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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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!
a spider web for prey as part of one of the short research
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!