Spartans Sojourn In Costa Rica

Published: Dec 13, 2005

Story by David Brothers/UT Journal Editor

 

"I was excited to go. I will tell you that, upon doing it the first time, I learned that it was work, as opposed to ‘Hey, wow, an exciting trip to Costa Rica.'"

Dr. Mason Meers loves biology, and like any dedicated scientist, loves to go where the science is. He has been a regular at archaeological digs, zoos and various wild habitats in the States for many years.

Costa Rica would be a new experience for Meers, associate professor of biology. He welcomes new adventures along with new places, and isn’t about to let the lure of fun derail his sense of mission.

Whatever chores science doesn’t demand from such an excursion, responsibility readily chips in.

“It’s a lot of work for faculty who are taking students along,” Meers says, “because you’re responsible for them. The stress levels associated with being responsible for students who aren’t your own kids – that alone is a real serious issue, and then on top of that, you really have to manage a lot more things than I was thinking about when I agreed to go.”

The travel is by air (to and from the Central American land), bus (most of the time) and boat (3-4 days), and in at least one locale, zip line.

“When I say boat,” Meers adds, “I mean all of us piled onto one boat, plus our luggage, and the boat’s pretty fully loaded at that point.”

A canvas canopy to shield passengers from the tropical sun and rain is the only protection in the open-air boat, which, when fully loaded, sits only inches above the water. But the only practical means of travel around Tortuguero, one of the most important stops, is the boat.

“It feels like you’re really out there in the field and in the bush if you have to get there by boat, rather than by car,” Meers says.

It’s All About the Wildlife

The course is Dr. Raymond Schlueter’s “Tropical Biology and Sustainable Development,” an Honors Program offering open to biology, marine biology and environmental science majors.

“Since it’s also an Honors course,” says Schlueter, “I’ll also take Honors students, no matter their major, as long as I talk to them first and they’ve had some biology somewhere.”

Like other UT courses that involve travel, the first several weeks are indistinguishable from “regular” courses.

“We have a tropical biology textbook,” says Schlueter, associate professor of biology. “We have tests. We write papers.”

They also spend time at Instituto Monteverde, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui and the Arenal Volcano, just for openers. During free time, some ride horses (including Schlueter, whose favorite part, he says, “is getting off”), while others go river rafting.

The classroom accounts for 62.5 percent of each student’s grade. The trip picks up the balance, and has its own requirements: a travel journal, field experiment and documented research.

Meers, who doesn’t teach the course, first was invited to join the travel group as an accompanying faculty member in 2004. On that trip, he and the rest of Schlueter’s group crossed paths in a bakery – purely by chance – with Dr. James Harf (see accompanying stories), whose International Programs group was wrapping up its mission.

Unlike International Programs’ three-week treks with their grueling long-distance travel schedules and cultural or political focus, Biology’s two-week Costa Rica trips are, Schlueter says, “all about the wildlife – that’s why the kids go. And I mean the animals,” he jokes, along with a reminder that the drinking age there is 18.

“Our students who go to Costa Rica are about as excited as they can be about seeing the animals,” Meers concurs. “It’s got some of the most beautiful plants you’d ever want to see in your life, but the students are really focused on the animals. They were just ecstatic at the opportunity to see anything out in the wild.”

On their first night, they took a night hike, and hadn’t gone far when someone discovered a three-toed sloth above them in a tree. The discovery came right after admonitions to keep quiet so as not to scare all the animals away.

“The whole group erupted in screams of delight,” Meers says, “so they scared the hell out of the sloth,” then spent the next 20 minutes taking pictures of it in the glow of Meers’ red light, the purpose of which is to light the path without blinding students or spooking animals.

That first sighting was a mere tease on a trip that would include encounters with the rare red wooly possum (later on the same night), a tayra (a large, carnivorous relative of the weasel; pronounced tie-ruh), numerous species of wild monkeys, crocodiles and caimans, sea turtles and birds of virtually every tropical feather.

Some species can be a bit intimidating to city-dwelling collegians enjoying their first encounter.

“We have some that are a little freaked out,” Meers says with obvious amusement. “Last year, we got to see a caiman up quite close – within, say, two or so feet of the boat.

