Drinking Problems

Costa Rica takes their coffee very seriously. Since 1989, the government has forbidden the growing of the lesser coffee, Coffea canephora (robusta). It is only legal to cultivate Coffea arabica, which is considered the superior coffee because its lower caffeine content decreases bitterness and allows for more subtle flavors. If you buy specialty coffee, you’re buying arabica!

So let’s talk about coffee. Every day, we consume over 2.25 billion cups of coffee worldwide. Such a massive market has far-reaching consequences, and we ought to consider those impacts before making purchases in order to be responsible consumers.
(I realize that this already sounds tedious and sanctimonious, so I promise that there will be a cute frog picture if you make it to the end.)

There’s a whole host of problems when it comes to the pricing and distribution of coffee. The short of it is that large coffee companies like Nestle, Kraft, Proctor&Gamble and Sara Lee end up with 90% of the profit, while 10% goes to their farmers. That small cut is not nearly enough to live on, which is why it’s important to purchase fair trade coffee that offers reasonable prices for the growers.

We’re all familiar with that cause. Buy fair trade. …But you’re not off the hook yet. What about the environmental impacts of coffee here in the tropics?

Coffee plants themselves are no great problem: these small, scrubby plants can grow in topographies that don’t suit other crops, and they’re often grown in high altitude areas where they help to reduce erosion, encourage the accumulation of leaf litter nutrients, and increase rainwater retention in the soil.

But these benefits are often overshadowed by the problems caused by large-scale farms, which prompt the next great debate: sun coffee vs. shade coffee.

Many farmers prefer sun-grown coffee for its fewer pest problems and high (short term) bean production, but this ultimately depletes soil nutrients and the large swathes of cropland fragment old-growth tropical forests.
Shade coffee, on the other hand, is grown in the forest understory, which allows some animal habitat to persist and assists natural pollinators in doing their job, both with the coffee plants and in the surrounding environment. The shade coffee plants produce fewer beans, but do so for much longer before they burn out and require labor-intensive replacement. The leaf drop from plants overhead also assists with faster nutrient turnover, creating healthier, richer soils. It unfortunately requires some extra work on the part of the farmer, and sometimes the additional application of agrochemicals as there is no harsh sun to keep the insects at bay, but it’s significantly better for our world’s vanishing tropical forests.

To drive this point home, we had the pleasure of visiting local sun- and shade- coffee farms while we’re here in Costa Rica! The sun plantation was about what you would expect; rows upon rows of bushy plants baking in the dry heat, rooted in cracked, bare soil. Let’s not dwell on it.
But the shade coffee plantation, run by our host Don Roberto, was truly fascinating. In addition to shading his crops with tree-like banana plants, he digs pits along the coffee rows to help catch dropped leaves and keep soil nutrients cycling, and grows everything in terraces to help avoid erosion and runoff. Click on the photos below to expand them and read their captions!

So, in conclusion: buy fair trade and shade grown coffee, or you’re a horrible person.
I kid, I kid. But if you enjoy a hot cup of morning drugs, perhaps consider looking into where it’s coming from. Your dollars are shaping the lives of people across the world, which is both amazing and terrifying. And if you’re already happy with your coffee buying habits, maybe read up on your favorite brands anyway. It’s an interesting business to learn about!

You made it to the end! Here’s that cute frog picture, as promised. This fella was lurking in the forest around the Las Cruces Biological Station.

P.S. If you scrolled straight to the bottom for the frog photo, you are a cheater. Our deal was that you read.
God is watching.

Mandatory Fun

I have long excelled at doing nothing. One of my favorite childhood pastimes was sitting on a riverside rock for hours upon end, whiling away the summer just watching the fish, frogs, and water voles cavort in the current.

Then adulthood came and I was expected to actually do things with my time, so that childhood habit fell by the wayside.
…Or at least, it did for a few years. Now it’s assigned for class.

As part of our homework for the Fundamentals of Tropical Biology class, we students need to wade into the underbrush, have a seat for an hour, and catalogue everything we see, smell, and hear in that area. The exercise trains us to quickly notice the most important aspects of a local habitat and often prompts questions about the ecological interactions we perceive. That latter part reveals the other purpose of this exercise; it provides a sort of brainstorming process for the independent ecological research projects that will be our magnum opera of this semester.

