Resources to help students explore the types of rainforests, ecology, ethical issues surrounding rainforests, and more
Interview With Scientist Shauneen Giudice
Guidice shares her experiences of studying caterpillars in the rain forest.
Question: Are you a scientist?
Shauneen: I'm trained as a biologist; my specialty is marine biology, but for the past five years I've been teaching seventh grade science.
Question: What is your favorite thing about teaching?
Shauneen: I've two favorite things: the first is the kids because they are always a surprise and they are a lot of fun. And the second is figuring out new activities for them to do.
Question: Why did you go to Costa Rica?
Shauneen: I've always wanted to visit a tropical rain forest and this was a great opportunity to get a chance to go, so I went.
Question: What's the most amazing thing you've found out about the rain forest on your visit?
Shauneen: I had known that insects were important in the rain forest, but I really hadn't thought about the fact that there were hundreds of different kinds of caterpillars.
Question: Have you ever studied caterpillars before? Do you think you will notice caterpillars at home more than you used to?
Shauneen: No, I had never studied caterpillars before, and definitely I hope to do something this spring with caterpillars and butterflies with my students.
Question: What is the greatest number of caterpillars that you collected in one day?
Shauneen: I don't know, I was not very good at it. The two scientists and the technician were able to walk over a path and just look over and notice that the leaves had been eaten, and they would walk over and find caterpillars by just walking past. The rest of us, the volunteers, had to spend a lot more time looking under leaves and crawling around and looking up in the bushes to find them, I probably only found five to ten in one day. But sometimes other people found huge groups of them, and they might find 25 or so in one small place.
Question: How many of the caterpillars were really brightly colored compare with ones that were camouflaged?
Shauneen: I don't know in terms of numbers, most of the ones I found personally were not brightly colored, but not particularly camouflaged, they were mostly different shades of green or brown.
Question: Did you find any really weird caterpillars like with long hair or spikes?
Shauneen: Some, not a lot. I guess the fanciest one that someone I was with found had long white hairs sticking out of it.
Question: Could you describe the most beautiful caterpillar you saw?
Shauneen: One of my favorites was not one that I collected, but it was a medium-sized green one with stripes that Grant was taking pictures of in the laboratory.
Question: When you found caterpillars, were there usually lots of the same kind together, or all mixed up?
Shauneen: Some of the caterpillars would be found in groups, and you might find several of them on one leaf. They would actually bend the leaves, and make themselves little shelters, little leaf rolls. I don't remember the name of those caterpillars, but they were very common and they were very messy. They lived in their little leaf rolls, and they kept their frass (caterpillar poop) with them. Others would be by themselves; some of them also made shelters or houses.
Question: Did you watch a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? How long does it take?
Shauneen: No, I didn't. We sometimes found caterpillars that were just about ready to pupate (make their cocoon), and we would collect them and put them in a baggie with pieces of the plants that they lived on. And after a few days they would make their cocoon and be moved to a separate section in the zoo or the lab where they wouldn't be disturbed and they would be checked every day until they had emerged. Some take several days; there is a different amount of time for each species. I'm not sure of the average time for each species. It would be a good thing to look up.
Question: Are the poisonous caterpillars also poisonous to humans?
Shauneen: No, I think some of them might be able to sting you, but I'm not real sure about them being poisonous if you eat them. I don't know anyone who eats them. I'm not sure if you mean "poisonous" by touch or "poisonous" by ingesting them.
Question: Did you ever touch the caterpillars with your bare hands? If you did, would you get stung by the hairs?
Shauneen: The ones I touched, no I didn't get stung. But mostly we used forceps and didn't really handle them directly.
Question: What kinds of things did you do with the caterpillars?
Shauneen: Lee and Grant are the scientists; they are interested in how caterpillars defend themselves. So one of the things that we did was to test some of the caterpillars'defenses; for example: we would gently poke at it with a paintbrush or the forceps to see if it would try to bite or thrash around or drop. Some caterpillars defend themselves by dropping suddenly from the leaf if a predator comes towards them.
