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Duttenhaver Conservation Field Study Program – 2019

Duttenhaver Fellows and Mentors 2019

Trip Summary

As part of the 2019 Duttenhaver Field Conservation Study Program, Curator of Education Renae Cotero, Senior Animal Keeper Rose Legato, and Web Content Manager Gene Morgan accompanied nine student volunteers and Magnet School students (Juleanna de la Cruz, Lauren Takeda, Jessica Takeda, Jennifer Pelliconi, Jasleen Reyes, Amelia McKee, Isabella Gilchrist, Ricardo Vieyra, and Ruben Lopez) to Puerto Jiménez, Costa Rica where they assisted biologists with pollinator research being conducted through the Earthwatch Institute, a nonprofit that connects people from around the world with scientists out in the field. The expedition ran from June 29 to July 7.

Costa Rica is home to more than 400 species of native wild bees and thousands of butterfly and moth species. Students collected pollinator samples from a variety of flowers, capturing bees, moths, and butterflies for later identification and analysis.

“It was hot, humid, exhausting, and an amazing amount of fun,” comments Gene. “Catching bees in a jar sounds terrifying but, after learning about pollinators and spending time around them in the field, it turned into a game of real-life Pokémon. I caught all of the bees!”

“It was surreal waking up to the sound of wild scarlet macaws the first morning there,” adds Rose. “My brain recognized the sound before I could even open my eyes, but after two days of travel by plane and bus, it took a few seconds to process that I wasn’t at the Zoo and we were actually in ‘the wild!’ I jumped up like a kid on Christmas morning, ran to my jungle house balcony, and there they were—foraging in the almond tree right outside in all their glory. It was breathtaking to see them in their element.

“I was surprised at the impact this trip had on me,” she continues. “It was everything you would expect of a great fieldwork adventure in Costa Rica— beautiful scenery, hard work, fun, insane humidity, and an abundance of life everywhere. I’ve been blessed to have traveled prior to this, but Costa Rica was different. I’m not sure if it was our students, the other mentors, the people we encountered throughout the trip, or the connection we made with Mrs. Duttenhaver. Most likely all of it. The mentors were a guiding force throughout the trip, but the students taught me so much. I have much yet to do here at the Zoo and in the world, but during this trip, I had a strong sense that we were passing the torch to our future, and that it’s in good hands.”

Fellow Essays

Guide with snake

Juleanna de la Cruz

“Is it venomous?”, a voice asks from the eager crowd of faces surrounding the parrot snake, coiled anxiously around our tour guide’s arm. “Nah”, he says with a mischievous grin, “Only if it bites.” The looks of horror and amusement we share with each other go unnoticed by him as he plays with the snake, a tender kind of pride emanating from his touch and gaze. As if in response to our question, the snake quickly jerks its head back and opens its gaping mouth in a defensive motion, tightening its grip on the guide’s arm. I feel instinct kick in as panic and adrenaline rush through my veins like a shiver, preparing to leave the area by whatever means necessary, when suddenly I hear a harsh laugh. Although he is a mere inch away from the fangs of a venomous creature, our guide’s face is overcome with what can only be described as pure delight. Raising his other hand in the shape of a mouth, he jabs at the snake and encourages it, growling “Bite me! Bite me!” I didn’t know whether to laugh or be mortified! So how did I end up here, watching a man play with a venomous snake in the dead of night, somewhere in the deep forests of Costa Rica? It all began in the late 18th Century – allow me to explain.

The Industrial Revolution is believed to have been the birth of human-caused climate change, mainly attributed to Co2 emissions. Production and manufacturing of goods led to an increase in factories, which amassed in an increase of wealth, which was able to be spent on coal-operated technologies, blah, blah, blah – you get the picture. As the industrialized lifestyle grew to define our modern culture and economy, its dangerous effects became more obvious and immediate; wildfires, hurricanes, and earthquakes, to name a few, are occurring more frequently and with greater force, impacting millions of people around the globe through loss of shelter, supplies, and security. With record-breaking disasters and discussions of resource scarcity dominating the topic of climate change, it’s easy to forget that humans are not the only species impacted by our choices and creations. My experience in Costa Rica will never let me forget.

