Skip to main content

On the Friday of July 13th, we had a field trip led by Mark Wainwright to San Gerado in Children’s Eternal Rainforest, the largest private nature reserve in Costa Rica. Before departing for the trip, we have already heard all kinds of amazing things about Mark: his book, Mammals of Costa Rica, has been on sale in almost every gift shop we have been to.

As we stopped in front of a broad-leaved taro-like plant with blooming white flowers at the gate of the reserve, I know our journey of natural history was about to start. Mark let us smell the flower, touch the rough leaves which feel like sand-paper as he explained the plant’s (common name elephant’s ear) relationship with its specialized pollinators-beetles. From the very beginning, Mark kept emphasizing one thing about nature, that is, “everything has a story”. As we walked through the forests learning about mosses’ role as natural sponges which absorb moisture from the clouds and release water to the streams and discussing the bright colors and strong scents of different flowers and its relation with what animals or insects they are pollinated by, my amazement for the power of natural selection, which acts on every single feature of all organisms and makes them what they are today, grew steadily and strongly. Most of the time when we picked something interesting from the environment, like a flower-shaped seed, Mark would tell us a thorough life history of that plant and explain the special feature of interest, but when I asked him how long it took a particularly large epiphyte we saw to grow, he shrugged and frankly admitted that not every detail, sometimes even basic information like growth rates of plants, is known of tropical rainforest.

The highlight of the trip is our night hike searching for amphibians. Although walking on the muddy trail in the rain and darkness wasn’t pleasant experience to me at first, what we found definitely paid off. We caught a tree frog at a temporary pond, a red-eyed leaf frog near a stream and a glass frog with emerald top and transparent bottom through which you can see its heart and other internal organs. What amazes me most about the frogs is when Mark explains that research has found the frequencies of the frog calls are just a little higher than the ambient sound of the streams that despite their tiny size, their calls penetrate far distance in the noisy natural environment in which we humans might even find it hard to make ourselves heard. Again, Mark’s words about “everything in nature has a story” rang in my heart.

However, our two-day field trip with Mark was not only a lesson on natural history but also an open discussion on conservation issues and dilemmas faced by environmental NGOs. Mark gave us two informative talks on the decline of amphibians and the history of Children’s Eternal Forest. In the amphibian talk, Mark tried to make us think from the perspective of the conservationists who tried to solve the puzzle of sudden population crash of amphibians across the world in the 1980s by asking us to come up with likely reasons for the decline. He then explained step by step the shortcomings of each theory and finally convinced us on the reason he deemed most likely. Even though I have heard of the fungi theory of global amphibian decline before, Mark’s talk made me realize the complexity of the issue and that many facts about population dynamics in nature we take for granted today actually came from persistent efforts of biologists and conservationists for generations. The talk about the history of Children’s Eternal Forest stirred us to think even more about the “gray area” of environmental conservation. We had an intense discussion on a hypothetical situation- whether an environmental organization in urgent need of financial support should accept a donation of 2 million dollars from the environmentally infamous GMO company Monsanto. Our opinions divided and some of us think we shouldn’t ignore the negative impact linking our image to an infamous company might have on losing our trust from environmentally-minded people or misleading unaware public, while others doubted the impact we will have on actually affecting people’s decisions but argued how the much needed money could have helped the organization with its endeavors in protecting the rainforest. When Mark told us at the end that this was a situation that actually happened when he was in charge of the reserve, I couldn’t help but think that as a biology student interested in environmental conservation,  how much more I need to learn about policy, management and society before I can confidently form my opinion and judgement on controversial issues like this.