January 2021

Welcome to the OTS newsletter for our community! Our goal is to stay connected, announce news, provide updates, and share memories. If you would like to contribute in any way, please contact us.   

Stay connected to students and researchers in the tropics. Get social with OTS!
Covid-19 update

THE VACCINE HAS ARRIVED! While many of us are still waiting for the precious mRNA that will allow us immunity, it is heartening to see light at the end of the very long pandemic tunnel. Costa Rica and South Africa are both open to international travelers. Costa Rica continues to require travel insurance to cover Covid-related illness and any necessary quarantine. South Africa still requires a negative test and has added an online questionnaire

As we continue to navigate the storm before the calm, researchers, professors, and graduate students can take advantage of Costa Rica’s open travel status. OTS is offering long-term stays at our research stations at significantly discounted monthly rates. Families are welcome, and accommodations are available with en suite kitchens. Teach your online class from the forest! More information here: http://bit.ly/38NbvEC.
Who will teach the next generation of tropical naturalists?

Guest Contributor: T. Mitchell Aide, University of Puerto Rico – Rio Piedras
(Artwork, credit: Max Jake Palomino Calero)

Charles Darwin spent five years traveling the world; Alfred Russel Wallace spent four years in South America and eight years in Southeast Asia; and Henry Walter Bates spent eleven years in the Amazon. Although they were well educated, if these three Englishmen had not left home to spend time in tropical ecosystems, the ecological and evolutionary concepts they developed would not have been discovered until future naturalists had the good fortune of doing so as they travelled, collected, and reflected on the diversity of species and interactions they observed. Perhaps Darwin would not have been uncomfortable accompanying a tropical biologist to the field in the 1960s, but he probably would be surprised by how we conduct tropical field ecology today. Not many of us can identify species outside of the groups that we study, let alone the systematics, distributions, ecology, and behavior of multiple groups of organisms. Darwin, Wallace, and Bates were the quintessential natural historians; but who are the tropical natural historians today?

As a reminder, "[OTS’] purpose is to sustain our tropical ecosystems by driving scientific discovery and knowledge, by enriching human perception of nature, and by enhancing worldwide policy actions in the tropics.” I would argue that the time an individual spends in tropical ecosystems is positively related with scientific discovery. While valuable analyses, thoughts, and writings can be carried out in offices, it is highly unlikely that these activities will result in the discovery of novel interactions among the diverse components of the tropics. Rapid assessments are important first steps, but without spending extensive time in the field, we will never understand the intricacies of these complex systems.

Are we really spending less time in the field? If scientists’ visitation rates to OTS stations are a good indicator, then the answer is a definite yes. In the 1970s and 80s, it was not uncommon for a graduate student to spend one or two years – if not more – conducting thesis research, and university professors frequently spent three summer months or a full semester at a time in the field. Today, the dynamic is different, with short trips of days or a few weeks becoming more common, and, if long-term data collection is necessary, the task is often passed on to a field assistant.

There are many factors driving these changes: most MS programs do not require a thesis, funding for PhD candidate field work is limited, the highly competitive academic job market does not place much value on natural history knowledge, and tenure requirements include multiple publications in high impact journals, along with funding from highly competitive programs. None of these factors encourages extended time in the field. Furthermore, many of us have made the personal decisions to shift our research focus away from natural history/field ecology. Paradoxically, climate change and the biodiversity crisis have been important motivators. Most field biology studies in the 1970s and 80s focused on single sites, but as the extent of tropical deforestation, habitat loss, and population decline or extinction became obvious, there has been a need for studies to cover larger spatial scales. This transition in scale was facilitated by easier access to satellite imagery, as well as global biodiversity and climate databases. Soon, the field biologist, who had once spent months or years at a research station, was conducting pantropic meta-analysis from his/her office. These studies have been invaluable. We need synthesis and comparative studies, but we also need the details provided by field studies to expand the content of the database that makes large-scale synthesis possible.

Declining interest in natural history may also be related to a large and growing proportion in urban population, leading to childhoods without adventures playing in streams and forests. Technology has also played an important role. Observing predation in the field is a rare event, a reward for spending months in the field, but not on YouTube. Without sweat or mosquitos, you are just a few clicks away from watching an anaconda capture and devour a capybara.

How are these changing dynamics in field biology reflected in the OTS field courses? My perspective is limited to the Tropical Ecology and Conservation course – a Spanish language course – in which I have participated numerous times as a professor between 2000 and 2020. It has been one of the most enjoyable academic experiences of my career, and it has also provided an opportunity to observe the evolution of how we teach, the role of technology, and the changing interests of the students. In 2000, no student had a cellular phone, laptop, or a Facebook account. By 2020, virtually every student had all three, and this changed the course dynamics to say the least. Now, in addition to a few high-quality photos of tropical organisms, students often take hundreds of selfies. Most importantly, in the past, the 22 students and the professors lived in a virtual bubble, focusing 100% of their attention on the course. Today, with the advances of communication technology, students never lose contact with family and friends, which changes the social dynamics of the course and the nature of the learning experience.

