By Brian Klose
Over the winter break, 11 students and two professors from Washington College’s biology department traveled to Nicaragua to study and catalogue tropical ecosystems. The course, titled “Tropical Ecology of Nicaragua,” is a 200-level course that will tentatively be offered every other year. The general biology sequence, Bio 111 and 112, is the prerequisite for the course. Dr. Jennie Carr, assistant professor of biology and Dr. Robin Van Meter, assistant professor of environmental sciences/studies and biology, run the program.
“With this process, it was a combination of luck,” said Dr. Carr. “One of Dr. Connaughton’s good friends works at American University (AU), and they have a group that goes to this private reserve in Nicaragua [The Makengue Reserve].”
Located in the Rio San Juan region of Nicaragua, The Makengue Reserve first partnered with AU in 2012 as part of the Makengue Program. According to the reserve’s Facebook page, “Our purpose is to preserve Makengue and all the wildlife that lives in the 190 acres of forest. As stewards of Makengue, our plan is to spread the love of preservation with others across Nicaragua and beyond.”
When WC was offered a partnership through connections to AU, the biology department quickly took advantage of the unique opportunity. “When Dr. Van Meter and I were given the opportunity to develop a course in Nicaragua, we didn’t wait an instant. It was the perfect opportunity,” said Dr. Carr.
“The main goal of the course was to learn about tropical ecology and develop independent research projects,” she said. “We split all of the students into pairs as they developed projects about some type of organism in the environment.”
Carr was familiar with the region and its culture. “I did my study abroad in Ecuador, so I was familiar with Latin America,” she said. “I was excited to go back.” Before the course, she went on a pilot trip in March of 2015 with a group from AU to survey the environment and assess the ecological diversity of and around the reserve.
The reserve was located in a remote region of Nicaragua that required a five-hour bus ride from the city of Managua and a two and a half hour boat ride to the grounds. The nearest town was 30 minutes by boat. The students and faculty stayed in an on-site bungalow for the duration of the trip. In their downtime, they took in the sights around the reserve, bird watched, took pictures of the beautiful scenery, and relaxed in hammocks spread across the grounds.
During the course, the organisms studied ranged from spiders to bats to lichen and a wide variety of plants. A major project for both the students and Dr. Carr and Dr. Van Meter involved drafting a field guide of Nicaraguan ecosystems and wildlife.
“There are no Nicaraguan field guides for identifying plants and wildlife, so we were relying on Costa Rican field guides, said Dr. Van Meter. We were so far south in Nicaragua that we were almost in Costa Rica, so using their field guides was ok. We’re following up behind AU in being one of the first groups to go out there and identify and catalogue the plants and animals that are there. We were making a field guide specifically for this region in Nicaragua.”
“Dr. Van Meter and I were really pleased with how the students did,” said Dr. Carr. “They were all over their research projects, setting up their own plots, doing their own observations. We also had them doing supplementary activities, so we trapped and marked turtles. They were so efficient that they had a lot more down time than we anticipated. It was overall a great success.” With the success of this year’s trip and the growth of the field guide project, the course has plans to evolve further in the future.
“From a student’s perspective,” said Van Meter, “it was really fascinating for me to see the students submerged in a completely different habitat and completely different ecosystem. They were willing to put in 110 percent effort, and it was great to see that.”