Question: Did you see a caterpillar vomit to protect itself?
Shauneen: No, I didn't.
Question: Have you seen caterpillars throw frass? Is it effective? Is it gross?
Shauneen: First of all, the caterpillars don't really throw their frass at their enemy. They instead throw it around themselves to confuse the enemy where they are; they might throw it below them so the predator sees the frass down there and goes towards the frass and doesn't go near them.
Question: How big do the caterpillars get?
Shauneen: The largest that we caught was about two-thirds the size of a sharpie (ballpoint pen) - it was almost the size of that. Most of them were smaller than that.
Question: Did your team find any new species of caterpillar that no one had ever seen before?
Shauneen: I don't think so, but we found caterpillars that Grant and Lee had not caught before and sometimes not a lot is known about which caterpillars turn into which caterpillars. So part of Grant and Lee's project is to document with pictures the caterpillars they find and the adults they turn into, so you have some way of identifying them in the future. What kind of butterfly this caterpillar is going to become.
Question: How are new species named?
Shauneen: They have two Latin names: a genus and species name. The first part of their name has to do with their classification. The second name sometimes has to do with the place they are found in, or named after the person who found it.
Question: Do you know how many endangered caterpillar species per month are killed?
Shauneen: No, I don't.
Question: How did you get the caterpillars out of the trees?
Shauneen: We collected caterpillars from the understory and the bushes that we could reach from the ground.
Question: Was it boring to just collect caterpillars all day?
Shauneen: No, it was wonderful to be out in the forest, walking around, you were never sure what you were going to see next.
Question: Was it interesting working in the "zoo"?
Shauneen: Yes, I liked collecting caterpillars better, but the jobs in the zoo involved looking in each caterpillar bag, making sure they had enough food, shaking out the frass if there was a lot in there, and recording if they had pupated or died or showed parasites.
Question: What is the reason for studying caterpillars, and why did you choose Costa Rica?
Shauneen: Lee and Grant are interested in caterpillars for a couple of reasons,. 1.) They are interested in biodiversity, which means how many different kinds of living organisms there are in a given space. In areas like the tropical rain forest, many species of caterpillars and other insects are not well studied. First of all, people need to learn what the species are, and how many there are, and basic knowledge of their life history. To learn about their role in the forest, why are there so many different kinds? Is it important to have so many different kinds? What would happen if some of the species became extinct? 2.) Some of the caterpillar species are pests in banana plantations and they are interested in finding out if you can use the parasitoids to control the pest population.
Question: What would happen if certain caterpillars became extinct?
Shauneen: I don't know, I guess it would depend on the caterpillars, what their particular role was in their habitat. For example, they might be important food items for other animals, so if they were gone the animals that ate them would have problems.
Question: There has been a tremendous loss of monarch butterflies due to colder than normal temperatures in Mexico. Are the butterflies in Costa Rica temperature-sensitive also?
Shauneen: I would imagine so because the ones that live there all the time are used to a climate that really doesn't vary too much. If there was some huge variation in the climate I would imagine that it would affect them.
Question: What other animals have you seen besides caterpillars?
Shauneen: We saw monkeys, peccaries (related to the wild boar family), coatis - they had bushy tales, are not too big, are foragers, walk on the ground, are very tame, came to the lawn around the lab to forage for food; they weren't bothered by people. We also saw agoutis, but not too much. They are a rodent - you'd sometimes get a glimpse of them through the underbrush in the forest. We saw lots of frogs and some iguanas and different types of birds.
Question: What is that snake you have in the photo? What other snakes did you encounter?
Shauneen: That snake was actually a small boa, and the picture was taken at a butterfly farm. On our day off we visited a nearby volcano and butterfly farm, and the snake was one that they had there in captivity. We didn't hold any snakes that we saw because most of them were poisonous. There were tiny terciopelo, but they are poisonous, and there were several instances with snakes like that near the showers and dorms where we stayed. But mainly in the forest the best advice was to keep your distance. The snakes would curl up near our bathroom doors, but we would wait for them to go away. Or if we saw them in our path, we would walk around them. One of the things we were told is to wear rubber boots on the trails and especially in the woods. Not just because of the mud, but because of the snakes. Many of the poisonous snakes are sit-and-wait predators, meaning they wait for something small and warm to go by. The advice was to wear boots on your feet, because your feet are small and warm and might look attractive to a snake who's waiting for his dinner along a dark trail.
