November 14, 2012

Just Call Me ‘Biology Nerd’

I had one of those moments this weekend. One of the good kinds – the kind where an uncertainty shifts, a brick falls into place, and you understand yourself a little better.

Our new little friend, named Seymour.

My “Land Vertebrates of Costa Rica” class went on a weekend field trip to a place called Veragua Biological Research Station. This station is a four-year-old research facility, built in the tropical rainforests of southeast Costa Rica. It is designed for visitors like us to go and get a taste of the kind of research that is being done there.

Our trip consisted of two day hikes, a night hike, and a 5:00 AM bird-watching hike. On all of these hikes, we saw fantastic wildlife. There were tiny lizards, poison dart frogs (which have a special place in my heart), tree frogs, green parrots, toucans, hawks, hummingbirds, turtles, spiders of every color, shape, and size (in fact, a good amount of Costa Rican spiders seem to come in the size of “frighteningly huge”) and some of the creepiest and coolest bugs I’ve ever seen. I’m talking about the kinds of bugs that you see mounted in the Natural History Museum and you look at them and say “Ooh, cool, gross!” and walk away with a light heart, only half-believing that they actually exist. Well, they exist.

Possibly the best picture I have taken in Costa Rica – a strawberry poison dart frog. Just pure, natural beauty going on here.

We saw ants everywhere – leaf-cutter ants, fire ants, bullet ants… Here’s a fun fact about bullet ants – not only are they monstrously large (for example, I would compare them to three peas stuck together with mandibles and legs), they have a bite that causes pain that has been described as like being shot with a bullet. This crazy scientist one time decided that he would like to compare the degree of pain caused by various insect bites all over the world, and guess who ranked number one on his list of “Most Painful Bites Ever”. Yeah, bullet ants. And we saw them everywhere.

So, back to that moment I was talking about. It happened during our night hike on Saturday. We were all decked out in knee-high rain boots and rain jackets, following our guides and professor and shining our flashlights on every leaf and twig in the hopes of finding some nifty vertebrate life. We reached a little river, and began splashing our way upstream, because water is a pretty great place to find amphibious vertebrates.

About fifteen minutes later, that thing happened that one should expect to happen in a rainforest – the heavens opened up, the rains began (and it was raining sloths and monkeys out there) and we all got very, very wet. My rain jacket, which I had put a lot of faith in because it had been lent to me by a Costa Rican, soaked through within minutes, and so did my field notebook.

Nonplussed, our guides splashed onward, still scouring rocks and leaves for animals and pointing out various lizards and frogs to the class, rattling off their scientific names. The going got a little harder as the stream began to rise and pick up speed. Then, I accidentally stepped in a deeper part of the water, and my rainboots both filled right up with water, soaking my feet, which had been my last dry strong-hold.

Gotta love those rainforests

It finally reached a point where our guides decided to turn back because things were getting too slippery and dangerous. So we all turned around and started going downstream, causing things to become even more slippery and difficult.

I know I’m making this all sound very horrible. But here’s what was going through my head. Once I was soaked through, my sole focuses became staying upright and not dropping my field notebook into the water, while keeping up with the group and also keeping an eye out for animals.

And somewhere on the trek downstream, it hit me – I was spending my Saturday evening in the middle of a tropical rainforest, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a stream, in a rainstorm, knee-deep in water, stomping around, looking for frogs. And lizards. And I was having a fantastic time. Literally, having so much fun.

“Well,” I said to myself, “I guess this is what you’re going to have to do with your life.”

Truth is, I have between 33 and 45 possible career choices bouncing around in my head, and more life plans than I can keep track of. But this weekend, living at a rustic research facility, out in the midst of the wilderness, I realized exactly how much I would love to do biological field research some day. The way I see it, these biologists are living the life and doing what they love. They have the privilege of experiencing the world and nature in a very unique way.

Research biologist or not, I want to be one of those people that goes hiking at all hours of the day and night in the hopes of seeing a particular hard-to-find animal. I want to have hundreds of recordings of bird calls on my iTunes (which, incidentally, my professor does) for identification purposes, and I want to save up my money to buy a pair of really great binoculars. I want to stop and stare at every creepy bug and spider and get up close enough to see just how disgusting and awesome they all really are.

Bird watching at 5:00 AM?

Who knows whether I will ever successfully make a career of field research or instead become a teacher or college professor or writer or something entirely different. But now I know a little more about myself – I really really like romping around in the woods and no matter which way the future goes, I will always make time to look for frogs in the rain.

posted in Elisabeth Burnor

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  1. And whatever you do or wherever you go, you absolutely MUST write about it! You are a fantastic writer! You make me feel as if I were there with you in the soaking wet rain forest looking at the bugs and frogs!

    says Vicky Burnor
    November 14, 2012 at 10:05 am
  2. I agree with Vicky Burnor! You’ll be my advisee, so I decided to read a posting or two in your blog. This is the first one I read, and I love it! I look forward to meeting you this fall.

    says Carolynn Van Dyke
    August 4, 2013 at 10:40 am

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