I have observed changes not only in the students, but also in the professors and the content that we prioritize. The first day at a new site usually includes an orientation walk highlighting the natural history of the area, but, more and more, professors (myself included) have forgotten the natural history we learned – or we were never taught it in the first place. Fortunately, many Latin American students have been exposed to natural history, because their undergraduate -ology courses (e.g., ornithology, entomology) have not yet been replaced by molecular biology. This is changing, and more and more students are graduating with biology degrees without ever taking an ecology course or participating in a field course.
As tropical scientists, we are expected to do many things and play many roles, but we should not lose perspective of the organisms that we study. We are their voices. Tropical field ecology and natural history were the basis of the contributions of Darwin, Wallace, and Bates. 

In less than a generation, we have lost many tropical natural historians. If we do not continue to teach tropical natural history and provide opportunities for extended stays in the tropics for young tropical biologists today, we will struggle to find tropical naturalists to make the new discoveries and to teach the next generation.
credit Hema Venkata
University of Connecticut and OTS renew agreement
(Photo credit: Hema Venkata)
The University of Connecticut (UConn) will continue to be the school of record for OTS’ undergraduate field courses in South Africa. The three-year agreement goes into effect immediately and will continue to provide transcripts for the semester program, African Ecology & Conservation, and the summer course, Global Health Issues. OTS and UConn build on the previous one-year agreement and continue to hold discussions about an expanded agreement, which may include field-based courses in Costa Rica as well as virtual and field-based practicums in both locations.
La Selva and Palo Verde recognized as travel destinations by National Geographic

The Spanish language version of "Travels," National Geographic has recognized both Palo Verde and La Selva as travel destinations. In a beautiful online interactive essay, author Rafa Peréz has outlined an ideal trip to experience the biodiversity of Costa Rica. Beginning in Guanacaste, Peréz takes virtual travelers through the northern national forests before having them stop at the Palo Verde Research Station, where he highlights the wetlands, dry tropical forest, bird diversity, and the research from the OTS station. The essay continues to move visitors through Costa Rica before arriving in Sarapiqí, where again OTS is highlighted. La Selva is lauded for its large primary forest reserve and bird diversity. You can view the interactive essay at the "Viajes," National Geographic website.
OTS says goodbye to Bernal and Bernard
Bernal Matarrita will join the research group of Prof. Dr. Martin Kaltenpoth, director of the Insect Symbiosis Department at the Max Plank Institute of Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany. On his doctoral training program, Bernal will conduct research on a well-characterized symbiotic system within an insect and bacteria (Beewolf-Streptomyces), where the bacterial symbiont produces different antimicrobial compounds to protect its host against fungal pathogens. This symbiosis was established 68-110 million years ago and has persisted to present times, while maintaining a relationship qualitatively stable. Its distribution comprises three different genera of beewolves, a type of solitary digger wasp (170 species) geographically distributed throughout Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas. This project is aimed to give insight into the selective pressures shaping the defensive chemistry and the host-symbiont adaptations of both partners in this mutualism. 
We bid farewell to Dr. Bernard Coetzee after five years of teaching on the OTS African Ecology & Conservation program. He was awarded the Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer (JWO) Grant, which supports African-led research programs and will join the University of Witwatersrand's Global Change Institute. The JWO Grant was established to support research programs that have the potential to contribute to the advancement of environmental and allied sciences and to identify and address real-world issues that affect Africa. Bernard’s research aims to understand the impact of the use of artificial light in Africa and how it may increase vector disease transmission – Malaria, Zika, and Dengue fever. His research could help with understanding ways to ensure the promotion of affordable and energy efficient artificial lighting technologies at the household scale that reduces human health risks.
The Christmas Bird Count comes to Palo Verde and continues for La Selva
(Photo credit: Orlando Vargas)

We are pleased to announce that our Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) went very well and that all participants came back home in good shape after counting in remote places. This year, in an effort to replicate our experiences of conducting the La Selva CBC over the last 36 years, we expanded our CBC to Palo Verde. It was not an easy task to host two events at almost the same time, but we were supported by our senior staff and station scientific staff. This was crucial for the success of both counts. We still need more time to enter the thousands of records to determine the final official species count, but we will share those numbers with you soon.

Although Covid-19 protocols were restrictive, we wanted to continue with these events. They are such an important part of what we do. The La Selva CBC is one on the oldest in the Americas. Traditionally, we have the participation of naturalists and ornithologists and coordinate with local conservations sites to support and promote outreach in our communities. The La Selva CBC was held on December 19, and we were able to host around 80 participants (50% less than past counts). We had to reduce the total of routes by 50% inside La Selva. However, we still believe that this count will be a good representation of species.

