Jan. 16 – In the era of “Big Data”, let us take you to the frontier where there is no data

This title is the phrase that I used to promote the course on my social media. Other than a catchy post, this short sentence has a deeper meaning, which I think is currently very relevant and directly related with this Field Ecology course.

To say “the frontier where there is no data” does not imply people have not worked on it in the past. Indeed, it is thanks to generations of researchers working for decades that Ecology has turned into a strong Data Science. Using long term and wide-scale data sets allows for the study of temporal changes and planetary patterns. Particularly, important to understand macro-ecology and parameterize predictive models of climate change.

However, all this previous hard work has a second consequence, which is the reason for the sentence to be used in the post. That second consequence is an illusion of the completeness of our data sets. A massive amount of data makes people believe that we know more than what we actually do. Creating a sensation of a no need for further exploration; or worst, an intellectual disregard for those who do it. This underappreciation appears in various forms, such as lack of funding opportunities, difficulties to publish, or not formal academic validation of all what entails to conduct fieldwork. In a world where researchers are evaluated based on poorly thought productivity metrics, the costs-benefits of fieldwork make it a poor “business” choice.

All the work done by previous generations of scientists has given us an understanding of many general ecological patterns and the mechanisms that generate them.  But, as you put a foot in the forest becomes very clear, that even if we know a lot, there are still numerous gaps in the knowledge. The wake up call of this insinuating statement is to go beyond the mesmerizing amount of existing data and step into the forest to gather the data of what has not been done yet.

Our course traveled through perhaps four of the better studied tropical forest in the world. Just as an example, La Selva was founded in 1968 and receives annually around 300 scientists. Yet, this forest still full of secrets. Secrets as a newly described species of dragonfly (Erythrodiplax laselva Haber, Wagner & De La Rosa 2015), which breeds its larvae in bromeliads. This new species was found on a plant near the academic center right next to were dozens of biologists walk by every day!  

These supposedly well known forests have enough secrets for the eight Faculty Led Projects and more than ten Independent Projects which were conducted on this course. Projects for which it was necessary to step into the forest and collect novel data.

Putting all of this in perspective, we just can wonder how many secrets are waiting for us in those ecosystems where no scientists has stepped. So the invitation now is to be that scientist, walk into places where there is no data and generate it yourself. Standing on the shoulders of giants, let’s open new ground.

-Darko D. Cotoras, California Academy of Sciences (co-coordinator)

Jan. 11 – Welcome to La Selva

With herds of students as plentiful as the resident peccaries, La Selva Biological Station is teeming with life. As a biological hot spot that shares a border with the extensive Braulio Carrillo National Park, the field station can be frequented by animals as elusive as jaguars and pumas. This trip, however, we did not see any, though we encountered plenty of other charismatic Costa Rican creatures. The surrounding atmosphere was often filled with chatty green macaws and bellowing howler monkeys, in between the oh so often rainstorms. Air from the Caribbean unleashes its burdensome rain over these coastal lowlands before continuing its journey over the mountains. Umbrellas and rubber boots become an extension of your being.

We had the fortune of working with faculty on projects focused around frogs and stream macroinvertebrates, which gave us great hands-on experience in such a rich environment.  The project I worked on looked at how water quality in a stream can be determined by macroinvertebrate community composition, as certain orders can be very sensitive to pollution. We found water in the stream we sampled to be of excellent quality with a large portion of these indicator macroinvertebrates living in leaf litter caught in riffles, which emphasizes the importance of having intact forests around streams.

-Seth Robinson, University of Florida

Collared peccaries in the lab clearing
A bullet ant
The Sabalo River

Jan. 10 – La Selva

“Epithet after epithet is found too weak to convey to those who have not visited the inter-tropical regions the sensation of delight which the mind experiences…The land is one great wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse, made by Nature for herself…a thousand beauties unite into one perfect scene…to behold, if such were possible, the products of another planet, the glories of another world.”

 – Charles Darwin

Darwin, among other great Victorian naturalist-explorers, knew that the tropics represented the ultimate biological experience. Nowhere is this more apparent than at La Selva Biological Station, the third site our course is visiting. La Selva (literally, “The Jungle”) is the epitome of Neotropical diversity. Located on the foothills of Braulio-Carrillo National Park on Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope, this wet-humid ecosystem is our opportunity to be immersed in a biologically intact and well-studied lowland tropical rainforest that rivals the complexity of the Amazon. The station is a hive of research activity surrounded by rainforest. Inevitably, the division between the station grounds and “the field” is blurred here; a menagerie of birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects overflow from the surrounding primary forest and colonize the station, as if to showcase nature’s bounty to a human audience that can appreciate, if not comprehend, the beautiful enigma that is tropical nature.

