Five Biology Students Travel to Costa Rica

A cane toad that the class spotted while in Costa Rica. Photo Credit / Kathleen LaDuke
A cane toad that the class spotted while in Costa Rica. Photo Credit / Kathleen LaDuke
A cane toad that the class spotted while in Costa Rica.
Photo Credit / Kathleen LaDuke

By Zachary Gotthardt

SC Staff Writer

Over spring break, some students took a much-needed vacation to the beach. Others caught up on work and rest. However, a select group of five ESU students had their own unique experience — while still doing coursework.

Each spring semester, the Biology Department offers a course entitled Tropical Ecosystems. This class, taught cooperatively by Dr. Howard Whidden, Dr. Thomas LaDuke, and Dr. Terry Master of the Biology Department, gives students the unique opportunity to learn about the biology of another ecosystem.

Tropical Ecosystems first began as a class back in 1995. Master was invited to teach a tropical ornithology class in Costa Rica. When he mentioned that his colleague, herpetologist LaDuke, had experience in Costa Rica, they began to teach a course focused on all aspects of the tropics. The class was taught by both professors, each one offering expertise in their field. In 2009, Whidden joined the other two as the class’s mammalogist.

Entry into the class is fairly competitive. It is only open to juniors, seniors, and graduate students with dedication to biology. Furthermore, it is heavily suggested that students have some experience in taxonomy from courses such as mammalogy, herpetology, or ornithology. Each year, less than ten students are enrolled in the course.

The course focuses on the features of ecosystems in the tropics when compared to temperate environments, like that of Pennsylvania.

The Biology Department emphasizes fieldwork extensively, and this course is no exception.

“We’re looking at the tropical ecosystems and seeing how they differ from what the students have probably experienced,” said LaDuke.

He continued, “We really focus mostly on the different groups of organisms. What do we find in the tropics compared to temperate zones? Do we find organisms that can be seen in both places?”

The tropics are a very large area to study, so the course is focused specifically on the environment of Costa Rica. Despite being such a small nation, Costa Rica has an exceptional amount of diversity in both ecosystems and animal life, making it an ideal location for the focus of the course.

“Dr. Master, when he talks about the birds, mentions that ten percent of the world’s avifauna is found in this country, which represents less than one percent of the world’s landmass,” said LaDuke.

Costa Rica is also home to about ten percent of the world’s butterflies.

Due to its location on an isthmus, Costa Rica is also diverse in reptile and amphibian variation. Over long periods of time, species were able to migrate from both North and South America, contributing to the large diversity.

As part of the course, the students take a trip over spring break to experience the tropics for themselves. The students spend several days at the El Zota Field Station, a small reserve of forest about ten miles from Tortuguero. The climate is a tropical wet forest, where the year is divided into a three-month dry season and a nine-month wet season. The trip takes place each year during the dry season, but it still rains on a daily basis.

The class took a daytrip to the Rio Tarcoles, a river near the southern border.

LaDuke said, “It’s famous in Costa Rica for having some of the biggest crocodiles in the country.”

From the safety of a bridge, tourists can see crocodiles up to 15 feet in length.

The class also went to Manuel Antonio, a national park that showcases more dry forest ecosystem.

The class eventually traveled to Villa Lapas in the Puntarenas Province on the Pacific Shore. The name of the village translates to Macaw Village, and was given that name because of the Scarlet Macaws that frequent the area. The wet and dry seasons in this area are each six months, so organisms must be adapted to the long dry periods.

Despite only being in the country for a week, the students were able to see a plethora of ecosystems. Traveling the same distance in the United States cannot possibly yield the same diversity.

Even after 20 years of teaching the class, there were still new sightings of organisms for the course.

Master successfully identified four new species at the El Zota Field Station, adding to the hundreds previously documented on site. Using a trail camera, Whidden identified an ocelot, another rare find for the station. At Manuel Antonio, the group found a squirrel monkey, another first for the class.

This year yielded a greater variety of mammals than the previous year. While mammals are a common occurrence on campus, mammals in the tropics are particularly elusive.

As previously mentioned, the class is offered every spring and is open to juniors, seniors, and graduate students with a dedication to biology. The trip typically costs about $1,500 between the travel fares, lodging, and food.

If you are interested in taking Tropical Ecosystems, speak with any of the involved professors as soon as possible, as payments begin halfway through the fall semester.

Email Zachary at: