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!
Don Roberto’s banana plants cut the intensity of tropical sunlight and create a pleasantly humid growing environment for his coffee.
A coffee plant! The ripe red fruits taste a little like very sweet green beans. The dark brown ones are drying out and ready to fall to earth.
Don Roberto’s banana plants provide more than just shade and nutrients for his coffee plants. They feed his family (and sometimes hungry students, as well) regardless of how good the coffee profits are in a given season.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
Ferns reproduce through spores, which sometimes grow in clusters like these, called “sori.”
These claw marks are probably as close as I’ll get to seeing a jaguar. Given how deep and wide-set these are, I am quite content with the distance.
Rainbow eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta) is a popular ornamental.
Later in the week we made our way to Montezuma beach, where the Nicoya Peninsula juts into the Pacific Ocean.
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!
This hermit crab has nearly outgrown his shell, but he still expertly folded himself away when he disliked my attention.
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!
Outside view of the station. Small, cozy, wet.
The deck outside our rooms.
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.
These are a few sketches of the python millipedes (Nyssodesmus python) that like to creep around in the wet mountainous areas of Costa Rica.
And here is one in the flesh! This particular fellow is about as big as they come: 4 inches from head to tail. Python millipedes are normally quite willing to clamber into your open palm and mosey around, but if startled they excrete hydrogen cyanide as a predator defense.
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.
I keep waiting for a pterodactyl to swoop out of the mists.
I was very lucky to spot this rufous-eyed stream frog on a night hike through the cloud forest! These little fellows have a limited range in the mountains of Costa Rica, and their population took a bad hit in October of last year when Hurricane Nate disturbed much of their habitat.
Have I mentioned that it’s wet here?
A rare moment of sunlight on the hiking trail.
This thing is a liverwort, a weird kind of primitive plant related to moss.
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.
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.
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.
Many churches in Spanish-colonized countries have displays like these, of a bloodied Christ in a glass coffin. This one was built directly across from a stained glass depiction of Mary. Her image is eternally reflected over her son.
I love arthropods. Perhaps to an unhealthy degree. But I realize that many people do not (and for the record, they are wrong), so I am trying to contain my enthusiasm to a single post. There may be a part II later, though.
First, a small dose of unsolicited education: bugs, insects, and arthropods are not the same thing; they are categories with varying levels of specificity. An arthropod is anything that sports an exoskeleton, segmented body, and jointed leg pairs. Insects are arthropods that have all of the above and three-part bodies, three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and a single antennae pair. Bugs, more technically called Hemiptera, are a particular kind of insect that has sucking or piercing mouthparts, membranous or only partially hardened wings, and doesn’t undergo full metamorphosis.
For example: an aphid is a bug, insect, and arthropod. A beetle is an arthropod and insect, though not a bug. A lobster is an arthropod, but not an insect or bug. The takeaway here is that if you see a creepy crawly invertebrate, say, “what a beautiful arthropod!” and whether it’s an aphid, a lobster, or anything in between, you’ll never be wrong.
Or you could just keep on calling everything bugs, because taxonomy is ridiculous anyway.
We’re now staying in Wilson Botanical Gardens, part of the Las Cruces Biological Station in—you guessed it—Las Cruces. The garden plants are thriving and beautiful, but even more exciting are the creatures they attract! Get ready to see lots of photos, both from Las Cruces and our Palo Verde stay.
Let’s start off with something cute and charismatic! This little guy is a scarab beetle, probably in genus Chrysina (called the Jewel scarabs) based on those bright colors. He’s related to the June beetles that fly into your face during the Michigan summer, and is every bit as bumbling and friendly. Here, he’s helping me cram for an exam.
Now for something completely different. I know this tailless whip-scorpion looks like something that crawled out of Tim Burton’s nightmares (and has a fearsome name to match!), but it’s harmless. It is a member of order Amblypygi, a name that literally means “blunt rump.” This refers to their lack of any sort of tail (or venom) like their scorpion cousins. You are only in danger of a pinch if you stuck a finger into its little claws, called pedipalps. These guys come out at night to hunt other insects and defend their territories, and adorn many of the trees in Wilson Botanical Gardens. The star of this photo measures about seven inches across, as pictured. I don’t know how long he’d be with straightened legs, but some specimens can get up to nearly 30 inches in legspan.