The inaugural event at Palo Verde was named, "CBC Sitio Ramsar Palo Verde," and was held on December 22. This count hosted around 25 participants, including great Costa Rican birders, Costa Rica National Park Forest Rangers, and OTS scientific staff. This count followed the Audubon Society guidelines and included sections of Palo Verde National Park, Lomas Barbudal reserve, and surrounding wetlands and roads. Of note was the sighting of a Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia), which was first sighted in Costa Rica in 1900. It was sighted a second time at the end of November 2020 at a town close to Carara National Park, and the last record was our sighting in this count.

We are grateful to all participants, institutions, and OTS staff that helped us with these great events.
OTS Board member Oscar Rocha, and CEO Beth Braker, publish article in Biological Conservation
Drs. Rocha and Braker recently published their article, "The Organization for Tropical Studies: History, accomplishments, future directions in education and research, with an emphasis in the contributions to the study of plant reproductive ecology and genetics in tropical ecosystems." Their article, published this month in Biological Conservation, celebrates the history of reproductive ecology and genetics through the work of Dr. K. S. Bawa and the role of OTS research stations in not only the growth of the science but the work of the three generations of scientists that were trained and have worked at the stations. You can find a copy of their article online.
Naturalists explore the “little things” at La Selva: E. O. Wilson describes his first trip together with Bert Hölldobler 
(Photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.)
…By temperament and training, he [Bert Hölldobler] belonged to the Karl von Frisch tradition, expressed to me succinctly one day by Martin Lindauer, Frisch’s student and Hölldobler’s mentor, while I was visiting Würzburg. Lindauer said, grinning as he typically did when speaking of serious matters, “Look for the little things.” 

That adjuration Bert and I followed many times during the Harvard years. In 1985 we made our first field trip together to Costa Rica. We drove north from San José to La Selva, the field station of the Organization for Tropical Studies. As we entered the rain forest, I used my more general knowledge of ants to find and identify colonies that might be of exceptional interest in behavioral work. I was looking for a quick and exciting payoff. One candidate was the primitive genus Prionopelta, which I found nesting in rotting logs. No colonies had ever previously been studied in life. I was eager to record the key facts of the social behavior of this ant, the kind of basic data that go comfortably into syntheses and evolutionary constructions. I plunged into the work with Bert’s assistance. We took notes on colony size, the number of queens, division of labor, and the kinds of insects and other small animals captured by the workers. We found, for example, that they preferred silverfish-like creatures called campodeid diplurans. In the course of our work, Bert’s attention fastened on fragments of old cocoon silk plastered on the walls of passageways of the Prionopelta nests. He asked, as much to himself as me, What does this mean? Nothing, just trash, I answered. When the new adults emerge from the cocoons, their nestmates throw out the silk fragments, and they don’t bother to stack them in separate garbage dumps. No, no, he said, look: the pieces are lined up as a smooth layer on the gallery walls. He went on, with close study of his own and the aid of a scanning electron microscope back at Harvard, to show that the cocoon silk is employed as wallpaper. It keeps the chambers of the moist walls drier than would otherwise be the case, and thereby protects the growing brood. Wallpapering was a technique of climate control previously unknown in ants.  

Hölldobler again said, Look, some of the foraging workers appear to be moving more slowly while they drag their hind legs.  Again I was unimpressed. Individual ants, I responded, often move slowly or erratically for no particular good reason. Nor is there any cause to believe that these primitive ants lay odor trails in any case. But Hölldobler persevered. He found that not only do the workers lay odor trails – by which they recruit nestmates to new nest sites – but the attractive substance comes from a previously unsuspected gland located in the hind legs. The pheromones are smeared in a line as the ants drag their hind legs over the ground. The existence of the gland provided an important clue to the evolutionary relationships of Prionopelta.  

From two weeks of data gathered in the La Selva forest we wrote five scientific articles… 

Pp. 304-305 from Naturalist, by E. O. Wilson. Copyright © 1994 Island Press. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. 
Help OTS expand its online community

Thank you so much to everyone that has shared news and updates. Please keep them coming! We love to share your news and accomplishments. We need your help to reach more people concerned with education, research, and the responsible use of natural resources in the tropics. If you think that you can help by sharing our information across your social networks or if you can provide us with content or material for use in our social networks, please contact us.
Please help OTS today
As you know, Covid travel restrictions continue to disrupt travel to both Costa Rica and South Africa. Students, researchers, and natural history visitors face various levels of difficulty visiting the stations, and most of our classes and activities are on hold.
Obviously, the tuition and visitor fees that we would typically receive have dropped dramatically. At the same time, the stations must still be staffed and maintained. We are almost 100% dependent on friends like you to help cover the cost of routine upkeep to the dorms, labs, classrooms, trails, boardwalks, and more. 
Will you help make sure the stations are able to begin holding classes and allowing researchers to go back to work once travel is possible?
To donate now, please use this link.
To learn about all the ways you can become involved with OTS, please contact Jim Boyle by email or call (360) 920-6302
408 Swift Avenue
Durham, NC 27705
(919) 684 5774