Question: Did anyone there ever get bitten by a poisonous snake?
Shauneen: Not while we were there. If you get bitten, we were told that there are not many cases of snake bites, but people who are bitten would be taken to the nearest hospital - it's not something you treat on your own. I'm not sure about the antibiotics that are given.
Question: Were you bitten by a bala ant?
Shauneen: I wasn't, but some of the team members were. They took Tylenol and tried to take it easy for the rest of the afternoon. One of the common names for the Bala ant is the 24-hour ant, because it hurts so bad that you need to go to bed for 24 hours. Our team members didn't do that; they seemed to be okay the next day so they kept on going.
Question: What were the monkeys like? Did they like people?
Shauneen: The monkeys were usually high up in the canopies, high up in the trees. Sometimes when they were walking along a path, if you heard things falling and looked around you might be lucky enough to see one or two monkeys up in the trees; they kept their distance. However, there were some who were used to people. They wouldn't come up to people, but they would come nearer to our buildings. There was one that would hang out near the river station where we stayed and some near the bridge.
Question: Did you hear of anyone seeing any wild cats at the reserve?
Shauneen: Yes, actually one of our team members saw a wild cat on the trail on the way home one evening. She was the only one that saw it.
Question: What was the wild cat that the team member saw?
Shauneen: We don't really know; it was brownish and didn't have distinct markings, that is all I know about it.
Question: We are studying native people of Central America. Did you have contact with any native people of Costa Rica?
Shauneen: No, where we were it's my understanding, but I don't know for sure, that there were not a lot of indigenous groups. I really don't know a lot about that in Costa Rica.
Question: How did you live in the rain forest?
Shauneen: We stayed in a dormitory that used to be an old farmhouse/ranch house along the edge of a river. Now it's divided into a lot of small rooms for two people. We had roommates and shared a room with someone else. Our meals were in a central dining hall, unless we were going to be in the forest all day, and in that case we took a packed lunch.
Question: What are the sounds like at night?
Shauneen: Sometimes it was quiet, but sometimes you could hear different birds or animals out in the forest. I don't know enough about the different species to identify the sounds I heard.
Question: What were the smells like in the forest?
Shauneen: It smelled kind of wet and humid. Kind of like dirt and plants; it didn't smell terribly different to me than any wet forested area.
Question: What was most challenging to you on this project?
Shauneen: One of the days, in particular, we had a very very long hike, it was my favorite hike, but it was also the most difficult. What was challenging about it was not just the difficulty and the heat, but we were way out in the back of the reserve and not too clear about our directions. Part of the time we were worried that we were even on the right trail. It was nerve-racking. Many of the trails are paved, or have wooden blocks on them, but this particular trail went along the back border, which was next to a national park. Much of the trail was mud; they weren't that big, but they were slippery. There were lots of those small, poisonous brown snakes that sometimes when you went to put your hand out to pull yourself up, and among the twigs you were going to grab, you would see one of these little snakes.
Question: How did you get involved with Earthwatch?
Shauneen: I don't remember the first time I became aware of Earthwatch, but as a teacher I knew there were programs that would help teachers travel and/or get experience in different types of science. As I was searching for those types of programs, somewhere along the way I found out about Earthwatch and eventually applied.
Question: What advice do you have for kids who want to be scientists?
Shauneen: Do whatever experiences come your way in terms of going places, doing outdoor projects, finding ways to visit science labs, and either participate in a program, observe, or get involved with science. The other end is to plug away with your science classes and schooling - you can't always do all the fun stuff unless you have a firm grasp of the basics. You need to do well in all your subjects, not just science. You need to read and write well, and apply your math. You need to know all those things, because they are skills you use in science.