Catawba Students Use Costa Rica as Lab

07/08/00 by Salisbury Post

John Wear and Catawba students travel to Costa Rica

From the July 8, 2000, issue of the Salisbury Post

Their horses sank knee-deep in mud as they wound their way from the Continental Divide down to a volcano that spewed Volkswagen bus-sized, red-hot boulders.

They witnessed the resplendent quetzal, an iridescent green bird with a 2-foot-long tail that the ancient Mayans considered sacred.

They watched a leaf-green basilisk lizard run across the water as they relaxed in hot springs at the base of Volcan Arenal.

Students and faculty recently spent 13 days in Costa Rica, examining the biodiversity and studying the way Costa Ricans use their land.

“Costa Rica is one of the biodiversity hot spots of the world,” says Dr. Steve Coggin, chair of Catawba’s biology department.

“And it is on the forefront of tropical countries in preservation. A large portion of their country is under some kind of protection. Every tree that is cut has to have a government tag on it.”

Ecotourism is the major industry in the country, according to Coggin. ”It’s ahead of coffee and it’s ahead of bananas, the next two biggest items in their economy,” he says.

The students also examined the agriculture of the area. They visited a banana plantation and coffee farms. In addition, they worked with Costa Rican children on a garden at their elementary school. And, in the process, they had an uncommon adventure. They walked in the canopy of the rainforest on foot bridges and flew down zip lines though the foliage. Horses took them through a valley that was surrounded by rainforest.

“It looked like that scene out of Jurassic Park,” Coggin says. “You could just see a dinosaur walking through that landscape."

The students were able to compare a tropical ecosystem with the temperate ecosystem of North Carolina. They discovered that plant diversity is much higher in a tropical setting.

“Even the Smokies, which have the highest bio-diversity in the United States, don’t equal the diversity found in the tropics,” Coggin says.

The group was fortunate to see a half dozen brilliantly colored quetzals. They even saw a male and a female digging out a nest hole in a tree.

“I don’t know if it was luck or skill or what,” Coggin says, “but we talked to other people who went into the rainforest and never saw the quetzals after several tries.”

They also witnessed two male manakins -- black sparrow-sized birds with bright red crowns -- vying for the attention of a nearby female.

“They were jumping from branch to branch, displaying their colors and singing, trying to impress the female, who was sitting off to the side, and watching the show,” Coggin says.

One member of the group stepped over a hog-nose pit viper, a poisonous snake that resembles a copperhead.

“You could tell by its large triangular head that it was a pit viper,” Coggin says.

They also saw a caiman, iguanas, poison dart frogs, howler and spider monkeys and two-toed and three-toed sloths. One morning, the howler monkeys awakened the group with their cries. Catawba professor Dr. John Wear Jr. describes the sound they make as resembling the combination cries of a lion, a panther and a dog.
Jonathan Slaughter, biology major from Winsett, found the experience fascinating. “I gained a greater appreciation for conservation of nature and wildlife,” he says. “I learned firsthand how complex the ecosystem is by seeing how each organism has its place in the rainforest.”

He was taken by a basilisk lizard that ran across the water in front of him. “I had seen it on T.V. shows,” Slaughter says. “It’s called the Jesus Christ lizard, because juvenile lizards run really really fast, and the way their feet are webbed, they can actually skim across the water from rock to rock.”

He found the mountains similar to the Appalachians. “The pastures reminded me of those back here, but then you get up into the forest,” he says. “The forest gets its moisture from the clouds. I’d never seen anything like that before.”

Slaughter has watched any number of nature documentaries over the years, but nothing compares to witnessing the rain forest firsthand, he says. “Now,” he says, “I’ve actually seen it myself.”

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