This is a (very uncooperative) blue morpho butterfly in the forest at Las Cruces! She refused to open her wings for me, so I was unable to photograph the brilliant iridescent blue scales on the dorsal (top) side of her wings. I promise they are there, though. In the meantime, you can admire her drab brown forest camouflage and pretty eyespot collection.
(Disclaimer: I do not know how to sex butterflies, so I just pick a gender and run with it)
Army ants! Likely Ecitonspp., given their proliferation here. The little black-bodied gals are workers, and the pale giantesses are soldiers. Males are identifiable by their wings.
This video isn’t sped up—they really do keep that busy! Instead of confining themselves to a hill, army ants lead a nomadic lifestyle. For much of their life cycle they aggressively forage en masse during the day, and make their bivouacs (yes, that is the scientific term for temporary hills) each dusk. The name “army ant” comes from that mass foraging behavior, which looks a bit like waging war on the forest.
It’s a cicada! This guy is a Hemipteran, a true bug. These photos are of the same cicada, about forty minutes apart. Look at that handsome devil sclerotizing (inflating and hardening) his wings. It’ll be another of couple hours before his colors dim to the mottled greens and grays of a mature adult. These guys are harmless vegetarians who feed on sap in all parts of their life cycle, which can last from 2 to 17 years, depending on the species!
Fun fact: that brown exoskeleton they left behind after moulting is called an “exuvia.”
The first time I watched one of these swoop between trees, my classmate came up behind me and asked what bird it was.
This is Tropidacrus dux, a giant Central and South American locust. Their wingspan averages about seven inches across, and they are so often mistaken for birds that hunters are known to shoot them out of the sky by mistake. Poor things.
See that bright red flash when it flies away from my hand? This fellow’s crimson wings are a great example of deimatic coloration, which startles and disorients predators who are after a tasty grasshopper snack. Or perhaps more of a banquet, in this case.
This unhappy camper is a Harlequin beetle (Acrocinus longimanus). They have a beautiful, if somewhat seizure-inducing, pattern of black, red, and yellow on their backs, and I would absolutely recommend looking up a picture.
These fellows are a famous example of commensalism, which is a type of interaction where one species benefits, and the other is unaffected, for good or ill. Specifically, Harlequin beetles unwittingly ferry little pseudoscorpions around, which feed on mites around the forest (and sometimes underneath the elytra, the colorful hardened forewings of the beetle).
This specimen squirmed away shortly after this photo was taken, and managed to take a pretty good chunk out of my professor’s hand before he flew away. Thank you, Professor Mau, for the blood that you shed on behalf of our education.
Meet the queen of wasps, Polistes. This thing is a little over an inch long, and is sporting the biggest stinger I’ve ever laid eyes on. Polistes wasps are valued by farmers because of their relatively low aggression and high predatory habits, which keep caterpillar populations down and crop production up.
The insect of interest is the one on the left, a member of family Reduviidae. I almost didn’t include this fellow, because blog posts are supposed to be upbeat and there is nothing upbeat about him. But he is extraordinarily interesting, so here we go.
This is Prince Charming, the kissing bug. There is a reason he is sealed tight in a bag, far, far away from my skin. You see, kissing bugs carry around your friendly neighborhood microorganism, Trypanosoma cruzi. These sweet little kissing bugs get their kicks by sucking at the blood in or near your lips, and then defecate in the same area. If their feces (and the Trypanosoma cruzi in them) make it into your bloodstream, congratulations! You are a proud owner of Chagas disease. Eight to twelve weeks later, it’s chronic. The good news is that symptoms usually don’t present until twenty years later, when you abruptly die of heart failure. Yay.
