humans are affecting marine wildlife and heartbreaking as well. My background is not in ecology so having the opportunity to come to another place and study their species and issues has been world-changing.

The first post | TropBio2018 gets started!!

by Patricia E. Salerno (coordinator)

The course kicked off with a short staff meeting and a toast on sunday May 27th, as the students and invited professors arrived to the hotel. Sofía Rodríguez (co-coordinator), Ronny Hernández (teaching assistant) and myself will be living and working with each other and with our 21 students for the next six weeks of our lives. Though Sofia – a close gradschool friend – and Ronny – a former student – are people that I consider that I know fairly well, my previous course experiences tells me we will definitely get to know one another much more throughout the next six weeks. The intensity of the working and living environment will bring the best and the worst in us – and our students – and we will inevitably have to adjust expectations and work dynamics as we discover new strengths and weaknesses in each member of our team and our group. This is why I was so happy to host Hannah Love, a social scientist that specializes on the science of team science and on coaching interdisciplinary science teams during our first three days of the course.

Having effective working teams is not straightforward. More often than not, we hear colleagues and friends complain about a project that has been difficult due to complicated dynamics and relationships among team members: one of them is perhaps very nit-picky and needs formatting done perfectly on the first draft, while another might be a bit messier and need large comments before spending time formatting, creating conflict that requires resolution, and that ultimately stalls the progress of the given project if not dealt with. Despite this traditionally not being an explicit component of the course, the Science of Team Science workshop that we did on day one and day two of the 2018 installment of the course has already been crucial for our group. We are seeing them opening up, practicing self-reflection, and pondering on general concepts regarding effective teams in science, all crucial skills for a successful career in science and academia.

Today they got started with their first faculty-led projects in the dry forest of Palo Verde National Park, where they will be investigating tadpole microclimate and behavior (with Dr. Andrew Crawford), bird bioacoustics and noise degradation (with Dr. Oscar Laverde), plant functional trait variation in shade and sun (with Dr. Benjy Longworth), and howler monkey foraging strategies (with Dr. Sarie Van Belle). So here’s to five and a half more weeks of cooperative group learning and further developing of our scientific and inter-personal skills!

“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 ( 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 ( 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.