I was one of nine students on an Earthwatch expedition focused on pollinator abundance in Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica. Located in the Osa Peninsula, one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, our efforts contributed towards the separate projects of Chelsea and Kristen, two grad students at Eastern Kentucky University who guided us through their objectives and supervised us in the field. Chelsea’s research focused on the networks between flowers and pollinators, essentially searching for an explanation of why some flowers were more popular than others. Kristen’s research studied the abundance of pollinators along an elevation gradient, observing which species were present at various altitudes. Both projects required samples of pollinators collected from specific flowers, which is how I ended up in Costa Rica. As volunteers, our duties were to capture bees and butterflies from a designated botanical area during 30 minute intervals, using plastic jars containing acetone-soaked cotton pads. We’d then catalogue our catch, placing bees in vials of ethanol and butterflies in wax envelopes, along with a tag labeling the date, time period, sun exposure, and location. This information was sent to the university’s labs and cached in a worldwide database of insects and pollinators. Knowledge of pollinator presence is especially pertinent today because of their immense value to agriculture, allowing us to enjoy foods from around the world. Changes in temperature affect the equilibrium of an ecosystem, impairing the pollination patterns and abilities of the animals we studied in this expedition. I don’t mean to sound cliché, but there’s an intrinsic humbleness that is understood when immersed in the vast depths of nature. It is strong, commanding, and powerful, which is precisely why I felt so helpless when confronted with the reality of our climate situation. It’s reminiscent to the feelings of a child watching a parent struggle, realizing the vulnerability inside of a figure of safety and authority. There’s a visceral difference between learning about temperature shifts and species decline through books and media, and actually observing the impacts through experience; actively “discovering” the truth through physical data, instead of passively absorbing it through charts and numbers. That is what this trip to Costa Rica inspired within me: active, independent discovery. I discovered delicious plantains and gallo pinto, pura vida (the Costa Rican motto), and a new environment of random rainstorms, fruit-filled forests, and Capuchin monkeys! I discovered the vibrant hum of cicadas, which became a lullaby I fell asleep to every night. I discovered bees that looked like flies, and vice versa; I discovered a community of people who loved their fellow pollinators and were curious as to why we were capturing them, as open to our research as they were to the nature around them.

None of this would have been possible without the support of my own community as well. Much thanks to my fellow team members, who eased the toll of fieldwork with fun conversations and card-games, and to our three mentors, just for being the amazing people that they are. Special thanks to Linda Duttenhaver for providing the means to embark on this wonderful and unique opportunity. It truly is an experience I will never forget.

Hanging out on the patio

Nature’s Discoveries

Isabella Gilchrist

This trip to Costa Rica was filled with small discoveries about the larger world around me that has already started affecting how I view the nature that surrounds me every day. Whether it be the animals that I work with, big or small or the vibrantly green plants that pop out in the wonderfully odd places throughout LA, my expedition has changed my outlook on our beautiful world which desperately needs our help.

When I started this trip, I was a little wary of all of the new faces surrounding me, knowing no one, and not knowing the close relationships I would create with them over the next couple of days, in late-night talks and countless games of spoons. These fantastic people made every sampling and hike feel like a little scientific adventure, creating such a wondrous air to my trip and they made all of my encounters with nature that much better because I had someone to share it with. And adding to this tight knit-community of animal enthusiasts, the scientists we worked with were an excellent contribution to our group and gave us a look into their work in the field and taught us the wonders of these excellent pollinators. By having lectures about the anatomy and types of bees, butterflies, and moths, as well as discovering different species of bees when sampling, I was able to truly immerse myself into this astonishing experience and feel like a biologist or zoologist working in the field and studying the animals that are a crucial part of the world’s ecosystem. These beautiful pollinators are such a large part of the world and the answer to a lot of problems that would make our earth so much better, and even though we only helped collect samples in a small area in Costa Rica, we all knew what good would come out of our help for this research. By sampling all of these pollinators, and seeing what flowering plants they preferred, we were contributing to worldwide efforts to help population size and increase total pollination, all by figuring out if planting more of these plants would help pollinators since they flowered yearly.

