Biology class researches the scientific side of Costa Rica

Bo Gemmell

Members of a special topics class in biology recently returned from research in Costa Rica.

Oscar Rocha instructed the 14 undergraduates in the Tropical Field Biology and Conservation course.

“I really hope that this was a life-changing experience for the students,” Rocha said.

Senior biology major Michael Monfredi, flew to San Jose, Costa Rica, Dec. 27.

Monfredi and 13 other undergraduates, three graduate students and three faculty members worked at the Palo Verde Biological Research Station for three nights.

The class divided into groups, each focusing on different areas of research.

Monfredi said his group focused on hibiscus flowers for two days at Palo Verde, the first of four research sites, while another group focused on dung beetles.

“We basically wanted to study pollination habits of humming birds and flower fitness,” he said.

Jennifer Clark, a graduate student in aquatic biology, advised student projects and assisted with presentations on their findings.

“It’s probably one of the best experiences you’ll ever get in your lifetime,” she said.

Clark said she wants to return to Costa Rica for further research.

After leaving Palo Verde, the group traveled by bus to San Ramon. While en route to San Ramon, the group stopped in the town of Arenal, in the La Fortuna district, to observe a volcano. Monfredi said he hiked on a lava field and saw the volcano erupt.

“It’s not exactly what you might think of an eruption,” he said. “At Fortuna, an eruption is boulders and rocks coming out of the volcano.”

Once they arrived at San Ramon, the group loaded its luggage in a truck and hiked more than seven miles up the hill to the research site.

“None of us expected the 12-kilometer hike,” said Erin McNutt, a senior conservation major who also participated.

The group stayed at the La Selva Biological Station where it researched leaf cutter ants.

Monfredi said the ants travel in paths and collect leaves which they use to harvest fungus for sustenance.

“Basically, they farm leaves to eat the fungus,” he said.

Monfredi studied disruptions in pheromones, a hormone the ants secrete. He said the ants follow a trail of pheromones by sensing it with their feet and abdomens.

McNutt observed the ants’ reactions to obstructions in their paths, such as branches, simulated foot prints and water from a spray bottle.

After completing the project, the class visited a Dole banana plantation to learn how the company harvests bananas.

“It’s not a banana tree, it’s a banana herb,” Monfredi said. “That was a big message.”

The class did its final research at Campanario, a privately-owned biology station in the Osa Peninsula. Monfredi said the group had to travel an hour by boat to reach the site.

All supplies must be shipped into Campanario, and all waste must be shipped out, McNutt said.

The class returned to San Jose Jan. 13 and arrived in the United States Jan. 15.

The food at each site was “surprisingly good,” Monfredi said, and usually consisted of rice, beans and fruit.

Rocha remained in Costa Rica until last Saturday to take inventory, pack equipment and visit family. He said the course will be available every other year; however, students must take three biology courses as a prerequisite.

“(The course) showed me that I could do things I never thought I could,” McNutt said.

McNutt said she wants to work in environmental consultation after college.

Monfredi said he applied to six graduate schools and wants to do research in marine biology.

“I’d love to go back and have a chance to do master’s work,” Monfredi said. “You learn a lot on this trip that you don’t expect to learn.”

Contact sciences reporter Bo Gemmell at [email protected].