PALO VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Costa Rica – Dressed in a green tank top and tan cargo pants, 24-year-old graduate student Christina Bear looks ready to go. The University of Missouri-St. Louis doctoral student is in the heart of the Costa Rican wetlands at Palo Verde National Park to study plant and insect interaction.
For the past five weeks, Baer has not left the Organization for Tropical Studies research station. Her daily routine goes something like this.
6:30 a.m. Baer walks from her barracks to the cafeteria housed in a small wooden building. After her traditional Costa Rican breakfast of rice and beans, Baer pulls on her tall black wading boots and brimmed hat and heads out to the field.
She’ll spend the next five hours collecting caterpillar samples to add to her extensive collection of specimens in the laboratory. She also collects leaves to feed her caterpillar captives.
12 p.m. Baer heads back to the cafeteria for a quick lunch with the other visitors and staffers at OTS.
12:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Baer returns to the lab to place her collected specimens in plastic bags. She labels and dates them for further examination, takes pictures of her specimens and cleans their Ziploc bags.
6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Dinner time. Baer uses the rest of her night to finish recording data, import pictures and relax before she goes to bed. During her stay at the research station she lives in a dormitory-style room that houses up to six people. For the most part she lives alone, but in July a large group of visitors arrived at the field station, which meant a new roommate for the researcher.
Baer’s eyes light up with passion as she explains her work to visitors (see “Caterpillars as Architects” by Jade Nunes). She began her study when she arrived at the station June 4. The study includes the unique grass and leaf shelters formed and maintained by the Hesperiidae caterpillar during its growth and pupation stage. The shelters are pieces of leaf or grass doubled over and lived in by the insect. Baer explains the structure and distinctive engineering of these shelters and questions their purpose. She believes there are three potential reasons for the unique engineering of these leaf structures.
“Potential options are the environment. It’s too hot, it’s too dry, it’s too rainy,” she hypothesizes. “Other options are protecting them from predators like birds or ants or wasps. The other option is that they could be protecting them against what are called parasitoids, which are usually wasps, or flies that will find a caterpillar, lay their eggs in the caterpillar then the larvae will eat the caterpillar from the inside out.”
The caterpillars have a modified anus comb that shoots their poop away from their shelters for the ultimate clean home.
As she elaborates on this subject, Baer’s humor creeps in on the conversation. She says with a smile, “Frass. The semi-technical term for caterpillar poop. Excellent term for G-rated cursing.” All the visitors giggle but continue to listen to her attentively.
Baer says the station is pretty civilized and not as rustic as one would expect a field station in the middle of nowhere to be. OTS has electricity, and Wi-Fi around the clock, as well as good food and a friendly staff.
Palo Verde also has an abundance of insects, mosquitoes being one of the most plentiful.
“Pretty much anywhere a field biologist might want to work will have insects, some of which will be pests,” she says. “Palo Verde has the most mosquitoes it’s ever been my displeasure to experience, but if I were working at home right now, I’d be pulling swarms of seed ticks off my clothes with duct tape as well as getting a few mosquito bites.”
Although mosquitos are a nuisance, Baer admires other insects at the station such as praying mantises, dragonflies, true bugs, beetles, butterflies and moths.
As for Costa Rica, Baer says she loves it, especially the variety of ecosystems, from effervescent coral reefs to abundant cloud forests.
While she enjoys Costa Rica, she misses summer fruits in the U.S. “I’ve got a serious craving for peaches,” Bear admits.
She maintains close contact with family and friends via email, Skype and travelogue entries she writes.
When not working hard in the field or in the lab, Bear indulges in her favorite hobby: reading. She has access to eBooks and downloadable audiobooks, thanks to the “miracles of Internet and my public libraries,” she says.
After she finishes her fieldwork at OTS Aug. 9, Baer will return to the University of Missouri-St. Louis to analyze her data and work as a teaching assistant.
“This summer’s work is the first part of my dissertation research, so I will likely have at least one more field season and two to three more years of work ahead of me,” she explains. After she has her doctorate, she plans to look for a research position and ultimately would like to become a professor.