Also, through this trip, not only was I able to meet such delightful people and study such fascinating pollinators, but I was also able to experience the culture and the connection the people in the Osa Peninsula have with nature. During our botanical garden hike, the night hike and even just talking to the locals, we were able to see the love people have for their gardens and the forests. On our night hike, our guide told us about how his land used to be a cocoa tree farm until he tore down every tree and replanted the native trees and let all of the plants grow. And with his replanting came magnificent creatures like the Smoky Jungle frog, the Jesus Christ lizard, the Green Vine snake, and also became the home to a troop of Howler monkeys. And on our botanical hike, we traveled through 250 acres of land, full of native and worldwide medicinal trees and plants which attract the elusive Blue Morpho butterflies, White-faced Capuchins troops, and the property grows many fruits with extensive health benefits. The number of animals and plants in these areas show the importance and the impact of the people caring for the nature around them and striving to maintain the beautiful green world they live in.

Overall, this expedition taught me how to fully appreciate the beauty of nature in all of its forms, as well as using that appreciation to be a better scientist and make my mark on the world by studying animals like the pollinators and making our world a better place. I know that what we sampled and collected was only a small portion of the research worldwide on pollinators, but by contributing, we were able to help the scientists with their projects and in the future make some difference in the population of pollinators. Being chosen for this trip was one of the best things to happen to me because without this opportunity I wouldn’t have ever fully understood the importance of pollinators and their part in the world without studying them and seeing them thrive in their environment.


Conserving Wild Bees and Other Pollinators of Costa Rica

Ruben Lopez

Comparable to Costa Rica, and its Osa Peninsula, this fellowship is full of diversity and excitement! Fellows are able to submerge themselves into a once in a lifetime experience. Of witnessing firsthand what it means to participate in a scientific study in a lush environment, with minimal human disruption and contamination. Taking time to really let it all sink in is important to truly be able to appreciate the most biodiverse location on Earth.

From colorful Orchid Bees on stachy flowers, to the gorgeous Scarlet Macaws on almond trees; Color is a large component of the vivacity of this biome. As is the force exerted by the Howler Monkeys in their territorial calls that can be heard miles away from the canopy inhabited by the brachiating White Faced Capuchin. Sound is the sense that can make a place feel full of life. Listening, truly listening, to the sounds of mother nature connects us to this world, just as the Osa Peninsula connects the sounds of Jungle and Sea. Do not hesitate to stop and smell the roses (literally), for scent can tell you plenty about a place and its culture. Catching the aroma of cacao and banana plants, whether on a tree or in the local cuisine, is magnificent. Completely enveloping oneself in this expedition by disconnecting from the electronic aspect of our existence, can allow us to genuinely enjoy the scenic paradise that is Costa Rica, or anywhere for that matter.

Another large component of a region is the population. The people you encounter here, are the people you will never forget. All those I met, the ones accompanying me, the ones directing the study and the locals are people who honestly made this trip what it was, a life altering experience. The excellent company I was constantly in, including Zoo Magnet Students, the Student Volunteer Program or Kentucky like our Earthwatch Master Students Kristen and Chelsea Hinton, made this trip that much more enjoyable. Kristen and Chelsea were the ones who formulated these studies to conserve wild bees of Costa Rica to further understand the connections between plant hubs and the local pollinators. To assist in doing so, nine fellows (including myself), and three mentors were instructed on bee taxonomy and flora/fauna interactions. The purpose of this is to gather enough data in order to understand which flowers attract the most pollinators year-round and why, in order to protect these “more essential” parts of the ecosystem.

Participating in a study this crucial to the wellbeing of the most biodiverse location on Earth is beyond doubt something everyone should strive to be a part of. In fact, any study or expedition one is fortunate to take part in should be appreciated and enjoyed to the fullest! This Earthwatch Fellowship not only gave us insight on the study itself but provided a new perspective. A new perspective on what it means, and what it takes to be an environmental scientist. To live months away from home in a foreign country, sacrificing much time and energy in order to conduct research expeditions such as this one.

