The Best Part of South Africa


By Ella Head, Duke University ’19

While I was deciding whether or not I was going to study abroad in South Africa, lots of fears crossed my mind. I worried about all the things I would miss out on campus while I was abroad. I considered my senior friends who would graduate while I was away. I thought about what if someone in my family got sick I needed to return home? Really though, I think most of the hesitation came from the idea of traveling to the opposite side of the planet. Alone. This was my first time traveling internationally by myself, and my flights would take nearly two days.

I remember as I was about to land in South Africa, I had this moment of panic. What had I gotten myself involved in? How could I have committed to traveling across two continents and an ocean to a place where I didn’t know anyone? And suddenly I realized that I left the slip of paper with the OTS instructors contact information in my living room. Now I was going to land, somehow not find the person waiting with a sign, and be unable to contact anyone. What was I going to do?

But of course, I found my professors waiting at arrives, with a large sign. All my luggage arrived in one piece. I saw my friends from Duke who were also doing the program and had the comfort of familiar faces. It would, however, end up being all the unfamiliar faces which I fell in love with.

I could talk about how amazing it is to experience another country and culture, what a great opportunity OTS is for getting field experience, all the amazing places I’ve gotten to see, all the amazing food I’ve gotten to eat, how mind blowing it is to drive through Kruger national park and see a leopard walk down to road directly at you, but for me the best part of studying abroad has been my fellow classmates.

Just like me all 19 other OTS students faced similar fears and hesitations when applying to this program, yet they all were accepted and were just crazy enough to commit to living either in new country, or with a bunch of Americans. This program, and everything it has to offer, attracts the funniest, smartest, friendliest, goofiest group of friends I know. With them besides me I am able to wake up at 4 in the morning to do field work with a smile on my face, I never miss Netflix because there is always a card game, or round of mafia being played, and I always know I have someone to turn to when I’m struggling with work or home sickness. They give me the confidence to perform a 12 minute presentation in front of an audience, the bravery to climb to the tops of rock and giant baobab trees, and constant laughter upon my lips.

The best part of being abroad? All the amazing students who go.

Photo by Liam Engel, Washington University ’19

Life in Nylsvley Nature Reserve and Kruger National Park


By Emma Waltman, Washington University, St. Louis ’19

The second leg of our OTS program in South Africa began when we entered Kruger National Park. We were previously staying at Nylsvley Nature Reserve, where we received a thorough introduction to savanna ecology in the classroom and in the field. Nylsvley was a particularly great first stop because of the lack of dangerous game in the reserve. We were free to explore the savanna on a hike or run without the risk of getting charged by a rhino or eaten by a lion. At Nylsvley, we learned about South African history and culture through lectures, readings and movies documenting apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.

Now at Kruger, we’ve entered a savanna system complete with large herbivores and big cats. Upon leaving our electric-fence-enclosed campus, you won’t find anyone outside a game drive vehicle unless accompanied by a game guard. Although we’ve lost our freedom to roam, we now have the entirety of south Kruger to study as field ecologists. We’ve learned about different savanna ecosystems at Kruger and how they vary greatly with soil-type (granitic in the west, basaltic in the east). We’ve also heard South African National Parks (SANParks) staff scientists speak first-hand about ecological and political hurdles that come with managing Kruger’s nearly 2 million hectares. One such problem is the rapid population growth of African elephants in Kruger and how they are decreasing the number of big trees in the park by uprooting trees, causing canopy damage, and stripping bark.

an elephant seeking shade underneath a large marula tree

Last week, we split into four groups and collected data for different long-term research projects. In my group, we collected data to see what ecological consequences may stem from the loss of large trees in Kruger if elephant numbers continue to grow exponentially. We went to different sites, one with granitic (nutrient-poor) and one with basaltic (nutrient-rich) soil, and identified all woody species growing five meters from large marula trees and all woody species in a five-meter diameter control plot (without any large trees). This was repeated six times at each site.

“Big Tree Huggers” LRP team at in one of our marula plots. From left: Issac our SANParks game guard, Roulin ” Eudora” Miao, Jonathan Plaistowe, Emma Waltman, and Austin Strayhorn.

At sites with both soil type, we hypothesized that woody communities under large trees would have a larger number of species, number of individuals, and woody biomass than the control because large trees provide shade, wetter topsoil (through bringing up water from long tap roots), and nutrients (from dung of large animals seeking shade). We have yet to run data analyses, but if our data supports the hypothesis, it can be inferred that a loss in large trees at Kruger may mean a decrease in shrubby and smaller trees as well.




