LITCHFIELD — The tropical rain forest of the Central American country of Costa Rica is a long way from the pines and maple trees of Litchfield County. But for several Forman School students and their teacher, what is living in the rain forest may hold the key to a better life for people everywhere.
The Forman School’s long history of study in the Costa Rican rainforest is featured in a new show from the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Natural History unit. The show, “Animal Impossible,” is on the Discovery Channel in the United States. Tim Warwood and Adam Gendle host the program which takes a light-hearted but serious look at various claims of animal abilities and feats. The episode featuring Forman asks the question “How strong is spider silk?”
Wendy Welshans, Forman’s director of the Rainforest Project, director of Outdoor Leadership and Skills and a science teacher at the school, has been taking Forman students to Costa Rica for 28 years to pursue various areas of study through hands-on research. Their work with spider silk has resulted in the school holding two patents, one for a silk extraction method and one for farming spiders by identifying characteristics of places that spiders successfully colonize.
“It’s a great honor to be included in the show, for staff and students,” said Welshans. “Forman has great pride in how bright and creative their students are. This episode helps to showcase that work.”
The BBC producers liked what they saw on the study’s website, said Welshans, particularly work by Natalie Canterbury, a 2014 graduate, and Jason Epstein, who graduated in 2018. They particularly were interested in Canterbury’s work comparing the tensile strength of spider silk to Kevlar, hemp, cotton, and nylon monofilament, as well as seeing how spider silk could enhance those materials. In July of 2019 Canterbury and Epstein accompanied Welshans and the BBC production crew to Costa Rica and worked again with the Golden Orb Weaver spider.
Canterbury studied pre-med biology and psychology at Southern Vermont College and graduated in 2019. She is currently studying nursing at Utica College. “Logan Faucett (’17) and Parker Broadnax (’17) collaborated with me at Forman and in the rainforest,” Canterbury said. “I loved the trip back to Costa Rica for the show. The producers were so genuine in their approach. They asked a lot of questions, which I appreciate as a scientist.”
Epstein is a junior at Penn State University, where he is studying marine sciences. He said, “I’ve always looked up to Ms. Welshans. She was my adviser and she meant a lot to me at Forman. I was humbled when she asked me to help out on the production of the show. It is great to see her work recognized in this way.”
Another alumnus, Will Dietrich, a 2016 graduate, conducted an independent study in support of Welshans’ preparation for the trip and the show. He spent about 100 hours redesigning the spider silk extractor, said Welshans. “Will made it more efficient and user-friendly for the cameras.” Dietrich received college credit at Marist College for his work.
The Forman School is an acclaimed coed, college preparatory boarding school for bright students in grades nine through post graduate, with diagnosed language-based learning differences, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, executive functioning, ADD, ADHD. The school employs state-of-the-art assistive technology that both supports and empowers its students.
Welshans said “I think initially we were surprised by being included in the BBC show, but if you are looking for information on spider silk from the field, we are very well informed and have much data to share. It was a great undertaking. The BBC staff were great to work with and conservation education is their pursuit as well.”
The Rain Forest Project has been working with farming and extracting spider silk from a specific species found in the school’s research reserve in Costa Rica for over a decade. The hope is to develop a sustainable resource with the silk for possible medical sutures, as it is one of the strongest natural fibers known to man.
“The Rainforest project trains students to collect data on endangered species and possible sustainable resources,” Welshans explained. “The program develops confident young men and women, while making a difference in conservation of species.”
Forman School students and staff have been collecting data for universities and conservation groups in hopes the data will help species and reduce deforestation. “It is through the enthusiasm of our students and staff we have developed a good reputation in the conservation world,” said Welshans.
Forman School’s work with spider silk will continue, as will its trail camera surveys for mammals, bird census, survey of reptile and amphibians and animal bioacoustics, reported Welshans. “All these projects run simultaneously while in the rainforest. This year we will be here in the states re-analyzing data and designing new methods for when the pandemic is over and it is safe to travel.”
While originally produced as a segment on the BBC show, the piece has recently appeared on Animal Planet in the United States on a show called “Beast-Kept Secrets.” Those interested can check both show names and channels in local listings.