Fabricio Camacho: The Cognitive Composter


Why do humans produce double the amount food that the entire world needs, but one billion people are still left hungry every day? How can we reduce the global impact of an agricultural industry that takes up 38 percent of Earth’s land mass?

On his childhood farm, a young Fabricio was wondering the same: why are they clearing the trees from the coffee plantations? Why do the coffee plants need chemicals? Why are the chemicals held in a room that I am not allowed in? These are questions Fabricio Camacho asked on his grandparent’s coffee farm in the 1980’s in the southern region of San Isidro, Costa Rica.

Now as the director of UGA Costa Rica, Fabricio is asking similar questions for his PhD research. This time, it’s through a more scientifically polished and globally pertinent lens.

He has a vision to fuse traditional methods of farming with the latest science. The goal is to produce coffee plants just as efficiently with a fraction of the emissions, cutting out synthetic fertilizers that deteriorate soil quality and emit greenhouse gases. Fabricio believes that we can sequester carbon and safeguard our water supply inside a rich soil that is facilitated by waste products that are already abundant.

Fabricio thinks that by using microorganisms and compost that is accessible to farmers, we can make a steep turn towards improving global health – and he’s got 1,600 plants outside the campus nursery to prove it.

Young Fabricio saw many of the fields on his home farm become degraded because of chemical use. This translated to special consideration for the long-term health of coffee plantations.

The first goal is substitution of synthetic fertilizers by purely organic matter. Because coffee production is the second largest crop in Costa Rica, the outcome could become a nationally adequate solution for carbon gas emissions.

“The idea could be adopted by just coffee farmers in Costa Rica, or the model could be introduced around the whole world” – Fabricio Camacho

He has eight different soil mixes randomly placed within each of the 64 blocks. The blocks are placed together to organize soil treatment throughout the experiment. Two of the eight are standard controls that farmers already use: basic soil and synthetically produced treatments. Two of these formulas are renditions of what Fabricio calls “optimized compost.”

The two optimized compost treatments have food waste products like banana leaves, wood chips, biodigestor sludge, and microorganisms that are available in the area, making his solution accessible to everyone.

Fabricio’s project delves into microbiology to understand how the MM (Mountain Microorganisms) and biodigestor sludge can facilitate nutrient absorption by the coffee plants and how much more carbon can be sequestered.

All of the plants are located in the same area to standardize lurking variables such as sun cover, rainfall, insect herbivory, and the microclimates of each block. His study will be able to be reproduced with 95 percent accuracy. This is lively science to be seen in an outdoor classroom where we can share the process with guests, students, and other researchers.

Fabricio takes every opportunity to share and crowd-source his ideas. The first planting day involved our UGACR maintenance team, most of whom have their own farms, to help weigh and mix the composts for the soil testing. A group of local farmers came to see and study the experiment due to their desire for new solutions.

Fabricio gladly shares the recipe, like teaching students from Fit4Earth how to bake a compost cake. These are young ticos who can apply the knowledge in their country, where 8% of the citizens work on coffee farms.

Fabricio’s hypothesis is that the optimized compost with purely organic material will facilitate coffee plant growth equally or better than the synthetic alternatives. The main objective is promoting sustainability by utilizing the natural resources that we have available. It can be more cost efficient because this method is easily obtainable within our environment.

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San Luis is a great example of a sustainable and organic model. If we prove this hypothesis correct, our community can serve as an inspiration to others. Through research and technological innovation we can bring the Costa Rican ecosystems back up to health by transitioning back to agro-forestry across the country.

The sustainable farms present in the community could use more strength for their plants. We could prove these soils to create more strength to grow, absorb nutrients, and contain water to hold throughout the dry season.

The common goal of Fabricio and participating interns is to bridge the gap between the practical farming community and the latest scientific breakthroughs. This experiment using unique ingredients is still one-of-a-kind on Earth. Fabricio is branching out by traveling to Germany for a month this summer to learn more about carbon sequestration.

It is already known that agro-forestry is more sustainable than monocultures. The questions Fabricio will resolve may prove that we don’t need any synthetic chemicals to maximize production. We can return to traditional methods with a newfound knowledge to gradually improve global health.

Blog post and photos by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll

The Man Behind the Mariposas

Eyes peer over the cabinets as José decides which butterfly case to show. Each is organized by family, pinned nicely in order to see the wings with an individual label for each subject.

José Joaquín Montero Ramírez is creating a library of information that many generations will be able to pass down. As well as being the Research, Instruction, and Internship Coordinator for UGA Costa Rica, José also leads workshops and lectures on his expertise – butterflies and moths.

