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Earth sciences major spends summer in Costa Rican cloud forest
Waking up to howler monkeys greeting the morning, hiking past colorfully plumed toucans flying through the trees and looking out for poisonous vipers winding through the forest, Natalie Teale, a senior Earth sciences and geography major in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, spent the summer as part of an immersive research experience in the cloud forest of Costa Rica. Teale was one of 12 students selected to participate in a summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at Texas A&M University’s Soltis Center for Research and Education near the Monteverde Forest in central Costa Rica.
“The students investigated how the vegetation, moisture content and soil composition in a tropical cloud forest interact, from the scale of an individual leaf to the entire forest,” says geography professor Chris Houser, principal investigator for the National Science Foundation-funded program.
Teale and the other students in the summer 2012 REU class were prepared for the experience during two-week introduction at Texas A&M. During this time, they met with faculty mentors to produce research proposals, prepare equipment for their experiments and participate in seminars on research methods and field safety. The students kept a record of their experience on the blog, “Exploration of a Cloud Forest.”
After arriving in Costa Rica, the students set up monitoring stations and began collecting field data. Each of their projects will contribute to the understanding of the water budget of a watershed in the forest. Outside of their own projects, the students learned from faculty about their research in hydrology, biogeography, climatology, geomorphology and ecohydrology to better understand the dynamics of the cloud forest.
Cloud-forest vegetation plays an important role in absorbing water from clouds, but the amount of moisture absorbed and its impact on the rest of the water cycle is not well understood. The students collected data from areas that were untouched by humans and other sites that have been logged or completely cleared.
The students’ research provides a valuable service to local Costa Rican communities. Since cloud forests exist near the top of Costa Rican watersheds, an understanding of the role of vegetation in the water cycle will help predict the availability of water downstream, where most people live. It also will help identify how human activities have changed the cloud forest and whether these activities have a negative effect on local development.
The students returned to Texas A&M on July 22 to complete their analyses and present their findings during a research symposium. This was the second year of a three-year program at the Soltis Center for Research and Education in Costa Rica. Charles William Soltis and his wife, Wanda, established the center to provide international experiences for students while protecting the unique ecological setting and creating preservation awareness.