Luckily, the kissing bugs in this area tend not to defecate on your face. So, while they may snack on your lips, you probably won’t get the disease. And we have mosquito nets for a reason; these fellows are much too large to make it through the fine mesh.
A post on Central American arthropods wouldn’t be complete without a tarantula picture. Here’s one I saw near my room in Palo Verde! These guys have a bad rap, but most New World tarantulas don’t have particularly potent venom, and you would only be in real danger if you have an allergy. Their first line of defense is the urticating bristles (irritating hairs) on their abdomens, which they fling at you if you’re particularly annoying. They also stridulate (make hissing sounds by rubbing their legs together) and slap at you with their forelegs before they resort to biting, so there is plenty of warning. The females are pretty playful, and will often submit to a little handling without fuss.
I leave you with a photo of this adorable little moth friend. She landed on my leg as I walked past a light in the gardens, and we immediately became best friends.
Say hi to some of your local arthropods for me! They deserve a little love.
After the last couple of weeks at Palo Verde National Park, we packed up our sunburns and headed off to a new location. Destination: Cuericí Biological Station, high in the Talamanca mountain range of Costa Rica. Much of the area is a recently restored montane oak forest, courtesy of landowner Don Carlos who works to strike a balance between forest preservation and sustainable rainbow trout farming.
Most people don’t seem to have strong feelings about grass. I do. Travel brings many challenges, but the biggest challenge by far, for me, has always been leaving behind the springy green grass of my home in Wisconsin. It was an unspeakable joy to arrive at Cuericí and feel soft grass underfoot once again… even if my bare feet put me at the mercy of the local vipers.
In addition to the grass, Cuericí boasts other similarities to the Midwest. The chilly conditions and extreme temperature variability encourage the same plant adaptations as areas with high seasonality. Glabrous, waxy leaves help plants conserve moisture under high-altitude sun, rosette-shaped growths trap heat in the face of chill winds, and shrubby growth forms persevere in the rocky, low-nutrient soil. Many plant families common in the temperate zone also populate high altitude tropical environments.
Because of that, this week I walked through an oak forest! In the tropics! I’ve never felt more at home whilst being so far away from home. The leaves of Quercus costaricensis are not as deeply lobed as the Quercus velutina I know, but their shiny coating and loud crunch underfoot are the same wherever you go. Unlike at home, the oak trees here sport brilliant red bromeliads and are draped with large webs of moss that subsist on atmospheric moisture from passing clouds.
If you climb even higher, the forest turns to large stands of bamboo, and then to páramo. Páramo, or “alpine tundra” exhibits all of the high-altitude adaptations to the extreme. Few woody plants can grow so high, so the páramo consists mostly of grass and rosette-shaped herbaceous plants. It’s a bit like a rocky prairie, but less fun for acrophobiacs.
We’re only here for a week, but I think I’ve fallen in love with this place. The hot chocolate is incomparable, the stars blaze brilliantly in the night sky, and the happy farm dogs are my new best friends. It’s still college, though; I’d better be off to study for my next exams! I’ll leave you with a few more photos.
Today, the classroom was a mudpit. And a most pretty mudpit, at that. We spent the better part of the day hiking through a mangrove forest occupying the brackish swamp where the freshwater Tempisque river meets the salty Colorado gulf.
We took our first quiz of the semester whilst sitting in a semicircle on fallen trees in a glistening mud lake. I tried to keep the thick, dark silt from smearing on my paper as I hastily scribbled down everything I knew about mangrove conservation, and was partially successful. I wonder if cleanliness will have any bearing on my grade?
Aside from their aesthetic appeal (who doesn’t love a giant combination jungle gym and mudpit?), mangrove forests are incredibly important sources of shoreline protection. Their positions along the coasts allow them to serve as living barriers between tropical storms and inhabited land, both as windbreaks and flood shields. Shoreline erosion, too, is curbed by their snarled masses of roots, which function as a living subterranean net. They also provide a unique habitat for crabs and fish, and, by extension, a tasty hunting ground for raccoons and coatis.