This trip not only left me in awe with the location and the significance of what we did in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, but it was an epiphany. Working with a small creature that plays such a large role in most ecosystems has opened my eyes to how important it is to do more to conserve these invertebrates. We are all taught just how important bees are but never really take the time to fully understand why. Kristen and Chelsea have made a start by focusing their study on an organism and system that not many take the time to get to know. Let’s be honest, most of us prior to being educated would look at a bee and not think much about it, either that or we would run frantically away. However, it is studies like these that teach us to enjoy and cherish the “little (crawling) things” in life. That is why expeditions to conserve our environment are so crucial, and why volunteers like you are so necessary!

Special Thanks to my accompanying fellows: Amelia McKee, Isabella Gilchrist, Ren Takeda, Jess Takeda, Jenny Pelliconi, Jasleen Reyes, Jules de la Cruz, Ricardo Vieyra. To our mentors as well Renae Cortero, Rose Legato, Gene Morgan.

And to our sponsor Linda Duttenhaver for this life-changing opportunity.


Amelia McKee

We arrived at LAX at 8:30 AM on the 29th of June 2019. Although I had met my traveling companions previously, many faces still felt unfamiliar. They soon, however, became my connection to home as I departed to a foreign land. It took twelve hours of travel to reach our home for the week in Puerto Jimenez. Half of which we spent on a plane and the other half on a bus. Although I dreaded the bus trip we saw so many beautiful aspects of Costa Rica that I would have missed without such a ride. It was around seven pm when we arrived at Osa Beach House on the bay. It was hot. Boiling sweat dripped down our backs and our hair was plastered to our foreheads. The house however, was beautiful, three stories high with tall open ceilings. !t was here that our adventure began to take form.

I am a lover of entomology, specifically focusing on bees. I was extremely excited to arrive and begin our research. Our first morning we walked out to town and practiced catching butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. It was here that I learned we would be killing the insects we collected. With my heart and morality in question, I got to work. Jenny Pelliconi, another fellow, and I observed and collected at a flowering bush known as Cecilpenia. The first day we worked hard watching and harvesting bees under the beating sun, collecting butterflies through large stretches of Zinnia flowers. That evening we got a more in depth ​briefing on the research we were doing from Kristen and Chelsea​ . Bees are extremely sensitive to heat and will cease pollination and hive building when the weather does not permit. ​Kristen looked at the impact of changes in local temperature on bees, specifically their forced relocation to higher ground in order to escape the heat and access the plants they survive on.​ Chelsea’s work focused on plants that bloom year round, she measured to see if their increased accessibility meant more pollinators. This study works to look at which plants are more helpful to pollinators. We returned to the field the next day with a greater understanding and a renewed vigor of our work.

Though the heat sometimes felt unbearable, our work environment was stunning and made the work all the more exciting. Scarlet Macaw sightings became a part of daily life, and their off tune screeching became a part of our early mornings. We had the opportunity of seeing many animals in the wild that many people rarely see outside of captivity. My most exciting sighting was the Howler Monkeys, people often hear them in the wild but few actually find an opportunity to see them. That was probably the most enchanting part of my trip. I saw a three toed sloth, many birds, red eyed tree frogs, and vine snakes but I never ignored the simple pleasures. It was really fun and uplifting to work alongside stray dogs and cattle throughout our trip. Every creature residing on the Osa Peninsula truly seemed to be full of love and living la pura vida. Our recreation hours were spent trying to see as many animals as we could in the wild​, with activities like our night hike and medicinal garden tour​.The beach was truly something else. Living in Southern California we often take beaches for granted, yet it feels impossible to somehow find oneself ungrateful for the warm water and beautiful coast.

This trip has impacted the way I view so many aspects of my life, including conservation and research. I was always grateful and deeply invested in the cause of keeping our wildlife safe, but getting to see said wildlife in their natural habitat helped me to feel the importance rather than just understand it. I feel a greater understanding of my position on this planet and what I’m meant to do with my time here. I’ve been clued in on the secrets of science and the magic of research and I am forever grateful for the experience.