A page of my trusty Rite in the Rain notebook! Please don’t judge my handwriting too harshly.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed completing these exercises in every major biome we visit, but our current location has provided the most interesting wilderness for exploration. We’re now staying at La Selva (“The Jungle”) Biological Station in northeast Costa Rica. There are nearly 4,000 acres of tropical rainforest held by this station, and there’s no lack of activity as the rainy season is just beginning to start in earnest. Life is everywhere you look!

For starters, these little guys—about the size of my last pinky joint—are perpetually underfoot! This is the aptly-named strawberry dart frog.

If you’ll allow me to really get nerdy for a second: their scientific name is Oophaga pumilio, which is Latin for “dwarf egg eater” (pūmilio, oon, phagos). They won this moniker because the female carts the tadpoles up into the trees soon after hatching so that they can develop in the isolated, safe puddles of rainwater trapped by bromeliads and other tree-dwelling plants.1
The devoted strawberry dart frog mother then cares for her growing children by periodically stopping by these puddles and laying unfertilized eggs for them to eat. If she leaves them alone for too long, they’ll start splashing at the puddles’ surface to communicate their desire to feed on the proteins of their unfathered siblings.

Neat, huh?

I realize that the saga of Oophaga might not be appealing to everyone, so let’s move right along and check out this glasswing butterfly. Butterflies and moths have tiny scales on their wings which give them pattern and color, which you might have already found out if you ever tried touching one and a fine colorful dust rubbed off on your fingers. But the glasswing butterflies are special; their wing scales are modified into translucent hairs, so you can see straight through the wing frame! Their Spanish name is espejitos, or “little mirrors,” which is just plain adorable.

There are all sorts of amphibious critters to be found in the forest. This tree frog is cozied up with some thick epiphyll cover—that mossy growth on the leaf surface. He’s a nocturnal species, and is more than a little grumpy at being woken. I feel a special kinship.

This is the biggest damselfly I’ve ever seen, with an abdomen about four inches long. I think it’s Megaloprepus caerulatus, which boasts the largest wingspan of all damselflies (and even dragonflies) worldwide! They, like the dart frogs, raise their young in arboreal puddles called phytotelmata. Unlike the dart frogs, they lay all their eggs in one puddle and let the carnivorous young naiads murder and cannibalize each other until a few satisfied winners emerge and develop to adulthood. It’s lonely at the top.

The roots of the trees here seem as old and broad as the earth, and sport so much moss that they appear to be growing small forests of their own. The biodiversity here at every level is stunning, and I’m excited to spend the last weeks of this program surrounded by so much pure life.

A uniquely popular phrase here in Costa Rica is “pura vida!” or “pure life!” It can be used as a greeting, a farewell, or a philosophy. I think I’m finally beginning to understand.

So until next time,
¡Pura vida!

Searious Business

The weather wasn’t half bad.

Another week, another sunburn. But this time it’s from the Panamanian sun, so I shall fondly cherish it as a souvenir. We have just emerged from the wilds of Bocas del Toro, a Caribbean archipelago in the northernmost province of Panama. Literally called “Mouths of the Bull,” the island chain is a maze of twisting channels and narrow coastal passages overgrown by thick mangrove stands, each darkly gaping maw standing ready to swallow thoughtless captains and their vessels.1

The half-submerged mangrove forests here in Bocas have a special ecological purpose in addition to the usual services they provide as coastal wind breaks and flood barriers; they provide extra habitat and feeding grounds for the multitudes of fish that populate the coral reefs here in Bocas.

The mangrove passages were like something out of a fairytale, if fairytales featured more mud.

As beautiful as the mangroves are, those coral reefs take the spotlight this week. We came to Bocas to snorkel around the reefs near Isla Colón and investigate how damselfish territoriality impact the grazing habits of other marine herbivores.

What does any of that mean? I’m glad you asked, my fictional mental construct of a reader!

