an e-newsletter for students and alumni of saint michael's biology department

Exploring Costa Rica
By Doug Green and Peter Hope




The Tropical Ecology class by the largest almendro tree in Costa Rica which is 54 meters tall and 8 meters in diameter. From left: Corey, Adrien, Jamie, Tim, Nick, Albelardo (our guide), Gaylynn, Linsey, Chris, Emma, Randy and Professor Green.  
What’s the best way to avoid winter blues in New England? Saint Michael’s Biology Department recommends a Tropical Ecology course! Between December 29, 2008 and January 9, 2009, Professors Peter Hope and Doug Green accompanied 10 students to the forests of Costa Rica to study the ecological relationships among the plants and animals that live there.

We arrived in Costa Rica late on the 29th and spent the night at the Don Carlos Hotel in the capital, San Jose. Early the next morning we took a three-hour van ride to Selva Verde Lodge. Selva Verde is located in the Sarapiqui Rainforest Preservation Area in a lowland region on eastern side of Costa Rica. It provides refuge for the endangered almendro tree, which provides nesting sites for the endangered great green macaw.

The rainforest contains tall canopy trees with umbrella shaped crowns and huge buttresses and understory trees such as stilt rooted palms. Over 300 species of trees are found in the preserve, which is home to over 300 species of birds, 120 mammals, 48 amphibians, and 89 reptiles. Annual rainfall is about 4 meters and the average temperature is 24°C (75°F).

The guides at Selva Verde were great. We went on long guided hikes through the preserve and saw many species of exotic birds, mammals, reptiles, and plants. The guides also took us on birdwatching walks on the Lodge grounds – at 6:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. every day! As you can see, we got some great photographs. The students designed and carried out mini-research projects in the field. Emma Leonard ’11, Lynsey Nally ’10, and Gaylynn Wells ’10 studied how bird size and flocking behavior affected the arrival times of birds at a feeder. Jamie McGuire ’09, Chris Furlong ’09, and Tim Bednar ’09 studied prey capture in spider webs as a function of distance from artificial light sources. Adrien Cloutier ’10, Randy Breeckner ’11, Corey Mozisek ’09, and Nick Sibley ’09 examined how leaf cutter ants responded to novel food sources and to the disruption of their foraging lines. Although there was a lot of work, students found some time to relax, do some bridge jumping, and take advantage of the Lodge’s pool.

  During the nights at Selva Verde participants spend a lot of time searching for nocturnal creatures such as this red-eyed tree frog, here with its protective nictitating membrane

On January 4 we spent the day on the road to Monteverde. We traveled northeast past one of Costa Rica’s most active volcanoes, Mt. Arenal, around manmade Lake Arenal, and over the Continental Divide to the Pacific side of Costa Rica. We arrived late that afternoon, and took up residence at La Casona, a lodge operated by the reserve and located literally at the reserve’s entrance.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, at about 1600 m elevation, receives 2.5 to 3 m of rain annually. This rain and the frequent misty clouds that roll up the mountain slopes provide plenty of moisture, which produces the very heavy epiphyte loads characteristic of cloud forests. Tree branches and bark are covered with mosses, ferns, orchids, bromeliads (pineapple family), even some small trees, and other plants. Tree ferns are abundant understory plants here instead of the many palms at lower elevations. Up at the continental divide the strong trade winds sculpt an elfin forest of short gnarly trees.

Like Selva Verde, Monteverde is staffed with wonderful guides. We took advantage of their experience and knowledge on a number of hikes, including one at night, armed with our head lamps. We learned a great deal about the plants and wildlife in the reserve, as well as the ecology that links them all together.

Emma, Lynsey, Gaylynn, Adrien, and Nick studied the sensory cues used by orange-kneed tarantulas to capture prey. They learned that tarantulas hunt by sensing the vibrations their prey make. Tim, Chris, Jamie, Randy, and Corey examined the effects of wind on the size and placement of bromeliads in high-wind regions along the mountain ridge of the continental divide. Surprisingly they found that these high winds apparently have no effect on where bromeliads grow on the trees. In spite of all their work, students found time to visit the hummingbird gallery, sample great Costa Rican coffee, and spent two afternoons visiting the nearby town of Santa Elena and ziplining through the rainforest canopy at Selvatura.

Checking a spider web for prey as part of one of the short research studies.  
On January 8 we left Monteverde and headed down the mountain slopes for the Pacific Coast and Carara National Park, home of the scarlet macaw. We took a two-hour hike though the park and saw ant acacias, white-faced capuchin monkeys, and a great view of the scarlet macaw. This was the only part of our trip where we really got rained on. We drove back to San Jose that afternoon in a van filled with many muddy boots!

As we arrived back at the Don Carlos Hotel, we learned that there had been a large earthquake (6.1 on the Richter scale) with its epicenter about 30 km north of San Jose, near the Poás Volcano. At least 20 people died. As we were on the other side of the country we didn’t feel a thing. In fact, news of the earthquake got back to New England before it got to us. When we returned to the Don Carlos there were several messages from home checking to make sure that we were all right.

We flew out of Costa Rica and back to Boston early on January 9. We reluctantly said our good-byes, as students and professors scattered for home, visits, and a brief readjustment to New England winter. We got back to Vermont just ahead of a major snow storm, and classes started on January 12. Not much time to rest from our trip, but a good time was had by all!


More photos from Costa Rica


Male basilisk lizards look like they came right out of Jurassic Park. They are known for their ability to run across water to escape predators or chase prey.   Some of the largest crocodiles in Costa Rica are found in Rio Tárcoles near the entrance to Carara National Park. Carara means crocodile in a native peoples language.  
A Chestnut-mandibled toucan viewed through the guide’s telescope.   Orange-kneed tarantulas were easily seen near holes in the trailside banks.  
The group entering a canopy bridge at the Monteverde Cloud Forest.   Randy Breeckner inside the roots of a strangler fig whose host tree has rot.  

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