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Costa Rica trip: Professors offer 7 deep thoughts on the rain forest

costa rica hollowed tree

Student Katilyn Gerstner took this photo of graduate teaching assistant Molly Schumacher (left) and students Jennifer Achs and Corinne Cramer entering the hollow of a giant tree.

This is the fourth story in a five-part series on the School of Biological Sciences’ trip to a Costa Rican rain forest. STATEside is along for the adventure as the students and professors of the Rain Forest Ecology class spend 10 days over the Thanksgiving break at La Selva Biological Station.

One of the things that make the Rain Forest Ecology trip to Costa Rica unique is that the students have all-day, everyday access to two members of Illinois State’s graduate faculty who have decades of research experience.

Biology Professors Joseph Armstrong and Steven Juliano are leading the trip this year, as they have most years since Armstrong initiated these student research expeditions in 1996.

“It’s an opportunity that all institutions or all departments can’t offer people,” Juliano said. “Some of the little schools can offer these kinds of trips. But what they don’t have, they don’t often have people with research backgrounds.”

Armstrong has been studying tropical floral biology for decades around the world and first came to La Selva Biological Station in 1993 to do research. He has a doctorate and a master’s degree in botany and a bachelor’s degree in biology.

Armstrong is also the director of Illinois State’s Laboratory for Plant Identification and Conservation and the curator of the George S. Vasey Herbarium. He has been teaching at Illinois State University since 1978.

“He’s really enthusiastic about tropical studies, and so his enthusiasm is very encouraging for our research,” Ph.D. student Amanda Carter said. “And he’s got a lot of really fun tales of the old days.”

Juliano was named Distinguished Professor in 2002 for his decades of nationally recognized research. His specialty is community ecology with a focus on insects.

costa rica joe and corrine

Biology Professor Joseph Armstrong and student Corinne Cramer talk over some flora.

Juliano has postdoctoral training in ecology, a Ph.D. in zoology with a minor in applied statistics, a master’s degree in entomology, and a bachelor’s degree in biology. He started teaching at Illinois State University in 1986.

“(Professor Juliano) is a smart guy,” senior Brandon Mardoian said. “What I have learned from him mostly is that for every hypothesis you have you need to consider every possible observation that would refute that hypotheses. And he’s able to think of all of those.”

Juliano can wax eloquently on ants and other insects for hours, and Armstrong is the man to ask if you need to know what a Calathea is or about any other unfamiliar flora. And years of taking students to Costa Rica and teaching Rain Forest Ecology have given both of them a broad range of knowledge of the rain forest that they share while hiking with students and while the students work on their research projects.

“What makes teaching easy is to put students in an environment where they want to learn,” Armstrong said. “Here, you almost overwhelm them with interesting biological stimuli. And they want to learn. From the first coffee until lights out, it is informal instruction.” Below are a few things the professors love and find interesting about the rain forest.

1. Exotic destination

Armstrong said he loves coming to the tropics because when he was going through school it seemed like the most exotic place for a biologist to study.

“Opportunities to do things like this course, opportunities to travel and see things and collect things in the tropics were just something that was not accessible to me either as an undergraduate or as a graduate student,” Armstrong said. “And that becomes a driving motivation for something like this. Because you realize, ‘Wow, I would have really benefited by doing something like this or having access to something like this as a student.’ And it just wasn’t there.”

2. Punching above its weight

Costa Rica, which is smaller than West Virginia, has about 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. As a community ecologist who focuses on the northern temperate zone for his research, Juliano said studying diversity is at the heart of what he does.

“So there is a huge difference in the diversity (between the northern temperate zone and the tropics),” Juliano said. “Why is that? That is the big question that most ecologists somehow come back to. And you can ask that about any group of organisms.”

3. Sounds of the forest

“I really love to come here and listen to this background noise that you get in a rain forest,” Armstrong said. “The cheeping and chirping and all of that stuff: I just love that noise.”

4. A lush (and barren) land

“I like the lushness. I like the way (the rain forest) looks,” Armstrong said. “And at the same token, while it looks lush, lies one of the biggest misconceptions about rain forests. Because you look at all that greenery and you say, ‘Wow you can grow anything here.’ And you can’t, because it is actually some of the (worst) soil in the world. It leads people to a big misconception, which has led to an awful lot of deforestation.”

5. Ants: Queens of the forest

One might think that the jaguar or another large animal rules the roost in the Costa Rican rain forest. That person would be wrong, sort of.

costa rica steve and meghan

Graduate student Meghan Strange and Biology Professor Steven Juliano peer into the forest.

“Ants are the dominant bunch of organisms here,” Juliano said. “(The leafcutter ant) is an enormous herbivore, but it is a colony of ants. You should think about it as the equivalent of having a big grazing animal living underground cutting up and getting leaves.”

Army ants rival leafcutter ants in importance, but they are predators, Juliano said. Both types of ants live in single colonies made up of millions of individuals that act as one—and they are only two of the approximately 500 ant species in La Selva.

“This is a place where the ants run things,” Juliano said.

6. Night shift

“It is completely different out there at night in terms of what you are going to see,” Armstrong said. “There are plants out there that flower at night. There all kinds of things happening out there at night—things that don’t happen during the day, and vice-a-versa. But most people tend to think of these things as having the same kind of life that they have. And it just doesn’t work that way.”

7. Unlocking secrets

“I like the novelty of being able to come to someplace where there are so many things no one knows anything about,” Armstrong said. “You end up at the end of the day with a whole list of questions of things that you would like answers to and you just can’t.”

For example, Armstrong loves nutmegs and has been studying these pantropical trees ever since his doctorate.

“We don’t have any idea how they reproduce. We don’t have any idea about how these guys go about their business out there,” he said. “In a way what we are trying to do is unlock the secrets of these places, and you do it, unfortunately, one or two species at a time.”

Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.

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