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Study Abroad Costa Rica 2009 Journal

Conservation Medicine-Conservation Biology

WILD(ECOL) 4575/6575 Conservation Medicine

Instructors: Sonia M. Hernandez and Ron Carroll

Fulfilling a career-long goal since I arrived at UGA back in 2001, this was the first summer we offered the Conservation Medicine-Conservation Biology course (visit and search Summer courses to get the specific details of the syllabus). Conservation Medicine aims to synergize a variety of disciplines to better understand the intersection of ecosystem, human and animal health. In particular, this newly emerged science looks at dwindling biodiversity, habitat loss and other conservation problems and their relationship with disease dynamics in wildlife and domestic animals. Thus, a combined course with Conservation Biology was a perfect fit. The course was a mixture of hands-on zoological medicine, wildlife management techniques, wildlife disease surveillance, service-learning activities, and of course, all the natural history learning opportunities that come available in a hugely biodiverse setting like Costa Rica!

Recognizing that professionals are often trained in their own “discipline bubble”, one of the main objectives of this course was to integrate undergraduates considering a career in wildlife management, wildlife disease investigation or related fields, with veterinary students early enough to benefit from being exposed to each other’s perspective. There are potential challenges with mixing the two groups (such as age, life-stage differences and personal expectations for their careers) but none which manifested during this course, which had 9 veterinary students and 5 students representing ecology, wildlife, biology, and plant biology. I could write a piece about the content of the course and how that reflects on us, our school etc, but what I’d really like to share are some of the moments that will forever stick in my mind through a few short narratives about the true stars of the course---the students. 

group in costa rica
Fig 1. The 2009 Conservation Medicine-Conservation Biology course visited Volcan Poas National Park during one of its first outings. From left to right (back row) Jenny Abraham, David Perpinan (teaching assistant), Steve Divers (instructor), Chelsea Sykes, Jason Norman, Danielle Pollio, Ron Carroll (instructor), Nell Medoro, Mark Montes, Kris Mournier; (front row) Shelby, Tiffany Umlauf, Luke Williams, Christine Molter, Emily Reynolds, Karen Christ and Sonia Hernandez (instructor). Missing from photo: Laura Reber.

Thrown in the Fire

In an attempt to teach students the basics of wild animal capture, chemical immobilization, biological sample collection and analysis, we spent the first week at ZooAve, both a zoo and a wildlife rehabilitation center outside of San Jose. Twelve-hour days filled with darting, anesthetizing, collecting blood from and handling native species like margay, peccary and crocodiles sounds like pure fun, but the students were responsible (with supervision) for researching and planning the anesthetic protocols, and for implementing the physical exams and sample collection. We divided the students into anesthesia, exam and lab teams and further subdivided them into specific tasks. And while the veterinary students sprung into action, passing syringes, wilding stethoscopes, and yelling out oxygen saturation numbers, students with little animal handling or anesthesia experience appeared, initially, overwhelmed! By the middle of the week, however, the anesthesia teams were well-oiled machines, and even our youngest member (a plant biology major!) looked like seasoned wildlife veterinarians! In retrospect, the ZooAve staff needs to be commended for their trust and help throughout the week, but they even told me how impressed they were with the care and professionalism the students displayed……….

student listening to heart of margay
Fig 2. Undergraduate student Kris Mournier learned how to monitor the cardiopulmonary parameters of a variety of animals at the zoo. In this photo he is listening to monitor the heart rate of a margay.

The Acapello Group

Three (at times four) of my students massaged their right brains throughout the course by applying their songwriting and singing skills to the task at day. You’d have to be up on your hip-hop melodies to fully get it, but suffice to say that music makes work light! We planted trees as part of UGA Costa Rica’s carbon offset and its commitment to the contribution to the Bell Bird Biological Corridor reforestation efforts. In the evening, our lead songwriter had come up with lyrics to “HoleDigger” (sang to the tune of “Golddigger”) which had me in stitches! Imagine, if only I could get students in my didactic course this Fall to sing songs about the lifecycle of blood parasites! And they did not stop at service learning activities, for example, they also sang “Uptown Crab” to the invertebrates that participated in our “anesthesia of invertebrates” activity and paid homage to Rihanna’s song “Umbrella” with lyrics to describe the predator-prey relationships of Oliva sp and Olivella sp snails during our mark-recapture exercise! 

