Seven students spent spring break studying over 150 bird species, 40 species of amphibians and reptiles, and at least 10 species of mammals in Costa Rica. Ralph Saporito, faculty member who accompanied the students on this trip, teaches a 400 level biology class called Tropical Field Biology, which introduces students to tropical biology and field research.
According to Saporito, “It is a research-based class that provides students an opportunity to design, conduct, and present group research projects. Somewhere between 7-16 students typically take the course, which is offered in the spring semester.”
During the first half of the semester, the Tropical Field Biology class learns about the tropics, including the species of plants and animals that live there and how the diverse groups of species coexist. The students also design their own experiments.
The purpose of the 10-day spring break trip to Costa Rica is to conduct research and collect data. When the students return to John Carroll, the second half of the class focuses on analyzing their data and drawing conclusions. At the end of the year, each research group has to orally present their data to the biology department.
While in Costa Rica, the class stayed near the city of Sarapiqui at a biological center active in research, the La Selva Biological Research Station, run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. The station has basic accommodations, such as dorms, bathrooms, classrooms, a clinic, and a cafeteria that serves three meals a day.
Each day in Costa Rica was filled with research and studying. The day began at 5:45a.m. for an hour-long bird watching group. Next, students ate breakfast at 7a.m. and ventured into the field to do research until noon. The class ate at noon then spent the rest of the afternoon in the field. Dinner was served at 6p.m. Following dinner, students had to attend either lectures or night walks.
Junior Kristen Giannantonio and sophomore Kara Zeszut, both biology majors, were partners on the trip to Costa Rica. They studied the strawberry poison dart frog and its call patterns. Giannantonio and Zeszut hypothesized that if they played a predatory bird noise to a calling dart frog, the frog would change its calls in response to hearing the predator. They will spend the rest of the semester analyzing their data to see if it supports their hypothesis.
Besides their own research topic, Giannantonio and Zeszut also learned about other aspects of the tropical rain forest. One main difference between a tropical rain forest and other forests is the size of the trees as rain forest trees are taller. Tropical rainforests are also much more dense with vegetation. Zeszut explains the thickness of vegetation in the rainforest, “If you go into a forest here, you can easily find your way out. There, you’re stuck. You can’t see that far.”
The most important precaution that students adhered to while in Costa Rica was the buddy system. No one was allowed to go into the field alone, and each pair was required to wear knee high black boots and carry two flashlights and two water bottles at all times.
When the class arrived at La Selva, they went on a safety walk to learn about the dangers and necessary precautions to be taken while in the rain forest. Throughout the day, the furthest Giannantonio and Zeszut traveled from the classroom was 3500 meters. Although Giannantonio and Zeszut were not hurt, during their studies in the field, they came in close contact with a poisonous viper.
Students must apply to take this class, which includes a short essay on why you want to take the class and an individual meeting with Saporito so he can learn more about his students. He prefers that students have passed Principles of Biology III known as Biodiversity. There is also a program fee, which covers all expenses for the trip, including airfare. This year, the program fee was $1,950.
Giannantonio enjoyed the trip to Costa Rica, “Seeing what field research entails has opened my eyes to ensure that this is what I want to do. I like being out there in the field. I gained so much out of it. As a class, we got so much closer.”
Zeszut, who was previously planning on attending medical school, is now reconsidering her career path because of her time spent doing research in Costa Rica. “It was amazing and beautiful. It opened a lot of doors for us,” said Zeszut.