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Digital field trip
Experience Costa Rica's diverse ecosystems virtually
The big excursion to Costa Rica has been a well-established and popular event in our department for many years. Every two years, the excursion participants travel with our botany professor Klaus Mummenhoff to the South American country, which, despite its manageable size, boasts an incredible diversity of ecological life zones. Now apl. Prof. Mummenhoff, Felix Przesdzink and Sebastian Holt have tried to make this unique excursion experience digitally accessible and traveled to Costa Rica with elaborate film equipment. Find here the pictures and the report of the adventure!
Born out of necessity, with many ideas and even more luggage, Prof. Klaus Mummenhoff, PhD student Felix Przesdzink and Bachelor student Sebastian Holt traveled to Costa Rica last year. Their goal was to make the field trip experience accessible to students even during the pandemic-related restrictions. Felix and Sebastian already had experience with digitizing small field trips they had conducted for OSBG (Osnabrück Biodiversity Talks) courses and for their work in the Biodidactics Department on a much smaller scale in the Osnabrück area and the Emsland region. So the equipment, including a drone for aerial photography, VR-capable 360° cameras, a photo camera, spotlights for lighting and much more, was already available. So Felix and Sebastian came up with the idea of transferring the know-how to the big excursion in Costa Rica and got into conversation with Prof. Mummenhoff about it. An idea was born.
We talked to apl. Prof. Mummenhoff, Felix and Sebastian about the Costa Rica excursion and the big digitization project and wanted to know what experiences they had while shooting.
Since when has the excursion been offered?
Prof. Mummenhoff: I offered the excursion for the first time in 1993, at that time with my colleague Karl-Georg Bernhardt, who now teaches in Vienna at the BOKU (University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences, editor's note). Back then, he took me on the excursion and I was so enthusiastic about it that I modified the concept a few years later and offered it here in our department. That was back in 2003 and since then it has taken place every two years.
Felix: The seats are always in great demand!
What role does the big excursion to Costa Rica play in the teaching experience here in the department?
Prof. Mummenhoff: The concept of this course is to capture and get to know vegetation and life forms of the tropics using the example of the Neotropics (animal and plant geographic region, encompassing South America, Central America, the West Indies, southern Mexico and parts of Florida, editor's note) and I think you can clarify many interrelationships using this tropical habitat: From geology to climate to interactions between plants and animals. It's not so much about making this incredible diversity clear based on species names, but understanding the connections and context is the main focus.
Felix: I was there myself as a field trip participant in 2017, then for the first time as a tutor in 2019, and now again for the digitization. As a student, I found it great that you see the big picture in the tropics. You don't focus on just one species group or one topic, but you travel around the country, see eight or nine different sites: you're in tropical alpine high mountains, mangrove, lowland and montane rainforests and dry forest, seeing these different ecosystems and collecting measurement data to characterize them. In the end, you have something to take home with you, an understanding of how the tropics work.
Prof. Mummenhoff: With an area roughly the size of Lower Saxony, Costa Rica offers space for more life zones than anywhere else in the world. This ranges from mangroves to different types of lowland rainforests, different levels of mountain rainforest to tropical-alpine vegetation. This cannot be seen again in the world in such a small area. The second special feature of this field trip module is that we assign students to projects in small groups, who then make small experiments with data collection in a relatively short time by preparing appropriately well, discussing them on site, evaluating them and including them in the protocol. One example of what we study there is the mutualistic interactions between ants and plants.
Felix: It's simply different whether you listen to and prepare a lecture or a seminar talk, watch films, etc. or whether you're out in the field. What I always find special about field trips is that you are on site for a week or in this case even 3 weeks and spend the whole day together as a group, so a group dynamic is created. You live in the middle of this ecosystem for a longer period, it's around you all the time. You can see and hear it, you experience it in a completely different way. It's a very different learning atmosphere.
Sebastian: I'm in the final phase in my bachelor's studies and was lucky enough to join the trip for digitization. In these two weeks, I learned by far the most lasting thing in my entire studies, because I was on the road from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and had to settle in and get used to the new ecosystems again and again. That was so formative that I still remember by far the most about it compared to any online lab practicals.
Prof. Mummenhoff: At the moment, such an excursion is more important than ever, in times of climate change coupled with species extinction. There is a need for well-trained specialists. In this regard, unfortunately, it can be observed that worldwide the training of such experts seems to be stagnating, even declining. Only recently it was published in England that this has been recognized and a respective call for help has been started: We need more experts with knowledge of species and forms again! How else will one solve one of the biggest problems of our planet?
© Sebastian Holt | Osnabrück University
By off-road vehicle they went from shooting location to shooting location, the whole film equipment always with them. In Costa Rica, due to ecotourism, there are often feeders into the ecosystems. An unbeatable advantage for the excursion team!