On the way in, we did some crocodile-spotting along the river! There were several American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) floating lazily along with the current or sunbathing on the sandy bank. I never thought the day would come that I’d share my classroom with these fellas, yet here we are. They’re a smidgen too distant to spot in this photo, but I wasn’t about to get a close-up—no matter how broadly they smiled for me.
We also saw plenty of friendlier fauna, such as…
Crabs! The mangrove forest was swarming with them. Though I wanted to gawk at our surroundings, I tried to keep my eyes on my feet lest I crush someone’s dear crabby wife or child. We mostly saw fiddler crabs, various members of the Uca genus, recognizable by that single dominant claw which the males use to battle each other for the attention of the ladies. Mangrove crabs are as important as the trees; their burrowing helps to mix oxygen into the anoxic soil, thereby aiding decomposition, and they also function as tiny lawnmowers by munching on seeds and seedlings.
These slightly terrifying things clawing their way up from the mud are called pneumatophores, and are essentially the lungs of the mangrove trees. These specialized roots have lenticels, pores that function as a point of gas exchange between the tree and the atmosphere at low tides. The silty mangrove mud is too fine for atmospheric gasses to penetrate, so plant life has to get creative.
Stilt roots help the trees stay upright in the mangrove mud, as well as provide another point of gas exchange. It’s hard to tell from this photo (I wasn’t eager to pull out my phone for very long in a giant sludge lake, so the pics are what they are), but those roots arc well above my head. As we walked deeper into the mangrove, the roots overlapped to form thick, muddy webs for us to crawl in and around. It was a bit like trying to squeeze through a laser maze, but infinitely more filthy and slippery. In a word, heaven.
My morning began with a beautiful hike through the tropical dry forest here in Palo Verde National Park, Costa Rica. It’s surprising how quickly that became a normal part of my routine; between the nature walk lectures, the field research, and the insect identification assignments that force you far afield in the name of homework, my days have become linked to the outdoors from start to finish.
My morning ended with me winded and massaging sore muscles after wildly sprinting away from an angry horde of white-faced capuchin monkeys. Twice. That’s not exactly a normal part of the routine, but in retrospect it was as delightful an encounter as it was hazardous. It certainly revitalized my prayer life for a few seconds.
To put it mildly, this semester isn’t quite like any I’ve experienced before. On a typical day, I emerge at 6:00am from my bed’s mosquito net (my new favorite possession), take a bracingly cold shower, wade through the swarms of black iguanas on my way to the dining hall, and devour a delicious plate of rice and beans. After that 6:30am breakfast, my classmates and I attend lectures on biodiversity, local research, local culture, and participate in other scheduled program materials which integrate the classroom experience with the Great Outdoors (believe me, the capitalization is due here). Even on the days when we remain inside, classes are frequently interrupted by the little house geckos that somehow sneak inside and run up and down the walls behind the lecturer. Nature is thoroughly inescapable, and I could not be happier.
I sleep and wake with the sun, eat healthy and locally grown food, limit computer and internet use, and generally find myself keeping a more responsible schedule here than I ever have at Hope. I expected a semester abroad to be stressful and different, and while it is certainly the latter, I think I will emerge with a better appreciation for natural rhythms and simple living (i.e., I am embracing my inner hippie: fear my return).
Returning to the academic side of things, this semester is highly research-focused, and we’ve started off strong with a couple of studies already having been designed, executed in the field, analyzed, and written up. I will be (co-)designing and leading a project with my own group in a few weeks, and – spoiler alert – I hope to write a rather extensive post about the research aspect of this program. The work is hard, but rewarding.
Now that I have this routine down, it’s time for a change. In the morning we’re off to Estación Biológica Cuericí for a week, where the páramo is and the internet isn’t. ¡Hasta luego!
Note on the video below:
The male iguanas here are hilariously full of themselves. They swagger around and do little lizard push ups and emphatic head bobbles to demonstrate dominance to all the beautiful ladyguanas, or anyone else who bothers to watch. One fellow decided to put on a private show for me. I’m mostly flattered, but also a bit concerned that I’m attractive by lizard standards.