Science That Inspires

Jennifer Pelliconi

Costa Rica is regarded by many as a special place because of its vast biodiversity. But it isn’t just the nature that makes Costa Rica a beautiful country, it’s also the connection and love that the people have for the nature that surrounds them.

I’m not sure how far scientists in America could get if they asked people if they could collect bees and butterflies from their front yards. The people’s respect and concern for nature is what I attribute to this open mindedness. Only a few collection sessions in, immediately I could tell that certain bees seemed to prefer certain flowers while butterflies preferred others. From just simple observing and learning from the scientists about plant hubs, I realized how much the world doesn’t yet know about the intricate habits of bees and the delicate yet powerful way they keep this world living. Most people couldn’t answer if you asked them if their backyard flowers got more butterflies or more bees, which is why learning about how subtly crucial they are is mindblowing.

The scientists also showed us the way flowers adapt to become more alluring to bees and other pollinators by using different aromas, shapes, colors, and ultraviolet patterns. It almost seems too smart and advanced for a plant, as if they have thought processes on how to be more successful. It just seems impossible that a flower would coincidentally evolve to look like the female counterpart of a bee so that the male bees would come to pollinate. The complexities and amazing evolution of species will never fail to amaze me.

We also learned that studying these pollinators is difficult because the naked eye is not able to properly identify them and the slightest space in wing cells or a tiny spot on their faces differentiate entirely different species that play different roles in the ecosystem. The scientists told them that every tiny spot on their faces is different anyway so sometimes identification is ambiguous. I grew a new appreciation for how much hard and meticulous work it takes to study different animals.

I also didn’t realize how scientific studies require a huge team, and the importance of “citizen science”. When I imagine scientists studying out in the field, I picture someone alone taking observation notes. In reality, it takes a huge team. The community it takes to put together a study is inspiring, and it’s uplifting to see how many people are willing to sit in the blazing sun for hours to check in on our bees and see how climate change is affecting their lives and behaviors. By understanding science, one understands the state of our planet, and a lot of the time this upsetting knowledge makes one feel overwhelmed with how many people seem to not care. The Duttenhaver team and scientists made me feel empowered because I know that it will be my generation that cares enough to make the difference the world needs.

While abroad I also noticed the growing vegan movement in Costa Rica, which I attribute to their love for nature and animals. Climate change movements led by teenagers in Europe inspires me to have faith that we can make a difference. Seeing other parts of the world and being among those who love the earth and its animals as much as I do gives me hope for our future. This was an amazing and eye opening opportunity that I will remember for the rest of my life, and think back upon whenever I work to make a positive change.

Moth on a flower

Studying Pollinators Con Gusto

Jasleen Reyes

At an early age I had the opportunity to travel within the United States, and each city I encountered had an everlasting impact on my perspective of the world. I quickly learned to realize the world had more to offer than then the five mile radius of my neighborhood. When I found out I was one of the recipients of The Duttenhaver Conservation Field Study Fellowship to travel to Costa Rica for the summer, I was thrilled. This would be the first time I travelled to a country outside of the United States. I knew that I would experience a whole new culture, research, and the biodiversity of Costa Rica.

The culture of Costa Rica is vastly different people are welcoming, friendly, and helpful to visitors. The people of Puerto Jimenez were very open to our research and allowed us to sample flowers from their property. Speaking Spanish allowed me to converse with the locals and learn new colloquial discourse. For instance, I respond to “you are welcome” in Spanish with “de nada”, but in Costa Rica people say, “Con gusto” (with pleasure). Their most common phrase used is “Pura vida” (pure life) it is their phrase of life.