First Day of Field Work in South Africa


By Nia Dubon-Robinson, Emory University ’19

A long day in the field calls for a nice shower. The temperature of the water does not matter, the simple feeling of being refreshed is all that is needed after long hot day in the savanna. It was the first confusing but equally fun day doing field work.

But within the stages of confusion I felt like I was actually learning. From indulging in picking beautiful flora, to catching butterflies in giant nets, while running through grasses taller than me, a burst of passion rushed through me. I skipped lunch that day to press our beautiful flowers in order to best preserve the petal, leaf venation and roots. I feel as though I am finally getting the hang of things now.

Slowly I am noticing how everything around me is important towards conservation. Bird calls, tree identification, butterfly pinning are the skills we are slowly developing to better understand our beautifully complex surroundings. We must understand that the universe revolves around more than just the human population. We must consider the little things that contribute to the biodiversity of our planet. Every day here still feels so surreal. In a way everything seems so new, but so familiar at the same time.

Semester Re-Cap: Tropical Diseases Program in Costa Rica


By Sarah Sampson, Colgate University ’19

Sarah just completed our Fall 2017 Tropical Diseases, Environmental Change, and Human Health program in Costa Rica.

This past semester in Costa Rica was an unforgettable experience. From being in a new environment and being immersed in a different culture, to learning about the diseases that afflict tropical places such as Costa Rica, there was something interesting around every corner. I thought that this program did an especially wonderful job showing us all of the different aspects of Costa Rica while giving us experiences that directly related to our academics.

The field trips that we took were all engaging and hands-on–some for example, allowed us to learn more about how the health systems of Central American countries work and what types of illnesses face the people that live there. We got to see the strategies that have been developed for prevention and treatment of common diseases, and learned about how they spread and why those strategies would be helpful. We also were able to experience the more traditional and cultural side of Costa Rica through our visits to local indigenous communities and our homestay in San Jose. Through these visits I was able to learn about a culture that was different from my own and how these people have been able to use the environment around them to create things like crafts, food production, and medicines.

In addition, I was really grateful for the ability to formulate and conduct our own research. I learned some invaluable skills through this program. Not only did I gain valid studying and research techniques, but I also learned a great deal about independence, cultural sensitivity, teamwork, traditional medicine, and the different environments and situations that can affect the spread of disease.

This mosquito larva is from our faculty led research project. We were investigating the effects of different environmental conditions on the composition of mosquito larvae in bromeliad phytotelmata.

Visiting the neighborhood of La Quinta in Managua, Nicaragua. The brigadistas there taught us how they searched for mosquito larvae in standing water as a preventative measure against diseases like Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya.


The final poster presentation for our student led research project. We studied the antimicrobial properties of cane toad (Rhinella marina) parotid and skin secretions. The entire presentation and poster itself was in Spanish to make our research assessable to community members, students, and the faculty and staff of La Selva Biological Station.




My Experience in Costa Rica


By Dennis Bolshakov, College of Wooster ’19

I am a biology major from The College of Wooster in Ohio, United States, and I am currently with the OTS Tropical Biology semester in Costa Rica. Even though I study in Ohio, I am well-acquainted with rainforests, since I come from the temperate rainforest region in Washington State. However, the Costa Rican tropics are very different. They blew my mind, and every new site continues to do so, with its unique flora, fauna, and atmosphere in general.

The Palo Verde wetland and surrounding dry forest had many bird species that I never imagined before seeing them, such as tiny jacana birds that wade through the water hyacinths.

In Cuerici, I felt the cold of the tropical highlands, and encountered a resplendent quetzal, small alligator lizards, and trout (although the last one was at a farm).

At Las Cruces Biological Station and Wilson gardens, I spotted a prism of different birds: from toucans to baby crested caracaras to parrots and tanagers. There also, we did two studies with the local wildlife: one with wandering spiders in the bromeliad garden, and the other with aquatic anoles in the forest streams. Both of those were quite an adventure, since we were right in the middle of the tropical storm that became hurricane Nate.

Overall, I have really enjoyed my time in Costa Rica. I have seen things I’ve never dreamed of seeing in the States, did things I would otherwise consider crazy (such as wading through a swollen stream amid mudslides and treefalls), and met really interesting people to boot.

a Week in South Africa


By Blythe Owen, Wheaton College, MA ‘19

Blythe is currently a student on our Fall 2017 African Ecology and Conservation program.

