Students get their hands 'wet' studying fish in Central America
By Arlene Schauwecker
Photo provided by Reuben Goforth
(From left) John Cannaday, Gary Hoover, Kristen Ruhl and Megan Gunn pose next to a stream in Costa Rica. The Purdue students performed research to help aimed to help Costa Rica protect their fish populations.
Several Purdue Agriculture students were in for a colorful surpise when they collected data for a research project in the fresh water streams of Costa Rica.
"The fish we were catching; they were so different from the freshwater fish at home," said John Cannaday, a senior from Muncie, Ind., who double-majors in wildlife and in fisheries and aquatic sciences. "All the fish were very colorful, which is strikingly different."
The research was for Reuben Goforth, professor of forestry and natural resources. Students collected data on the types of fish in a variety of streams. Goforth's goal is to help the people of Costa Rica preserve their fish populations for the future.
"It grants hands-on research experiences with the natural world in another country," Goforth said. "The students get their hands dirty — or wet, as it were. It is so much more hands-on than the average study abroad experience."
The experience of doing research in another country is unlike anything the students had experienced.
Gary Hoover, a junior fisheries and aquatic sciences major from South Bend, Ind., said one of his favorite parts of the trip was seeing the different fish they caught during their research.
"The fish we caught were so cool," Hoover said. "I have a tank at my place and I got to see some fish that are related to mine in the streams of Costa Rica."
Students caught fish by stunning them, and then put them in buckets of water. The students collected data on the fish by recording their species and physical characteristics, including body color, shape, fin size and scales. After collecting the data, students released the fish back into the stream, unharmed.
Hoover not only enjoyed the research, he learned a lot — even about his own aquarium. He found one of his favorite aquarium fish in its natural environment during the trip.
"I was surprised to find that the killifish was in a rocky environment," Hoover said. "It expelled the aquarium thought that they live in dirty little puddles."
Megan Gunn, a sophomore ecology, evolution and environmental biology major from Merrillville, Ind., said she also learned a lot from the trip.
"I am a bio major, so I don't get to do a lot out in the field," she said. "It was a great change of pace. I learned how to identify all kinds of fish; some that I never knew existed."
Students got to have fun, too. Like the time they went snorkeling on a coral reef.
"We saw stingray and an eagle ray," Gunn said. "I also was swimming while trying to get video of a school of fish and ended up running into some coral and getting scratched up, but it was worth it. Now I have an amazing video of the fish."
The trip was not all about fish. Students saw plenty of other wildlife, too. They saw a three-toed sloth plus several tropical animal species including howler monkeys, toucans, brown vine snakes, and all kinds of lizards, toads and frogs.
The pit viper Gunn found stuck out in everyone's mind.
"Megan was just messing around with the probe when she found it," said Kristen Ruhl, a sophomore from Logansport, Ind., who double-majors in wildlife and in fisheries and aquatic sciences. "It was rather ironic Megan found it - she is the most leery of snakes."
"Dr. Goforth had snake boots on so he let the snake Megan found strike at them a few times, which was really cool," Hoover said. Goforth's snake boots are made with leather that a snake's fangs can't penetrate.
That was not the only snake they saw. Ruhl said they encountered several other species including a rainforest hognose pit viper, eyelash viper and green parrot snake.
"We also saw a young eyelash viper that could kill you in like 15 minutes because their venom is more potent, so we left it alone," Hoover said.
The students also interacted with Costa Rican people and their culture.
"The Costa Rican people are very friendly," Ruhl said.
Many who participated encourage others to explore the world.
"If you get the chance to do research somewhere, go," Cannaday said. "I never thought I would want to do anything like this two years ago but when life hands you something you have to take it."