We were stationed in Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Peninsula which holds 2.5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. The research consisted of five days on the field from morning to mid-afternoon. We worked alongside with two master students from Kentucky, Chelsea Hinton and Kristin Conrad. We gathered data in thirty minute intervals from flowers such as mananitas, zinnia, and mimosa. We all used the same method to collect data which consisted of having to soak cotton balls in acetone and put it in a jar to terminate the specimens. Everyone had a preferred method in the collection of specimens from either catching with the jars or with a net and then placing them in the jars. The collected bees were put into ethanol in a small tube and butterflies were put in an envelope. The two master students were both researching different aspects of the process pollinators have with the plants. Chelsea’s research consisted of how much the central hub of a plant reflected the amount of pollinators having contact with the plant. Her continued hypothesis focuses on the year round flowering plants and analyzing which flower best benefits the community of pollinators. Kristin’s research objective is on the impact of climate change on bees and butterflies. Her study is to see if the pollinators move to higher elevations or remain at the same elevation when temperatures rise. Chelsea and Kristin also considered the physical features of the flowers to classify the species of the pollinators. The continued research is going to benefit future generations to learn about the conservation of bees and pollinators and the importance they have on our planet.

Costa Rica is works diligently on the conservation and restoration of the rainforest and its native animals. One night we went on a hike with a local who restored the land he purchased to bring back native species and environment. This exposure was the most impactful because I was able to see the biodiversity of Costa Rica held within the rainforest. Coming from Los Angeles, a large city with tall buildings and busy streets, it was breathtaking to see a forest with so much flora. Witnessing all the different types of trees with different sizes and shapes alongside the colorful flowers will forever be an unforgettable memory. To experience the wildlife in their natural habitat was astonishing. The only wildlife I had experience before then was at the Los Angeles Zoo. We saw a variety of species like insects, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. My favorite animals were the mammals, specifically the White Faced Capuchins and Howler Monkeys.

Arriving back home I never imagined how much of the world there is to explore. This journey had an impact on my growth as a student, human, and traveller. I will forever treasure this beautiful opportunity to experience the research involvement on our planet’s pollinators and the flowers they frequently come in contact. I have a new understanding on the continued research being done to help educate the public on pollinators. I am extremely grateful to be apart of the research and continued research on this topic.

Group talk in Costa Rica

Jessica Takeda

Recently, I went with nine other fellows on an Earthwatch expedition to the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, fully funded by Ms. Linda Duttenhaver. I had first heard about the Duttenhaver fellowship with Earthwatch before I even entered high school at the Zoo Magnet center. That year the fellows went on an expedition to France, and every year after that I’ve been stoked to try and get into this amazing program. Now that I’ve gone through the process of being accepted as a fellow and actually going, I’m happy to say I’ve come full circle.

Costa Rica is a Central American country that holds some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. The Osa Peninsula alone holds 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity, as we’ve been told. And when you’re there, you can see that. Just on the drive from the capital San Jose to Puerto Jimenez, you can watch as the ecosystems gradually changing. You go from the drier foothills to the eerily quiet cloud forests and down to the hot coast pummeled by six-foot waves fit for surfing. We were stationed on the outskirts of the small town of Puerto Jimenez with our Earthwatch staff Chelsea and Kristen, where we were helping their ongoing observational experiment to see which pollinators preferred certain flowers, as well as another experiment to see which altitudes certain pollinators lived at. As a part of the research we frequented the front yards and gardens of the townspeople to capture bees. The experimental procedure was one of the most difficult tasks for me to adjust to, as we would be capturing bees and butterflies in jars holding acetone-soaked cotton balls. This means we suffocated and killed them. But there was good reason for this. These specimens had to cross the border deceased and soaked in ethanol in order for them to get through, and they were to be examined for years to come. Knowing my work would serve a greater purpose helped to reassure my upset morality.

It was not a luxury to do what we did. The heat and humidity followed us everywhere we went, and we often found ourselves bombarded with a wide array of creatures from bats to giant spiders. I can’t say that there weren’t times where I felt defeated and frustrated, whether it be because of an uneventful sampling period or because of the myriad of bug bites that grew to cover my body. But at the same time it was a privilege – an eye-opening privilege – to be a part of this expedition. I’ve never seen so many different plants and animals all in one place, and immersing myself in that environment was enchanting. There, in Costa Rica, I experienced what it was truly like to be surrounded by nature. Starting each day with the crying of scarlet macaws in the morning and ending it with a chorus of cicadas and geckos in the evening, I grew to love the place I found myself in. I strengthened bonds with the friends I already knew and formed new bonds with those who I have recently met. Spending the nights playing card games and exchanging life stories with either the fellows, mentors, or the Earthwatch staff helped me to seek out the best of a situation and to continue moving forward. We all remained supportive of one another as we embarked into the unknown. It was the sort of camaraderie you don’t normally encounter these days, and for that I was grateful.