How did you come up with the idea of digitizing the Costa Rica excursion?
Prof. Mummenhoff: The Costa Rica excursion was supposed to take place in February 2021 and the seminar and lecture had already taken place before that. But then, unfortunately, we didn't get the green light because of the Corona pandemic. The same thing happened again in 2022, first it looked good, then unfortunately it didn't work out again. That's why we chose the digital format in 2022, which was then approved.
Felix: In 2022, we finally had to do something, because the students had already completed the theoretical part of the module (seminar and lecture, editor's note) in the winter semester of 20/21 and the only thing missing were the exercises. Then one day I sat down with Klaus (Mummenhoff, editor's note) and we were sad that the excursion didn't happen again. I still knew Klaus from my bachelor thesis and the Costa Rica excursion years before, which I had visited myself as a student. After that, I changed to biology didactics, but we had to do with each other in teaching from time to time. Then I explained to him that we had already digitized smaller excursions, so why not a big one now?
Prof. Mummenhoff: It wouldn't have been possible without the commitment of the two students here, and that is already based on voluntariness and commitment to the cause. That has to be highly appreciated.
Felix: As a child, I loved nature documentaries. It was always a dream of mine to make my own nature documentary, which is why I enjoyed it so much.
Prof. Mummenhoff: So in 2022 we were able to use the digital material. We offered an alternative practical course for this. We looked at anatomical preparations in the course room, including those of plants from the various life zones in Costa Rica. We also conducted simple physiological experiments, dealt with liana ecology and adaptations to drought stress, and also used the digital material.
What else have you made digitally accessible besides educational videos and nature photos from Costa Rica?
Felix: In Costa Rica, we actually make a so-called plot in every ecosystem, a stakeout in the field of 10x10 meters. The students then look at different microclimatic parameters in this plot: Temperature, humidity, light intensity, UV radiation ...
Prof. Mummenhoff: ...plant cover, estimation of biomass, proportion of lianas, proportion of epiphytes, trunk diameter of trees, soil profile, soil respiration (O2 and CO2) measurements and much more. In order to be able to perceive some of these things in the alternative practical course, we used the recordings from Costa Rica. There we had placed the VR camera in each of the four corners of the plot and in the center and filmed. So the students could click through the plot with the VR goggles and look at it from different angles, a bit like they were really there. Then we flew the drone over the plot, so that the students in the practical course also had a view from above with the VR glasses. In addition, they received the measurement data from the field trip groups from previous years for evaluation.
© Sebastian Holt | Osnabrück University
Besides the poisonous Terciopelo viper (Bothrops asper), the expedition team encountered other, not less venomous snakes: Here Sebastian was able to photograph the beautiful eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii).
How did you get the equipment through the jungle? Did you have any help?
Felix: Rolf Blancke, our project partner in Costa Rica, luckily had his buddy Henry with him, a Costa Rican who just had time and was interested in the excursion. He also helped us carry our gear, but it was still quite a lugging around for all of us. We had the drone for the aerial shots, which was in an aluminum case, then the 360° camera, Go-Pros as action cams for the dynamic shots, a camera with telephoto lens, tripods, for night scenes we also had spotlights, clip-on microphones - in the end it was a 30-40 kilo box. We drove through the country with Rolf's all-terrain vehicle, but of course we had to go to the filming locations by foot, and that was quite an awful drag. But you also have to say that Costa Rica has a very long history in ecotourism and therefore there is a lot of infrastructure. You can reach and enter the ecosystems quite well, which is not necessarily the case in Nicaragua, for example. There are paths, you didn't have to beat your way through the thicket with a machete (laughs).
Prof. Mummenhoff: It is a misconception anyway that it is so dense there. Density rather indicates a disturbance. You can march through lowland rainforest like that. Mountain rainforests, on the other hand, are more dense near the ground. Rather disturbed areas like the banks of rainforest rivers are densely covered with liana curtains. You have to get through that first.
Felix: We had a machete with us, but it was rarely used.
Prof. Mummenhoff: I thought the biggest problem besides the dragging was the very tight schedule and that we had to record the educational videos very spontaneously. We couldn't rehearse several times, you had to have the topic ready ad hoc in front of the camera and also present it in a reasonably fluent and error-free manner, which wasn't always successful.
Felix: I think time was the most crucial factor. We were only on the road for two weeks for the digitization, but the excursion itself actually takes three weeks. In total, there must have been 60 individual videos plus all the photography. Each scene was shot only once, rarely a second time, only when you really lost the thread, for example. That's why we ourselves are so surprised that it doesn't look so bad now. But the schedule was really tight. After shooting at a certain location with several videos from different angles, we were quickly told "Come on, we have other things to shoot today!"
Prof. Mummenhoff: Yes, that was exhausting.
Felix: Oh, and then Sebastian and I missed another day of shooting, because we ate undercooked chicken and were completely flat.
