Carissa Ganong, University of Georgia
What an amazing, wet, muddy, unforgettable summer it’s been. Eight students gained scientific knowledge and personal confidence and carried out superb projects. Four mentors patiently guided them through the world of hands-on field ecology and scientific thinking (how do we overcome this problem? How should we analyze these data? How do these results relate to broader scientific concepts? What the heck can we do when ALL THE FIELD DAYS GET RAINED OUT?).
And one coordinator had a totally different summer than any I’ve spent at La Selva before. As a Ph.D. candidate working on La Selva’s STREAMS project, I’ve pulled long field seasons (sometimes alone, sometimes with assistants), and I’ve mentored REUs and felt the joy and pride of seeing students develop, conduct, and present their own research. But none of that really prepares you for suddenly having eight (or twelve) people relying on you for planning, teaching, organization, support, and crisis-resolving for an entire summer. It’s a big responsibility – and, when all is said and done, it’s been the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. It’s pretty amazing to work with a group of great students (who also happen to be fantastic people) as they develop their research skills and fall in love with the jungle that’s one of my favorite places on earth (terciopelos, bullet ants, botflies, spiny palms, and all). This summer has strengthened my enthusiasm for teaching and working with students in the tropics and has also confirmed my desire to pursue a career involving courses like this one.
And then, suddenly, the REU program ended: there was a final week of caffeine-driven, semi-sleepless data analysis and report-writing, eight incredibly good final presentations given to an audience of proud mentors and interested researchers, and a last happy night together in San José, and then last Friday the close-knit REU cohort disbanded.
And now I’m back at La Selva, listening to rain drumming on the roof and thinking that the hardest part of working in a place like this is saying goodbye. Most long-term researchers here would agree with me: when you’ve become close friends with other researchers – working, eating, goofing off, sharing office space, and sometimes rooming with them – whether they’re undergrads, grad students, or senior researchers, it’s incredibly difficult to suddenly watch them leave for another country (and often another continent) with no idea of if, or when, you’ll see them again. And each new goodbye yanks at your heart a little harder.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from nine years of La Selva friendships, it’s that the world of tropical ecology truly is small. And for every lurch of depression that comes from watching a Sarapiquí taxi carry a friend off to the airport, there’s also the sudden joy of unexpectedly running into old friends – during the following year’s jungle field season, at a conference, in a different tropical site, even (a few times) on the campus of my own university.
So when I say goodbye to friends who are leaving – or, later this week, to friends who are staying behind – I try to remember that it really isn’t “goodbye” as much as, quite literally, “Hasta luego.” La Selvans have a way of seeing each other again, and I’m confident that the good times, great science, and close friendships of the past summer are more than just memories and will continue to flourish somehow, somewhere, in the future. Thanks to all the REU folks for an incredible summer, and hasta luego!
Senior, Humboldt State University, California. Department of Biology
Being at La Selva Biological Station is a dream. As a world traveler I get the best of both worlds here: cultures and science. I have the opportunity to get exposed to many cultures at La Selva, from Americans, Ticos, Latinos, Europeans and many other ethnicities across the globe. The people I have come to meet are fascinating because they bring their different cultural and scientific background to the table. With this mixture at any point in time you can pick up a conversation of any topic, ranging among science, adventures, and cultures and of course some jokes to make it more fun.
As a trilingual person I have gotten caught having a conversation simultaneously in 3 languages with Ticos, Germans and Americans. It gets really funny when I answer a Tico with a word in English or suddenly say a word or two in German to an American while both are sitting next to me. I never knew how small this world is – everything is connected, especially if I meet compatriots from my hometown (Mexico City) or Germany and even anyone who has been to the places I have lived or been to.
Let’s not forget about the amazing science that everyone contributes to and participates in at the biological station. Every single scientist is studying an aspect of ecology that is beyond wonder. Subjects that I never knew about or thought about have been studied, from plant/ant interactions, fruit dispersal by bats, the great tepuis of Venezuela, relationship between caterpillars and plant compounds, the great diversity of flora and fauna to climate change. Phew, I can’t even keep track of all the talks I have attended this summer, but ultimately they are all extremely intriguing to the point your jaw is touching the floor.
Every day is a new adventure in the jungle and you never know what to expect. With my backpack on, a compass and a homemade PVC pipe walking stick I explore the jungle. Up and down a steep hill, over the log, in and out of the swamp, in the rain with your personal swamp in your boots and at every step telling yourself, “No snakes, no bullet ants, watch my step. Ok it is safe to go.” You may get dirty, slip down a hill, or perhaps get stuck in the swamp knee high or need to cross a stream on a log but you end up having a blast in the field.