My experience in Costa Rica in this Earthwatch expedition has provided me a first glance in the realm of field work. I knew going in that I’d be working hard, but every nuance of this trip has made me fall more and more in love with the sciences and field experimentation. It’s strange to know that this happened, and that I was a part of something so important as pollinator conservation. I’m still somewhat in disbelief that after all these years it was now my turn to take on this journey with Earthwatch. I will cherish the memories I made here for the rest of my life as I go forth pursuing a career in conservation biology.

Flowers in a field

Ren Takeda

No amount of preparation could prime me for what I was to encounter in Costa Rica.

Of course I knew that it would be like nothing I had experienced before. Being an aid to research was something I never thought I would do at eighteen. Neal of the zoo graphics team warned me of the endless hours of carrying equipment and uphill hiking.

Up until the actual date of our arrival in Puerto Jimenez, my mind floated to the pristine laboratory I would soon volunteer within. I was worried about how I would need to dig up my seventh-grade knowledge on using microscopes or impress our Earthwatch scientists with a knowledge of bees that simply wasn’t in my mind yet.

But wait. This wasn’t at all what I had thought it would be. A windy, 7-hour drive from San Jose to our destination terminated at a colorful, three-story beach house. The inside was about as humid as the jungle around us, and the researchers we were to be supporting were two young women dressed in a T-shirt and shorts.

The first three days of outdoor work were the most difficult. Our position in the greater plan was to catch bees and butterflies for our researchers, respectively named Chelsea and Kristen. I felt like I was suffering in the almost-grimy climate of Central America, and the mere two hours of sampling seemed to feel like ages. It was in this moment where it felt like I wanted to give up. I was terrified that I didn’t have the perseverance the expedition demanded of me.

Just as it seemed hopeless, though, I began to feel more acclimated to my environment. I can attribute this to the proactive decision to interact with my environment in a way that I can enjoy. I challenged myself to catch some of the more challenging pollinators like the speedy and vibrant ​Heliconius​ butterflies. I asked questions—that is, many questions—about Chelsea and Kristen’s experiments and their experiences with college research.

Before I knew it, Friday came and went, and our role in this Earthwatch expedition was over. I realized that even while I was attempting to sleep in a hot room and dehydrated out of my mind, I was aware that I would miss it. That night gave me a lot of time for introspection, particularly on what I learned about the world and myself in these past few days.

I learned that there really are countless species of bees in the world, and many of those are specifically in Costa Rica. I’ve always been transiently interested in apiology (that’s fancy for the study of bees), but this expedition was my first exposure to their many forms. This includes the adorable stingless bees (tribe Meliponini), orchid bees (tribe Euglossini), and the small carpenter bees (tribe Ceratinini). Of course, there were some bee groups I was well aware of as well, like the bumblebees and honey bees. I also found out that certain groups of bees would only pollinate certain kinds of flowers. While the honeybees seemed to take a very generalist approach to landing, they would not land on palm tree flowers. Orchid bees, of course, would only land on orchids. Stingless bees loved the tiny flowers of ​Zinnia​ and ​Cornutia​.

For the town of Puerto Jimenez, I realized how lovely such a small and rural town can be. You figure out the citizens and their roles in town, and everyone really seems to know, well, everyone. Kids we saw on one day would help us catch bees on another. Dogs came and went (we ended up giving names to particularly friendly dogs that crossed our path). Though the streets were nameless you could essentially navigate to the supermarket or the airstrip from anywhere. People were more permissive in that town of what you did on their property than back at home. We were welcomed happily to net pollinators like lunatics right on their lawns.

