Friday, June 12, 2015

Searching for the Art of Science

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

When I told friends and family members about the field biology program in Costa Rica, I was usually asked what sort of work I would be doing and what I would be studying. But once the term ‘zingiberales’ or the mere mention of insects was thrown into the conversation, the enthusiasm died down.
There is often the idea that biology is a secluded island cut off from the rest of the world where the inhabitants speak a strange language that only other biologists can understand. Because of this, many people assume that science is far removed from their lives and is impossible to understand. But biology and research both have long lasting implications for many difference disciplines. Rather than an island, biology is a web that branches out toward math, reading and even the arts.
As a biology student also interested in art, I am working on a project to combine art + science and bridge the gap between those who study biology and those who do not. I plan to create cut-away sculptures of zingiberales to show what types of environments these plants create for other organisms. By illustrating or visualizing the research done in this field biology program, other people may gain a better understanding without feeling intimidated by scientific papers. In doing this project, I hope to not only teach others about biology but to also encourage them to study abroad and conduct research of their own.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Climate trends in Kansas and Costa Rica

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

Many years ago I spent one summer learning the flora of Kansas prairies during a systematic botany course. I learned hundreds of plant families, their ecological importance to Kansas, and which species were native and which were introduced. Currently I study prairie composition. I thought this Kansas-focused knowledge would be useless in Costa Rica because I anticipated knowing little about the flora of the tropical rainforest.                    

To my surprise, I discovered many remarkable similarities between the floras of Costa Rica and Kansas. Costa Rica has a lot of pasture land, which means, that there are a lot of different species of grasses, as in Kansas. This is strange to me because Kansas has a dry continental climate with low rainfall, in contrast to Costa Rica’s Tropical climate with high annual precipitation. This following diagram on the right shows the peak temperatures and precipitation in Kansas.

Costa Rica however has the least amount of rainfall in June with the rainy season beginning in August; the graph at the bottom shows average rainfall and temperature of both San Jose and Monteverde.  The temperature of Costa Rica at varying elevations is consistent with varying rainy patterns whereas Kansas experiences true seasons of varying temperature. This knowledge brings to light the question of how many plants of the same genus can survive in both Kansas in Costa Rica with such extreme differences in year round weather. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Careless Travels: The Return to "Home"

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

As an Army brat, the concept of home is an idea that differs drastically from the views held by many of my classmates. Since the day I was born, my family has moved around to countless different locations, stayed a few months to possibly a few years, then packed up everything and left. As such, a single location that I can call home is completely foreign to me.

Take, for example, this new place that I am living at now. It’s an army base in Wiesbaden, Germany, a place that I have never seen before in my life. My dog is here, all the stuff that I decided not to bring to college is here, and even my family whom I have not seen in over ten months is here. I’ve lived here for less time than I’ve lived in Costa Rica, yet I already consider this place to be my home. When I told this to several of my classmates, they found this to be absolutely implausible. How could a home be a place I’d never seen before? To me, I’ve always found a home to be a place that makes me comfortable, a place that I can come home to after a hard day and just relax.

This brings me to my trip in Costa Rica. 

Every single day I would undergo some new thrill, some new adventure that very few people get the opportunity to enjoy, from playing with local dogs that randomly decided to include us in their pack, to spotting a sloth on a walk down to the beach, all the way to discovering how some of the best coffee in the Western Hemisphere is prepared. Although I was given the opportunity to do this, a new discovery or adventure is nothing without people to uncover it with.

My classmates were without a doubt an important part of this voyage, from their roles in uncovering exciting new sights out in the wild to being roommates for two straight weeks. Although many wanted to get out of Costa Rica by the end of the two weeks, I was ready to stick it through for quite a while more. Costa Rica had become a place of new friends, vast stores of knowledge and countless adventures. Which brings me back to the ultimate point of this blog post; Costa Rica had become, without a doubt, my home for the past two weeks.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Hummingbirds: the vampires of the plant world

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

A single flower lay out in the Costa Rican jungle, peacefully photosynthesizing and opening its petals in an effort to attract its arthropod pollinator. The woods were quiet except for the occasional rustling from a KU Field Biology class that was inexplicably tearing apart flowers in the nearby vicinity.

Suddenly, a flurry of wings appeared out of nowhere, beating with enough force to convince an uneducated individual that what you were hearing was an angry wasp. If a plant were capable of thought, it would understand that the horrible droning in the air was not coming from a measly wasp but from something much more horrifying. The plant would understand that it had become the victim of the hummingbird, otherwise known as the Vampire of the Plant world! Horrified, the plant could do nothing but remain still as the hummingbird plunged its ferocious bill into the depths of the flower and lap up all of its precious nectar before zooming off into the jungle to find its next victim

