Monday, March 17, 2014

Day 10: R&R

Yesterday afternoon was spent sleeping and taking pictures. We are all recuperating after our vigorous research habits over the past week. By the end of the afternoon, the virus seemed to have petered out, as there were no new cases and those already stricken with Rotavirus had steadily recuperated. Towards the evening, many of us crept out to a big steel watchtower (used for keeping vigil against forest fires) to see some baby barn owls and a plethora of other birds out in the breezy open. Mr. Leventhal introduced us to the baby owls, 3 little hissing dinosaur-esque carnivores that happened to be very photogenic. We are all chilling out here.

Last night, we set out again to scout for some green sea turtles, to no avail. However, it was a beautiful full moon and a great time out on the beach. We came back around two thirty in the morning, and we are maintaining our restive state until we go swimming later. Ta ta, and Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Day 9: Dry Forest

Sorry not to get a post up last night, but all of our schedules have been altered due to an overnight beach study.  We left the beauty of La Anita after breakfast and made our way to the big city of Liberia for a short stop for treats, then on to the dry forest research station Horizontes.  After settling in and lunch, John Doleman led us in a debriefing from the research experience and an observation exercise in our new location.

After an introduction to sea turtles from the lead researcher Bibi, we headed off to the beach with our blankets.  We were on the beach from 9pm until 2am.  Unfortunately our sweeps did not lead to a turtle and we packed up to head back for a few hours of sleep.

The main challenge we have dealt with over the past 48 hours has been a virus.  We are keeping the few students infected well-hydrated and out of the sun.  We have set up separate sleeping and bathroom facilities for those who are well to contain the spread.  Although it is not pleasant, the virus seems to be short-lived.  The first two to feel the effects are already back to their normal selves.  If you have questions, I will be checking back to respond to comments throughout the day while I stay back to care for the few individuals who aren't feeling well.  I will also check my email periodically if you have specific questions.  (  As a side-note, Mr.Leventhal along with a few students and I, are interested in writing this up as a case-study.  Our scientific research continues!

Lynda Rupp

Friday, March 14, 2014

Day 8: The Day of Stress – An Instructor's Perspective

We are wrapping up our time at Finca La Anita today.  The students have likely learned one of the biggest lessons in science to date – research is often accompanied by failure and stress.  Today was the final opportunity to wrap up their research projects, analyze data, and present to an audience.  And some groups discovered that not all goes as planned, and yet they still need to pull together a presentation.  What follows are highlights from each presentation.

Tortugas Blancas:  Psuedonocardia vs. Escovopsis in 44 Hours (Jaci, Tim, Jake B, Joseph)
Pseudonocardia is bacteria used to fight off the Escovopsis .  Question:  can the pseudonocardia found on the backs of Acromyrmax be used to combat the presence of escovopsis in an Atta colony?  The pseudonocardia was applied through a sprayed solution.  Within a short time the fungal garden had collapsed from the added water leading to the first failure.  Recovery led to analysis of existing fungal growths plated earlier in the week.   

Los Depredadores:  Maic Metabolics  (Shelby, Maddi, Sam H, Jake A)
 Atta Cephalottes ant colonies grow quite large, but only one queen runs the whole show.  Question:  do  metabolic changes occur in an ant colony when stressed by removal  of the queen or larvae?  One colony did indicate an increase in CO2 production during these stresses .  Also interesting qualitative observations differ - when the queen was pulled out solo she became very aggressive.  But when pulled out with a few ants she was much more docile.  If other ants were pulled out with larvae, they carried them around looking for a good place to put them.

Mighty Churros:  Pheromone Extraction and Fungal Microbes (Tony, Kyle, Sam W, Erin)
In an attempt to find a way to distract leaf cutter ants from the cacao plants, Question1:  can we use a common solvent be used to isolate the trail pheromone?  Crushed ants were soaked in water, ethanol, or salt water.  This solution was then put into a tube connected to a chamber containing 10 ants.  In one colony ants seem to follow the trail which may indicate that the pheromone was in that trail.  But that effect was not seen in the other colony test. 
Question2:  Do ants differ in their external culturable fungal microbiome by role in the colony?  15 plates were swabbed for each ant.  Evidence in examining the plates does not demonstrate a significant difference.  Interestingly, for the both the queen and soldiers, almost no growth was seen at all indicating that the colony is kept very clean.

Los Avispones: Ant Pheromone Control Study (Tyler, Graham, Tate, Delane)
Question:  how effective are the atta cephalotes trail pheromones?  The study was done in the field and made use of an established ant colony with distinct trails.  Boards were set into the trail and left for several hours so ants could establish a pheromone trail.  The board was then flipped 180®.  A second test of depth of trail was done by successively removing soil along the trail.  A count of ants per minute indicates that any change in the trail disrupts the flow of ants.  The disruption in worker ants carrying leaves only lasts a short time until the little worker ants work together to reestablish the trail.  Other interesting observations:  ants would head to discarded soil during the depth test and crawl under the board when flipped in an attempt to follow the pheromone trail.

