An Adventure Shared

By Helena Enchenique

Each year, a select group of students from the Zoo Magnet School and the student volunteer program are chosen for the Duttenhaver Animal Conservation Field Study Team. The group assists field researchers engaged in conservation projects around the world that are part of the EarthWatch Institute. These opportunities to experience scientific fieldwork firsthand, made possible thanks to support from Linda Duttenhaver, inspire many of the student participants to pursue future studies and careers in science and conservation.

In recent years, scientists working in Coto Brus have noticed something unique. Local landowners have begun planting fruiting trees on their properties—although the specific reasons for this are not yet clear. Scientists hypothesize that these trees hold the secret to improving the resilience of forest ecosystems and restoring the continuity of Costa Rica’s tropical forests, which benefits both people and wildlife. As part of this study, this year’s Earthwatch team worked directly with researchers to study the ecological benefits of fruiting trees, and the motivations of the tree-planters themselves.

We all have preconceived ideas of what the jungle is like. Some describe it as unforgiving. Others describe it as a home to some pretty gnarly-looking bugs. I went in thinking it was a place where people go to test the true nature of themselves. I like to think that I got a true taste of the jungle on our first night-hike while we were at Las Cruces Biological Station.

There were nine students who went to Costa Rica, nine very different people. For example, Olivia has a passion for speech and debate. Diego and Sophie run Cross Country. Marissa wants to join the FBI. However, each of us came to this trip for the very same reason. As either Los Angeles Zoo volunteers or Zoo Magnet School students, we had all expressed an interest in zoology.

This trip was our first exploration into the field. We all came with the same thought: to see if a career in zoology really suited us. By coming to Costa Rica on this field research expedition, we were able to gain experience in the field and get a taste of what a career studying animals would entail.

Every day we would wake up at five o’clock in the morning and set out to complete our daily observations. For almost six hours we would take notes on different fruiting trees in the area and the nature of the animals that visited them. Additionally, we collected data on seed dispersal by setting up and collecting seed traps that would hang on trees. These seed traps would catch any fruit or seeds that birds would drop. After our morning observations we had siesta. However, the only time most of us actually had a “siesta” was on the first and second day when we were all exhausted from travel. We would often spend our siesta time hiking and exploring the area.

We all had animals species that we most wanted to see and would use the extra time as an opportunity to seek them out. We became quite familiar with the area; some of our favorite spots included an old goal post, the pollinator garden, and the library. When we weren’t exploring, we could be found hanging out together at any of these spots.

Throughout the trip I was able to get to know my teammates well. At the beginning, most of us were either strangers or barely acquaintances; by the end of the trip, we were all talking and acting like old friends. In addition to getting to know the people who came with me, I was able to learn more about working in the field through the diverse experiences of our fellow researchers. I was particularly interested in the careers of the two graduate students—one who had not been previously involved in the field of biology at all and the other who had started as a birder and tourist guide. Though they had led very different lives up until graduate school, they ended up working in the same research field on a combined thesis. Through them I learn more about how I could potentially become involved in field research.

Our last day was fraught with emotion, covered up by laughs and conversation. Though we had come two weeks prior, complete strangers, we left with a new feeling of unity. As J.K. Rowling wrote in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and going on a research trip to stare at birds for hours on end is one of them…”—or something like that.

Helena Echenique is the vice president of the student volunteers at the Los Angeles Zoo. She has worked in the student volunteer program for two years. In 2018 she helped re-instate the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots and Shoots chapter at the LA Zoo. She currently attends South Pasadena High School where she founded the World Animal Conservation Club and is a member of the Tiger Marching Band.