For those who don’t know much about hummingbirds, allow me to shed some light on this ferocious species, but be warned; vampires like having light shed on them just about as much as I like vampires. The hummingbird is a common bird species found throughout the New World where it can often be seen out in the wild, sucking the vital nectar from local flowers. The hummingbird’s metabolism is incredibly high and typically requires a single bird to consume up to three times its body weight in nectar on any given day. Smaller hummingbirds will also often substantiate their diets with alternate food sources, terrorizing insects when the larger and more territorial hummingbirds claim nearby flowers as their own. The energy garnered from this is used up almost immediately as it is diverted into the hummingbird’s wings, which can beat up to 100 times a minute according to a Monteverde guide.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Love Knows No Bounds

Note: this post is one of dozens written by students participating in a 2015 field course in Costa Rica. The entire series is here

The natural world is full of many wondrous things. None of these things however is as beautiful as the gift of life. For those not yet bestowed with this wonderful gift, the only way that they can receive it is from certain biological processes that those already bestowed with this gift need to engage in. 

While on our trip, we were given the perfect opportunity to witness this beautiful act among several groups of beetles. During our third day out in the field, we saw an enamored tiger beetle couple engaging in the precursor activity to the miracle of life.

Down on the ground, a strapping young male lay atop the iridescent carapace of a husky larger female, trying with all his might to penetrate using his mighty aedagous deep into the warm depths of the female’s ovipore. 

When we interrupted the beetles, the insects’ bodies squirmed, writhing with the combined energies of their powerful biological urge to grant life while at the same time trying to save their own. Another group member opened the bag, quickly stuffing star-struck lovers into the bag full of unforgiving ethanol. Shocked yet amazed by the beetles, our group crowded around the bag to watch the insects continue their dance of life and death. As the ethanol continued to suck out all their life energy, the beetles finally released each other, trying their best to crawl to the top of the bag in a futile attempt to escape from their cruel prison. Despite all their best efforts, the unforgiving bag provided no escape. The beetles floated to the bottom of their bag, the beautiful gift that they had been trying to grant to other beetles now completely gone from their own bodies. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Joseph Allen Pounds on Climate Variability

While staying at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, we met with many experts from the surrounding community. Dr. Pounds was one such expert. He studied the Golden Toads and their mysterious decline. Our group had the chance to listen to a lecture given by Dr. Pounds after a day of field work. He spoke of his work with Golden Toads and the possible causes of their decline. He also lectured about the changing meteorological landscape of the cloud forest.

I found this portion of his discussion quiet interesting. These days it is difficult to speak to someone about climate change without things becoming political. It was refreshing to hear a lecture that presented facts, and didn’t attempt to promote a particular agenda.

Dr. Pounds began his lecture by discussing a variety of animal species from the forest that have died off. These die offs occurred during particularly dry periods. These die offs promoted Dr. Pounds to research the changing climate of Monteverde. He investigated the frequency, duration, and intensity of wet and dry periods. Over the course of about 40 years he has discovered that on average the amount of rain fall has remained the same, but the frequency and the intensity of the rain fall has become more variable. For the most part, Monteverde has received more or less the same amount of rain over the course of a year, however; the rainfall is more infrequent, and more falls when it does rain. Dr. Pounds describes this weather as more variable than ever before. I wonder if similar trends can be observed around the world. Are we experiencing the same trends here in Kansas?  


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Picking up a hobby

Near the end of our expedition to the cloud forest reserve in Monteverde, Kenji Nashida joined us for a day of field work. He is as an entomologist who studies insect life history, but he is also a talented photographer. I was thrilled to meet him because through the course of the trip I found that I really enjoyed photography.

The only problem was that I knew nothing about photography. I did not know what to look for in a quality camera. I did not know the proper techniques for taking photos. I did not know how to avoid washing out my pictures.

Kenji taught me as much as he could on our hike through the forest. The first lesson I received was on the taking close ups. He used a technique where he held the object with his hand, and then rested his camera on the same hand. This created one solid structure from the object being photographed to the camera itself. This allowed him to stabilize the object, and take a clear picture. If the object were to move, the camera would move in the same direction at the same speed. This prevented blurring of the picture.

After demonstrating that technique, he showed me how to prevent photographs from looking washed out. The simple fix was to avoid taking pictures in direct sunlight. He explained that the camera I have could not handle sunlight very well.  He went on to tell me that it is better to take a darker image than a lighter one. There is color and information that can be extracted in Photoshop from the darker areas of pictures, but in the white areas there is a lack of color and information to pull from.

In order to take brighter pictures that would not wash out, Kenji showed me various ways to take advantage of the sunlight without compromising the photograph. One simple technique he showed me was the use of a reflector. To brighten up a shot, you can reflect some light from underneath or from the side back into the shot.

After he had shown me many of his basic techniques for taking beautiful pictures, he taught me what to look for and what to avoid when purchasing a camera. One of the most important things he told me was that the larger the CCD or CMOS senor the better. A camera with a high number of megapixels and a small senor chip is a bit frivolous. Without a comparable senor chip the megapixels are somewhat of detriment. The way he explained it to me is that if you have a high number of megapixels and a small senor chip the image will become noisy. This is because the camera is attempting to put a lot of information into a small space. The cells of the sensor become oversaturated when megapixels are beyond what the chip can handle. The pixels become over crowed, and create a nosier image. The large chip allows for greater spread of the pixels which in turn results in greater clarity and sharpness. This also means that cameras with large chips perform better in low light situations.

