Turn in those high heels for rubber boots. Exchange your MP3 player for a pair of binoculars. Toss aside your belt for a machete sheath. Now you’re ready to take on the job of a naturalist. When I applied for my first job as a naturalist in a tropical rainforest, however, I did not read in the job description: “must share hut with scorpions, bats, tarantulas, cockroaches, rats, and snakes.” Nevertheless, these creatures became my roommates at the end of a hard day’s work.
During my sophomore year at Indiana University I traveled to Costa Rica for the first time with a group of students and two professors. As the sun set on my first day in the rainforest, I eased my travel-worn body down on a bunk bed only to find a rusty-orange scorpion scuttling by my body. Suddenly a black fuzzy bat appeared above my head, beating its rubbery thin wings and flashing its turned-up nose at me. The other girls in the group ran screaming for the boys in the room next door while I crawled around on my knees trying to get a better view of the scorpion with my flashlight.
I was hooked. It came as no surprise to my family when I decided to become a naturalist. My first job was at Ecolodge San Luis and Biological Station in the valley of Monteverde, Costa Rica. As a naturalist, I first studied the flora and fauna of the rainforest by walking in the rainforest every day. I learned to see trees as individuals and recognize birds by their calls. I then began taking high school and college student groups on guided hikes and horseback rides through the rainforest.
As a naturalist, a typical day for me involved waking up at four a.m. to the grunts and howls of howler monkeys in the trees outside of the small hut where I lived alone, walking to the research station through the forest, taking student groups on early-morning bird walks or to milk the station’s cow, eating lots of gallo pinto (rice and beans), guiding students to a 100 foot waterfall where we swam in the frigid water, and teaching the students about the plants and animals of the forest. After dinner I would take students on a night hike through the rainforest.
On one particular evening I took a group of high school students on a hike in search of owls. Upon hearing an owl call, I focused my flashlight on the bird while the students became enraptured by its piercing eyes and haunting call. One moment I was standing in the pitch black calling back and forth with the owl and the next I was jumping up and down, screaming like a wild woman. Something wet and slimy had crawled up my rubber boot, under my pants and was squirming up my leg. Fortunately I happened to be wearing khaki pants that zipper off as shorts, so I began to strip off the lower pant leg. I reached down inside and cupped my hand over the moist creature, fearing it was a poisonous snake. Under the scope of the students’ flashlights, we watched a dazed black salamander dressed in emerald green spots gaze up at us before leaping off the palm of my hand for the forest floor below.
Each night I returned to my little hut, casita in Spanish, exhausted from a day full of adventures and surprises. My casita, embedded within the depths of the rainforest, served as a dry warm haven for many creatures where each night they crawled inside through gaps in the wooden walls. One night as I was lying down, I looked back at my pillow to find a brown furry tarantula already taking a nap on it. Another night I listened to the crunching of bones on top of my roof as a puma enjoyed a midnight snack. A mother rat built a nest out of my T-shirts and pages of my books to raise six baby rats in a corner under the ceiling. We had a party every night, even after the lights went out.
In the early morning light the animals would return to the forest outside, but not without some persuasion. One morning I woke up to find nine snakes as thin as pencils dangling down from my ceiling over my head. After staring them in the eyes for several minutes, they finally sauntered out a hole in the wall. Sometimes I awoke to find the inside of my casita cloaked in darkness by a swarm of stinging black army ants. On these particular mornings, I tended to leave these tenants behind as I jumped into my rubber boots and ran outside.
Thus, I began each day waking up with nature and going to bed every night with nature sleeping beside me. As a naturalist, this first job in the rainforest was full of rewarding experiences. If you’re interested in being a naturalist or doing an internship there are many opportunities in temperate and tropical settings. Don’t worry, it isn’t every evening that something goes bump in the night, just most.