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6 posts from July 2017


The Amazing Forest of Peñas Blancas

After a couple of weeks at the Biological Station in which we had lectures, assignments, lab practical, midterm and many other activities, it was time to have a break from some "normal" school period and have our next adventure; this time our destination was Eladio's Refuge at the Peñas Blancas valley.  Eladio's is found in the heart of the Monteverde protected area also known as the Children's Eternal Rain Forest, to get to this place we hiked for 16 kilometers (10 miles), we started our hike at the entrance of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and after a few hours throughout a marvelous forest full of life we made it to our final destination.

Here at Eladio's we learned about how the conservation of the whole area started, and how farmers who owned the land, like Eladio Cruz, saw the importance of preserving and protecting the forest around Monteverde, changed their mind and sold their land for conservation purposes and start working on increasing the size of the protected area and with the help of many donations, one of the biggest made by a group of Swedish school kids, hence the name of Children's Eternal Rain Forest, the area is now the biggest private reserve in Central America covering around 25 000 hectares of forest.

Besides learning about conservation we also hike through the forest discovering new species of plant and animals, used mist nets to catch bats and birds, did a night hike in which we saw many species of frogs, insects and snakes, visit rivers and waterfalls, and the most important we were in the middle of nowhere with no electricity and internet connection, far away from the "real" world just soaking on nature and enjoying this wonderful new experience.  

It was only a few days there, but a good energy recharging to go back to Monteverde and start our Independent Research project.



The group is ready and really excited to start the hike to Eladio's, here at the entrance of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.  From left to right: Amanda Ogden (Utah State University), Sarah Aitken (University of Pennsylvania) Derek Frank (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities), Drew Rosso (University of Notre Dame), Jimmy Webb (University of Arkansas), Christine Bradley (California Polytechnic State University), and Vikram Norton (University of Massachusetts-Amherst).


UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_38bJust after a few minutes hiking we encountered a pair of dung beetles carrying a ball of dung.  These roller species find a source of dung and make a little ball that they roll to a hole in a safe place in which they lay their eggs to develop.



One of the many rivers or streams that we crossed during our time at Eladio's.



It is not call the rain forest for no reason.  Peñas Blancas receive around 9 meters of rain per year and here we experienced first hand.


IMG_3361While its raining and after spending some time exploring nature nothing better than enjoy a little break playing card games.


IMG_3378Drew Rosso (University of Notre Dame) enjoying the waters of Quebrada Celeste (Light blue stream), the name comes from the color of the water.


IMG_3362Eladio Cruz preparing some food for the group.  Eladio used to own the land were the refuge it is found, he was the first person who sold his land for conservation purposes and since then he has been a big collaborator on the conservation of the Monteverde area.  He is a great naturalist and also an amazing cook.


IMG_3407While mist netting for birds we caught several species of them; hummingbirds, manakins, tanagers were some of the types of birds we caught.  Here Derek Frank (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities) holding a Long-billed Gnatwren (Ramphocaenus melanurus).


GOPR0058Vikram Norton (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) having a back massage under a waterfall.


IMG_3416Many species of beautiful of frogs were found during our night hike, here Christine Bradley (California Polytechnic State University) posing with the most colorful of all the Red-eyed Tree Frog (Agalychnis callidryas).





The forest is our classroom

When we arrived to Monteverde we thought our lectures will be more like a normal day of class back in our campuses in which we will spend time learning about different topics inside a classroom, taking notes, having breaks and taking midterms; and yes part of that happen during the next couple of weeks, but being right next to the forest while you learn about tropical ecology its a great opportunity to go out everyday and experience first hand those topics we learn in the classroom.  

Using the forest as part of our classes make lectures way more interesting, but at the same time it gives you a better understanding of the concepts cover in class.  Learning about the structural diversity of the forest, the different plant growth forms and their adaptations to subsist in the habitat they live while you are sitting by a stream in the middle of the forest gives you a different perspective of the forest and a better understanding of why the forest is structured the way it is and all those adaptations we see on plants.


IMG_3482View of our "classroom" from the Biological Station.


UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_370Jimmy Webb (University of Arkansas) and Amanda Ogden (Utah State University) learning first hand about adaptive strategies of different plant growth forms.


Another important topic to fully understand tropical biology it is biodiversity and why are the tropics so diverse, and of course we will not learn this just sitting in a class looking at a Power Point presentation on a screen, so as an activity to understand biodiversity better and get familiarized with biodiversity statistics we look at two different species of flowers, one native (Daisy) and one introduced (Hibiscus) and look at the different species and number of arthropods found in them.


IMG_3319Derek Frank (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities) looking for arthropods on a Daisy flower.


IMG_3317Intensively looking for hidden arthropods in the Daisy and Hibiscus flowers.  Sarah Aitken (University of Pennsylvania) and Amanda Ogden (Utah State University) do not wanna miss any small creature found there.


IMG_3320Some of the arthropods found on the Daisy flowers.