Kenji taught me quite a bit in a short period of time. He told me it takes time to develop an eye for photography, and that the best way to improve my skills was, like anything else, to continue to practice. -Alex Barbour

Above: Image of fungus Kenji took using Alex's camera. Right: Here you can see Kenji using his hand, arm and camera to create on solid structure, so that he can take a clear picture even when the object of the photograph moves.


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Biologists Say the Darndest Things

When I signed up for the field biology course in Costa Rica, I knew some of the material might tend to go over my head. I was also slightly nervous to try to relate to a group of my peers interested in a field so different from my own. Biology may seem like an area of study perfect for the antisocial hyper-intelligent bookworm, but as I found out from this trip, biologists make for a very interesting, dedicated and entertaining group to go on an adventure with. 

Studying life and living organisms in all aspects gives one an undeniable appreciation for nature. I found that my classmates were genuinely interested in an impressive range of life. Eventually, their love for biology wore off on me, and in the process I often overheard many conversations only biologists would endure. I’ve included some examples below for your reading pleasure.


  • A 30 minute discussion on tapeworms…I mean nematodes
  • Reptile or Amphibian?
  • Come poot this!!
  • What time are we getting up? I think I’ll wake up 2 hours early to go set my traps.
  • Ooooo another leaf roll!
  • You should write a blog about that.
  • I know one really cool ornithologist. Just one though.
  • I love snakes, bats, beetles, dogs, cows, cats, pumas, bats, trees, etc.
  • Taxonomy is so cool.
  • Hey, I’m a fungi.
  • Let’s go identify some plants, that will be fun.
  • I just want to make this clear, a panther can be considered a puma or a cougar.
  • Ughh, business majors.
  • I saw a cat, or a monkey, I couldn’t tell, I only saw its face.
  • Can you get drunk off of this ethanol?

-Jake Kaufmann


Sunday, July 19, 2015

I will go mad if the wonders do not cease

monteverde forestI am constantly astounded by the amount and diversity of nature in Costa Rica. As I vigorously attempt to record the bright colors and structure of plants, animals and insects in my sketchpad, the group scurries along to the next feature of the cloud forest and I am left to wonder at the thriving ecosystem that surrounds me. Attempting to recreate the beautiful scenery is proving more challenging than I thought due to its impressive variety.

“[He] will go mad if the wonders do not cease,” said Alexander Von Humboldt of his fellow traveller on their journey to South America in the 19th century. I can see why upon entering forests such as Zurqui and Monteverde. The abundance of vegetation is an overwhelming indicator of life. Upon closer inspection, the inner workings of a tropical climate emerge from leaf rolls, bromeliads and other popular insect hang- outs. I have chosen to capture my experience of Costa Rica primarily through photography, rather than sketches, due to its timely and accurate sensibilities. There is simply too much to render with just pencil sketches.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the investigative qualities of sketching the nature around me. So much is lost behind the lense of the camera if one doesn’t stop to have an intimate understanding of the plants and insects. Dr. Chaboo encourages us to fondle the plants, which may sound peculiar, yet this practice allows us to understand the texture, taste and smell of various plants that we would otherwise not fully comprehend.

Before arriving in Costa Rica, I only had a vague understanding of what a cloud forest could be like. I did not appreciate how unique tropical areas such as Costa Rica are until I squished the damp earth below my boots, cracked open the stem of a zingiberale or collected beetle specimens. We are studying one of the most diverse areas on the planet, considered by some as the apex of creation. I may be mad with wonder, but it only motivates me to keep searching. -Jake Kaufmann

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Nature's Alarm Clocks

We are back in Kansas now, and there is one main thing that I’m struggling to determine if I miss or not. I wake up in the morning to a strange silence now -. During our travel, we awoke every morning with natural alarm clocks —the calls of various animals.

It started off with multiple types of birds. They seemed to start chirping at 5:30  am. One day, we left our bathroom window open and one almost got in the room.

Another natural alarm was the howler monkeys.  On a sign in the national park I read that a howler monkeys howl can be heard up to 3 miles away even through a dense forest. I thought this a very cool fact, until they started waking us up every day.

My third alarm clock was another species of monkey, a capuchin or white faced monkey. The way this monkey took to waking us up was actually fairly comical. He ran across the roof to the fire escape door, then bang on it, and run away. He did this continuously over the course of the morning. One day I stood at our room’s window looking for him and he came right up to it and stared at me, then ran over to the door. When I peeked out at the fire escape door, the monkey stared at me for roughly 10 seconds before banging on the door once and running off. I definitely lost that standoff with the monkey, seeing as he came back one more time to give the door a victory bang.

Although these natural alarm clocks seemed annoying at the time, now at home in Kansas I can honestly say I kind of miss those birds and monkeys.
- Tim Mayes