My research with Susan and Leigh consisted of measuring trees and surveying the neighborhood of seedlings (young trees) to better understand how the survival of seedlings is affected by light availability, other trees, palms and different climate regimes in tropical rain forest. My project is part of the TREES project at La Selva, which was founded by Deborah and David Clark. The results in our research are simply beautiful, because we were able to find field evidence to support a proposed hypothesis. One of the best parts of my project was personally getting invited for dinner by the Clarks and enjoying a nice dish with a margarita and further talk of our daily adventures and findings in the jungle.
So for everyone out there, just know that there can be a person or a trip that will change you forever. Seize the moment and go on an adventure and take advantage of any given opportunity. I have done that, and being at La Selva has definitely changed me. I am more motivated than ever to keep up with a scientific career, and I am even more eager to keep exploring every corner of the world scientifically and culturally. La Selva has really brought four amazing factors into my life: cultures, science, motivation and exploration; and for that I am extremely grateful to have been granted this opportunity
Thank you everyone who made this an unforgettable summer. Especially Carissa (REU Coordinator), Celena, Connor, Jose, Kellie, Kyle, Leigh (my project partner), Marlena, Martina, Roberto, Susan (my mentor), Carlos, Claudia, the ant and hummingbird people. Pura Vida!
Leigh, Mareike, and I have been out in the rain forest measuring trees for 5-6 days a week since June. We just finished data collection; now comes the analysis and writing. Since not many people get the chance to experience life as a tropical forest researcher, I decided to use this space to describe Thursday last week, a typical day in the field—the highs, the lows, the odd details that we’ve begun to take for granted.
5:15 am: The howler monkeys are roaring in the trees and the buff-rumped warblers along the riverbank have commenced their ear-splitting morning chorus. As the sky lightens outside, we dress in our field clothes and boots and walk through the jungle towards the comedor (dining hall), pausing on the suspension bridge to check for caimans on the bank and green ibises in the trees.
6:30 am: Another cup of coffee to wash down the fruit, eggs, and gallo pinto (a traditional Costa Rican breakfast dish of rice and beans fried with cilantro and diced onions). Rice and beans for breakfast is a decidedly acquired taste, but fortunately both of my students have picked it up. We linger around the breakfast table sharing adventure stories and jokes with other researchers. Carlos de la Rosa, the station director, points out that we’ve already broken the La Selva rainfall record for the month of July.
7:30 am: We’ve picked up our sack lunches, field gear, and a radio. Leigh goes to the sign-out board to record our planned location; Mareike is putting little X’s of medical tape on her heels to prevent blisters. I fill up my water bottles and accommodate the gear in my pack so that the meter tape won’t dig into my back as we hike. Just as we leave, as usual, it starts to rain.
9:04 am: We’ve reached our destination, CC 1750. La Selva trails are marked every 50 meters with numbered posts. The CC (Camino Central) is a muddy, hilly trail that bisects the eastern half of the reserve. Close to the station buildings the trails are paved with concrete for bike access, but this far out—1100 meters on the CCL and an additional 1750 meters on the CC—there’s not a lot of infrastructure. The trails consist of a muddy slash where the understory has been cleared away, often doubling as streambeds when the rain gets heavy.
We take out the data sheets that show the location of our trees. Both of my students are using long-term data from the TREES project, an NSF-funded investigation of how trees grow and reach the canopy. In temperate forests, it’s possible to take a core from a tree and examine annual growth rings. In tropical wet forests, where trees keep their leaves year round, there’s no annual growth cessation to produce rings. So the only way to really understand how fast trees are growing is to go out and measure them directly. The TREES project was founded in 1983 by Deborah and David Clark. Every year, expert technicians measure a set of approximately 2000 trees, ranging in size from knee-high seedlings to giant emergent trees that loom over the rest of the forest, of ten different species. I became involved in TREES in 2011, and every summer since 2012 I’ve had students working on associated projects. This summer, Leigh is measuring the amount of lianas (woody vines) on fast-growing tree species and Mareike is investigating the trees growing in the neighborhoods of four seedling species to examine whether the relatedness of neighbors affects seedling growth and survival.