Damselfish stand in the shadow of their more famous family members, the clownfish. They have many similar physical characteristics despite lacking that distinct orange-and-white coloration, which is why taxonomists decided to lump them all into the same family, Pomacentridae.
What makes them interesting is that they’re mean. Damselfish aren’t content to just mosey along and graze on the algae growing in and around the coral, but instead stake out small territories along the reef bed. Once one names itself the ruler of a particular area, it patrols the outskirts of its little 1x1m² kingdom and chases away intruders who try to graze on its coral.

Among other things, we wanted to see if a particular species of damselfish, Stegastes planifrons, discriminated and chased away more herbivorous fish than the carnivorous, predatory types of fish. So we educated ourselves on fish identification, found several threespot damselfish up and down the coast, and got to work snorkeling around and taking notes underwater with mechanical pencils on our trusty PVC pipe wrist cuffs.

The results? The poor herbivores got the brunt of all damselfish attacks. It seems our little S. planifrons are quite adept at discerning which species are most likely to thieve their food source.

We also measured the amount of herbivory (devoured greenery) in and around damselfish territories over time, and found that damselfish are awfully good at defending what’s theirs—algae flourished in their territory, but outside of their territory algae was rapidly eaten away to nothing. So these adorable little fish tyrants ultimately encourage marine algae diversity, as their pieces of land are refuges in areas where algae are otherwise overgrazed. It seems that a little apparent greediness can be beneficial to the community as a whole!

Certainly interesting for marine algal life, but perhaps it’s best not to take that Aesop too much to heart.

This is the edge of the reef, just beyond the crest in the ocean floor that catches the bulk of the currents and provides a stable “reef flat” where coral can grow undisturbed. You can see the dark shapes of young coral growth beneath the surface. Also, because now I’m rambling about coral: they’re clones! Each rock-like growth is actually a clonal group of marine invertebrates which excrete colorful calcium carbonate exoskeletons. It’s easy to think of these guys as mere background to marine animal life, but they’re animals in their own right—just not as graceful as their more mobile jellyfish cousins.

I wish that I had more photos to share, but my phone was ill equipped for submarine adventures. I’ll try to make it up in the next post!

Ciao for now!

Spring Breaking with the Breakers


Aside from the San Pedro homestay period, there has been little time for extracurricular exploration. But then Easter heralded the arrival of Spring Break, whereupon all the students got booted out into the great unknown and were told to not bother anyone for a week.

Seven friends from the program and I have decided to stick together, so our merry band is adventuring across Costa Rica as per usual—just now as tourists, not students. Because we have all been subjected to lectures about tourism’s negative impact in Costa Rica, we’re steering clear of the large beachfront hotels that use inordinate quantities of water and destroy local ecosystems. Instead, our little group is sticking to small eco lodges that work to reduce their water intake and manage their waste responsibly. To the customer, the main differences are limited air conditioning, smaller rooms, and a broader set of waste disposal bins with more specific labels. A small price to pay for a big impact! It’s also perfect for the broke student traveler; we’ve stuck to places that are between $10-15 per night, with (reliable!) wi-fi and breakfast included.

Lake Arenal is on the left, and I’ll let you take a wild guess at what’s on the right.

Our first stop was La Fortuna, (Fortune) a small tourist town in the shadow of Arenal Volcano. According to a local guide, the name comes from the fact that all of Arenal’s activity has been on the other side of the mountain, and so far the town has had wonderful luck in not getting scourged away by lava.1  The neighbors have not been so fortunate; the towns of Tabacón, Pueblo Nuevo and San Luís were obliterated in a devastating 1968 eruption. Thankfully, the monster recently grew tired of spitting fire and has been snoozing since 2010.
Though nobody is allowed to visit the rim, we hiked around Arenal, swam in a few lagoons, jumped on hanging bridges, and generally took in the sights. I can’t say that I’ve ever had a spring break quite as adventurous as this one. Click on the photos below to expand them!

Later in the week we made our way to Montezuma beach, where the Nicoya Peninsula juts into the Pacific Ocean.

I’ve never been able to explore tide pools before! I spent two hours playing with hermit crabs this afternoon. I might need an intervention.

Once evening fell along the coast, we began to encounter bright purple and orange halloween crabs (Gecarcinus quadratus) by the thousands. When their hordes skittered through the dry leaf litter in search of shelter and food, their rustling drowned out even the roar of the Pacific surf. There is nothing to fear unless you are a farmer—though a few tried to taste my bare feet, they mostly subsist on seedlings and other vegetation.