All presentations were very professionally presented and students responded well to questions presented to them.  For further information on our trip, and the opportunity to ask your own questions, please come to the formal presentations for families, friends, staff, and school board on Wednesday, April 3.  We have a few more days here in Costa Rica.  We head out tomorrow morning for a research station near the beach.  We will update you more on our experiences there in our next post.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Day 7: Hiking, Swimming, and Celebrating

Waking up in the rainforest meant another day filled with adventure. Breakfast was again superb. All the food here is incredible. I don’t think anyone is looking forward to returning to cafeteria food at school. After fueling up, we headed to the lab and out to the field to do more science. Los Avispones did a lot of setup and test trials, but possibly discovered something huge. One of the problems for the farmers at Finca la Anita is that ants eat their plants. Los Avispones accidentally discovered that the ants did not go near wood with varnish on it, so a possible solution may be in the making! Los Depredadores conducted baseline data with their oxygen and carbon dioxide probes to see how the ants responded to their queen and her larvae being kidnapped. The Mighty Churros crushed ants and built experimental containers for their two experiments. Las Tortugas Blancas had a setback on their experiment. The spray they used drowned the fungus, throwing the results off. Due to time constraints, they weren’t able to fix it, but they did another short experiment along with the old one.  
Experimenting for three hours was actually quite tiring, so a break was much appreciated. All 16 students, along with their teachers, Pablo, and Pinto hopped into trucks and headed to the cloud forest. Once there, we were all lead on an amazing tour by our guides Johnny and José.  They took us to the Buenos Aires blue waterfall (and it was definitely VERY blue). We swam and took many pictures. It was nothing like anything anyone had seen at home. It was sad to leave the beautiful waterfall, but we had other adventures to go on. On the way to the warm and hot springs, we spotted a howler monkey and spectacled owl. Everyone took many pictures. We eventually arrived at the warm and hot springs, where we frolicked in the water like little kids again. Unfortunately, all things seem to come to an end too soon. We had to leave the hot springs because otherwise we would be hiking in the rainforest in pitch dark. When we returned to the Sensoria lodge, we were treated to a presentation about the wildlife and history of the reserve. We even were able to see footage from hidden cameras in the rainforest! They were wonderful hosts and even gave us coffee and cookies. Afterwards, we said our thank yous and goodbyes and piled back into the trucks for the long journey back “home” to Finca la Anita.

When we returned to Finca la Anita, we were treated to a delicious meal of shish kebobs, salad, potatoes, corn on the cob, and pea pods. For dessert, the excellent chefs at Finca baked a PERFECT chocolate cake in celebration of my and Lev’s birthday. It was so very tasty. I’ve never had anything like it. What a way to celebrate the most exciting birthday I have ever had.
The science continued through the night as each group did their own thing in order to be finished in time to present results tomorrow. Talk about pressure! Pinto wandered around helping everyone with his vast knowledge. Lev took Maddi, Sam H., Joseph, and I out to the forest to capture a picture of the beautiful and rare glass frog. It was a lot of work, but the image turned out wonderfully. As the rest of the science groups finish up, many people head to bed in order to prepare for eight hours of science experimenting and presenting tomorrow. Sleep should come easy tonight. We are all exhausted, but all the adventures are so worth it. What a day. What a perfect way to celebrate turning eighteen. Happy birthday to me!

Jake Bush

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Day 6 Wednesday March 12: Sinking our Teeth In

It was a huge day for everyone here at the ranch. The day began with a nice breakfast of eggs and other goodies.  Then, it was time for science.  Today was a day of really digging into our individual research projects to discover what will and won’t be effective.  Las Tortugas Blancas had a flexible day in the lab as our project went over quite a few bumps in the road.  With the advisement of Adrian, Lev, and Ms. Rupp we tweaked and adjusted to make an efficient effort at answering our question.  Los Depredadores performed trials of their experiment and didn’t receive results they were hoping for. As a result, they have decided to change their question and design a new experiment. This design process is underway and moving forward. We worked hard on our experiments from breakfast to lunch and took the rest of the afternoon off from lab investigation.

After a filling lunch the group headed in to the town, Colonia Libertad, to help a group of women varnish their new shop they are building.   This is a massive effort headed by 10 local women to build a shop and location where they are able to grow cash crops to sell, along with soaps and medicinal plants. We were truly able to tell this was a huge step forward for the community as a whole.  Afterwards, we went directly to the local soccer field where there was intense battle to be waged.  Nine of the local boys, whose ages ranged from 12 to 16, played a game of soccer against nine of yours truly. The Forest Lake team consisted of all the guys and Maddi.  The final score was 4-7 in favor of the Costa Ricans.  We cooled off as we exchanged contact information and headed on our way.

