Saturday, February 9, 2013

Pura Vida

Here is the much anticipated (or rather, much delayed---sorry!), Costa Rica post!

Our time in this fascinating country was full to the brim with sights the like I had only seen on TV or in magazines, and far more wildlife than I could have ever expected to observe! We began our stay with a nighttime flight over Nicaragua, arriving sleepily in San José, at Hotel Aeropuerto. The next day we drove from the capital city, which lies in the beautiful volcano rimmed Central Valley, through the mountains and toward our destination of the La Selva Biological Station. La Selva is one of the primary research facilities for scientists studying the tropics. It sits at the intersection of the Sarapiqui and Puerto Viejo rivers, and consists of almost 4000 acres of many types of forest. It is very special because it is connected to two national parks, providing a corridor of preserved habitat from the peak of a nearby volcano, all the way to sea level. I encourage you to learn more about the station at their website: Organization for Tropical Studies (La Selva).

The drive through the mountains was spectacular, though I'm now sure that in Costa Rica, driving is only suited for those willing to stare down a dump truck that has decided to overtake the other cars in its lane, and is flying around the mountain curves, straight toward your bus. Eep. But! the steep, nearly vertical mountains are a thrill in their own right. There was not a bare rock face to be seen, and I swear, I saw trees growing horizontally out of the hillsides. The only space where vegetation had not conquered the mountain, was where mist-spilling waterfalls narrowly plunged down toward the valley floor, vainly attempting to speed along the low, muddy river at the bottom. 

a Crested Guan through the scope
We reached La Selva soon enough, and in the midst of unheard-of good weather. It was the beginning of the dry season, but we still expected to be dumped upon by sudden rain storms, probably at the least-opportune time, such as on a long hike out in the forest while doing some field work. Yet, that never happened. The guides told us on the day we arrived, that on December 31st (the rainy season is said to run about from May to December) the weather suddenly shifted, as if someone had turned a dial, and they had had very little rain for the whole month of January. While this was convenient for us, it might be detrimental to the forest if the pattern holds up. La Selva is somewhat unique because some of the most numerous trees in this biological reserve have seeds which disperse by falling into running water, and floating elsewhere where they can take root and grow. Many other trees depend on birds, insects, or mammals to disperse their seeds. La Selva, however, is known for its tremendous floods. The bridge over the river was high above the water (maybe 40 feet), but we were told that sometimes, the water comes up to just a few feet below the bridge!

My classmate Naomi before the 15-person-limit suspension bridge.
We crossed this bridge many times a day because our sleeping quarters, in the river station, were on the opposite shore from the dining hall. Even though this meant at least a 10-15 minute walk to get to meals, I liked the set up, because it afforded us extra chances to spot some wildlife, or practice our plant identification skills. Ooh baby did we see a lot of wildlife! I never expected to see half of the animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects (the list goes on and on) that we saw. 

Our days typically consisted of various hikes on La Selva's trails, lessons from our professors on the plants (especially palms--check out the handy guide that Professor Shumway put together if you're interested in rainforest plants, and for better quality images than I could take: Rainforest Plants), meal times, and nighttime lectures and presentations on our 'expert topics' from my fellow classmates. We began our days promptly at 5:30 a.m., partly because breakfast ran strictly from 6-7, but more so because this was when the howler monkeys became active. What a holy racket! It is hard to describe the sound of the howler troupe's calls, but I wrote down in my journal that the best comparison was "a pack of dogs barking at each other inside a running vacuum cleaner." They hung out in the trees around the river station, and were a regular sight at dawn and dusk, climbing the canopy trees and hanging by their prehensile tails. Some of the females had babies clinging to their backs! We were able to see other monkeys deeper in the forest, such as spider monkeys and white-faced capuchins. 

Keel-billed Toucan
Ah, the forest. It is truly remarkable. During the fall semester, a Wheaton student from Costa Rica, who had interned at La Selva, described to our class what we might expect when we got to the rainforest. She said that coming to New England, our woodlands seemed like "movie forest," and perhaps we would feel the same way going to the tropics. She was spot on. Equipped with khaki pants, knee-high boots, my wide-brim hat, backpack, notebooks, binoculars, and a sense of adventure, I felt like a true jungle explorer, channeling Alfred Russel Wallace and Tarzan simultaneously. Even though we were instructed to remain on the trails (for our safety, and to reduce human impact on the forest, especially in some of the old-growth areas), my imagination had me scaling the looping monkey ladder vines up into the canopy, swinging on lianas, 
Cole and me in front of a Ceiba Tree, photo by Molly Horan
and shimmying up the wide buttressed trunks of the emergent trees. I wished to shrink down to ant-size and follow the seemingly endless lines of leaf-cutters back to their nests in the ground, or in the hollow stems of some plants. Most of all, though, I wanted to see the blue jeans frog.

