There’s even a sign.
Confused? OK, here’s the rest of the story. The sign marks the entrance to Earth University, an agricultural institution on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, about 50 km from the port city of Limon. Today we followed Univ of Florida PhD student Silvia Alvarez to Earth U, where she gave us a tour of the tropical forest fertilization experiment she initiated as part of her dissertation research. That’s Silvia in blue below; the second picture shows a couple of dendrometer bands – used to measure trunk growth – around one of her trees.
Tropical forests will play a big role in determining our future climate, but we don’t know exactly how. One key piece of that puzzle is to get a better handle on how they cycle essential nutrients – hence Silvia’s ambitious experiment. Sadly, we have only a very few such experiments across this big and highly varied biome, so what she’s done here is critically important.
It’s also hard! These plots are full of different species of trees, all of which tend to grow in different ways. Inevitably, some of those trees will fall over during your experiment, and when a big one goes, it takes out a bunch of others with it. The plots also have more than their share of added excitement in the form of venomous snakes, plus the world’s nastiest ants, a nest of which Silvia stirred up for our behalf today. This is a bullet ant – and they ain’t your average picnic pests. They come supersized (pushing an inch long) and pack a wallop that nobody wants to experience. Why “bullet” ant? Supposedly because getting stung by them is akin to being shot. Put in more scientific terms, on the Schmidt Sting Index, bullet ants occupy the top spot. In other words, of all the zillions of bugs in the world that can put the hurt on you, this one’s the worst.
Following our forest tour, we grabbed lunch and then checked out some of the other stuff at (on?) Earth. The biogas generator systems were a highlight for Hana, as her oil palm project – done earlier in the week – was also pointed at trying to figure out if oil palm operations could reduce their greenhouse gas footprint and generate their own power by capturing methane emissions.
Earth U is all over this with a variety of neat schemes. In one, waste from the cafeteria goes to feed everyone in the picture below except Hana:
And then the waste from the pigs heads next door into a methane generation and capture system, which in turn provides power to run the university.