For those familiar with La Selva’s reputation as a germination ground for tropical biologists, to be here feels like a rite of passage. Giants such as David Attenborough, E.O. Wilson, Robert MacArthur and Daniel Janzen have all worked and lived here, inspired by the same resplendent environment that surrounds us now.

Emerald glass frog (Espadarana prosoblepon) in Heliconia leaf

Growing up on a natural history-heavy diet, but forced to reconcile with a world that increasingly values hypothesis-driven science, I can appreciate the fine balance that OTS strikes between the two. Staying true to its roots, OTS begins our visit to La Selva by emphasizing a strong foundation in natural history. Our class breaks into small groups and commences on interactive hikes through the forest lead by naturalists and invited faculty, each of whom bring their own unique perspective of the field that, collectively, allows us to form a holistic picture of La Selva’s astounding biodiversity and biocomplexity.

Saprotrophic polypore fungus colonizes fallen logs

Edified, we begin to formulate original, provocative, short-term research projects both independently (IPs) and under the guidance of faculty (FLPs). Curiosity driven by thoughtful field observations are at the heart of all our scientific endeavors. In the process of practicing the scientific method, we interact with faculty mentors from diverse backgrounds and affiliations. Representatives of organizations as venerated as The Field Museum and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute share perspectives of not only their graduate school experiences, but also of exciting career options outside of academia, such as conservation, government research, and science education. They shed light on the challenges and rewards of careers in (tropical) biology, galvanizing the next generation with tales of field work in remote jungles of distant lands, far from the conveniences of the developed world—or of La Selva.

Almost invariably, we learn, their journey began as an OTS student. To be part of this course is to join perhaps the oldest and most recognized graduate course specialized in tropical biology there is. The OTS model for training has been, for over 50 years, centered on repetition. With repetition (FLP, IP, FLP, IP, etc.), our ability to formulate questions and design experiments using the scientific method, conduct field work, analyze data using code, write, create presentations, and present science in front of an audience advances rapidly. By the course’s completion, we will have each presented 7 times about varied projects. It is an intense, demanding work schedule, but the rewards eclipse the sacrifices. Every day brings another chance for discovery, growth, and lasting comradery. This is where the tropical biologists of the future are born.

-Anonymous student

Jan. 7 – Re-exploring Las Cruces

I spent a week with a diverse group of scientists at Las Cruces Biological Station. It was a rewarding feeling experience, to be back again at the same place where I worked as part of an OTS REU 2018 summer experience. During our time together, on the first day my fellow students and I had the privilege be able to see amazing and unique species.

Roadside Hawk (Rupornis magnirostris) perched in a tree at Las Cruces Biological Station.
Emerald Glass Frog (Esparadana prosoblepon) on a leaf.

As the week continued, we met two passionate scientists, Erin Kuprewicz and Carlos Garcia Robledo both of University of Connecticut (UConn). We got divided in two groups to do groups projects and independent projects, where I had the opportunity to work with Erin on how the Central American agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) enhances seed survival and germination by measuring soil conditions and distance that they disperse the seeds as part of their behavior to protect the seeds from predators.

Erin Kuprewicz (left) and Carlos Garcia-Robledo (right), both from University of Connecticut (UConn), giving us a talk about the diversity of plant species at the Wilson Botanical Garden at Las Cruces Biological Station.

It was a unique experience to not only to learn how to plan and implement research projects in such a week, but also experience a unique place with an amazing people like Costa Rica. To other student scientists out there: I encourage you all to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity in the future. I cannot overstate how great it is to be part of such a wonderful community as OTS!!

-Jaime A. Botet Rodríguez, University of Puerto Rico

Jan. 6 – Fluffy Butt, Coconut


This guinea pig potato shape large rodent has dominated the Wilson Botanic Garden at Las Cruces Biological Station. Giving the fact that they have longer hair on their butt than other parts of the body, and the hair stands when irritated, fuzzy puffy butt became an iconic symbol of our agouti seed dispersal research. Wilson Botanical Garden has the biggest plant collection from the world in Central America, and a non-native species in the garden might be an invasive species if they’re dispersed to the nearby primary forest by fluffy butts. Along with Dr. Erin Kuprewicz and other team members, we learned agouti’s hoarding behavior through our experiments. All we need was artificial fruits or coconuts, thread with labels, and camera traps, and let agouti do the science.

