An unpredictable world

Connor Jacobson

Senior, Texas A&M University, Department of Biology

After spending the past five months studying abroad and traveling across Panama, I thought I was ready for anything that the jungle of Costa Rica could throw at me. I was prepared for long days of fieldwork, I was excited for the opportunity to work in such an amazing place, and I was ecstatic to unravel the secrets of spider communication with my mentor Meghan Fitzgerald. With everything in line and worked out to a T, expecting nothing less than the perfect project, I arrived in La Selva only to realize that I forgot to send Mother Nature a memo with my methods and time line.

Golden Eyelash Viper that was found while searching for spiders.

It is now three weeks later and my study organism, the Golden Orb Weaver (Nephila clavipes), is just finally starting to make an appearance. The harsher than normal dry season seems to have set their biological clock back by about a month, leaving me to scour the rainforest to find the few punctual spiders out there. What started out as stressful searches in the blazing and moist jungle, trying to find a few spiders to get the project going, turned into amazing nature walks across one of the most beautiful and biodiverse landscapes on the planet. While looking for the elusive Golden Orb Weaver, I encountered everything from tayras to a strange fern that caused me to break out in a rash.

Learning Armenian dance.

For me to speak only of the picturesque outdoors and intensity of the research would not fully describe life at La Selva. One of the greatest aspects of living here is the people that we are surrounded by. Every day new people from all over the globe arrive, bringing their own regional culture and knowledge here to La Selva and making this not only a world-class research station but also a hotspot of cultural learning. I mean, I’ve only been here three weeks and I have already learned dances from 6 different countries, not to mention the culture and heritage that comes with them! How neat is that?

Needless to say I’m excited for the next seven weeks. They are sure to be filled with learning, laughter, wild animals, rashes, dancing, stress, long hikes, plenty of rain and splendid people. Hopefully if I’m lucky there will be some Golden Orb Weavers in there as well.

Filming behavior in the spider house.
Filming behavior in the spider house.

In the Beginning

Leigh Gardner
Senior, Middle Tennessee State University Department of Biology
Having only traveled to the far and mysterious reaches of southern Canada, I felt that journeying to Central America for a 10-week stay in steamy Costa Rica was a would-be traveler’s dream come true. I honestly never expected that I would have the chance to travel away from home to work with experts in the field of science, and now that I am here I do not want it ever to end!
White tent bats disturbed from their restful slumber
White tent bats disturbed from their restful slumber
While I could go into detail about all of the great things contained within this 1,600 ha of rainforest, for the sake of brevity I will simply list what I have found the most enjoyable so far:
1) The people: the students, mentors, and gringo and tico staff all just seem to be so kind and generous with whatever they have to offer. I am overwhelmed by how welcomed I feel staying here.
2) The brains: living among researchers is intimidating to say the least. Nobody is working on the exact same thing, and talking with anyone opens up a whole new realm of information.
3) Did I mention the people? Dancing, cards, jokes, stories, board games, ping pong, Game of Thrones, whatever! If you want to have some fun, there will be someone gladly willing to participate. I have met so many new people just by doing what I already like to do during my time off.
4) The fieldwork: working with Susan Letcher, I have gained some small knowledge of tropical tree identification, and by the end of the summer I hope to know a good bit more about tropical trees and lianas. Walking through the rainforest in the mud, rain, mosquitoes, and humidity is far more fun than anyone will tell you it is. Seriously, although it may not sound particularly pleasant, hiking through the rainforest is an exciting excursion.

Leigh, Susan and Mareike after a long day of field work. Soaked smiles all around :)
Leigh, Susan and Mareike after a long day of field work. Soaked smiles all around 🙂
5) The wildlife: we have only been here for two weeks and already I have seen my first sloths, poison dart frogs, wild howler monkeys, and eyelash viper.
My only true complaint about Costa Rica is the overabundance of mosquitoes here. They will swarm you in a disorienting, choking mass of buzzing insanity, and you will find no haven in which to escape them, not even in the shower stalls. There is no amount of DEET in the world that can prepare you for this onslaught. Despite this, I cannot express how excited I am about being able to participate in this year’s REU program. I finally feel as if I am gaining ground in my field all while having fun and forming new connections with amazing, intelligent people.

Welcome to the jungle…

Near the end of a long hike
Near the end of a long hike

Carissa Ganong, REU coordinator

Bushwhacking through tropical undergrowth to measure trees, testing how far ants will go to defend their host trees, recording bat vocalizations, and studying orb-weaver spider behavior aren’t exactly typical summer jobs, but that’s what eight NSF REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) students from across the US are doing this summer in Costa Rica’s lowland rainforest.

Our group is spending ten weeks at La Selva Biological Station, a world-famous research station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies, where the REUs are developing and conducting their own field-ecology research projects.  It’s a very new and sometimes intense experience: most REUs are working in a rainforest for the first time, and some haven’t traveled outside of the US before.  The REUs are working closely with mentors – faculty, postdocs, and Ph.D. candidates – who are experienced La Selva researchers and experts in their fields.

The entire REU group
The entire REU group

We arrived at La Selva two weeks ago, and the first week was a “crash course” of knowledge and skills needed for tropical field ecology: orienteering, forest safety, plant and animal natural history, experimental design, scientific writing and oral presentation skills, and tico (Costa Rican) culture and idioms.

It was a fairly intense week, but students (and mentors!) remained enthusiastic in spite of the heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and adjustments to a culture and daily life very different from that of the US.  At the end of the week, the REUs gave formal oral presentations (all of them amazingly well done!) of their project proposals.

Now fieldwork is in full swing, and we’ve decided to start this blog to share the experiences of everyday life at a rainforest field station – from the astonishment of encountering tropical wildlife, to the bone-weary exhaustion of long muddy field days, to the simple pleasure of an ice-cream break with good friends from four continents.  Stay tuned for entries from the rest of the group!