9:06 am: After a water break, we take out our compasses and locate our first tree, 60 meters away at a bearing of 120°. Rather than a plot-based survey, the TREES project relies on an inventory of individuals scattered across 250 hectares (about 625 acres) of old-growth forest, and the trees are referenced to one another with a series of compass bearings and distances.
The tree we’re aiming for is a giant, stately, white-barked Balizia elegans, an emergent tree that spreads its great arms out above the rest of the forest canopy. The trunk glimmers like a beacon through the dark understory and layers of dripping leaves. As we approach, its true size becomes apparent: the trunk is well over a meter in diameter, and the tallest branches are probably 40 meters high—about the height of the space shuttle. A series of other compass bearings and distances leads us to a shaggy-barked Minquartia guianensis with a fluted hollow trunk where we can hear bats chirping inside, and then to our ultimate target, a feathery-leaved seedling of Pentaclethra macroloba.
We lay out a set of four 10 meter-long tapes from the central point and measure the diameter of all the trees falling into our circular plot. I squint up into the canopy to identify them. For some of the less-evident trees, I make a tiny scratch on the trunk to look for sap and test the odor. Hernandia didymantha has a heavy medicinal smell; Dendropanax arboreus smells like carrots; the genus Protium smells like incense; the Lauraceae vary from sweetly cinnamon-scented to a sharp chemical odor like asphalt on a hot summer night. In my now 11 years of work in this region, I’ve learned to recognize most of the trees. For the ones I’m not sure about, we pick up some fallen leaves and make notes in the data book.
11:15 am: We find a fallen log that looks like a good resting place. After checking that it’s not a thoroughfare for ants, Leigh and Mareike spread out a poncho and I sit on the plastic bag that keeps the data sheets dry. We chow down on sandwiches, cookies, and plantain chips.
12:30 pm: The next tree on our data sheet is across the Salto, a stream that runs down the middle of La Selva. In ordinary years it’s a rock-hop to the other side, but with the record rains this July it’s a rushing mud-brown torrent at least two meters deep. We confer. Luckily, there’s a fallen tree not far downstream that looks like it will convey us safely across. I go first: if it supports my weight, it will definitely hold up for my students. As I cross, I clear away the spiny vines that cling to some of the branches. The log bobs up and down disconcertingly and there’s one stomach-dropping moment when I look down to the rushing water below, but it holds up and there’s a good access point on the other side. Leigh and Mareike make their way across, and we search for a way up the muddy hill in front of us.
1 pm: A series of compass bearings leads us to one of Leigh’s liana trees. It’s a pink-barked, glossy-leaved Simarouba amara. As a fast-growing tree species, Simarouba generally avoids lianas. Not this one, though: its canopy is overshadowed by a dense mat of liana branches and leaves. One thick stem wraps around the trunk, and others hang down from the canopy. We measure the diameters of all the lianas at 1.3 meters from their rooting points—not always easy to determine, for a liana—and we walk around the Simarouba tree peering up at the canopy to assess the percentage covered up by lianas.
2:15 pm: We make our way back to the river and across the log, pausing only to take some photos. The long, muddy trail is calling, with showers and coffee waiting at the other end.
6:00 pm: Dinner at La Selva—the comedor fills up with the sounds of happy researchers returning from a wet day in the field. We load up our plates with rice, beans, vegetables, chicken for the meat-eaters and some sort of soy concoction for vegetarians like me. As the rain picks up outside and distant lightning flashes illuminate the clearing, we share jokes and stories and speculate on how much rain we’ll get tonight. There’s also talk of graduate school, experimental design, biostatistics, and taxonomy, and most of all there’s practical advice for building a life in the sciences. Many of the conversations in that comedor have guided me through my career. Looking around the table, I can tell that the students are picking up much more than they came for. When they leave here this summer, they’ll know more about themselves. They’ve pushed the boundaries of their comfort zones, whether it’s crossing jungle rivers on fallen logs, handling spiders and bats, or struggling with new methods of analysis they’d never heard of before the program. Most of all, they know what field biology is like and why we do it.
9:20 pm: We’re gathered on the back porch of the lab with several guitars, singing old favorites in English and Spanish. Someone’s come up with a new variant of “Let It Be:”
I wake up to the howler monkeys singing serenades for me,
$%%&! I think it’s gonna rain on me.
And though it may be cloudy now the monkeys’ song is telling me
Pretty soon it’s gonna rain on me.
Rain on me, rain on me, rain on me, rain on me…
$%%&! I think it’s gonna rain on me.
