Looking at the Little Things by Brooke Stocco

Lions, Tigers and Bears!

Or should I say: Howler monkeys, Three-toed Sloths, Red-eyed tree frogs, and Jaguars!

I’ve seen them all.

Just kidding.

With binoculars and high expectations, I set out to find as many of these as possible. But after six days and numerous hikes in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, I have yet to see any of these. Day, night, farm and sustainability hikes: All to no avail.


But wait. While my adventures may lack the visual spectacle of a Discovery Channel documentary, I have found a new unexpected source of wonder: Insects.

I have learned that beetles, spiders, moths, and ants are the true giants of the forest.

On my very first hike, exotic animal spotting was my top priority. Luckily for me, Riley, my first guide throughout the forest, did not have the same goal. Had Riley only focused on the canopy looking for mammals, we would’ve had a pretty disappointing trek.

Instead, he identified banana trees and talked about evolutionary adaptations, strangler figs and bird calls. I did not see a sloth, but I felt the sweater-soft underside of a spiral ginger leaf. We walked through the campus farm, where he discussed composting and the reasons behind step-farming on the mountainside.

The next day, “Silence” was our teacher. Weaving throughout the forest on our Silent Hike allowed crickets, birds, and even the wind to speak for itself. Back home, I always hike with friends or whatever album is blaring in my headphones. The two-hour long silent hike meant that I would finally hear the sounds of the forest. With the guide restricted to finger pointing and hand gestures, I figured the hike would be full of indistinguishable green, blurred together by a lack of knowledge. My somewhat negative anticipations were not met. Instead, it became what I consider to be the most exhilarating hike thus far.

Following closely behind James, the line leader for our daytime silent hike, I received information on spiders, ants, and bromeliads. Even without words, I witnessed the vast diversity in plants and animals.

As I walked through the forest, I contemplated the overpowering effect of human conversation. In its absence, nature still speaks volumes; muteness from humans did not mean that the forest was silent. My senses, including auditory, were heightened by the “silence” – I smelled crushed leaves, I listened to bird calls, I felt the prickliness of a vine, and even spotted a Toucan (yay!).

A lucky glance at the forest floor revealed something profound: A trail of ants walking in a perfectly straight line on a fallen tree. Upon further investigation, I realized that the ants’ trail weaved under and over leaf litter. I followed their meticulous pathway for several feet. I never thought I would be so intrigued by the very insect that makes my skin crawl.

At the beginning of the silent night hike, I noticed that the majority of my peers focused their flashlights at the treetops. Yet with all the flashlights, there were no gleaming eyes, no big majestic creatures hiding in the darkness.

About halfway through, I came to a hike-altering conclusion: the spectacular wildlife is not limited to the treetops. From then on, I pointed my flashlight at the brush. After only a few steps, I saw huge spiders, patterned beetles, and ants carrying leaves twice their size.

The hike went from dark and tame to dark and lively.

Towards the middle, the group silently observed an entire amphibian life cycle in a three-by-three-foot pond. Sitting on the edge was a king toad, about the size of my hand. In the pond, baby tadpoles of differing sizes swam through the water. Bridging the age gap between the pond inhabitants was a toad with a tail longer than its own body. I stood there in shock as I observed this natural marvel and contemplated it for the rest of the walk.

And so here is what I have learnt in my one short week in Costa Rica. Yes, look for the big and beautiful if you must.

But there is a whole world – right below your feet—if you only take time to look.

Spiders, Ants and Beetles!


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