Welcome to the (Real) Jungle

By Diego Osornio

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.

Adamant that we would find tree frogs, our entire group set out, eager to see what we would find. With our headlamps on and three layers of bug spray (I’d seen pictures of the ants native to this area, and I was not going to take my chances), all 12 of us started our hike by checking some nearby fountains. My roommate and I had explored the area the day before, and although we could hear the ringing sounds of precocious frogs, I’m 90-percent sure our constant talking and laughing drove them away. Nevertheless, I went out that night ready for anything. We all felt sure that with guidance from our mentor Chris Rodriguez, a reptile and amphibian expert, we were going to leave that night having seen wild tree frogs.

After stopping at one of the water fountains, we made our way to a second one, which is where we found a toad. It wasn’t just any toad, it was a cane toad. Rhinella marina, for those who don’t know, is an invasive species (thanks to humans) that is responsible for the demise of many ecosystems and communities in the Caribbean and some parts of Australia. Being face-to-face with one of these behemoths really put things into perspective. These guys were the definition of beastly. Without hesitation, Chris picked one up. Making sure that we all saw the poison glands on its back, Chris pointed out how these toads have very few natural predators, which is how they became such formidable invaders. And to think, these amphibians dominated marsh and swamp lands all through this area. I continued the hike not knowing what other species might be lurking in the surrounding jungle.

We found ourselves walking further and further away from the comforts of the station. The only light we had were our headlamps, the night sky, and the glaring eyes reflecting our light up in the canopy. “Watch out for eyelash vipers—they tend to hang at eye level.” The nightmares I had as a child of encountering venomous snakes was becoming more of a reality. Very careful of where I stepped, I found myself huddling together with my group, as we all felt the same overwhelming fear. First, it was a wolf spider. Then it was tarantula. Last, it was a cockroach the size of my palm. We were done. Scared out of our minds, we trudged back up the trail until each of us had reached our rooms. Boy, did I feel different.

Despite all of this, I can gladly say that at the end of this expedition, I left with a completely new idea of what a jungle is. I no longer view it as a frightening place (except for the snakes), but instead as an epicenter for life. The subject of songs and movies and stories all around the world is also home for some of the most amazing species that this planet has to offer. The jungle is a place where people go and find themselves, and during my time there, as brief as it was, I can say that I truly found my role in the preservation of these ecosystems. Despite how much I love watching Planet Earth, I’d much rather have experience with the real thing.