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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. One student
group chose to study howler monkey behavior for
a field project.
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
Costa Rica included: from left, front row: Jo-Anna Lynch, Anna
Jeff White, Daniel Borkowski; second row, from left: Chris Lang (UVM
student), Kat Bedick, Jennifer Hushaw, Allison New, Professor
Banschbach; top row, from left, Professor Peter Hope, Phil Smith,