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Costa Rica Update #11: Biología

Posted by kevinwolz on August 8, 2011

I arrived at the Fortuna Forest Reserve Smithsonian Biological Station full of energy and ready to really get to know the tropical forest. This, after all, was the main goal of the third and final Phase of my summer. The Fortuna Reserve is located in the highlands of western Panama and is home to a spectacular range of very different types of forests within a relatively small area. You can literally cross the street and feel like you’re in a different country just through the change in forest type. My stay in Fortuna was split into two very different sections: 1) Research and 2) Field Biology Course.


My first five days in Fortuna were spent primarily out in the field collecting data on the size and growth rate of a certain palm species in a particularly interesting chunk of Fortuna’s forest. The data I collected is just a small part of a much larger project to quantify the standing biomass and carbon flux of a much larger portion of Fortuna, which is currently the doctoral work of a grad student at UofI. My work on this project primarily served to give me some real hands-on research experience in the field while contributing towards a ongoing project that I’m very interested in. That said, I still might get the chance to use the data I collected in my own senior thesis project in the future.

Despite how much I enjoy talking about ecosystem dynamics and tree physiology, I think I’ll spare this post the many fascinating details and motivations behind this project and just provide a quick summary of what actually I did in the field:

  1. Find young Colpothrinax aphanopetala (a large palm tree with fan-shaped leaves) individuals of approximately 5 meters in height: This basically involved wandering aimlessly through the forest until I came upon healthy individuals of the correct size. Luckily, I never encountered a single snake, which I was told is a rare privilege.
  2. Measure height of tree & count number of fully expanded leaves: Seeing as I was in the middle of nowhere and without a ladder, this had to be done with a tape measure and some basic trigonometry that I had to dig out of my brain’s archives. Leaf-counting isn’t that bad when the tree you’re studying typically has between only 10-13 leaves and they’re all at eye level.  
  3. Tag youngest fully expanded leaf: In order to insure that we can identify this leaf a year from now, this was done using several strategies: numbered metal tags, spray paint, and reflective plastic flagging tape. The idea is to come back in a year and see home many new leaves have emerged after the tagged leaf. That will give us an idea of the growth rate of this important species.
  4. Take hemispherical photos of canopy above each tree: A hemispherical photo is exactly what its name implies and is taken using a really cool (and expensive) lens. These images of the canopy above each tree show how much light actually passes through the forest canopy and makes it to the measured tree. This is also important to determine growth rate.

Field Biology Course

I had already known that my professor was going to teach a field biology course to 15 Panamanian undergraduate biology students during my time in Fortuna, but what I didn’t know was that my professor wanted me to actually take the course with them! I had been under the assumption that I would just be helping out with odds and ends as needed. Once the initial nervous wave passed, I immediately got excited…I had been meaning to take a field biology class one of these semesters anyway. And so, before I knew it, 15 new students were occupying the small house were there had previously just been two of us, and I was the only gringo, non-native Spanish speaker in a highly technical biology class — taught in Spanish.

Although a bit daunting at first, the class turned out to be absolutely amazing. First of all, I made really good friends with all of the Panamanian students, especially while spending many hours teaching each other about our respective cultures and languages. It was really great to experience this new culture/language with people my own age…something that I had only barely been able to do while in Costa Rica. I think my Spanish comfort sky-rocketed even more, especially with the many slang words I learned from the students. Not to mention, we all had to write several papers and give several presentations on experiments that we did throughout the week. Before this course, I knew that I could write scientifically in English. I also knew that I could write in Spanish (probably better than my speaking). However, writing scientifically in Spanish, is a completely different beast, and one that I think I may have finally slayed by the end of the 10-day course.

As far as the biology part of the course goes, I learned a ton as well. For the first time in my life, I finally experienced real ecological research first hand. Sure, I have had a 5-hour biology lab every week during school for the past year, but that isn’t quite ecology and is really kind of “fake”. It usually goes like this: “Hi students, here are some instructions and fancy equipment. We know what results you should get, so try not to screw up and hopefully you can get the same results.” Working in the field, with your own, untested hypothesis, means operating on a completely new (higher) level and is something that is very difficult to achieve in the classroom. To some biology students, field work is scary, but after this past week I am now even more drawn to the science.

Another goal of my time in Fortuna was to focus in a bit on possible/plausible ideas for my senior thesis research project (something I have to do in order to get my biology degree). While I still definitely haven’t figured out what I want to do, I’m surely at least a bit closer. Specific topics may still be a long way off, but that’s okay. More than anything now, after actually doing some real field biology, I have a better perspective on what is feasible, interesting, and how I would actually go about doing it. That is, I’ve learned that science is more powerful and research more available that I ever thought before. This new perspective will undoubtedly lead me down some wonderful paths in the next year, and I’m sure that specific project possibilities will come along in due time.


Yesterday, the field course ended and all the students left Fortuna, leaving only two of us here, once again, to enjoy the beauty of the cloud forest. In my last few days here, I will be helping the other student here collect root specimens for her (fascinating) doctoral research and may also swing over to Bocas del Toro, probably the most famous beach/coastal area in Panama,  for a day to enjoy the sun and salty breeze one last time before I head home. On Thursday I’ll head back to San Joaquin in Costa Rica to spend some last-minute time with my host family and friends there before heading home on Monday. My how fast 3 months can go…


2 Responses to “Costa Rica Update #11: Biología”

  1. Joan said


    It all sounds wonderful!!! So happy for you that you had this magnificent summer. Hope to see the all the pictures soon and hear more about your experience. .



  2. Roger said

    Kevin, it sure sounds like you have learned a lot this summer and adapted when you needed to. Thanks for sharing it all with us this summer. Rog

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