Tackling Challenges

By Olivia Brebes

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 Costa Rica, we were able to experience an amazing trip to one of the most beautiful ecosystems in the world. We were deployed on this expedition in order to better understand the advantages that domestic farmers in Costa Rica gain by planting specific tree species on their land. We specifically observed birds (along with other frugivorous animals) in order to discover exactly what fruits they favored. Additionally, we recorded which animals were drawn to particular species of fruit. Our research was a small part of a large study being conducted by Dr. Claire Aslan, Dr. Sarah Frey, and Dr. Kerry Grimm. The data that we collected contributed greatly to the ongoing investigation. When the results are final, the researchers hope to use the data to construct safe forest “corridors” for the animals of the rainforest.

A large portion of our studies required basic knowledge of regional birds. On our first day, we practiced identifying different species through still pictures in order to prepare for the days ahead. Once in the field, we used data sheets to record the activity we saw and returned around 12 p.m. We were fortunate enough to also view different intriguing locations around the research sites after we finished our data collection for the morning. A Costa Rican local named Mau was also a research guide on our trip. With him, we not only got to experience the hard work and experiments that the researchers conduct every day, but also the beautiful hidden gems of the Costa Rican territory as well.

We visited many local homes, interacted with horses and cows, and got to experience the special areas of the forest that only locals are privy to. After we spent most of the morning collecting data, we were given two- to three-hour “siesta” breaks during which we were allowed to rest or explore the botanical gardens of the research station. Once the break was over, we returned to our meeting room and were assigned either seed sorting or data sheet entry. Seed sorting was used to gather and eventually plant seeds that were collected in the traps located around the fincas (farms). This was done to ensure the station was able to regrow the trees that we were observing for later research. In our free time, we went on hikes, visited the research station library, and many other exciting activities.

I chose to apply for this expedition because of my interest in environmental science studies and research. I learned what is truly demanded of a serious researcher in the field: patience, acute senses, and a vast knowledge of the study area. In addition, I was able to self-reflect in moments of crisis and found that even in various difficult situations, I maintained a positive attitude. The many personal hardships on this trip included losing my wallet as well as my passport and accidentally hurting my toe. But every time a new challenge arose, I found myself making lists of everything I was grateful for in order to remain positive. Most importantly, I reminded myself to be grateful for the opportunity to be part of our amazing team pursuing the journey of a lifetime.