IMG_3321Thrips (Order Thysanoptera) were the most common arthropods found in both species of flowers.


But not all the time we spend here are lectures, as a good practice for our upcoming Independent Research a couple of days we developed project ideas in which we collected data in the morning, analyze the data and make a presentation in the afternoon and presented our results at night. These projects included topics like avoidance of leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) for plants with anti-fungal properties, seed predation and caching behavior by Agoutis (Dasyprocta punctata) with seeds found at different depth on the leaf litter, number of founders Agaonidae wasp on figs (Ficus) syconia, and niche partitioning of bark beetles (Scolytodes) in Cecropia petioles.  This field problem experiments gave us a better idea of the challenges we will be facing for the Independent Research and also give some input about project ideas for the students.


UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_337Drew Rosso (University of Notre Dame) studying the selection of leaf fragments with and without anti-fungal properties by leaf cutter ants (Atta cephalotes).


UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_33fSome leafcutter ant (Atta cephalotes) workers checking fragments of leaves with no anti-fungal properties.


UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_37dThree different species of bark beetles of the genus Scolytodes inhabit fallen petioles of Cecropia leaves in the Monteverde area; here Vikram Norton from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst check the different areas of the petiole looking for some beetles.





The Cloud Forest: Our new home

After spending 2 weeks exploring most of the lowland habitat in the Pacific slope it was time to make it to what will be our home for the next month and a half, Monteverde.  Monteverde is a Cloud Forest located between 1500 and 1800 meters of elevation, the environmental conditions of temperature and constant mist found here make this place a great habitat for many epiphytic species like bromeliads and orchids.

Just getting to the Monteverde Biological Station, the place where we will be spending most of our time here, we realized our stay in this wonderful place was gonna be amazing. The morning after we arrived to Monteverde we did our first hike through this magical forest; we hiked from the Station at 1535 meters in elevation to the top of the mountain at 1830 meters, here we got to explore this new habitat and we finally made it to our first Rain Forest also known in this area as the elfin forest, this forest is located at the Continental Divide and the name its given due the fact the canopy is shorter because the big influence of rain and wind found in this area.

Although it was not a long hike we took the entire morning to explore and get immerse in this enchanted forest, every other step we discover a new species of animal or plant that made us fall in love with this place, after this hike we knew the time here its gonna be wonderful.


IMG_7595Monteverde Biological Station.  


IMG_3290Christine Bradley (California Polytechnic State University), Vikram Norton (University of Massachusetts-Amherst), Sarah Aitken (University of Pennsylvania), Drew Rosso (University of Notre Dame), and Jimmy Webb (University of Arkansas) admiring the chrysalis  of a Hawk (Family Sphingidae) moth.


19430035_10154965885537917_5790870617452838029_nClose up of the Sphingid moth chrysalis.


IMG_3293Christine Bradley (California Polytechnic State University), Jimmy Webb (University of Arkansas), Drew Rosso (University of Notre Dame), and Vikram Norton (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) hiking through the elfin forest of Monteverde.



The Elfin forest.


IMG_3296Derek Frank (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities), Sarah Aitken (University of Pennsylvania), and our professor Erick McAdam enjoying their time at the elfin forest.


IMG_3299Amanda Ogden (Utah State University) and Sarah Aitken (University of Pennsylvania) at the summit of Cerro Amigos (1830 meters in elevation), they understood why it is called a Cloud Forest.


IMG_3310After the hike we returned to the Biological Station and found this lovely visitor, a White-faced Capuchin Monkey (Cebus imitator), he was most interested in looking for some food than in our presence there.










Santa Rosa National Park: a little bit of history, conservation and dry forest

After spending a few days in the wet and moist forests we made it to Santa Rosa to explore the dry forest. Santa Rosa is exceptional not only because the different habitats and ecosystems you find there, but also for the historical and conservation value this place have for Costa Rica.

Santa Rosa was an old cattle farm hacienda in which 2 important battles happened. First in March 20th, 1856 the Costa Rican forces fought against the forces of filibuster William Walker, the filibusters were housed in the main farm building, La Casona, the ensuing battle lasted 14 minutes with the Costa Rican militia victorious in ousting the invaders.  And in 1955 Costa Ricans fought intruders supporting a coup attempt against the government of Jose Figueres Ferrer.  For this reason La Casona became a Costa Rican Historical Monument and one of the reasons why the park was created.

Santa Rosa was the first National Park created in Costa Rica in 1971, with the idea of protecting the natural environment beyond the historical site, the unique habitats within the park include savannas, deciduous forest and mangroves.  Since the creation of the park the biggest battle has been fought to conserve the area, but mostly to restore the habitat from cattle farms to what the forest used to look dozens of years ago.

During a few days we got to explore the beauties of this dry forest in regeneration, see many new species of plants and animals and experience firsthand the changes that 35-40 years of regeneration can make in a forest.



