Costa Rica and Earth University, LaFlor: Day 3/Part 2

17 01 2010

Jan. 09, 2010

Buena Vista Lodge

We are leaving beautiful Guanacaste National Park and on our way to Buena Vista Lodge in Rincon de La Vieja National Park.  We are traveling down a dirt road for about 25 minutes when we reach a fork in the road.  Bennicio stops between the fork and is not completely sure which way to go.  Naturally he takes the road not taken.  Robert Frost would be proud.

Unfortunately, the road not taken is not taken for a reason cause it was a dead end at some fenced encampment at the top of a peak.  Fortunately the employees there were nice enough to open the gate so we could turn around.

Thirty minutes later, after an steep climb up another peak and an amazing view were reached our destination.  We pull in to the ranch like entrance and meander up to the lodge.  We pull up to the office and are greeted with glasses of mango juice.  After checking in we head down to our rooms which are cabin like buildings make completely of high grade wood that resembles teak, a common wood found in rainforests.  After a quick shower and downloading of my photos to my hard drive, I am off to the Sunset Bar for some cocktails with my classmates.

Proffesor Motley mentioned to me as we were unpacking that he had a feeling that there was much more to this place that we could see.  He couldn’t have been more right.  I am heading up to the bar with camera in hand (of course) and am not enjoying the uphill trek to the bar which is off a ways behind the lodge.  Upon reaching the bar, I realized that it was worth the hike and pain in my feet.

I am presented with one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen in my life.  Sunset Bar sits atop a peak looking over a valley and other mountain peaks as the sun was setting.  My breath is completely taken away and my body covered with goosebumps.

View from the Sunset Bar at Buena Vista (Beautiful View) Lodge

Sitting here enjoying this amazing scene before me as I sip on a Tequilla Sunrise talking to Will and Emily about how incredible this trip has been already and how lucky we are to be in this beautiful country.

The sun is now setting behind the mountains in the distance and I’m on to round two, or is it three?  I can’t remember this sunset is so distracting.  Alex has introduced some of us to a drink the bartenders recommend to him that has been dubbed Hombre Fuerte.  This drink is like jet fuel and seems to change colors as you go through it.  The five of us who got one each have one at a different level and different color. Will, Matt squared, and Alex have decided to chug the last ¼ of their drinks and it didn’t go well.  You try and chug 3 oz. of jet fuel.  Not a good idea even though the guys tried to do it another three times out excitement of the day.

I invited Bennicio over from the bar to join us at the table to finish watching the sunset and enjoy each other’s company and conversation.  After an hour of conversing and laughing it’s time for dinner so we are off.

Dinner consists of a buffet of everything under the sun, rice, black beans, chicken, fish, yucca, Spanish meatballs, baby corn and leche for desert, not to mention the extraordinary Costa Rican coffee.

After more mind-blowing food and pleasant conversation around the dinner table we are heading back to Sunset Bar for some drinks, music, and dancing.  I have to say that the highlight of dancing for me has to be dancing with Silvia who was teaching me some Latin moves that I didn’t already know.  We are having such a great time dancing with each other and socializing with the bartenders who by the way are so friendly and fun.  It’s easy to tell they are genuine and not just mocking us, sometimes-pretentious American tourists.  They are helping to teach us Spanish, making jokes, making us laugh, making great drinks, and plain making this experience at Buena Vista that much better.

I can’t even express in words how nice the people of this country are.  They are so caring and inviting.  The want you to enjoy their country as much as possible and seem to understand how magical this place it to foreigners.  You can see they truly live the pura vida.

Well we are pretty consumed and off to bed to enjoy the activities Beuna Vista Lodge has to offer.  Hasta luego!


Darwin’s New Best Friend

18 11 2009

Charles Darwin could only imagine the vastness of information that now exists about species of plants, animals, and insects that have been compiled in the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL).

Homepage of the Encyclopedia of Life

The Encyclopedia of Life is a biological wiki that was launched in 2007.  It is a catalog of all the known and soon to be discovered organisms of Earth.  It was the idea of biologist E.O. Wilson when he presented the notion of harnessing the power of the Internet at a TED conference in March of 2007.

His vision was to create an endless record of the 1.8 million known species of plants, animals, and insects that can be used to serve students, scientists, and general public.

The TED conference was his platform to get the attention of the scientific community to help fund the project which is expected to cost $110.5 million.  Within two months of his appearance at the conference, 5 science foundations announced a $50 million initial grant to get the project rolling.

The website is a wiki-based platform who’s content is created by both experts in the fields of biology and ecology as well a amateur naturalists.  The wiki is overseen by a handful of scientists that examine the content for accuracy.  A wiki, for those of you who don’t know, is a website that allows easy creation and editing of content of any number of interlinked Web pages by anyone with access to the Internet.