I had studied this conspicuous poison dart frog in depth during the semester, and it was one of my major goals of the trip to see one in person.  They are called Oophaga pumilio (oophaga means 'egg eater', pumilio relates to the toxin in their skin) for the unique characteristic that the mother frog feeds her tadpoles unfertilized eggs. This species exhibits a lot of 'strange' behavior for frogs, particularly because frogs don't usually care for their young at all. Oophaga of both sexes input a huge amount of parental care. They are wicked cool frogs. They look like they are wearing tiny pants. Ask me about them any time. I will go on and on. Anyways, for the first few days, I would hear someone from the class up the trail a little ways exclaim that they thought they spotted one, but by the time I ran to see, it had disappeared into the leaf litter. Although I had been assured that since the frog is common at La Selva, and since it is bright blue and bright orange against a background of dull brown leaves, I would most certainly see it, I did not realize how tough it would be. But, we should not forget: these frogs are about the size of a bottle cap. Teeny tiny. Extra adorable and super cool. Highly toxic. 

Oophaga pumilio or the Blue-jeans Frog, photo by Patty Kaishan
Then, a glorious thing happened. When the class was out on our one full-day hike, someone at the front of the group called out, "Blue jeans!" I scrambled up the hill and there she was, a beautifully bright female on top of a leaf in a little hollow by the trail-side. I picked her up (having read in the literature that researchers of this frog at La Selva had handled them safely-albeit delicately, and were sure not to put bug spray on their hands, since that could be absorbed into the frog's skin and kill it), TOTALLY PSYCHED to behold this amazing creature, and get to give the class my presentation on these frogs with a real-life subject. It was a magical moment. I talked for far too long.

Peccary on the run!
That was one of the absolute highlights for me for the trip. Another really great aspect was having the opportunity to conduct our own very-short term research experiments. My partner, Marie, and I chose to do our project on white-collared peccaries, which resemble wild boars. We saw these animals daily on our walks from the forest to meals, but rarely saw them when we were further out in the forest. Yet, no matter where they were, it was an undeniable rule, that with peccaries, you smell 'em, before you see 'em. I am not kidding. It's not a particularly awful smell, but the peccaries have very strong musk glands, so when you are walking along, and suddenly smell rotting garbage mixed with sweat, you can be sure, there are peccaries nearby. So, we wanted to know if there were more peccaries near the area that had been developed by humans, or if they were just easier to observe in that area. We tested this by hiking outwards from the developed area, and counting the number of sets of peccary tracks that crossed our transects. Our results seemed to say that there were indeed more peccaries near the developed area, but it's tough to be at all sure when our study was so short, and our methods were somewhat flawed. If only we had a bunch of game cameras! Alas. My only disappointment with the project was, that with all the close proximity to peccaries, I did not get a single decent photo!

We did some other awesome things, like a canopy tour of the forest and a riverboat tour on the Sarapiqui. On the canopy tour, we donned some safety gear and climbed up to 42 meters on research towers that are used to monitor weather conditions, and to aid in canopy research. We did not see much wildlife at all up there, but we got a great sense of the  physiognomy (the 3D structure of the forest) of the ecosystem from a totally new perspective. The heights of the trees does not at all reflect the topography of the ground. The clouds obscured our view of the volcano, but oh man did it feel good to get up in the wind. There's next to no breeze in the understory, and it can get pretty stifling. The riverboat tour gave us an intensely condensed view of the creatures of the river. Some of the most exciting sights were a crocodile and a caiman basking on the mud, a neon colored male basilisk (also known as the Jesus Christ lizard, because it can run over water), an anhinga (also called the snake bird), and dozens of mangrove swallows that followed our boat the whole way, yet refused to be photographed. They are seriously pretty, but I have a soft spot for swallows.

 When we left La Selva, we headed to the Volcan Poas National Park to see a caldera and explore the cloud forest. It was bittersweet yet stunning views as rainforest gave way to coffee plantations and cattle pasture, but the trip to the volcano was a great drive. The volcano itself, was frankly, a miss. The cloud forest played us a little trick, and totally whited-out the view of the caldera. We had a few moments where we thought the sun would break through, but to no avail. We did have a fun romp through the cloud forest on the park's trails though, despite the cold and slippery weather. 
Yours truly, en route from Belize to Costa Rica, wishing you well.

We returned that afternoon to San José, where we were free to explore until the class had its final dinner, which ended up being a great time at a superb Peruvian restaurant called Machu Picchu. When we see each other again, and you are in the mood for a brief but funny story, ask me about the local character that Cole, Patty and I met that afternoon. 

I hope you are well, and having excellent adventures yourself. As was said many times in Costa Rica, Pura Vida! Full life!

1 comment:

  1. That is the most adorable frog of all time! I cannot wait to hear all about your adventures with Cole and Patty : )


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