UGA conservation inventories can be found in our lab, where the specimens are kept in sealed cases and organized by families. These collections are expected to last for 300-500 years and will be studied by future generations to tell our history.

“Having those specimens in a drawer with a label that specifies time, location, altitude, and GPS coordinates is extremely important because it’s the only way for you, in the future, to reveal a story.” – José Joaquín Montero Ramírez

Through his hands-on education and his growing collection of self-written books, that is exactly what José is doing – telling a brilliant story. We use the collection as one of our main tools to show students how thorough research is conducted.

José published two books on the Butterflies and Moths of Costa Rica in 2007. Now he is using the UGACR collection of over 1000 specimens collected on campus, beginning in 1998, to write his third book describing the 250 species that are found in San Luis de Monteverde.

CAB_2017_1395_Fit4Earth.jpgJosé’s main goal through teaching is to promote Bioliteracy.  This means that people study a particular biology well enough to become fluent in understanding the causes and effects, pushes and pulls, between environmental stimuli and species. Our field observations tie together butterflies with the plants that they use to eat and pupate, for example.

UGA Costa Rica is a place where we can constantly make observations, proving step-by-step that butterfly and moth behavior is a key indicator of environmental health.

Looking to publish his third book will bring him closer to San Luis, focusing on species that surround us here on campus. Costa Rica has .03 percent of the world’s land mass, but yet 8 percent of its butterflies and 11 percent of the world’s moths. Our campus is a magnifying glass to hold to the butterfly world.

José Joaquín Montero Ramírez has worked for a non-profit science organization as well as contributing to the National Museum of Costa Rica’s butterfly and moth collection.

As the curator in charge of collection at Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), José would organize parataxonomists, organize samples from families to species level, and teach new collectors how to preserve the specimens. Every curator would focus on one or more families

A research center in Ontario, Canada at the University of Guelph has a DNA reader that creates a library of barcodes of life for each species.

Butterfly researchers send a leg of the specimen to be tested by the machine and receive a detailed description of the genes in return (barcode). This information is crucial to the ability to delineate species boundaries, specifying which insect is a sibling or cryptic species, family member, distant cousin species, or a newly found species all together.

During his work with INBio, José was at the forefront of differentiating species using this form of identification. The family of moths that Jose was in charge of, Lasiocampidae, grew from 130 to 203 species through his leadership.

“When you have a collection, it implies that you have knowledge, and in this era of technology, if you have knowledge, you have a lot of power. Collections, for me, represent power in terms of having the opportunity, data, and the information to teach young people and show them that you have to collect butterflies and moths because it’s the only way to conserve.” – José Joaquín Montero Ramírez

Students are able to take a sample of a species, unravel their net to hold their butterfly gently, understanding that the interaction between human and insect can be purely positive without harming the butterfly. Then they sit down with the page of the butterfly family in the book and make their guess to exactly what species they have found.

They will learn the scientific and common name. José will often share amazing details about a unique characteristic or personality trait of that particular species.

The kids realize the animal and form a tangible connection between themselves and a certain species of insect. This can feel something quite new to students of all age, who are normally timid to hold insects, and show them that there’s no way to gain knowledge of a species if we don’t interact with it.

UGACR bridges the gap between the forest and the laboratory where we study. At this field station, a wealth of information is just right outside the doors of the lab. One of the main goals of this activity is to teach people how citizen science is applicable.

There are species fluttering around us that we still don’t know about; we are exploring new species month to month. Living in this unique forest that shares such a vast border with reserved land creates an atmosphere of discovery through some unexplored frontiers of biodiversity, sometimes flying right past your eyes.

Words and photos contributed by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll

A Comprehensive Sample of the Streams

Last week marked an important step in the most comprehensive study of water quality in the Bellbird Biological Corridor. Dr. Thomas Shahady returned to gather another round of samples, continuing to solidify some hypotheses in his water research.

Shahady is the current director of the Center for Water Quality at Lynchburg College in Virginia. He practices a three-pronged research model with students and interns he teaches in both the U.S. and Costa Rica.

He has been gathering data from 18 field sites in the Bellbird Biological Corridor since 2013. By taking multiple trips to UGACR every year, his information is adding up to give us a general idea of what concerns the community will face.

Researchers Martha Garro Cruz and José Montero tagged along with Darixa Hernandez and Shahady for three days to continue the collection of data and samples. The methods comprise three key steps:

1.) Physical parameters:  A cross section is chosen to measure the depth across every meter of the river’s width. This gives us information on water volume.

