Discoveries Worth Waiting For

By Nora Bahr

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.

As the whole team stepped into the hillside home of our guide, Roberto, none of us could have expected what came next. The hike to that point had been grueling. Roberto had led us across streams and up stony and steep steps until we reached his house, soaked with sweat. However, it was all worth the trek when a clan of capuchin monkeys emerged in the trees beside us. They flew around us, the leader of the family, Rene, lifting his white face whenever Roberto called him. It was small moments such as these that made our expedition in San Vito, Costa Rica so unforgettable.

My expectations for this trip were very blurred. I had no clue what our home would look like for the next two weeks or how the collection of data would pan out. I did know that to be surrounded by experienced researchers and performing real field research for the first time was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially for someone, like myself, interested in pursuing a career in science. I had to take advantage of the rare resources at hand.

Despite knowing that our trip would be eye-opening, I still found so many discoveries along the way. The Las Cruces Biological Station, where we made our home, was so expansive in and of itself that surprises could be found around every corner. Guinea pig-like agoutis roamed the grounds and 50-year-old botany books sat in the station’s library. We learned an unexpected amount of information on birding, Costa Rican flora and fauna, and the vital role that local farmers have in the ecological and physiological wellbeing of surrounding wildlife.

Every day spent at Las Cruces began at a rousing 5 a.m. (the earlier we rose, the more wildlife we’d see). For the daily data collection, half of the group set out in cars to drive to local fincas, or farms, and half remained on Las Cruces grounds. Every finca was completely different, ranging from recovering pasture land to an active lumber mill. We spent mornings searching cecropia trees, among many others, with binoculars. We recorded all visible fruit in the area, watched for frugivores in a chosen tree, and occasionally collected fallen seeds from seed traps.

In the afternoons, half of the group entered the morning data into an online spreadsheet, and the other half sorted the collected seeds, picked out the healthiest of the bunch, and planted them in small trays. In a few weeks, once these seeds sprout, our Las Cruces leaders will be able to determine which species of seeds are being dispersed and whether or not those will germinate and contribute to reforestation.

As monotonous as waiting for birds and sorting through their feces might sound, knowing that we were contributing to such a crucial project for the Costa Rican environment made every task thrilling. According to our Las Cruces leaders, the Los Angeles Zoo team collected data at around 225 sites, more than any previous team. Overall, this experience taught me that field research, although sometimes tedious, is worth every minute. Because when I witnessed the flap of a wing, I knew that I had both furthered conservation research on the whole and learned more about myself and my future in science than I ever could have imagined.

Nora Bahr is a senior at the Los Angeles Zoo Magnet High School, where she participates in student government and a mentoring program. She has been passionate about science and animals since childhood but also loves to read, write, and watch films in her spare time. Nora is currently assisting the Los Angeles Zoo’s chimpanzee keepers in her animal husbandry class and has been a student volunteer at the zoo since 2016.