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 www.uga.edu/costarica 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.
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……….
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.