NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- Schools across the nation, especially public schools, tend to give weight to academia taking place only in the classroom. Here at Bethel College, that sometimes expands to classes on the Green in front of the Administration Building. But Bethel takes learning even further, as students discovered when they went to do research in Costa Rica during the January interterm.
My main goal was to absorb the culture and find out about plant life and its effects on and interaction with animals. Other goals included studying the organizational intelligence of leaf-cutter ants as well as looking at the amount of bio-diversity found in square-meter samples among all of Costa Rica’s varying climates.
My classmate Paula Regier was excited to find snorkeling and studying oceanic wildlife was also on the program, which would allow us to inject ourselves into a non-Kansas marine environment (she had prior experience with study in Belize). We would be able almost to inhale the chubs, jacks, parrotfish and sea turtles swimming by.
Starting out our trip, we touched down in a large city of about four million. San José, Costa Rica, is between two mountain ranges right in the middle of the country--a concept reflected in the Costa Rica flag. The country has about one fourth the land mass of Kansas.
Because of the roads and mountainous regions, our leaders Jon (professor of biology) and Beth Piper told us, the distance between Wichita and Newton takes more than five hours to cover in Costa Rica. When our bus driver would say, "It’s only gonna be three hours," we could optimistically translate this into about five hours of photographic scenes.
The first station we arrived at, after a five-hour bus trip, was Las Cruces Bio-Research Station, run by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS, see www.ots.duke.edu), a non-profit organization with the purpose of providing scientists in the field a lab and a spot of land for performing their experiments and observations.
We were almost anesthetized by the sight of a fluorescent-green ochre-bellied flycatcher caught in a mist net. Maybe the bird felt like observing us, too, since it perched on our hands on its own.
While there, we saw a rare type of fig tree that is unable to pollinate due to its South African origin. In the African context, a certain type of fig wasp is said to have co-evolved with this tree for a symbiotic-evolutionary relationship, so neither can reproduce without the other.
Further on down the path, we found a several-hundred-year-old strangler vine. It had surrounded a tree that was now dead, leaving a large hollow core. Alex Unruh and Melissa Barnes decided to climb up inside this core. They finished a high and mighty 50 feet above us.
After the Las Cruces station, we visited the famous La Selva research station (also run by OTS), prime real estate for any scientist looking to study jungle wildlife. Howler monkeys inhabit the trees above and often will awaken even the most dead-asleep animal at 5.a.m. Nick Moncado, Rodney Ensz and Dustin Herndon howled back at them one morning only to get another all-encompassing tree-top growling response.
Snakes are prevalent and poisonous but generally bashful, including the deadly fer-de-lance, which sometimes lives in the leaves just underneath the green parrots that perch in trees eating nuts and watching for leaf-cutter ants working nearby. Costa Rica is also home to felines such as the mountain lion (puma) and jaguar ocelot.
Being able to witness an ongoing research project dealing with fer-de-lance pit viper predatorial patterns was interesting. We were there on the edge of biology research. One goal with this project was to see if the pit vipers are taking over and changing the way seed-eating rodents behave. The question Miami graduate student Dennis K. Wasko was asking was: "Do animals that eat seeds stay away from pit vipers, thus stopping the spread of seeds and changing the eco-balance in the area?"
Next we went to Cabo Blanco, a private reserve on the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula on the western coast. Because it is an absolute reserve, animals and plant-life are left mostly undisturbed and therefore in their natural habitat. No one is to hunt on or even step foot into most of this area, unless permitted.
With this kind of seclusion, we were able to regard sea life of wide varieties and complete some research on snail water retention in a dry location over time. We wanted to see what snails had adapted the best solution for surviving in extreme waterless and greatly varying environments. Generally, our findings from this showed a direct correlation of larger body size to the least percentage of body weight lost. Simply said, this means that the bigger the snail is, the more protection it has against the environment.
We also walked on the tops of the jungle canopies on bridges suspended over the cloud forest high in the Monte Verde Mountains. Imagine an environment where it is misting, rainy and/or foggy all at the same time. The plant life thrives on this, and you can find dense jungles below as a result.
After seeing a gas-emitting volcano crater, witnessing ctensaura (iguana-like creatures) fights in the dry forest and experiencing ultra-laid-back cultural immersion, we will be able to relive our experiences only by retelling our stories and in vivid dreams to come.
Students who participated in the Costa Rica interterm class were Melissa Barnes, sophomore from Monument, Colo.; Rodney Ensz, junior from Beatrice, Neb.; Jodi Enz, junior from Newton; Aaron Gaeddert, sophomore from Leawood; Leah Goering, senior from Moundridge; Dustin Herndon, senior from Cheney; Nick Moncado, junior from Goddard; Rodger Nugent, senior from Newton; Josh Piper, junior from North Newton; Paula Regier, senior from Beatrice, Neb.; Katy Schmidt, sophomore from Peabody; Justin Shook, junior from Lyons; Parker Stanley, junior from Liberty, Mo.; Alex Unruh, junior from Valley Center; Michael Unruh, sophomore from Peabody; and Michael Waltner, junior from Moundridge. Jon and Beth Piper, North Newton, were also on the trip.
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.