The velocity is also measured at each of these points using a flow meter. The combined information is used to measure the river discharge.

2.) Chemical parameters: Water samples are collected in order to measure phosphorus and nitrogen levels. This can tell us if there’s any external input of these chemicals by fertilizers, for example. A YSI multimeter is used to measure pH, ammonium levels, dissolved oxygen, and water temperature.

3.) Biological parameters: Samples of the aquatic macroinvertebrates are taken by placing a square net facing upstream, then turning over rocks and leaf litter in front of the net. Macroinvertebrates are released from their habitat and drifted into the net by the water current. Based off their continuing research, they have developed a percentage model of what the standard content should be for each family of macroinvertebrates. Only certain families of macroinvertebrates are resistant to large amounts of pollution. This makes it possible to decipher water quality based on what aquatic life is present.

Escherichia coli and number of fecal coliform colonies present are also assessed. Water samples are collected and then taken to the lab where the water is filtered through a membrane, a growth medium for bacteria is added and then these are placed in petri dishes. After three days of incubation, blue (E. coli) and red (other coliform colonies)  are counted.

Keeping track of the macroinvertebrate populations in the stream can be conducted as citizen science – all you need is a net, containers, and an insect key. This is why Shahady wants to show a correlation between chemical pollution and invertebrates present. The goal is to empower the communities to be more cognizant about the pollution levels in their water shed.

Through this research, Shahady has discovered several alarming issues. He is faced by the ambiguity of what happens with Costa Rica’s waste water (black and gray water).

They are now aware of field sites where water is simply disappearing. Farmers (and a pineapple plantation) have been extracting an unregulated amount of water for irrigation when the weather is dry. In a single river the difference is drastic based on the amount of anthropogenic influence in adjacent locations.

After compiling all of the results, Shahady will have plentiful evidence to show community representatives. The results will be published in written form along with an index for citizens to monitor their river and streams, driving more policies to be implemented to water quality in the Bellbird Biological Corridor. Check out the links below for Thomas Shahady’s visual presentations.

Assessment of Stream Water Quality in BellBird Biological Corridor: www.periscope.tv/w/1BRKjAvPgNwxw

Creation of Water Quality Index: www.periscope.tv/w/1ypKdAvqbQdGW 

Blog by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll, with special contributions by Darixa Hernandez.

Combating Bird Strikes Through Research and Design

A rufous-breasted wren, photographed by Rachel Eubanks at the University of Georgia in Costa Rica on Wednesday, June 22, 2016.

At the University of Georgia in Athens, I walked to many of my classes through the open plaza that connects the psychology building to the journalism building. Before skipping downstairs to the basement “photo cave” for my photojournalism classes, I would sometimes see out of the periphery of my right eye a small, colorful creature lying on the gray cement below the building’s four stories of windows.

Sometimes other students would also notice the dead birds on the plaza, stopping to snap photos on their iPhones and sending them to their friends, perhaps alongside broken heart emojis. I, too, would stop for a moment and wonder why birds died so often by my college building, but never bothered to look up and realize the reason.

Bird strikes have become normalized in many of our minds.

One thousand six hundred forty miles away from Athens as the crow flies, the University of Georgia’s campus in Costa Rica conducts research and maintains efforts to prevent the occurrence of bird strikes.

As soon as you walk to the edificio principal, or the student union, you can see window decals in the shapes of hummingbirds, butterflies and toucans. Birds often mistake reflections for a continuation of the outside environment or see through the windows and think they can fly through them. These window stickers, when used in large quantities, act as one of many ways we can prevent the bird injuries and deaths by reducing the incidence of bird strikes.

Large windows reflect the environment outside, creating confusing scenes for birds and greater opportunity for bird strikes. Photo by Rachel Eubanks.

I recently sat down with Martha Garro Cruz, UGA Costa Rica’s Academic Programs Facilitator, to learn about her research on bird strikes at UGA Costa Rica. Martha, 29, grew up nearby in Santa Elena and became interested in bird strike research through her past work with Rose Marie Menacho.

Martha Garro Cruz holds an orange-chinned parakeet on the University of Georgia campus in Costa Rica. Photo by Rachel Eubanks.

Menacho, an environmental educator and researcher based in Monteverde, has worked extensively to research bird strikes in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and recently presented her work on bird strikes in Costa Rica at the Monteverde Arenal Bioregion conference.

While most information on bird strikes currently reflects findings from the United States and Canada, this type of research is especially important to Costa Rica because of the country’s high level of biodiversity and the importance of bird watching to Costa Rica’s tourism industry.