For myself, though, I found myself improving as a person in this week alone. Getting used to, and even enjoying, the harsh environment of Costa Rica had to do with some building of character. The heat of the beach house and the activity of the Puerto Jimenez residents really put into perspective the privilege I had at home. I’ve heard of world poverty all my life through TV commercials and dubious online petitions, but it had never occurred to me to think of their lifestyle. If anything, I believed these people were in a state of eternal suffering, forever depressed with their condition. Boy, was I wrong. Even with limited resources, people were resourceful. I often saw people going about their daily lives, talking to neighbors, or hanging out at the BM Supermercado. It wasn’t a bad life at all, but rather quite lively. I felt bad thinking about this on the way home, because my privilege had enabled me to believe that other people have it worse off just because they aren’t surrounded by high-tech smartthings or large office buildings to work in. Life isn’t about what level of development you’re at, or rather what another countries’ development is at. In the end, it’s what you make it to be, particularly how you choose to enjoy what you have now. I believe it was this realization that helped me to get comfortable with the jungle around me, and it’s a lesson I will hold dear to me for the rest of my life.

Costa Rican sign

Pura Vida

Ricardo Vieyra

“Pura Vida” is the phrase that encapsulates Costa Rica, a country rich in wildlife and traditions found nowhere else in the world.​ ​Traveling to a country you’ve never been in before is a great opportunity to learn about its culture, people, flora, and fauna and after being exposed to 2 predominant cultures for most of my life, experiencing another unique culture has been a once in a lifetime experience. Being in Costa Rica made me realize how much the country truly stands by the meaning of “Pura Vida” whether it was the people who lived there or even the environment.

The phrase “Pura Vida”, which originated in Mexico, can mean many things. Its literal English translation is “pure life” but in Costa Rica, the phrase goes beyond that. “full of life”, “this is living”, “going great”, or “real living.” are just a few examples of the many forms the phrase can take. It can also be used as a greeting or a farewell to show appreciation or how good things are going. While in Costa Rica, the positive attitudes we encountered really emphasized the “Pura Vida” aspect of living and influenced our Costa Rican experience. The modern use of Pura Vida emphasizes the carefree, laid back, and optimistic spirit of the translation “it’s a way of life.”

Another aspect to the phrase “Pura Vida” can be seen in the lush flora and fauna found in the area, in particular the specimens we observed during our time at Puerto Jimenez in the Osa Peninsula. The importance of forests and how much locals care for the restoration and conservation of the native species can be seen in the two men we met at the night hike and the medicinal hike. In pursuit of restoring Puerto Jimenez’s natural state, they purchased land and have planted native species to bring back native animals. The exotic animals we encountered left us in awe, ranging from amphibians to reptiles to mammals to birds. The environment itself is completely different since we come from a heavily industrialized city where the most common animals are squirrels and small birds. The locals, on the other hand, were used to seeing all these animals and were accustomed to these animals stopping by, such as the White Faced Capuchins. Even the insects were more diverse. For example, we witnessed an abundance of butterflies and bees that were of a different species compared to Los Angeles. The major thing that caught my attention was the flora, especially because I don’t see a rainforest everyday and the view in a heavily populated city mainly consists of buildings and freeways which leaves not much green to be found in Los Angeles compared to Costa Rica.

Coming from a Mexican background and being born in the United States has exposed me to the similarities and differences of both cultures, however, before this trip happened, i was never really exposed to anything so new and radical so I wasn’t expecting something “unknown” in a place like Costa Rica but was completely wrong. Upon arriving to Costa Rica, I was shocked to see that “gracias” would be met with “con gusto”. This surprised me and caught me off guard since I was raised in a Mexican household and was accustomed to respond with “de nada”. This reaction also wasn’t just because of my Mexican background, due to hearing “You’re welcome” and “No problem.” Being exposed to this new culture taught me a new perspective of how there’s nothing wrong with talking to strangers or even doing simple favors and to always be kind, no matter how rude the person is. True to the “Pura Vida” way of living, it’s easier to embrace a positive attitude rather than intoxicate people with negative energy.

Leaving Costa Rica with the knowledge of how their culture embraces the phrase “Pura Vida” opened my eyes to how cultures are not all the same. Seeing how one phrase can embody the nature of an entire country and change the perspective of how one should act and live all because life should be enjoyable. Costa Rica truly is a place of “pure life.”

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