Thursday, September 22, 2016

Branchin' Out

It has become increasingly difficult for me to keep motivation during my studies when I am stuck in a stereotypical classroom all day learning via textbook and lectures. Although my university does an excellent job of providing me with copious amounts of environmental material, the information becomes dull after a while. I can only memorize so many classifications of different animals, watch so many documentaries, and read so many articles before becoming bored. Just when I thought that maybe I should switch into a different field of study, I found this program. Fortunately, it has reminded me why I love environmental science so much.  The integrative approach between the classroom and the field piques my interest as the hands on approach enriches the experience that much more and brings the information to life.
            We wasted no time getting our hands dirty. The first day at our first site at the biological station in Las Cruces, we took a three-hour hike through the garden and the forest. There was a myriad of cool things to be seen. For instance, I was able to see plenty of butterflies, leaf cutter ants, and I was even lucky enough to see a snake! There were a lot of interesting plants as well. I have never been a huge fan of botany, but these experiences are starting to change my opinion.
At first blush, the forest appears to be a sea of green. I couldn’t really distinguish one plant from another; everything just looked like a conglomeration of vines, branches, and leaves all strewn together. Now, after having a couple classes, I am able to distinguish different plant families based on leaf shape, whether or not the leaf is “compound” or “simple”, and the existence of particular leaf parts. Although frustrating at times, it was fun to correctly identify a plant family. I would like to note that I am using the term “family” as opposed to “species.” I’ve learned that it is virtually impossible to accurately identify most plants to the level of species in Costa Rica. Not only are there too many species that look alike, but finding an easy field guide to Neotropical plant species is rare. However, it is possible to identify to the level of family, or even genus. As a refresher for taxonomic rank, the ordering is as follows: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. So human for example would be classified in the kingdom Animalia, phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, order Primates, family Hominidae, genus Homo, and species H. sapiens. 
                One other group of organisms that we have had to classify is insects.  Before heading out in the field, our professor gave us a quick crash course on bug taxonomy. Then we headed out into the nearby garden and tried to catch as many bugs as possible with our butterfly nets. When we caught a butterfly, we had to hold them by their wings, towards their head, and place them inside wax paper envelops. When other bugs were caught, they were placed inside plastic bags with a cotton ball doused in a chemical that makes them “sleepy” long enough to be looked at under a microscope. Overall, I have caught some cool beetles, several butterflies (one of them being a glass butterfly!), moths, grasshoppers, ants, bees, and wasps. I never realized how much variation there was in each of the individual insect families alone. There is still so much more to learn, and I am so excited to continue this academic adventure.

Kiersten Bell
Duke University

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