Our final journey for today was receiving cooking lessons from a pair of Costa Rican women. After the soccer game we stopped for some ice cream and went from there to the home of the Costa Rican ladies. On the menu there was fresh salad, homemade cheese, homemade tortillas, rice and beans, pickled vegetables, and chicken in a sauce based from coconut milk, spices, and caramelized sugar.  Everything was cooked on a wood-fire stove in the home and a wood burning grill outside.  The natural feel of the women cooking and the way they simply didn’t think but only knew exactly what they needed to do is indescribable.  While a few cooked in the small kitchen, others played outside with two daughters of our master chefs.  All the cooking we did was hands on for those involved.  We ate dinner as a large group over great conversation.  Afterwards we even put on our boogie pants to get down and dance to some of the classic local dances and songs including Gangnem Style and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. 

Today was a chance for us to finally dig into the reasons we are really here.  We started hard work on our experiments and got a chance to get a feel for the culture and community we are in and surrounded by.                             
                                                                        Tim Brennhofer

                                    Jake Anderson

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Day 5: Project proposal and KILLER river walk

Some of us got up extra early to have a photography lesson from Lev at a picturesque place where 3 rivers meet. Some enhanced their camera skills and got great pictures of the landscape and rivers. After this, we met in the dining hall for a magnificent cacao nib pancake breakfast.
We were good ant parents and gathered more food for our ant colonies that chose not to eat the leaves we had already put in their containers with them. We picked our favorite bacterial petri dishes for later gram staining (discovering that the boots were by far the most covered in bacteria and if it was possible to want to wear them any less, this was not encouraging). Next, we gathered with our group members and brain stormed ideas for our research project. Then we presented- the Las Tortugas Blancos (Tim, Jaci, Jake B., and Joseph) proposed a question of how quickly we can observe the effects of the bacteria supported by the Acromyrmex ants on the escovopsis of Atta ant fungus gardens. The Mighty Churros (Erin, Kyle, Tony, and Sam W.) are doing 2 experiments; one testing the difference of the types of fungus that is found on ants that have different roles within the colony. The other is testing to see if they can extract pheromones by making a trail for the ants and seeing if they follow it. Los Avispones (Delane, Tyler, Tate, and Graham) are trying to manipulate the ant trails by placing obstacles over their established trails (mud, displacement of trail pieces, magnets). Los Depredadores (Shelby, Maddi, Sam H., and Jake A.) formulated and experiment that will test if the ants respond similarly to the queen versus the larvae she lays. Similar behaviors to each would suggest the sharing of a common pheromone between the two. Everyone got great advice from the other students, teachers, and of course Pinto and we are very excited to start! 
We had a scrumptious lunch (no surprise there) and then everyone was very excited for the hike to the river. We rode a tractor through the woods, while Carlos (our trusty tractor driver) hacked our way through the thick rainforest with a machete. He dropped us off about halfway to the river, and we had a 40-minute hike down to the swimming hole. Here, we cooled down in the water while some of the boys jumped off a tall rock. The girls screamed upon the sight of a water snake. Luckily, it wasn’t too close to us. We enjoyed ourselves until we realized that we had at least an hour’s worth of constant uphill walk that never seemed to end. 
By what must have been some kind of miracle, we all made it back to the farm in one piece and after showering, enjoyed a wonderful supper and fabulous rice pudding dessert. We weren’t to thrilled to hear of a second hike that was planned later that night, until it was explained to us that it was only about a half mile roundtrip and (thank 
goodness) NOT UPHILL! A few of the many amazing things we saw included a praying mantis, katydids, some cicadas emerging from their pupa, wolf spiders, orb-weaving spiders, a giant owl butterfly, and the star of the nightwalk, the glass frog! We took multiple photos of these amazing creatures that are extremely rare to be seen this time of year, even surprising our tour guide Javier and Lev, who hasn’t seen them in the other 10 times he’s been here. 

Signing off live from Costa Rica, 

Jaci and Delane

Monday, March 10, 2014

Day 4 - Fungus Growing and Horse Riding Rangers

We were a bunch of late risers this morning, with some hardly making it in time for breakfast. It was another beautiful morning, starting with some wonderful, fresh brewed coffee. After breakfast we journeyed back into the lab to observe our flourishing ant gardens. Much as expected, the ants were hard at work cleaning and pruning their fungus garden, as well as tending to their queen.

The time hard come to clone the fungi. Each of the four teams was given a task of culturing fungi in order to determine where in the garden Escovopsis (an invading fungus) is located. After developing a hypothesis and an experiment, teams were sent into the lab to collect their samples.

After lunch, we ventured into the rainforest on horseback. Upon first entering the forest, we came across Eucalyptus tree, exotic to this area, but botched with brilliant orange, green and purple patches. We ascended the volcano Santa Maria and stopped frequently to look out over the village. At our highest stop, we were able the see Lake Nicaragua, the largest inland lake in the world. There were insufficient horses for all of the students, so a second ride to the top was made with the remaining students.

After an hour of relaxation, it is time for dinner. We await more activities tonight, including collecting leaves to feed to our colonies, and counting our bacteria plates from two nights ago. Much rest will be needed tonight for those joining Leventhal on a picture taking adventure early tomorrow morning.

Shelby out...