I managed to snatch this one for a closer look, at the peril of my fingers. See that bubble? This halloween crab can extract oxygen from the air using two methods: either by routinely passing seawater over its feathery gill lamellae to keep them moist and salinated, or by switching to a pair of inflatable chambers lined with haemolymph vessels which oxygenate the heart in much the same way that our lungs and blood do. Not all crabs are capable of both, but halloween crabs belong to the land crab family (Gecarcinidae) and have specially adapted to life above the shoreline. Which method do you think it is using now?

They’re quite diligent workers, too. Several hundred of them were busily digging burrows along the shore, likely in preparation for breeding. This one showed particular architectural care, as he would vanish deep beneath the surface for minutes at a time before emerging with a new armload of sand.

I had better be off to prepare for the next leg of the semester, but I leave you with some more photos. Until next time!


Head in the Clouds

I’ve been living in a cloud for the last week. After ample research and an extensive analysis of the data, I think I can reasonably conclude that clouds are very wet. Also very cold.

We’re staying at San Gerardo station in “Bosque Eterno de los Niños,”  an extremely biodiverse nature reserve spanning 22,000 hectares in and around the cloud forests of Costa Rica’s Tilarán mountain range. The elevation is high (1,200m), the temperature is low, and everything is perpetually soggy. Click on the photos in any one of the galleries below to expand them!

Thanks to the milder climate and the plentiful water, this entire area is teeming with life—the birds never stop calling, troops of coatis are visible from the deck every morning, and on the first day a 4-foot racer whapped loudly down from the deck’s rafters and slithered away when I startled it from its perch. Some of the bathrooms have resident scorpions, as well!
There is no lack of creatures to study and sketch, and I am using every bit of our limited free time to add to my field notebooks.

This week’s set of lectures has focused heavily on animal acoustics and local amphibian populations, so my head has been crammed full of what seems like every bird and frog call in existence. The most memorable call, though not one we’ve yet heard in the wild, is made by the Mexican burrowing toad. This creature’s subterranean lifestyle and low, bleating cry has earned it the moniker “alma de vaca,” or “cow’s soul,” as it moos ominously from beneath the boggy earth. When these toads begin to surface en masse for their brief mating period, it seems as though the souls of a million hamburgers are crying for vengeance.

Fun fact: this not a frog. Nor is it a toad. Most of the creatures that we call “frogs” or “toads” are not classified into family Ranidae (the true frogs) or family Bufonidae (the true toads), because they have slightly different sets of physical and behavioral characteristics. This particular leaf litter denizen belongs to genus Craugastor, in family Craugastoridae. So, what do we call him? Because English lacks a generic word for “hopping amphibian,” you get to decide whether you want to call it a frog or a toad. And either way, you’ll be squarely wrong. Isn’t taxonomy fun?

Between the lectures, labs, hikes, and field assignments, they’re keeping us quite busy. I’d best sign off for now, but I leave you with a few more photos! As much as I look forward to being warm and dry again, it will be hard to leave this beautiful place.

Virgin of Angels

Costa Rica is a little bit Catholic. About 76% of the population identifies as Catholic, though the percentage of practicing Catholics is slightly lower. Costa Ricans can also boast of belonging to the only state in the Americas with Roman Catholicism as the official state religion, ever since their 1949 constitution declared it so.

And because no Catholic country is complete without a patron saint, the Virgen de los Ángeles, also called La Negrita, was named to the position 1824. She comes with a rather unique history, one that all Costa Rican children hear as they grow up.

The story begins on August 2nd, 1635. According to legend, a native woman was out collecting firewood in the forest when she encountered a small black stone statuette of the Madonna and Child. Amazed at her find, she brought it home for safekeeping. The next day she was walking in the forest again, and once more found a statuette. Assuming it was the second of its kind, she picked it up and brought it back – only to discover that the first had gone missing. Still, she dutifully stored the “second” statuette in her home. When it vanished and she again found the statuette in the forest on the third day, she brought her priest to the spot. He also tried to take the statue for safekeeping, only for it to vanish and reappear once again in the forest. At this point, the duo decided that the best option was to build a shrine around the spot, and dedicated it to Mary, Virgin of the Angels. Many years later, a church was built around that shrine. Pope Pius XI elevated the shrine to a basilica in 1935, though the Virgin of Angels has not been added to the list of canonically approved Marian apparitions.