The Black Iguana (Ctenosaura similis) one of the most common animal inhabitants of Santa Rosa.




The Summer 2017 Tropical Ecology & Conservation group enjoying the shade of a Strangler Fig (Ficus sp).  From left to right, top: Jimmy Webb (University of Arkansas), Derek Frank (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities), Christine Bradley (California Polytechnic State University), Drew Rosso (University of Notre Dame); bottom: Vikram Norton (University of Massachusetts-Amherst), Sarah Aitken (University of Pennsylvania) and Amanda Ogden (Utah State University).




La Casona, Costa Rica's Historical Monument.



UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_31aStudents learning from Alan about the history of the battles at Santa Rosa right at the place where the action happened.



Part of the conservation efforts in Santa Rosa and adjacent areas has been to connect the lowlands with the top of the mountains of the Cordillera de Guanacaste, this forest corridor its a really important migratory way for most of the animal species who escape the harsh dry and hot conditions in the lowlands during the dry season.  Most of these mountain tops are volcanoes some of which are active.



UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_325While learning about the importance of preserving big patches of forest and having corridors connecting these areas, Rincon de la Vieja Volcano had an eruption (yes, that big white cloud on the back!) that we did not noticed until we checked our pictures.  Do not worry that eruption it was just gas and ashes and did not affect us at all.



UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_327Alan with the students after a good learning day in which we learned the natural history of some of the plant and animal species found in Santa Rosa, the history of the place, and the importance of conservation and restoration of habitat.







Transition between Wet and Dry forest, Carara National Park

Time to move from the wet forest to the dry forest, but half way there we found Carara National Park. Carara is a moist forest in which you can see the transition between those two habitats, here you can find the best of both worlds but also encounter unique species. This was a only a morning stop, but a wonderful forest to visit and an interesting transition to see before getting to the dry forest.


IMG_3235Derek Frank (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities) and Vikram Norton (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) really interested in learning about this new habitat and all the species found in there.



A cup fungi (Cookeina speciosa), a really common fungi found in Carara.



The Green and Black Poison Dart frog (Dendrobates auratus), this diurnal frogs has toxins that protects it against its predators, this common species of Carara forest feed mostly on ants where they get the compounds to produce their toxins.


The word Carara comes from the Costa Rican indigenous tribe Huetar and means crocodile. Right next to the National Park the Tarcoles River contain a really high density of crocodiles in a small area, this is an uncommon and unexplainable situation, but a good stop to see many of this incredible animals.


IMG_3242Important sign at the beginning of Tarcoles bridge.


IMG_3243What are they looking at?!


IMG_3244Ohh yeah, all those crocodiles.


IMG_3250Hungry or what?. The American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is one of the biggest species of reptiles worldwide, as reptiles they are ectotherms who need to bask exposed to the sun to get warm, what we are seeing here is a common behavior shown by the crocodiles when they need to cool down a little.




The Wet Forest of Corcovado National Park

After spending a brief time at the habitats of Paramo and Mangroves it was time to move to Corcovado, here we will be spending a few days exploring this amazing habitat full of life and many species of plants and animals to discover.  The first day we got to learn about beach ecology and explore the forest around Corcovado.


07Alan teaching the group about butterfly ecology with a live example of a Morpho butterfly.



A pair of Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao), here perched in the tree that is their favorite food item, the Beach Almond (Terminalia catappa), reason why they are usually seen along the coast line.


An important aspect of a tropical ecologist life is to create a baseline of how a tropical forest look; in a world in which a big part of the primary forest have disappear and most of the tropical forest is secondary growth, it is really important to experience with all of our senses an undisturbed tropical forest and get a point of comparison, this will give us a better idea of the importance on preserving untouched forest and to let disturbed forest to growth and regenerate.

With this idea we had a 16 km hike (about 10 miles) in which the biggest part of the hike was along a gorgeous patch of undisturbed primary forest, here you could see lots of animals (birds, lizards, frogs, insects, mammals) and trees that reach a hight of 50 or 60 meters tall.  The students get to walk at their own pace and experience this hike individually, getting immerse and feeling this forest in a unique way.




A stream in the middle of the primary forest of Corcovado.


01Vikram Norton (University of Massachusetts-Amherst), Sarah Aitken (University of Pennsylvania), Amanda Ogden (Utah State University), Derek Frank (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities), Drew Rosso (University of Notre Dame), Jimmy Webb (University of Arkansas), and Christine Bradley (California Polytechnic State University) standing at the roots of a big tree at Corcovado.


IMG_2433View of the primary forest.


During our last night in Corcovado we went on a night hike and got to know some of the nocturnal fauna found in the area, several species of frogs, many species of spiders and insects and some mammals were our company during the time we went out in the dark, with our flashlights of course! 



The Smokey Jungle Frog (Leptodactylus savagei), the second largest species of frog in Costa Rica.



The Central American Woolly Opossum (Caluromys derbianus), one of the ten species of marsupials found in Costa Rica.