This week we challenged ourselves to try new things and completely immerse ourselves in an entirely different culture on our homestays in Hamakuya. We were split up into groups of 4 or 5 people and went into different villages to stay with a family for 3 days. It was the longest we have all been apart from each other since getting here. There was definitely more excitement than nerves when getting dropped off at our new homes for the next few days although it was sad to say goodbye to everyone.

Once at our home it took maybe only 10 minutes until there was a crowd of at least 20 kids all ready to play with us. We played soccer, learned a lot of new hand games, and got new hairstyles from the kids. We spent most of our time over the three days with the kids really getting to know them and seeing how they fit into their community. We also learned a lot from the family’s helper who came in to help with the cooking. We watched her kill a chicken, learned how to make pap, and crushed peanuts using a mortar and pestle. Along with learning the cooking methods we tried a few new traditional foods though out the three days. My group got to try pumpkin greens, chicken feet, and of course Mopani worms! It was a very different experience from what we are all used to and we were all so happy we got to enjoy it together.

After being reunited with our fellow OTS members after the homestays we compared the songs, hand games, and dance moves we had learned at the homestays over a braai and a huge dance party with live music. After Hamakuya we made our way to Mapungubwe where we were back to watching out for the leopards, lions, and baboons we had all missed.


First Impressions of Costa Rica: a Series in Contrasts and Comparisons


By Mikayla Kifer, Bowdoin College ‘19

Mikayla is currently a student on our Fall 2017 Tropical Biology on a Changing Planet program

For most people, travelling is a way to explore differences. We like to contrast our “normal,” boring lives with something foreign and exciting; the distinctions between the two are intriguing. I like to focus on the smallest changes—light switches, systems of garbage disposal, ratios of food pyramid groups. The way that we interact with our surroundings shapes our lives and who we are as people. The neural machinery that bats use to echolocate is something that we can never comprehend because we have not experienced the same stimuli as a bat. I have not experienced the same stimuli as a Tico—until now.

Every night (and morning and afternoon), I eat Costa Rican beans and rice. I gaze across the same marsh as them and lift my upturned binoculars to the same herons. I am not and will never be a Tico. Being here has reminded me how vastly different one human’s experience can be from another’s. Yet we all love to laugh, to feel connected to other humans, and in my case, we’re all here because we love plants and animals and care about this planet. Every day when we go out into the field we do so with the same excitement and the same hatred of mosquitos.

Although this lifestyle is totally foreign to me, seeing people who are adapted to it has made me understand that although our environment shapes us in different and amazing ways, we are still fundamentally the same.


New, but not Completely Unfamiliar


By Niisoja Torto, Duke University ’20

Niisoja recently returned from our Summer 2017 Global Health Issues in South Africa program and is serving as an OTS Alumni Ambassador for the 2017-2018 school year.

In her TEDTalk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks to the danger of a single story, asserting, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Reflecting now on my homestay experience in Sanari village, Limpopo province, South Africa, I cannot help but attest to the validitiy of Adichie’s remark. Coming to South Africa and approaching my homestay, I unknowingly believed into a single story—a single story that polarizes my life and the lives of the people with whom I was soon to live. During the three days of my homestay, I expected to live a life completely different from the one I was used to living. After all, I was coming from a different region of the world, speaking a different language, looking at the world through the lens of a perceivably different culture. In reality, however, my expectation of encountering difference could not have been more uncharacteristic of my time with my incredible homestay family in Sanari.

Day two of my homestay experience was particularly striking in this regard. At around 7:30 am, my group, our incredible translator, Glenda, and I awoke from a well-needed 10 hours of sleep after an enjoyable but tiring day of play with children from all over the community the day before. To be honest, ‘tiring’ is an understatement; in fact, I had never felt more justified wielding the phrase, “I wish I had half the energy you have.” Soon after waking up, we devoured my all-time favorite meal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with tea. That afternoon, we did some chores, bonded with our host family, and walked around the community, talking to community members at their homes and at a local market for our research project on rural livelihoods in Sanari. Our relatively slow day was truly refreshing and worthwhile. However, when I heard that a nearby home was having a birthday party that night, I jumped at the opportunity to close the already great day with some dancing. That night, we ate delicious pap (maize meal)—a meal that reminded me of food from my own culture—and danced the night away under a clear night sky. What surprises me most reflecting now on day two is that, in reality, this day’s events were not far-removed from what I would have done (or would have liked to have done) back home.