Days in Las Cruces are intensive and leisure at the same time. While conducting one faculty-led project and an independent project with two presentations and one paper, we still explored the garden and the forest. During our walk to the primary forest, we saw a family of coati (6-7) drinking from the river, which made the day! A great spot to hang out is the observation tower. Get up at 5 am, climb to the top of the tower before sunrise, look down into the forest canopy in moist clouds, watch toucan fly by, wait for the sky to change color, and start a fabulous tropical morning.

-Elle Xu, Duke Kunshan University

An agouti captured by our camera trap
Setting up a camera trap

Jan. 5 – Living among the leaves

In the heart of Las Cruces Biological Station, we spent the last couple days living in Casa Wilson surrounded by hundreds of bromeliads and other exotic plants from the botanical gardens. This was our second stop in our Field Ecology adventure. While Monteverde had its breathtaking views and peaceful atmosphere, Las Cruces had its own charm with its extensive collection of plant species from across the world. Here, we got the chance to perform faculty led research as well as the chance to work on our own independent projects. For our faculty led projects we got the pleasure to work with Dr. Erin Kuprewicz and Dr. Carlos García-Robledo from the University of Connecticut. Both projects utilizing the garden space and some of the species found within – the fluffy little agoutis and the vibrant rolled-leaf beetles. In our independent projects we were given the chance to branch out and come up with our own questions about our surroundings within the tropical ecosystem. My project focused on the same bromeliads surrounding our lodging and what characteristics of these plants are important for frogs seeking refuge (some frogs take shelter in these plants during the day). It was rewarding to get the chance to execute our own research projects and to hear about all the other student projects!

-Amanda Deguire, University of Connecticut

View of Casa Wilson and the surrounding garden
An Emerald Glass Frog (Espadarana prosoblepon) seeking refuge in a bromeliad plant

Jan. 1: Frogs and ‘possums and scorpions, oh my!

We had an amazing New Year’s Eve present at the Estación Biologica Monteverde on our night walk in the form of multiple species of frog and even a tree scorpion. Everyone was very excited by the wildlife sightings, especially those of us who had also gone on a hike the previous night and struck out with finding any “herps,” or reptiles and amphibians. We did, however, catch a glimpse of a Mexican mouse opossum (Marmosa mexicana), which was a wonderful surprise. It was peering out at us from a thick patch of shrubs with its prehensile tail wrapped around a branch, looking much like a bandit wearing a black eye mask. At one point we turned off all of our flashlights and headlamps while standing in a streambed. The darkness was so absolute as to take on an almost velveteen feel, as though it were a physical presence in and of itself. To be honest, I felt rather vulnerable standing there completely blind to my surroundings. It was a stark reminder that I am just a visitor in this environment that many species call home. Monteverde in particular feels otherworldly, as though we’re on a mountaintop island surrounded by a sea of dense clouds. It is equal parts eerie and exhilarating. There is so much more to explore in this beautiful country and I can’t wait to see what we’ll discover next!

-Jessica Joganic, University of Missouri-St. Louis

Wagner shows off the yellow leg spots that are characteristic of the brilliant forest frog (Lithobates warszewitschii)
The view from the winding mountain road on our way to Monteverde with the Gulf of Nicoya in the background and the extremely low cloud base characteristic of cloud forests.
Leaf analysis with Dr. Sybil Gotsch in the Monteverde lab

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

Dec. 30: Two days in and fieldwork is in full swing!

Welcome to our blog! This three-week graduate course follows the traditional OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) model of conducting fast-paced research projects in a variety of tropical ecosystems with visiting faculty from a wide range of research areas. The goal of this blog is to allow you to (virtually!) travel along with us and experience the adventures of tropical fieldwork and day-to-day life at four very different Costa Rican field stations: the high-elevation cloud forest of Monteverde, the premontane forest and amazing botanical gardens of Las Cruces, the incredibly biodiverse lowland tropical wet forest of La Selva, and finally the dry forest and wetlands of Palo Verde. We hope you enjoy the trip. ¡Pura vida!

-Carissa Ganong, Missouri Western State University (course coordinator)

At CRO (the Costa Rican OTS office) on the first day of the course
Group photo at a Monteverde overlook near the continental divide