Dec. 31: Ending the decade in the cloud forest

On the last day of the last year of the second decade of the 21st century, I spent several hours counting stomata (leaf pores that allow passage of air and water) on photographs that each represent a 0.1014 mm2 area of a leaf. Before that, I took a pencil eraser to the underside of each leaf and painted it with clear nail polish (a skill I’ve honed for over a decade and didn’t realize I’d be putting to use in a laboratory setting) to prepare the photos. Why? For the love of science.

Measuring leaf water potential

Only a few days in, the OTS Field Ecology course has already been a whirlwind of activity, inspiration, learning, and nitrogen gas. Fitting the entire scientific process into a 48-hour period is no easy feat, but it has been a rewarding one.

Our first stop in Monteverde, which concludes today (or more accurately, tomorrow morning, when we’ll pile into the van for a 10-plus-hour drive to Las Cruces) has me falling in love with the rainforest all over again—I could easily spend months here. Pictures don’t do this place justice; the sheer density and mind-boggling diversity of life around every corner (and in the sky, and on the ground) is intoxicating. Clouds swirl mysteriously across the mountain tops, concealing the secrets of the epiphytes and insects and lichens within. The role those clouds, and those epiphytes, play in the rainforest’s hydrology is a question that one of our invited faculty, Dr. Sybil Gotsch of Franklin & Marshall College, is answering.

As a member of “Team Awesome Clouds,” several other students and I have worked with and learned from Dr. Gotsch in our first faculty-led project. We’ve compared leaf water potential (the measure of a plant’s water deficit) and several other leaf traits (thus the erasers and nail polish) between species with and without trichomes (AKA plant hairs) on the undersides of their leaves, all within the family Melastomataceae.

The cool science and constant learning of this course is a wonderful way to reset for the new year, a reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing in the first place: the thrill of learning more about how the world works, placing another piece in this trillion-part puzzle; using that knowledge to make it a little bit better. And although it’s only been a few days, the people are making this experience wonderful, too. I’m surrounded by a group of enthusiastic, talented, creative, passionate scientists who have come together for the common goal of gaining as much as we can from this three-week whirlwind. Besides all that, they’re just great people. I’ve never rung in the new year at a remote field station nestled in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, but I have a feeling it’s going to be great.

-Hanusia Higgins, University of Vermont

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