We’ve been here In Costa Rica for almost six weeks now. In that time we’ve been to three wildly different field stations, gone on countless walks through the forest and surrounding areas, and had classes on everything form the banana industry to many of the families of Coleoptera (beetles). Yet these widely varying topics remain relevant and applicable to where we are because they’re about these very places. The history happened on these soils (we even went to a nearby banana plantation to hear their side of the story and see the processes happen in real time) and the Scarabidae beetles can be found even in our classrooms. Learning in the context of where you are has been an eye-opening experience.
There’s something about learning how to identify a palm tree not by pictures and diagrams but by actually looking at a palm tree, a palm frond, by holding the (for some) binately compound leaf in your hands, turning it around to see every angle. There’s something about learning what a wasp in the Ichneumonidae family looks like not because someone told you but because you found a wasp and matched its distinctively shaped thorax and white-striped antennae with the descriptions and dichotomous key in the lab. There is something about holding what you’re studying in your hand, examining it, and trying to understand it in its tiniest details as well as within its broader contexts.
By familiarizing ourselves with the goings on around us, we are finding reasons to connect to the world (natural and man-made) on a deeper level. For example, every schoolchild in the United States has learned about deforestation. They can recite for you the rate at which it is happening, the world’s biggest culprits, and the negative consequences it holds. That is not the same as stepping foot in the very forests that once were—and sometimes still are—at risk. It is not the same as experiencing the unique biodiversity that is in danger or seeing a farmer rebuilding the ecosystem around him.
Early in September while at Las Cruces, we learned about an unusual pattern of activity of sloths: they only defecate once a week. Every seven days, give or take, they slowly descend from the treetops to the forest floor to take care of business. To make things even more intriguing, there are species of moths that live exclusively in the fur of sloths who depend on this habit to complete their life cycle: when the sloth defecates, they lay their eggs in the dung. Organisms and their cycles are dependent on this famously slow and lazy creature that can’t even bring itself to defecate more than once a week. As if this hadn’t amazed me enough, one night some classmates and I were walking back from the Academic Center of La Selva back to our dorms when we passed by a mother sloth and her baby on the bridge. This time they weren’t climbing on the top of the bridge cables like we had seen before, they were climbing on the handrail—one foot away from us. Seeing this living, breathing creature so close, caring for her baby perched on her tummy was entirely different from learning about them in the classroom. Watching her hold tight with one arm while slowly swinging the other, looking for more branches to cling to and usually ending up finding the same metal rod to hold onto as before stirred an incredible amount of sympathy from within me. She wasn’t just a sloth but also a mother and also a home. I found myself wondering about the moths we had learned about: Were they there? Right in this moment, in her fur? Was she returning from defecating and unintentionally bringing new life into the world in the form of tiny moth eggs? How long would it take her to get back to a comfortable tree branch? Hands on learning is truly the best way to spark curiosity.