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Vast diversity: Costa Rica interterm a reminder of ecological connections

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Humidity and warm sunshine greeted the students and professors on the biology field trip stepping off the airplane in San Jose, Costa Rica – a shock compared to the bitter Kansas winter we had departed from earlier in the day. Before long, we were sweating, removing our layers and wishing for the shorts we had packed in our luggage.

We spent most of our time in Costa Rica at biological stations situated within national parks. A typical day at these stations consisted of breakfast at 6:30 followed by a hike into the forest, which would always take much longer than expected because every few meters we would stop to take in the rich life around us. Then we would enjoy a large lunch of rice and beans and fresh fruit and tromp back out to the forest to work on group or individual field studies (this usually dissolved into further exploration of the forest).

After a supper of more beans and rice and an evening lecture given by one of our professors, Jon Piper or Francisca Méndez-Harclerode, we would relax and play a game of Mafia or Spades before going to bed.

The first station we went to was located in Palo Verde National Park, which protects some of the last patches of tropical dry forest in Central America. On arrival, the drab greens and browns of a forest losing its leaves met us – not what our class was expecting when we thought of a “tropical” forest.

This initial disappointment quickly disappeared when we discovered monkey ladders (wavy, vine-like trees) and rocky outcroppings perfect for climbing and exploring. The bright scarlet macaws and loathsome scorpions also reminded us that as much as this habitat looked like a hybrid of Colorado and Arizona, we were far from the States.

After four full days at Palo Verde, we rode a bus to the San Miguel Biological Station on Cabo Blanco Absolute Reserve, Costa Rica’s first national park. Cabo Blanco is situated at the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific coast. Here we got to soak up the sun while studying tide pools and tropical marine life.

The last two stations, La Selva and Las Cruces, were where we experienced the lush, green rain forest we had all been expecting, complete with highways of leaf-cutter ants, poison-dart frogs, venomous snakes and a myriad of birds.

Our class had 11 students. Because of our small numbers and common excitement, activities almost always involved everyone. We were all eager to do, see and learn as much as possible. It was a powerful experience for me to be a part of such a passionate group of students.

As we visited a few of the remaining fragments of primary forest, we begin to grasp the ecosystem’s vast diversity and the importance of each species in the functions of the forest and the world as a whole. The relationships and interdependence we encountered between different species helped us understand our own connection to the natural world – that we, too, depend on the world’s biodiversity.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

Emma Regier is a freshman from Newton. Other members of the class Tropical Biology, co-taught by Jon Piper, professor of biology, and Francisca Méndez-Harclerode, assistant professor of biology, were: Sarah Fuentes, Erie, Colo.; Eric Goering, McPherson; Jerry Harclerode, Newton; Sierra Hostetler, Dodge City; Kylie Jantz, Newton; Daniel Lassman, Lawrence; Peter Regier, Newton; Alan Skinner, Clay Center; Claire Unruh, Clay Center; Grace Unruh, Clay Center; and Louise Zurkee, Andale.

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