People believe the legend to varying degrees. Some say that the story arose from hyperactive imaginations, others say that it was a deliberate fiction constructed by the 16th century priest and woman. Many believe in the apparition completely; on August 2nd, Virgen de los Ángeles Day, the roads swarm with pilgrims on their way to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Cartago, where the statuette is now housed.

Flags of Costa Rica and Vatican City flank the basilica entrance.

I had the privilege of visiting this basilica last weekend, as it is just an hour away from my current homestay in San Pedro. The building itself was gorgeous—see the photos below! But what was most unforgettable, and beyond my capacity to share, was the incredible devotion of every person present. Their hushed prayers were filled with an aching reverence unlike anything I have seen or heard before. Countless people of all ages streamed in through the main entrance and crawled the length of the church on their knees, just for a glimpse of La Negrita and a taste of the celestial reality she makes present on earth. It was both beautiful and humbling, and will not be easily forgotten.

The La Negrita statuette is housed in the large golden shrine behind the altar.

Click on the photos below to expand them!


Life in the City

We’ve made it to the city in one piece! …More or less, after the mosquitoes have taken their pound of flesh. We’re presently in the midst of our homestay in San Pedro, a city within the metropolitan area of Costa Rica’s capital, San José. After several weeks in constant company, all of us students are splitting up to stay with different Spanish-speaking host families in the San Pedro area. We still reunite at the Costa Rican Language Academy, though! In addition to the five hours of language class each day, classes are offered on cooking, dance, and more.

We now have free evenings and weekends, and the full public transport system of San José on our side. Museums, cafés, and even the movie theatre have become every bit as instructional as classes, in terms of Spanish comprehension. The complete Spanish immersion–at home, class, and in the city–is starting to turn my rough language skills into something resembling actual language skill!

Our first stop after classes was the National Theatre of Costa Rica to see a performance by the talented Cristian Cuturrufo jazz trio. The theatre interior was all gilt chandeliers, gilt pillars, and gilt people. We confidently strode in, dressed in worn jeans and t-shirts, and–quite shockingly–weren’t refused at the door! The performance itself was lively and lovely, and concluded with the entire audience belting out the popular 1940s Mexican hit, “Bésame Mucho.

We have also visited some museums, most notably the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica and the Museo del Jade. Both of them have excellent exhibits showcasing Costa Rica’s archeological heritage, particularly the Pre-Colombian Era.

“Jade” is an umbrella term that describes colorful minerals jadeite and nephrite. Only jadeite occurs naturally in Costa Rica. The stone’s vibrant green and blue colors represented life, death, and growth to indigenous peoples, and jade artifacts were carefully crafted and treasured. The designs often featured animals, which were regarded as sacred.

I was lucky enough to get a video of this fellow opening its wings in the National Museum’s butterfly exhibit!

A few of us visited the Santiago Apóstol Parish Ruins, which is a famous Costa Rican Cultural Heritage Site in Cartago. This poor parish was destroyed by earthquakes three times since it was first constructed in 1575. The fourth rebuild was never completed, so its rough stone walls loom forebodingly over the small shops and restaurants in downtown Cartago.

Look at those ruins. They’re doing a really top-notch looming job.

But one step inside, and you’ll see that the ruins are anything but ruinous. The interior has been transformed into a public garden and park, complete with benches and fountains. It’s a popular spot for both tourists and locals, and rightly so.

Click the photos below to expand them!

Best of all, I was able to attend mass recently in the Metropolitan Cathedral of San José, the capital. Both the cathedral and the mass were lovely. Though the rites were not in my native language, Catholic mass retains the same order, the same weight of tradition, wherever you are in the world. It is a beautiful thing to pray the Our Father with a body of fellow believers, be it in Spanish or English.

The air was already heavy with incense when I arrived for mass on Sunday morning. Nothing could have been a better welcome.