I was just about to ask what went really wrong
Sebastian: That! ( Everybody laughs ). That was really bad.
Felix: I had to throw up in the forest between two shoots, that wasn't so nice.
Prof. Mummenhoff: That wasn't a whole day of downtime, you squeezed that into an hour of downtime and had to go back to work at lunchtime, that was quite a timing!
Felix: Sebastian had to land the drone quickly because he was already feeling sick.
Sebastian: So with a delay of two hours I was feeling very sick in the middle of the rainforest, we were just on the Atlantic coast.
Prof. Mummenhoff: I must say, as an almost-vegetarian, it's easier - the chicken looked already so dubious to me, so greasy ...
Felix: But you gave me your leftovers, that's why I felt so bad!
Prof. Mummenhoff: Because you couldn't fill your throat! (everybody laughs)
© Youtube channel "Virtuelle Exkursionen", still image
In addition to many drone and 360° videos, the classic educational videos on the object are also part of the digital excursion. Here, Prof. Mummenhoff explains how the so-called emergents, individual giant trees that tower above the forest canopy with their crowns, hold on to the ground with their board roots.
What other challenges did you encounter during filming?
Prof. Mummenhoff: We once shot in the pouring rain when we were out on the boat. We got soaked to the skin!
Felix: And don't forget the mosquitoes in the mangroves!
Prof. Mummenhoff: Oh, the mosquitoes were terrible.
Felix: Sebastian and I also had to get tested for a tropical disease afterwards, because we stayed in an accommodation where bloodsucking Chagas bugs were around, which transmit parasites. There is no vaccination against Chagas disease, so there is nothing you can do except see a cardiologist regularly to prevent heart failure. So we were very happy about the negative test.
Prof. Mummenhoff: The Chagas bug is a really dangerous story. The sand flies were also very annoying - sand flies during the day, mosquitoes in the evening. Venomous snakes are also an issue, but you rarely encounter them. We even looked for poisonous snakes, because we are all very interested in amphibians and reptiles. We saw Botriechis schlegelii (eyelash viper, editor's note) and Bothrops asper (Terciopelo viper, editor's note), one of the most venomous snakes in Central America. It's better to not step on them.
Sebastian: I was most worried about the bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) in the lowland rainforest. These are large ants that are incredibly painful and venomous. Thank God we haven't had any problems.
With all the beautiful videos and pictures, is the digital offering a real competitor to the real excursion?
Prof. Mummenhoff: You might get the impression that you could replace such an excursion to the tropics with a digital format, but of course that's not possible. On the contrary, the students had become so interested in the issues through the digital course that they really wanted to experience it again on-site. Thus, a clear conclusion: These digital formats are very well suited to complement or prepare the actual excursion module. In no way is it suitable to replace this module.
Felix: The excursion should of course still take place. This will soon be taken over by the chair representative of the biology didactics department, Dr. Florian Fiebelkorn. We can then use the teaching videos for preparation. So the material will still find a useful use in the future, but we won't just show people videos now.
© Sebastian Holt | Osnabrück University
Here Felix got a photograph a sloth.
Digitizing your excursion was just the beginning - what are your plans?
Felix: In retrospect, we were really positively surprised by the quality of the videos, because the concept was actually born out of necessity. Sebastian and I are going to Costa Rica again soon with a third student, we have been promised money from the Costa Rica Center to do so and a grant from the department. We are also in the process of applying for a travel grant from the university society. All this is necessary to make a Youtube documentary out of the material. It will be aimed at students interested in studying biology and will present the biology study program in Osnabrück in an attractive way. We also want to publish the concept of our digital excursion.
Sebastian: Our digital excursion material is on the level for biology students in the 4th or 5th semester, now we would like to prepare the material for 11th-12th graders in school who are considering studying biology in Osnabrück.
Prof. Mummenhoff: It is important to reach out to the schools so that the students become aware of the problem, think about it and understand the connections! A lot of work is done with buzzwords, so you simply have to explain how a tropical rainforest works, why a forest like this can store a lot of CO2 and why it is important for the global climate and the water cycle. You can grab people's attention with pictures. Many people already talk about the problems in the lowland rainforest, but the tropical dry forest, on the other hand, is largely unknown. With our digital educational videos, you can lead pupils to a whole new problem area that they haven't even heard of. Unfortunately, this tropical dry forest has already been largely destroyed worldwide.
Thank you very much for the exciting interview!
© Sebastian Holt | Osnabrück University
With his fascinating photographs from Costa Rica, Sebastian Holt has also won a competition organized by the Ingeborg Sieber Foundation. The Osnabrück Art Foundation will enable him to exhibit his pictures in the Botanical Garden starting in June 2023. So if you want to see more, look forward to an exhibition this summer! Congratulations!