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Catching frogs in Costa Rica

July 28, 2014, 11:10 am
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In the fields of biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering and physics, NNU’s summer research is starting to wrap up. Many project groups and individuals have presented their findings, and traveling groups are making their way back home. After a month in Costa Rica, 2014 alumna Jen Field shares about rainforest research—catching dart frogs in the dead of night.

“Research in the rainforest is different than in the lab,” says Jen. As she talks she is on her toes, slightly crouching, arms spread, head down, taking one slow step at a time. She’s demonstrating techniques she practiced for the last month. “We hike, and we listen. When we hear our frog, we run through the forest. Everything is in your face; it’s hot and sweaty; there are no paths, but we have to catch them. We sneak up on them like this so they aren’t spooked. If they stop calling we lose our data and our chance to study a threatened species.”

When back on campus Jen admits the process looks a little silly, but with a laugh she says, “It is a very exciting way to conduct research. It’s lots of fun.”

Costa Rica team3Jen, along with Jenifer Ayala, Jessie Cossel and NNU biology Professor Dr. John Cossel, spent the better part of May and beginning of June in Costa Rica conducting research on frog vocalizations. The team gathered samples of frog calls with portable audio recording equipment. They then, when possible, caught the frogs to note physical characteristics and behavior. “By gathering this data we can see how environment affects behavior which we hope will aid in conservation efforts,” says Jen.

Jen describes the day-to-day work in Costa Rica as being at the mercy of nature. “When doing research in the field, we had to adapt to the dart frog’s schedule and take the opportunities the rainforest gave us. If that meant getting up at two or three in the morning to catch frogs that are only out before dawn, that’s what we did. Other species are only active in the evening meaning we would be in the forest after midnight.”

“Some days we would hike for hours and not see anything. Other days we would plan for a quick excursion and wind up working for five or six hours. One night when we had an evening off, we were in the cabin and heard the frogs we were looking for. We threw on boots and gathered data because we knew we might not get to see this threatened species again.”

Jen continues, “My specific research is on the Phyllobates lugubris,” also known as the lovely poison dart frog. “They are found along the eastern coast of Costa Rica, and although not very poisonous are slightly toxic. After catching one, Dr. Cossel reminded us that only handfuls of people in the world get to interact with this species like we got to. That really hit home; we got to be a part of something rare and very special.”

Herpetology isn’t for everyone, but it’s Dr. Cossel’s passion. For his students like Jen, he offers once-in-a-lifetime research experiences. “The amount of biodiversity just sparks my passion. It never felt like work, even during the late nights and early mornings. After grad school, I’ll continue to be in animal science research, hopefully working in the field,” Jen added.

Jen’s summer is over, but her experiences set the stage for a lifetime of biology research.


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