West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Herbario Fino

After the gritty—and often startlingly beautiful—chaos of Nicaragua, I spent a week in the herbarium at InBio (the Instituto Nacional de la Biodiversidad). The contrast could hardly be more pronounced: I returned not only to the first-world security and orderliness of Costa Rica, but to a climate-controlled, meticulously curated collection of plant specimens. There’s something at once ennobling and humbling about an herbarium; all that effort and knowledge collected in one place. All the extraordinary diversity of the forests here, whittled down to a series of gray metal cabinets holding folders of dried plants mounted on acid-free paper.

Before I left for Nicaragua, I’d brought eight boxes of plants to put into the freezer at InBio for quarantine. (Three or four days in a freezer will kill the fungi and insect pests on fresh specimens that might otherwise damage the rest of the collection.) I had another five boxes, from last year’s work, waiting for me in an Indiana Jones-esque stack of identical cardboard boxes at the back of the herbarium. Fortunately I’d labeled my boxes clearly and drawn a map of their location last year.

Two thousand sixty-one plant specimens in seven days: welcome to Herbariathon 2006. Nearly all of my specimens were identified before I pressed them, either by me or by local plant wizard Orlando Vargas, but I wanted to make sure that all the identifications were up-to-date and consistent. There were also a few wild cards that had stumped Orlando. Marisol and I spent a week stacking and unstacking specimens, comparing them to the herbarium collections, updating the identifications where necessary. We spent probably 8-10 hours a day in the herbarium, wrapped in fleeces against the 60-degree chill. At the end of the day, we retired to the albergue, a building across the street where InBio provides lodging for visiting researchers.

The other residents of the albergue were a group of college students from Spain who were volunteering for the institute as an internship. Their work revolved around a newly created national park on the border with Nicaragua: defining the boundaries with GIS, collating data from biodiversity inventories, and helping to design the trail system. I got to do a lot of cool things in college, but nothing quite that cool.

Also residing in the albergue were a group of parataxonomists. I think I’ve finally discovered what I want to be when I grow up. They spend about half the month in the field, collecting specimens—insects and plants, mainly—and the rest of the time at the institute, cataloguing their finds, identifying them to the family level, and sending them off to specialists who know the species. Billy and Marcos showed me some of the insects they had collected, and some photos from past expeditions: knife-edged ridges, shrouded in mist, rising up out of thick jungle; native villages three days’ hike from the nearest road; waist-high rivers to be forded; jungle camps with a few tents set up in a clearing and a tarp strung up for cooking out of the rain. Unfortunately—for me—these jobs are all held by ticos. The idea behind InBio is capacity-building and job-training for Costa Ricans, by Costa Ricans, in order to understand, conserve, and responsibly use the native biodiversity of the country. It’s worked brilliantly—after only sixteen years of existence, the institute has one of the best plant and insect collections anywhere for this part of the world. They’ve trained a huge number of people. It would be wrong for me, an outsider, a gringo, to come in and take away a potential job for a tico. It doesn’t stop me from dreaming, though... There are so many countries in Latin America where the biodiversity is poorly known. This is a model that could be taken elsewhere, with the right funding, and set to work. I have no talent for administration, but I’ve got a certain amount of botanical knowledge now, and I’ve got a few friends with policy aspirations... maybe I’ll end up being a parataxonomist, or training parataxonomists, in Guyana or somewhere. (Eh, Tsitsi?)

With the help of Fransisco Morales and Nelson Zamora, two of the best botanists in the country, Marisol and I identified the last few specimens on Tuesday afternoon. I stayed behind to finish boxing up my specimens—the bulk of my work for the past three years, neatly contained in eleven cardboard boxes—and take care of a few odds and ends. Wednesday morning I caught the bus back to Puerto Viejo, with a bittersweet post-partum sort of feeling. I have really enjoyed this vegetation inventory project, even when it meant hacking shoulder-wide tunnels through tangled young forests or driving through alarming mud-pits. It’s weird to think that I won’t be hauling that blasted pole cutter around on my bike any more, or stopping by Orlando’s office with a bag full of plant bits. It’s finished.

The thought of being finished with a big chunk of my project is reassuring at one level—yes, I’m really capable of doing what I set out to do; the specimens are all catalogued and all the data updated and awaiting analysis. At another level, it’s terrifying. What next? Graduate school has brought me some of the best years of my life: good friends, exciting work, a steady salary, health insurance. None of that is guaranteed in the upcoming years. I would love to teach, but the job market is highly competitive right now. A few weeks ago a visiting professor told us that a tenure-track plant ecology position had opened up at his institution, and they had 95 applicants. My goal is to find work that’s meaningful, engaging, and has the potential to do some good for the troubled ecosystems of this planet. The more I think about it, there are a lot of possibilities. And one way or another, it’s bound to be interesting.


At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Charlie Ellis said...

Don't lose hope, Surely there are other countries that can use parataxonomists...


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