“Everybody wants to get a picture,” he recalls, struggling to avoid giving in to full-blown laughter, “so all the students rush to one side of the boat, and the boat starts to lean really hard, and that’s what scares them – and it’s really funny. Of course, the boat’s nowhere close to tipping over, but it’s leaning for the first time.”

Like the Rest of Us
Although the distances are less with the group limiting its locales to a stretch of the country’s southern coast, schedules are just as demanding and exhausting.

Days begin at 6 a.m., and the bus or boat leaves by 7, sometimes before. Retiring to quarters isn’t until 10 p.m. or later. Much, sometimes most, of the day is spent hiking, often at higher elevations.

Both professors say that none of the students ever have any trouble keeping up.

“They’re pretty tough,” says Schlueter.

Common sense generally takes care of safety concerns.

“Don’t stick your head in the crocodile’s mouth,” he jokes.

Among the destinations is EARTH College, where Costa Rican students are taught the mechanics of making a living in a developing tropical nation. A working cattle farm and plantation are the classrooms. Visiting UT students get a first-hand glance at hands-on learning, Costa Rica style.

While sightseeing and culture are inextricable elements of the trips, collection and analysis of scientific data are the predominant activities.

Those ecosystems include the cloud forests on both coasts.

“We try to visit as many different ecosystems as we can,” Schlueter says.

Other particulars depend upon the focus of each student’s project, so wherever multiple study opportunities present themselves, the group subdivides to search for data tailored more to specific needs, from sea turtles to hummingbirds, leafcutter ants and then some. Animal sightings range from occasional poison dart frogs (they’ve become extinct in their original cloud forest habitats, Schlueter says) and spider monkeys to jaguars and ocelots (at Las Comas, a rehab center for injured big cats).

“The kids are like the rest of us,” he says. “They want to see all four species of monkeys, they want to see sloths. You’ve got to go out there to find them – you can’t stay in the city.”

The course itself is “about 80 percent biology and 20 percent culture,” Schlueter says. He and Meers both appreciate the effects of culture on ecology and vice versa.

Tears in Their Eyes

Interaction with native Costa Ricans is a valued activity, and Meers says there is no better place for that than Santa Elena, a “classic Costa Rican town in the mountains.” The town near Monteverde is, Meers says, populated mostly by native Costa Ricans and American scientists, “and a few people who are down there to make money off of tourists.”

In Tortuguero during this year’s trip, a few of the students spent a couple of hours “in some Costa Rican family’s house,” he says, “getting their hair braided.”

In San Jose, the largest and capital city, part of the group wandered out one night in search of a nightclub, found one that seemed a bit odd, and eventually realized they were in a brothel.

Biology’s Costa Rica groups are smaller than the International Programs groups, a single class of typically 14-16, and Schlueter says he won’t take more than 20. His smallest group was 13, the largest 24, something he did the first time and will not do again.

“The reason is, I just don’t like gigantic groups,” Schlueter says wryly, looking and sounding like Andy Rooney while Paganini lilts from a small antique radio behind him. “We’re not a herd of cattle roaming around Costa Rica. I mean, the boats can hold only so many people. And the luggage….”

Sixteen is the ideal, he says, allowing each of two guides to lead eight, and allowing four groups of four for specialized research.

At least one additional faculty member comes along, usually two. There is, as there would be in any setting, the occasional minor illness or injury, and another faculty member allows for taking a student to a clinic without canceling a day’s activities for the whole group.

Since the groups tend to be dominated by females, Schlueter prefers also to have a female faculty member along. They have included Dr. Rebecca Bellone, assistant professor of biology, and Dr. Linda Musante, Dana Professor of psychology. Schlueter has nothing but praise for their contributions, as well as for Dr. Richard Piper, Honors Program director, who is “the lynchpin.”

“Mason has gone with me the last couple years,” Schlueter says of Meers. “He’s really great.”

Meers considers the trips “utterly amazing,” and plans to go again each year.

Two things strike Meers most, he says.

“I’m blown away by how much students learn in [Schlueter’s] class,” he says.

The second?

“Ray’s a very likable guy, so I’m not surprised that they feel a bond with him, but three-quarters of the students come over and hug him and thank him for the trip. Some of them have tears in their eyes.”