A friend once described La Selva as “summer camp for jungle nerds.” There is definitely a summer camp feeling to our time here—the endless days out in the woods, the silly in-jokes that develop, the nights singing along to someone’s guitar. The nerd part is more important, though. There’s a powerful spirit that develops in a place where everyone is fascinated by knowledge and lets that enthusiasm shine. Along with scientific papers, La Selva’s main export is the joy that comes from building an understanding of the natural world. When our students go back to the “real world,” they’ll carry it with them.
Martina Nagy, University of Erlangen, Germany, REU Mentor
Wow, I guess it has been more than ten years now since I started working in my most favorite and beloved forest of La Selva. I got there first in 2004 to do field work for my masters thesis on the greater sac-winged bat (Saccopteryx bilineata). And ever since, I keep needing to come back because it is just so wonderful to get soaked every day out in the field, get covered in bug bites, and smell so unimaginably bad that even the peccaries seem to wonder, then have a shower accompanied by frogs, cockroaches, spiders and/or bats, depending on the cabina you are at, followed by checking my pillow and sheets for gecko poop (which is definitely still better than bat poop) and falling asleep to the sound of thundering rain in a cabina that does shake with the thunder and lightning and sometimes even with an earthquake, the latter of which is quite unusual and scary for a person from Central Europe!
Well, all joking aside, it simply feels like a great privilege to work in a tropical rain forest where other people like to spend their vacation. I have also had the great fortune to join the long-term project on the greater sac-winged bat, which is one of the best studied bat species worldwide with respect to its social system. Bats are highly social animals, and, in spite of their small size, very long-lived, but (and this makes their social lives a hassle to study) nocturnal and generally living in secluded, not easily accessible day roosts.
Fortunately, the latter is not true for members of the bat family Emballonuridae, of which S. bilineata is a member. Emballonurids preferably live in rather light day roosts (like on the buttresses or trunks of large trees or even on the outside of inhabited buildings) where the group members mostly roost without body contact and are easily habituated to the presence of curious bat scientists. That means that I can simply sit in an abandoned building that has been claimed by a group of greater sac-winged bats and observe their social interactions.
Male S. bilineata defend a territory (1-2 m2 of vertical surface) in the day roost in which up to seven females roost, which we call a harem. To make sure that territorial properties are respected by other males they will mark their territorial boundaries with secretions from their gular glands and utter territorial songs every morning and evening. Males have also an intriguing courtship repertoire, consisting of olfactory, visual and vocal signals. Every morning year-round, males will fill their wing sacs with numerous body secretions and will try to wow their harem females with elaborate hovering displays during which they fan the odiferous contents of their wing sacs towards the females. Being a Saccopteryx male is a tough job! The more so as female sac-winged bats are bigger and more aggressive than males (girl power yeah!) and might just decide to mate with another male instead of their own harem male. In large colonies with many adjacent harems only about 30% of pups born in a harem are actually fathered by the respective harem male. What a poor reward for a year’s constant courtship efforts!
As you might have guessed I am a behavioral ecologist, interested in animal behavior and especially in how certain behaviors evolve. What started with a small project in my master thesis concerning reproductive success of male sac-winged bats in small versus larger colonies has turned into a much bigger long-term project on vocal and social complexity and evolution of exceptional female-biased dispersal in emballonurid bats. From the very beginning I have been working in a team along with Mirjam Knörnschild, Frieder Mayer, Otto von Helversen, Christian Voigt, Barbara Caspers, Linus Günther, Maria Eckenweber and many more as well as lately with my two REU students Marlena Lopez and Kyle Reid. No long-term project is possible without good team work, and this is probably one of the most important lessons I have learned in the past years.
From Prof. Otto von Helversen I have learned that asking the right questions in science is much more difficult than finding the right answers. Together with my collaborators we have so many (hopefully good) questions by now, that I am looking forward to another decade (or maybe more) of working on the evolution of the social systems of this great and astonishing family of bats in La Selva. Not least because coming to La Selva also means that I will get to spend time with many dear friends that like me are infected with the tropical rainforest virus and keep coming back!
So my dear REU students: Kyle and Marlena, I have enjoyed getting to know you, working with you and being able to share some of my passion for emballonurid bats and the tropical rain forest with you. Seeing you guys being so excited about catching, handling and observing bats reminded me of what a wonderful job I have – thanks a lot for that!
