What a Young Scientist Needs in Costa Rica

Hilary Moon Murphy, a person who comes from all sorts of weirdness, asks:

My daughter is going on a science trip to Costa Rican rain forest this spring. She has the packing list that is supplied by her teachers, but I worry that the list may be incomplete. What things would you take along?

First, congratulations to her on being selected for the trip! I can see she is destined to be a Scientist, than which there is no higher calling, unless perhaps it is providing silly answers on the internet. It seems only yesterday she was putting together her first babysitting kit, and now she has advanced to Research.

I’m assuming the list she has, covers the basics of clothing and personal hygiene and dictionaries. Let’s see where they might have fallen short.

The first consideration I have in any sort of travel, is what unfriendly megafauna I might encounter at my destination. While in Costa Rica, I am led to understand, one might have to deal with the following hazards:

  • Pirates – generally not a problem unless spending time at sea.
  • Mayans – have largely given up human sacrifice and taken up texting on their smartphones, which has its own dangers.
  • The Jagular ponders whether to eat you up now, or save you for later snacking.

    Jagulars – still a concern.

  • Poison dart frogs – still a concern but you are usually safe if you avoid eating them.
  • Boa constrictors – still a concern so avoid being eaten by them.
  • Poisonous snakes – a common enough problem that the list you have probably covers it.
  • Giant anteater – rare, and you only need worry if you are an ant.

So really, the only matter of serious concern is the jagular. They routinely crush the skulls of tapirs and other large animals with a single chomp of their powerful jaws, so your average middle-schooler is no challenge. American visitors are generally more tender than the locals, who get more exercise, and so may be a more tempting target.

One might at first be tempted to do as the Africans do in lion country, and bring along a pair of tall stilts so as to be out of reach of hungry jaws. However, this is not as effective against jagulars because unlike lions, they can and frequently do climb trees, waiting for unwary prey to walk below. If you are on stilts, you merely put your head at a convenient chomping height.

This head-chomping attack is actually the jagular’s biggest weakness. All you really need to be safe, is a sturdy metal helmet coated with a strong sedative. When the jagular tries to chomp, they may break a tooth or two, but more to the point, their great slobbering tongues will get a good dose of sedative. Then all you need to do is avoid being torn up by their sharp claws until the sedative takes effect.

Be sure to bring along plenty of spare sedative to re-coat the helmet after the frequent tropical rains (less frequent in the spring, fortunately).

The other thing I am never without when I travel, is a cheese/soap test kit. It is of course better to have an electron microscope, which has many other uses besides distinguishing cheese from soap, but these are hard to get onto an airplane and difficult to carry around in the rain forest, where the paths are sometimes narrow. Of course, any well-equipped expedition of Science will have an electron microscope, so she may not need to worry about it on this trip. But it’s a good thing to remember when traveling.

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3 comments

    • Hilary on 21 February 2012 at 11:17 am

    Thank you so much for these thoughtful suggestions. May I ask what sort of sedative you recommend, and how you get it to stick to the helmet?

    Hmm

    • on 21 February 2012 at 8:27 pm

    Ketamine drops ’em pretty fast. You can mix it into a paste with a little plaster of paris; that spreads on nicely, dries fast, can be painted, and will fragment into chewable pieces when bitten. Or if you want a distraction to keep kitty busy with the helmet while you slip away, a slurry of ketamine, pureed catnip and papier mache will occupy his attention, and has the advantage of blending into the forest color scheme without having to be painted. I haven’t tried the latter, though; it’s only an idea. There’s some risk that the scent of catnip might attract the attention of an animal who otherwise might leave you be.

    • on 21 February 2012 at 8:40 pm

    I forgot to mention that the rabbits in Costa Rica are particularly aggressive – I refer here to Dice’s rabbit, Sylvilagus dicei. We used to live there, and had a pet rabbit who would hide under the refrigerator and dart out to bite the ankles of people walking by. If your daughter expects to be in the highlands, and if you know anyone in the SCA, you might try to get hold of some fine mesh chain-mail socks.

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