students on the beach
Fig 3. The Oliva Team (pictured here from left to right Nell Medoro, Mark Montes, Emily Reynolds and Laura Reber) made up a song to describe their project investigating the population dynamics of the Oliva sp. marine snail


student planting tree
Fig. 4. Emily Reynolds (pictured here) finished planting a sapling as part of UGA San Luis’s Carbon Offset project. She and the rest of the Acapello group put their experience to music

Impromptu Trek to Ostional

It was one of the students who alerted me that an “arribada” of olive ridleys was taking place in Ostional. She had heard it from some of the researchers with whom we shared a house in Playa Grande, a the Leatherback Marine National Park and it was that same student that motivated all 19 of us to rent a van and drive 2.5 hrs each way that night to go see these critters. Arribadas are legendary arrivals of thousands of sea turtles to one beach to lay their eggs over a few days. Our regularly scheduled days were long, and the journey to Ostional was cramped, hot, buggy and required crossing 4 rivers, the last of which ended with a lot of clapping and cheering, since we were sure our van would not make it! But watching these ancient animals in the middle of the night amble up the beach and deposit their eggs was an experience we will not forget. Most importantly, it gave us an opportunity to discuss key sea turtle conservation issues. I was the only one awake on the ride back (young people can sleep anywhere!) but I remember thinking how lucky I was to be with a group of students who would sacrifice rest to go see these critters. 

sea turtle eggs
Fig 5. Olive Ridley sea turtles lay their eggs in a mass nesting behavior called an “arribada” where hundreds to thousands arrive at once over a couple of days. Attending the arribada was a unique and rare treat for the students.

Speaking of Buggy

I had warned the students since our arrival in Costa Rica that Palo Verde National Park was a birder’s paradise (millions of birds from North, Central and South America congregate in the Tempisque River wetland) and a beautiful example of the Nicoya Peninsula’s dry forest, but that it was also one of the places where insects feast on humans with incredible frequency and voracity! Armed with insect repellent and a lot of protective clothing, the students arrived for our nightly activity of going out with Mark Wainwright, resident herpetologist, to search for herps. I expected one by one the students, (worn down by the persistence of the well-coordinated invertebrate offensive) would disappear back into the safety of their mosquito bed nets…Yet, I was pleasantly surprised that well after 11 pm they were still bringing back frogs for chytridiomycosis sampling, and chasing snakes for identification! Some had resorted to extreme measures like fashioning net bags to protect their faces and despite all the sweat, still managed to smile! 

students dressed to keep off bugs
Fig 6. Looking of herps in Palo Verde National Park was a battle between will power and insects! Jason Norman, Karen Christ and Daniello Polio did their best to stay bug-free, despite the heat and humidity, by covering every inch of their bodies!

Finally at our Costa Rica Home

I am sure there are few at UGA that do not realize how lucky we are to own such a beautiful property in Costa Rica. Returning to the UGA San Luis Research Station with the course (where I had conducted my dissertation) was indeed like returning home. It was at that location where the course’s focus was on the community, and the challenges that this tiny farming town, located just kilometers from the ecotourism Mecca of Monteverde, face—squeezed between progress and caring for the environment on which they rely. Here we conducted the third annual Preventive Medicine Campaign for the domestic animals in the community that do not have access to traditional veterinary care and which included sterilizing 27 of the town’s dogs/cats during a two-day clinic. (Figure 7) However, it was the time we spent listening to the community farmers that the students enjoyed most. The folks in San Luis care about the same exact things we value in Athens, our children’s education, our quality of life and health care. Thanks to UGA, San Luis has become our sister town in Central America and you could see the intensity with which the students absorbed the reality of making a living on a farm growing shade-grown coffee. I was impressed with the amount of questions the students had for the farmers and if student evaluations are valuable to judge the success of an activity, more students wrote about this connection than anything else! 

student monitoring dog vitals
Fig 7. Karen Christ, a UGA ecology student, was responsible for monitoring the vitals and body temperature of dogs and cats that had undergone


Recruiting is underway for the Conservation Medicine-Conservation Biology course for the summer of 2010. We say that study abroad courses are fun, challenging, life-changing experiences for our students and in this age of globalization, almost required. But we often overlook that the opportunity for unique interaction it provides with our students can be a life-changing experience for us, the teachers. Leading this course was a professional dream for me, but the students made it into an experience I’ll never forget.

looking at coffee beans
Fig 8. Students intently listen to Oldemar Salazar Picado who explained the entire process of growing shade-coffee in San Luis, from seed to finished roasted product.