In the United States alone, an estimated 100 million to 1 billion birds die each year as a result of bird strikes.

Thankfully, everybody can do something to combat this problem. Here at UGA Costa Rica, Cruz has incorporated a citizen science component into her research on bird strikes, relying on students and guests to observe and record bird strikes when they occur on campus in addition to her own observations and data collection. Cruz conducts her research three consecutive days per week using a numbered window system to track where strikes occur most frequently and which bird species are most susceptible to strikes.

For five weeks Cruz worked with Jocelin Alarcon, pictured above, and Christy Li, two interns from Lehigh University, on her bird strike research. She expects the project to take a total of two years. Photo provided by Martha Garro Cruz.

While the majority of bird strikes occur at low-rise buildings, such as the journalism building I frequented on the campus of the University of Georgia, 44 percent of bird strikes occur at residences. So whether at your home or in the workplace, you have the ability to combat the prevalence of bird strikes.

Here are a few ways to prevent bird strikes in your own community:

  • Draw designs on the outside of windows using UV pens or window markers
  • Tie strings to the tops of windows, leaving 10 centimeters between each, or use tape to create a similar pattern of vertical lines
  • Close your blinds when you exit a room or leave the house and turn off lights at night
  • Encourage the companies you work for to invest in high-tech, beautifully-designed methods to avoid bird strikes, like those mentioned in the article below

Learn More:
 View this video by National Geographic on how we can prevent millions of bird deaths through innovative window designs

Blog post written by photojournalism intern Rachel Eubanks

The Monteverde Arenal Bioregion Conference


This weekend, over sixty researchers and Monteverde community members gathered for the third-annual Monteverde Arenal Bioregion conference, hosted at the campus of UGA Costa Rica.

“In the last three decades, the regions of Monteverde and Arenal, Costa Rica have emerged as premier sites for research, conservation, and education.  However, this is a critical time for conservation in and around the Monteverde-Arenal bioregion due to both the rapidly changing climate and increasing human activities,” the Monteverde Institute explains of the initiative.

The Monteverde-Arenal protected zone includes over 60,000 hectares of land. UGA Costa Rica, which sits in the San Luis valley of Monteverde, operates within a network of private reserves, sharing boundaries with the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the Children’s Eternal Rainforest.

Leaders from these well-known reserves along with the Monteverde Conservation League, the Monteverde Institute, study abroad organization CIEE, and others met at the conference to focus on the progress of independent research projects and the potential for collaboration among conservation organizations.

Researchers from the United States also attended MABI, traveling from the University of South Florida, the Soltis Center at Texas A&M University and even attending as independent scientists to learn about current research, communications and outreach. 160812_REE_UGACR_Conference_0006

The University of Georgia, both in its work in the United States and here in Costa Rica, aims to cultivate “groundbreaking research and discovery,” as university President Jere Morehead explains in a video address to UGA students returning to school this month.

Hosting events like the Monteverde Arenal Bioregion conference allows the university to build upon its aim to become a top research center and reinforces UGA Costa Rica’s goals of fostering sustainable living practices in the Monteverde area.

As UGA Costa Rica research coordinator José Montero explains, “the most important or significant aspect [of the conference] was the opportunity to see different organizations with different agendas working for education, conservation, and research, trying to create together a better place for future generations.”

To support UGA Costa Rica in its mission of international education and sustainable scientific research, visit our website and become a friend of UGACR. 

Blog post and accompanying images made by photo intern Rachel Eubanks.

Ornithologist Cody Cox Catches His Hundredth Species at UGACR


Although his tone is typically serious and his expression stone-faced, Cody Cox cracked a smile yesterday when he caught a rufous-breasted wren, his hundredth species of birds recorded here at UGA Costa Rica. Cox, a PhD candidate from Atlanta, has been conducting ornithology research in Monteverde since 2013, moving between Athens and UGA’s satellite campus in San Luis based on the seasons of bird migration. Cody just reached a benchmark of over one thousand birds caught as part of his five-year research project. We sat down with Cody to learn more about his current ornithology research in addition to his initial draw to working with birds. 

“I’ve always liked animals a lot,” Cox said of his introduction to ornithology. “I don’t know that I ever really specialized in birds in my mind until coming down to Costa Rica. Just seeing all that diversity really captured me and seeing some of the charismatic, tropical species [also] really captured me.”