The Encyclopedia of Life is not just a list of all the species known to man, each species is given its own page to allow for the maximum amount of information on that species to be provided.

The Twig Girdling Beetle page.

The site is a way of educating us on the importance of conservation and sustainability and how every organism on Earth has a direct or indirect affect on human life.  The need to understand the symbiosis between us and other creatures that share this world with us is so important for the survival of the human race.

The fact that the site is a wiki it allows the general public to participate in it’s creation giving them the power to influence and inform others.  It empowers people to care about the content the message being conveyed.  Because of this the public can educate themselves of the importance of conservation and encourage them to act in a responsible manner when it comes to saving this amazing planet we live on.

If we continue to be careless and abuse Mother Earth we could be destroying organisms that could provide medications that could possibly eradicate all known human diseases.  What a waste that would be.

I hope in Darwin’s honor, the first EOL page created was for Darwin’s Finches?

Electronic Botanical Field Guide

22 10 2009

Within the past couple of years, technology and interactivity have started to make a huge impact on our ability to discover and study the amazing organisms and ecosystems that inhabit this Earth.  Scientists are now able to essentially bring all the resources they need with them into the field with the use of new portable electronic devices and the Internet.

Over the past few centuries scientists have identified and described 1.8 million species of plants, animals , and microorganisms found on Earth.  However, it is estimated that there are well over 8.5 million species that have yet to be discovered.  That’s 8.5 species of organisms that could be the source of medicinal chemicals that could cure or eradicate all human diseases.

While 1.8 million is an impressive number, realize that it did take hundreds of years to identify all the known species.  That is an amount of time that we as humans can no longer afford.  With that pace of discovery and the rate at which species of plants, animals, and microorganisms are disappearing from our Earth, there will be nothing left for us to find.  In a few hundreds years we may no longer exist as well.

Technology however, can help keep this from happening. In fields such as botany, there are new advancements in portable devices that are changing the way and speed at which science occurs.

In the past botanists had to collect specimens by hand (which can disturb the ecosystem) and take them back to the lab, study their structure and then thumb through an endless number of books or examine cataloged specimens in herbaria or museums.  They was a very time consuming process.  It’s the reason why it’s taken so long to discover what we have up to now.

This is no longer the case for botanists. Currently scientists from the University of Maryland, Columbia University, and the Smithsonian Institute are developing a new database and field guide system to help identify and catalog new and existing plant species.  They call it, surprisingly enough, the Electronic Field Guide.

The scientists started by creating a photographic registry of available plant specimens.   They are taking detailed photos of the 85,000 plant species kept at the Smithonian Herbarium and in the future they will add specimens from other herbaria around the world.  Images are taken with state of the art cameras producing HD images with a 3600 x 5000 pixel resolution. In the near future laser range scanning can be used to create 3D images.

These images can then be accessed with the Electronic Field Guide.  These guides incorporate the use of the latest portable devices that allow the use of a touchable interface.  The field guide will allow botanists to have access to thousands of images instantly while they are in the field.  They can immediately identify if they are looking at an existing species or have discovered an entirely new species.

One of the protypes of the Electronic Field Guide

One of the protypes of the Electronic Field Guide

The scientists can then take an photograph of a specimen and send it back to the registry which may provide more information about the species it belongs to.  There is not longer bagging and bringing back specimens to the lab.  No more thumbing through dusty books and scouring through warehouses to identify specimens.

In the future, botanists will be able to access 3D images and with use of the touchable screens, will be able to rotate and view the images from different angles to help ensure proper identification.  In addition to the use of smaller devices such as smartphones to run the application the scientists behind the development of this system are hoping to develop an augmented reality interface.  Instead of a hand-held device this system would involve the use of a heads-up-display (HUD) in the form of eyeglasses which would free up a user’s hands and work more efficiently.

All this technology allows botanists to reduce the amount of time and resources spent discovering as many new species as possible.  In addition to this, science no longer has to be reserved only for the experts.  With the use of smaller and more available portable devices, anyone can help identify and catalog species of plants.  One could be on vacation and take pictures of the local plants and send those images to the registry.

Electronic Field Guide using a smartphone interface.

Electronic Field Guide using a smartphone interface.

By decreasing the amount of time it takes to discovery new species, we increase our chance of discovering a plant that could be the cure to the world’s deadliest diseases such as Cancer or AIDS.  We also increase our understanding of ecosystems and how their existence and ours intertwine and why it is so important that we help maintain these habitats.  There is much in our world that we have yet to discover but with the use of technologies such as the Electronic Field Guide, the next discovery may change our world forever.