Bugging out in Costa Rica
Woodbury teen Kaitlyn Coleman took a tropical vacation of the microscopic variety recently.
Coleman, a senior at the Visitation School in Mendota Heights, traveled to Costa Rica July 25 to Aug. 4 with a group of classmates in order to research leaf cutter ants through the Seeds of Change organization.
“You’re literally right in the middle of the rainforest,” she said. “It was a really unique experience.”
Coleman first heard of the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica when John Dohleman, the founder of Seeds of Change, visited the Visitation School to discuss an upcoming opportunity to travel to Costa Rica.
Costa Rica Science Research Experience (CRSRE) provides an opportunity for high school science oriented students to participate in actual rainforest science research, under the guidance of instructors from the University of Costa Rica and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the tropical rainforests and cloud forests of northern Costa Rica at Finca La Anita.
“What is unique about this trip is that the students designed and conducted an entire research project in the time that they were there,” said Ann Feitl, dean of Student Life at Visitation School. “In one week, they had as much experience working in a lab as they would have in a semester in college.”
Leaf cutter ants are a truly unique species, Coleman said, in that they don’t actually eat the leaves that they cut, but actually create a fungus garden and then eat the sugar from the fungus.
“An important feature of leaf cutter ants is their complex interactions with fungus and bacteria,” Feitl said. “The ants produce an antibiotic to thwart off ‘bad’ bacteria and this is leading to the discovery of new antibiotics. Additionally, the way in which leaf cutter ants digest plant material is being studied for applications for the development of biofuels.”
Coleman said she initially thought she and the other 15 students on the trip would be researching the antibiotics that the ants produce, but in fact the group ended up researching ways to deter the ants from eating Costa Rican farmers’ crops.
“The ants are actually very harmful for farmers and they’re ruining all their crops,” she said. “They wanted us to develop an eco-friendly way that they could deter the ants from their crops without harming them and saving their crops at the same time.
“So, we started researching what makes them attracted to certain crops and what deters them from that.”
No time to waste
As part of the trip, students were responsible for coming up with and conducting their own research projects in order to identify possible eco-friendly ways to prevent the leaf cutter ants from devastating crops.
Students were split up into groups of four with each group performing a different research project.
“You never had that much leeway in high school,” Coleman said. “But, one of the biggest things I learned is that nothing goes according to plan.”
Coleman’s group developed their experiment after discovering that only older ants deal with the waste dump of the fungus garden because of the dangerous bacteria present in the dump.
For their experiment, Coleman and her group tested ants’ ability to detect dangerous substances by presenting the insects with two leaves – one control with only water and another leaf with a solution made of soaking waste material in water.
After six trials, the group found that the ants can detect the harmful substances from the waste dump and will avoid it.
Coleman’s group also conducted a field experiment to test their hypothesis.
“That was one of the most fun things we did,” she said. “We went out in the middle of the rainforest at 9 o’clock at night and did research.
“Before Costa Rica, I was not a bug person and there were a lot of bugs in the rainforest, so that was definitely a big shock, but by the end I was like ‘Oh, it’s a spider, it’s fine.’”
For the field experiment, the students placed a cotton ball with water and a cotton ball with waste solution in the path of the ants.
“They freaked out and they formed this huge traffic jam,” Coleman said. “”That was a huge realization.
“Just seeing how the ants freaked out really proved that they do not like the waste.”
Coleman said their research could potentially provide an eco-friendly solution to the crops.
“This is really influential and this matters because people here are losing their crops and this could help them,” she said. “They can go to an ant colony find their waste pile and put it next to their crops – it’s an easy solution.”
In addition to the actual research projects, students also hiked and learned about rainforest ecology, participated in a service project and shared a meal with a family during a home visit as part of the CRSRE.
Coleman said she enjoyed her experience in Costa Rica and it opened her eyes to so much.
“Just because I’m a high schooler doesn’t mean I can’t make a difference,” she said. “It was amazing that we could do something so small that would make such a difference.”