While many experiences that I had during the homestay were new to me, such as eating from a communal bowl, these experiences were remarkably not completely unfamiliar. It is interesting to note that, despite the language barrier we experienced with many of the residents of Sanari village, it was as if we could still speak some same language—a language characterized by happiness, love, fun, and many smiles. This realization initially surprised me; but why should it have? That is the danger of a single story: a story that often predicates itself on the perceived differences between people rather than on their abundant similarities. While I was challenged both physically and mentally during the homestay, I was more comfortable than I had been in a while. This reality, I think, speaks volumes to an almost inexplicable shared human experience—an experience that transcends language, background, and borders…an experience that made my homestay the great experience it was.



By Barkley Dai, Yale University ’20

If there is one word that I can use to summarize our 2017 Summer Tropical Biology course in Costa Rica, the word is adaptability.

On the first night after we arrived at Las Cruces, our first study site, our professor Scott raised the question: what is the most important thing that you will need in this course? Some of us answered curiosity, others answered analytical skills. Scott smiled and said “nope, it’s adaptability. Because we forgot to bring the mist nets from San Jose office, and we need to adapt to that and change our plan to catch bats on the next day instead.” We all laughed.

But soon we realized that it is not merely a joke. As we are thrown into the wild, our ability to adapt is constantly challenged. On the first day, mosquitoes left at least one kiss on everyone; on the second week, we went off the grid and lived in a wooden cottage in the mountain with no electricity; and at our last site, all of us stepped into the muddy water of the marsh, where there are crocodile dwells. We were constantly stepping out of our comfort zone, and then adapting to the wilderness, expanding our comfort zone.

But what’s more awesome about adaptability is that while we adapt to the nature, nature also reveals all kinds of adaptability to us, and each single one of them is a marvelous story. At the botanical garden of Las Cruces, we learned about how the super long tongue of bats is an adaptation to the structure of the flower, forming a mutually beneficial relationship; at La Selva, we saw the beautiful “strawberry dart frog”, who eats poisonous insects and gather the poison at their back, so they would not be eaten by predators; at Palo Verde, we learned how iguanas change their color between dry season and wet season, so they can better blend into their surroundings to avoid predators. All of these marvelous adaptabilities can rarely be seen outside of Costa Rica, where the diverse habitat and high biodiversity formed a paradise for nature lovers. And even after three weeks in the program, we are still stunned by nature, and its ability to shape all the beautiful creatures, giving them different niche and ability to adapt.

And that leads us to think about the question, how is human adapting to nature? What is the relationship of human to other creatures? Besides seeing all the beauty of nature, we also learnt about various threats like deforestation and habitat lost, that are causing the disappearance of the beauties in nature. While it seems that human is strong enough that all the other creatures need to adapt to us, the result of a worsening global environment is something that we cannot afford. And though conducting our group projects on bird and spider diversity and how human influence these creatures, and then designing our individual projects, we are constantly exploring the question: how shall human as a whole take actions and adapt to a changing environment? While the answer is still far to reach, we are definitely closer to a solution after adapting ourselves to nature and seeing the adaptability of all those marvelous creatures in nature.

Biodiversity Surveys in Punda Maria


By Caroline Schlutius, Yale University ‘18

Caroline is currently in South Africa with our Spring 2017 African Ecology and Conservation program.

While in Punda Maria, a site in the far north of Kruger National Park, we had the chance to conduct biodiversity surveys of several sites throughout the area. At 05:20h sharp, my alarm sounded the start of the day and I jumped up to get ready before meeting the rest of our crew at 05:45h. We drove to our first site in silence, slowly waking up to the sound of the dawn chorus as the sun lit the landscape.

At our first site, we jumped out of the game drive vehicle and marched into the bush, stopping about 100 meters in to do our first bird survey.

Luckily, I had several avid birders in my group this morning, and I stood posed with my pen over paper while they scanned the horizon or listen intently for calls, spouting off names of species almost more quickly than I could write them.

After the allotted time, we made our way to the butterfly trap, which had attracted butterflies and moths with a pungent concoction of beer, bananas, and brown sugar. We put our specimens in envelopes before heading to the next site and repeating the process.

Later in the afternoon, we head out once more to conduct vegetation, reptile, and active butterfly catching surveys. The ensuing hours passed in a haze of tree identification and measurement, running around with butterfly nets, and scanning the ground intently for signs of reptile presence. Finally, exhausted, we hop in the car and head back to the camp, basking in the mopane and baobab dotted landscape and another incredible day in the savanna.