Ornithologist Cody Cox holds an emerald toucanet on the campus of the University of Georgia in Costa Rica on Thursday, June 30, 2016. (Photo/Rachel Eubanks, http://www.rachel-eubanks.com)

“I really like working with birds and I like that they’re lively and they’re responding to me as I’m manipulating them. I just felt like I made more of a spiritual connection with them [compared to mammals] and so I found that I really liked doing that kind of research.”

With this current project, “we are looking at generally how landscape structure, with particular interest on forest fragmentation, affects bird communities in the upper portion of the Bellbird Biological Corridor.” Forest fragmentation occurs in the Monteverde area as a result of agriculture; farmers often clear land for cattle pastures or crop growth, leaving gaps in the habitat area. Cox explained that fragmentation leads to reduced connectivity between habitats, resulting in birds’ decreased abilities to mate and find food while increasing population predation and competition.

An orange-chinned parakeet sits suspended in a mist net set up on the campus of the University of Georgia in Costa Rica on Wednesday, June 22, 2016.

Cox and his team primarily use two measurements to determine species presence across different landscape gradients: point counts and mist nettings. With point counts, the researchers simply observe and count the birds present within a certain geographic radius. In mist nettings, researchers set up nets to capture, measure, weigh, photograph and subsequently release each bird. “So by putting those two methods together we’re able to get a pretty good picture of what species are present in a whole bunch of different locations,” Cox explained. “Then when we put all of that data together, we’re able to predict which certain landscape features are indicative of a species’ presence.”

Cox currently gathers this data with two particular species in mind: the blue-throated toucanets (related to the emerald toucanets) and blue diademed motmots. Both birds are generalists in their diets, abundant in the Monteverde area and relatively large, an important factor for attaching GPS transmitters without affecting the birds’ movement.

Upon completion of his five-year doctoral research project, Cody hopes that the data he has compiled will be used to “inform real conservation in this landscape and allow it to be a lot better targeted to some of these species of concern.” Conservation efforts must be both effective and efficient in order to make a measurable impact on bird populations. “I do care very much about the animals and I’m a big advocate for them and wanting them to persist,” Cox said. With a body of research that now includes over one hundred species and one thousand individual birds in the Monteverde area, Cox seems to be making his mark to ensure that these species survive.

All images made by photo intern Rachel Eubanks.

Friday Feature: Water Quality Research


This trip was designed with a story in mind,” Lindsey, one of the school group’s leaders explained. She along with Pat, two science teachers from Colorado, traveled to Costa Rica with thirteen middle school students on a Source to Sea trip, which highlights the importance of water sources as indicators of an environment’s overall health. The group, organized by the Global Travel Alliance, began their ten-day tour at UGA Costa Rica to learn about the upper watershed in Monteverde, including the Bellbird Biological Corridor.

Water quality intern Darixa leads students into the upper stream to capture macroinvertebrates.
Students from the Source to Sea trip collect data to determine the health of la bruja, a creek that lies five minutes from UGA Costa Rica’s main campus.

The Source to Sea group worked with Darixa, UGA Costa Rica’s current water quality intern, to learn how researchers evaluate water quality based on chemical, physical and biological measures. Darixa emphasized the importance of riparian areas, or banks that act as buffers, providing natural vegetation, shade, food, and habitat, all while reducing erosion and pollution. Here in Costa Rica, each side of a bank must measure at least twenty-five meters to be reserved as a riparian area, as Darixa explained in her presentation to the class.

Out in the Field

The thirteen students recorded water quality measurements such as pH and turbidity before placing their nets in the streams to collect macroinvertebrates. Each measure works together to help researchers understand the overall health bill of a body of water.

To collect macroinvertebrates, the students divided into teams, kicked up rocks and released the organisms from their aquatic dwellings so they could be collected and later examined in the lab. What originally seemed to be pieces of leaves often revealed to be macroinvertebrates, which are sedentary organisms with long life cycles whose responses to pollution are well-known. Water quality researchers focus on the presence of macroinvertebrates because their lives depend on the health of the water in which they reside. 

Back in the Lab

Next students used forceps to pick through their specimen bags, dividing their findings into types, such as insects, crustaceans, molluscs, arachnids, and amelids, then using microscopes to take closer looks. The abundance and classifications of the macroinvertebrates revealed the healthy conditions of the bruja and alondra creeks, as a higher presence of pollution-intolerant organisms indicates lower levels of pollution in the watersheds.

All images © Rachel Eubanks Media

Water quality research is one of the key pillars of sustainability goals established by UGA Costa Rica. As population growth and climate change create detrimental impacts upon the world’s water sources, water quality research remains an essential component of environmental conservation efforts.

This post and its images were created by photojournalism intern Rachel Eubanks.