In elementary school, there was always someone who was constantly staring out the window. Normally, I had no problem ignoring the mundane, parking lot scenes that captured the attention of my 8-year-old classmates. However, if that window scene was of something natural, I would find myself joining the ranks of the window gazers.
This holds true to this day. Whenever I’m presented with a new nature scene to gaze at, I am initially fascinated. Eventually, usually after a day or two, it blends into the background; I become habituated to the view. Since I had never been to the tropics before now, Costa Rica has given me with a very new scene to stare at. Yet, despite having stared out the same window for a while now, I find that I’m not becoming desensitized like I normally would.
For example, just today (while I was supposed to be studying for a midterm at La Selva Biological Station) I found myself staring out the window instead. I tried to figure out why is it that I can ignore the view of Lake Michigan (which is absolutely stunning, by the way) while I’m studying at Northwestern, but I can’t ignore the view of a small forest edge. I think the difference lies in change or a lack thereof. The scenes that capture my interest initially, like the lake, are beautiful, but relatively static. There may be a bird flying by once in a while or a squirrel running through a tree, but for the most part, the view I’m seeing might as well be a photograph on the wall. The rainforest, though, is different. This view is constantly changing.
This morning alone, I’ve watched:
1. A group of peccaries wander in and out of the forest looking for food
2. A family of spider monkeys (including a baby!) swing through the trees
3. About a dozen very different, vibrantly colored birds fly between branches
4. A handful of colorful butterflies flutter around
5. A basilisk lizard bask in the sun on a log
And that is just a small fraction of the animal life I’ve observed through these windows.
In addition to the great diversity of animals present on a daily basis, the diversity of plant life here is vast. When looking through the windows of my high school at the surrounding woods, I saw many individual trees, but they belonged to only a handful of species. From my window here, I also see many individual trees, but I don’t think any two are of the same species.
The tropics are known for having incredible biodiversity. The tropical forests, which cover only 6% of the Earth’s surface, house about half of all of all Earth’s species. The reason for this great diversity is debated among scientists, but just about everyone agrees that there are many, many different species here. I’ve seen more species of than I can count of wildlife like monkeys, anteaters, snakes, frogs, toads, sloths, lizards, iguanas, birds, spiders, and insects. And yet, I know that this isn’t even a small fraction of the species that live here. For example, La Selva Biological Station alone houses over 470 species of birds. Just birds!
I think it’s clear that I can’t habituate to this window scene because in order to do so, the stimulus has to be constant for a while—something that a rainforest never is! Somehow I’m sure I’ll manage to focus long enough to study for my midterms, but I think I’ll watch the spider monkeys swinging by for just one more minute first…
—Mackenzie Coden, Northwestern University