In January of this year I had the opportunity to be part of a specialty course focused on arachnids here at La Selva. I gained hands-on experience and knowledge in diverse fields pertaining to arachnids. This was my first time at La Selva. Even though my visit was only for two weeks, I was inspired to apply to for another position at La Selva as an REU student. (Honestly, the food was so amazing that I was driven to come back). Beyond the Comedor, La Selva has been a source of great inspiration for me. I come from a tropical island (Puerto Rico), yet some of the fauna I witnessed here was new to me. Getting this position as an REU is something I will remember the rest of my life.
Arts and Craft
I was lucky enough to be paired with a really awesome mentor, Meghan Fitzgerald. She is a behavioral ecologist working with spiders. This position was ideal as I had been seeking to work with spiders for many years. My original project began as an endeavor to study the spider Argyrodes elevatus, also known as the kleptoparasitic spider (spiders that steal stuff from other spiders). The kleptoparasitic spiders use pheromones to locate possible host spiders, and then steal their prey items. However, five weeks into the program I realized my setup was not working and I needed to construct a new project.
Like everything in life, when we fail, we learn and adjust and go on. Now I am currently working with the amazing golden orb weaver spider Nephila clavipes. These spiders form promiscuous aggregations with conspecifics (individuals from the same species). Apparently these spiders hold different personalities, just like in humans. For example, some are more tolerant than others, while some have a tendency towards aggression. I am researching whether these personalities, more aggressive or tolerant, are consistent through time, or if they are affected by different factors like hunger etc.
Near the end
We are two weeks away from finishing the program and looking back at the beginning it has been amazing. I have learned a lot, not only in knowledge gained through data analysis and research, but also as a professional researcher. Working on spiders and behavior has been extremely rewarding. Even if my first project did not work I was able to change it, catch up, and learn twice as much.
One of the things I will miss the most, apart from the food, is the people. Because of this program I have had the opportunity to meet people from multiple countries (Australia, Costa Rica, Germany, Honduras, Spain, Mexico, Canada, US, Venezuela) in a single place. That is something amazing to me. I have not had the opportunity to travel much, and meeting them gave a window into their realm.
In respect to the program, I consider myself very lucky. Not only the badass coordinator and mentors, but my amazing REU partners in crime whom I will never forget: Celena, Connor, Kyle, Leigh, Mareike, Marlena and Roberto. Not only do we morally support each other during crazy work time, but we also have a lot of fun together. I have lived with them for the last 8 weeks and have grown a little bit more just by getting to know them. I could not have asked for a better, more fun or more diverse crew of people to call friends. All said, I have fallen in love with the La Selva, with the field, with biology, and with science.
Broken boots, muddy socks, being stuck in mud, falling down, botflies, rain of apocalyptic proportions and being completely soaked are just a small part of my everyday life now. There are also many more things than just those. Every day I wake up and prepare to do field work and every day is different. And every day the jungle astonishes me with the beauty and diversity of the wildlife.
I am working with Kellie Kuhn on a mutualistic symbiotic relationship between a timid ant, Myrmelachista flavocotea, and two species of plants, Ocotea atirrensis and O. dendrodaphne. These stingless ants live inside the stems of the Ocotea and come outside to defend their host from herbivores. Most of my work is on the field and I get to know the jungle well. I am never alone in the field!
Howler monkeys are my most common company, always announcing the rain to the whole forest. There are also a LOT of bugs! Butterflies and moths are very common. A lot of birds, frogs and lizards too, like hummingbirds, the blue jeans frog, and the helmeted iguana. But the wildlife does not stay in the forest, and sometimes you don’t need to go too far to see some amazing animals. Our morning walk to the dining room or just walking around the lab can be an adventure by itself! Like the peccaries eating on the station, the semiplumbeous hawk outside of our dorms, and a common Mexican tree frog on the new labs doors.
Sometimes, the sky itself is astonishing. It remands me how small we are in comparison to the jungle, how much we still have to learn and how important it is to do so.
It is also great to be in a diverse group of people like this, surrounded by scientists from all over the globe – people who share the same passion and love for wildlife and their jobs. And the soccer games in the World Cup were incredible with everyone cheering for Costa Rica. I never thought that I would get so excited about soccer!
It is true that it is not easy to work at a tropical rainforest in the rainy season and in the wettest July in La Selva history! It is true that it can also be frustrating sometimes. But after the broken boots, the mud, and the rain, there are always a lot of others things that make every day of my stay here worth it and one of the must transcendental and fantastic experiences of my life. Pura vida!