an e-newsletter for students and alumni of saint michael's biology department

World Class
By Buff Lindau with contributions from Peter Hope
Note: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of the Saint Michael's College Magazine. Below is an excerpt (adapted by Peter Hope, biology instructor) about the experiences some of our biology students and faculty had in Costa Rica.


"I'm not looking at a magazine"
Wildlife in the eco-rich country of Costa Rica reveals the greatest biodiversity on earth. For two weeks over winter break, Professors Valerie Banschbach and Peter Hope took 11 students on a two-week two-credit course, with five pre-trip meetings, to explore Costa Rican tropical ecology in three ecosystems: a tropical dry forest, a tropical cloud forest and a lowland rain forest.
   "In Costa Rica, it’s like cranking up the volume. There’s more of everything, more species, more interaction, more heat, more rain, more complexity,” said Professor  Banschbach. “It’s a fantastic experience for students interested in ecology.   The strawberry poison dart frog, also called                                                                                             the blue jean frog, was one of two poison
                                                                                           species that was the subject of one of the
                                                                                           students' field projects.

For biology and music major Anna Michael ’07, “There’s nothing comparable to the hands-on experience of seeing and touching the most exotic, glorious frogs or snakes that you’ve only seen in pictures and can’t quite believe you’re actually seeing.”

Michael, an aspiring veterinarian, said being in Costa Rica’s rain forest environment was unforgettable. “We saw tons of animals up close, but my favorite was the poison dart frog. You see them in National Geographic, but we got to actually hold a couple.” They also saw the red eye tree frog, the blue jeans frog, and the green and black tree frog. “I told myself, I’m not looking at a magazine. This is right here in front of me.” She was stunned by the sight of three different kinds of toucans up close and said she could hardly believe they weren’t photographs.

The value of such a trip, Banschbach said, is in the full immersion in the experience. The group took bird walks at 6 a.m. and kept going “full tilt” all day, with frog-hunting adventures at night; they explored the wonders of the different eco-systems every minute they had. The intensity focused students on continuing these explorations, with some now looking into summer internships and graduate studies, and one student planning a semester in Brazil.

This study trip reinforced Michael's goal of becoming a veterinarian. Now she hopes to combine that with graduate training in public health, vector borne diseases that can travel from animal to animal and to humans, and the field of zoonoses—diseases in animals and humans, a hot topic in vet schools and one that the study tour suggested.
Students writing observations in their field
        notebooks  about a large strangler fig tree. 

Michael and her professor recalled the day on the tour when they were to observe leaf-cutter ants (an area of Banschbach’s research). Heavy rain caused the ants to drop their leaves, so the group changed course and documented howler monkey behavior in the rain forest. Each student picked a monkey to watch and compare to standard howler behavior. Some students climbed into a high tower at the same height as the monkeys, who mostly stay in trees eating leaves.

“These howlers are like big cows in trees,” Banschbach said. “It was astonishing to see them up close, at their own height.” One big male slept with his limbs hanging downward on a leafy branch; the juveniles were doing crazy jumps and things. Because they are herbivorous, howlers are slowed by constantly chewing and digesting leaves, making them more easily observable. They also make a loud, scary howling noise. “The chance to work with monkeys in the wild is very rare for any biologist,” she said. To hear howler monkey sounds in Costa Rica, click here.

They also witnessed an unfortunate scene: a baby howler sitting, howling, on the chest of its mother, who had been felled in an unexplained accident. To the dismay of the students, the guides thought they wanted to photograph the scene and delayed the baby’s rescue for what seemed an interminable period of howling. This episode was etched in their memories, as was the relief they felt when the baby was finally cuddled by a guard and taken to a rescue station.
A howler monkey seen from the canopy  bridge at
                                                                                 Monteverde Cloud Forest  Reserve. One student  
                                                                                 group chose to study howler monkey behavior for
                                                                                 a field project.

Our gratitude
Professor Banschbach, Professor Hope and the Biology Department would like to thank Dr. Dan Bean, Professor Emeritus, for his generous gift of a student scholarship for the course, as well as  thank several biology alumni who also donated money, which helped defray the cost for a student. The department plans to offer this study tour every other year and would greatly appreciate hearing from any alumni that are interested in supporting our efforts to bring down the costs of the trip for the students.

                     Participants of the Biology Department's Tropical Ecology Study Tour to
                     Costa Rica included: from left, front row: Jo-Anna Lynch, Anna Michael,
                     Jeff White, Daniel Borkowski; second row, from left: Chris Lang (UVM
                     student), Kat Bedick, Jennifer Hushaw, Allison New, Professor Valerie
                     Banschbach; top row, from left, Professor Peter Hope, Phil Smith, and
                     Tyler Gaudet.


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