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The Great Outdoors

The Great Outdoors
Xavier University

To see photos of their trip click here.

Brent Blair paces off a distance of 10 meters one way, turns the corner and goes 10 meters the other. His students follow behind him, hammering PVC pipes deep into the dirt at each corner. Drops of sweat slip down their faces as they work in the close, humid air, marking each tree within the plot with metal tags and then measuring them for diameter and height. The information from each tree—common cecropias with umbrella-like fronds and the spiny largatos—is marked in field notebooks. 

Blair, an assistant biology professor, is holding class outside today, but this is not the campus greenspace. Rather, he, along with fellow assistant biology professor George Farnsworth and 16 biology students, is nearly 2,000 miles due south, on the edge of a tropical rain forest on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

About 100,000 acres of the peninsula is preserved as the Corcovado National Park, making it one of the world’s most perfect natural laboratories. To the west is the Pacific Ocean and to the east the Golfo Dulce, a pristine sea that is fed by so much fresh water its name translates into “sweetwater.” It is home to multiple species of marine life including humpback whales.

The group is on a new study abroad program that took place for the first time during winter break in January. It is unlike other study abroad programs at Xavier where students go to more traditional locales or on service learning trips to experience academics and culture. Instead, this program is all about science.

“Our goal is to try to learn about how rain forest succession occurs from an early stage,” Blair says. “The Osa Peninsula had been agricultural, and now it’s growing back into a rain forest. Our hope is we’ll be doing this trip every year and developing projects in conservation and science.”

The tree growth experiment is just one of many they’re planning for what is likely to become an active research center for Xavier. The program came together after Gary Morgan, who operates Morgan’s Canoe Livery near Cincinnati and owns a lodge on the peninsula, offered his site to Xavier as a research center because of its unique rain forest location.

He set up Morgan’s Jungle Lodge 10 years ago as a tourist resort but now is converting it into an educational and research venue for elementary, high school and college-level students.
“We have 20 acres on the beach and are a mile and a half from the rain forest,” Morgan says. “The lodge is close to the ocean, and the rest of the land is tropical gardens. At low tide we have 75 yards of tidal pools.”

The location is nothing less than magical, students say, as they describe coming face to face with howler monkeys, macaws, poison frogs and tarantulas, diving into rain forest waterfalls, walking in the tree canopy and photographing a mother humpback whale and her calf. They kayaked in the gulf, perused the tidal pools for tiny shrimps and octopi, and sampled local culture. And they slept close to nature, in little cabinas near the beach with wood floors, canvas walls and mosquito netting.

“It was honestly a blast,” says student Chris Young, a natural sciences major. “You’re in the jungle and you never know what you’re going to come across. I walked into my tent and almost stepped on a scorpion.”

But they also worked, learning field research techniques by helping the professors set up their projects and completing academic assignments to satisfy the demands of the three-credit-our biology course. In addition to studying how a rain forest regenerates, the students helped Farnsworth set up projects involving animals ranging from ants to hummingbirds to Capuchin monkeys. He planned on testing the monkeys to see if they could count by building a Plexiglas feeder that held a piece of banana. The test went awry, though, because instead of pulling out dowels to get to the bananas, the monkeys simply ripped off the top of the feeder and reached inside. Oh well. He’s planning on coming up with another plan for next year.

Blair and future students will return each year to mark the progress of the trees and tag new ones that crop up. They are some of the first to grow in a recovering rain forest like this, where agricultural interests in palm oil harvests have faded and nature is reclaiming what once was hers. The tree-growth projects are long-term efforts that could last for decades. But they mesh well with the shorter-term animal studies. The professors expect to publish their results eventually, allowing Xavier to contribute in some small way to the long-term preservation of the rain forests.

“Understanding the regeneration of forests helps us understand the process by which carbon is stored in tropical communities,” Farnsworth says. “And understanding the recovery of the forests is necessary for the health of animal species.”

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