Entering the World of Green: An Earthwatch Trip to Costa Rica

By Max Roberts

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.

In July, I got to live one of my life’s dreams by traveling to Costa Rica to participate in field research. Funded by Linda Duttenhaver, the Los Angeles Zoo selected a handful of North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet students and Los Angeles Zoo student volunteers and sent us to the Las Cruces Biological Station in Southern Costa Rica to help professors and graduate students from Northern Arizona University investigate the role that fruiting trees play in providing habitat for rainforest animals on Central American farmland. Accompanying us on the trip was Senior Reptile Keeper Chris Rodriguez, Director of Special Events Sara Rodriguez, and Curator of Education Rosalio Rubio.

After two days of intense training on bird identification, fruit spotting, and other essential skills in the field, we dove right into the work. Each morning, we split off into groups to survey different sites in the surrounding Costa Rican countryside. During this time, we would record what ripe fruit we saw, what animals we saw, and what behaviors the animals were exhibiting. We would also empty seed traps during our morning rounds in the field. These were netted structures designed to catch seeds dropped by the birds as they flew overhead. In the afternoon, the contents of those seed traps were sorted and the seeds planted to see which ones would sprout. This was also the time of day when we would enter the data that we had recorded earlier in the morning.

Although a large portion of my time in Costa Rica was spent doing field work, there was still a lot of free time for me to explore and look for wildlife. I couldn’t finish an everyday stroll in the garden without running into the many vibrantly rainforest colored birds, such as toucans, parrots, and countless songbirds. Agoutis (large rodents) were also easily seen around the research station and could be observed foraging for nuts.

Thanks to a lot of help from Chris, I was also able to find a host of different reptile and amphibian species, such as tree frogs, marine toads, water anoles, glass frogs, and even a caecilian (a legless amphibian). Outside the research station, I also saw some of the more elusive wildlife, including white-throated capuchin monkeys, white-nosed coatis, and even scarlet macaws.

In addition to participating in professional fieldwork and seeing the wildlife, I also had the chance to interact with the locals and experience the culture of Costa Rica. Every day, I ate Costa Rican cuisine, which was usually a variation of rice and beans accompanied by a salad. I also got to see the sights in the towns of San Vito, Golfito, and San Jose. Being in a Spanish-speaking country, I got a lot of practice using basic Spanish phrases whenever I could. I am by no means fluent, however being able to say simple phrases like “thank you” and “hello” allowed me to make the locals feel more comfortable with my presence.

This trip taught me a lot about field work and the local ecosystem, but it has given me so much more. Being in Costa Rica broadened my perspective of what it means to be independent, to work with a team, and to experience a different culture. I am so grateful for what this experience has shown me and hope that I will be able to participate on similar field projects in my future career as a zoologist and conservationist.

Max Roberts is currently a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara and has been a student volunteer at the Los Angeles Zoo for more than two years. He recently graduated from the North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet which fueled his passion for zoological studies and the work of zoos and conservation organizations. In addition to his volunteer work at the Zoo, he has been a member of the Southwestern Herpetologist Society since 2014 and has also volunteered with organizations such as Heal the Bay and Friends of the Island Fox. He is also a jazz saxophonist who has been playing music for more than seven years and has even performed at prestigious venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and Vitello’s restaurant in Studio City, California.