One characteristic of rain and cloud forests are the diversity of epiphytes, life forms growing on top of other life forms. ‘Aerial garden’ is used nowadays to refer to roof-top gardens sprouting on little-used spaces of high-rise buildings around the world. Classically, it has referred to the plethora of plants that assemble on the trunks and limbs of rainforest trees. ‘Aerial aquaria’ are the bromeliads that accumulate rainwater, soil and animal communities at the base of the rosette of leaves. Canopy walkways, aerial traps, open-air gondolas, and zip-lining are frequently being constructed for scientists and nature lovers to learn about these hard-to-reach forest layers.
In our daily walks along trails at the Zurqui de Moravia site near San Jose and here in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, we take advantage of fallen trees and broken tree limbs to test out our botany knowledge, add a few more families to our life lists, and poke around for hidden snakes, frogs, and especially insects. I don’t have the heart to peel off the carpet of mosses, filmy ferns, and flowering orchids to find beetles and bugs. Documenting the arthropod community living in the phytotelmata of a bromeliad is destructive sampling – tearing leaves apart and using forceps to spread the soil. Fortunately, this is not the focus of my current research nor permitted by my Costa Rica research permit; thus, I am spared the conflict of attacking these gorgeous bromeliads for cryptic insect treasures.
I visited Monteverde in June 1994, as a student in a field course led by former KU professor, Dr. Michael Greenfield. This was before my own current students here were born! Back then I was enchanted by the forest, its birds awaking me as they began singing from about 4 am, by the clouds drifting in with their misty moisture, and the overwhelming diversity of plants. The old field station inside the reserve was a wooden 2-story construction, with poorly lit rooms and scary showers. My student companions and I then complained of the wet and cold, while enjoying being far from home in this extraordinary forest.
In 1951, 11 American Quaker families migrated to this area in protest of the Korean War. Costa Rica had abolished its army and was an attractive destination. As the community established and grew, developing a low-key farming model, biologists began arriving for research. The reserve was established in 1972 to protect one of the world’s most diverse and virgin forests, with 6 ecological life zones and more than 2500 species of plants.
Today, Monteverde has grown, like Costa Rica, into a super-successful model of nature tourism and conservation. The road, now paved, passes through the towns of Santa Elena and Monteverde. My jaw dropped with the number of shops and hotels. The new field station offers fine dining, its own gift shop, and a small army of workers and guides. The forest is still a wet and cold place and the station still has heart-stopping frigid showers.
It is a remarkable site to view the busloads of school groups and families and their uniformed guides arriving early, even before 7am, paying the entrance fees and heading off on the trails. More wondrous is that over 70,000 visitors come here annually to learn about biology and ecology!
Before the start of the program I had to pleasure of traveling around Costa Rica with my dad. It was an experience unlike any I have had before. First off I loved all the different chances to experience the difference in culture. For a little while we lived with a Costa Rica family. That was a very eye opening experience, because it showed me that their everyday life isn't that different from ours in the states. Also, eating home cooked food every day we were with them gave me good insight to the typical meals; breakfast never changed, and dinner was essentially the same every time but with a different protein. The other thing I now find very cool is the plants. When I was traveling with my dad I saw a lot of the plant order that we are here to study and didn't even know it. However, now that I have some field experience under my belt I realize I was surrounded by them. I didn't realize how abundant they were here, and I never would have guessed at all the different organisms that live on the plants. I'm looking forward to the rest of our research. All in all it has been a great time so far, and my favorite place was the Manuel Antonio National Park, so I am excited to be returning there for the weekend.
There’s a chase through the jungle in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” that incorporates the giant, terrifying Siafu ants. It’s over-the-top and kind of silly seeing them essentially devour one of the characters; but watching actual footage of them in a nature documentary, working as a horde to eat an animal, now that’s scary. However, it’s not until you’re actually in the jungle and the forest floor is covered in ants that will bite you to hell that the panic sets into your heart.
But not all the ants here are intimidating. Right now I’m looking at a busy mass of tiny black ants going to town on a dead fly on my cabin floor. The first day that I saw three or four groups like this in my room I freaked and stomped them out like Godzilla, but now I let them be. Observing leafcutter ants on a trail is actually inspiring to see, as creatures so small carry materials so much bigger than them and work together with such efficiency.
But the frightening ants have left a more lasting impression on me. A few days ago as we walked on a trail deep in the jungle, we came across the notorious Bullet Ant, which is longer than a fingernail and has the most painful bite (of any insect here?). Professor Chaboo was bitten by one a previous year and said the pain sears like a bullet wound for 10-15 minutes. We took a few pictures as it sucked sap from a tree, until it began crawling down toward us, and we knew it was time to move.
Shortly thereafter, we entered what we’ve dubbed “The Gauntlet.” Rains from the night before flooded some underground ant nests, so the trail was covered in roving ant colonies. One stretch was so fully lined with ants that we were afraid to simply walk through it, so we each composed ourselves before making a terrified, expletive-heavy dash across it. As far as I can tell, I made it through without ant bites, but my ankles fell victim to the merciless chiggers instead.
One of the biggest surprises for me on this trip was how different Wayqecha, the first field station, was from my expectations of the rainforest. That’s because Wayqecha is in a cloud forest: high in elevation (3000m), cool, and relatively dry. However, we still got soaked on our first hike when the area received its first rain in three weeks.
When we left Wayqecha, we travelled down the Kosñipata valley from the clouds to the tropics, spotting waterfalls along the road and dense vegetation that grew more vivid in its green color. At Villa Carmen, the second field station, I really felt like I was walking into the jungle, as this area fit my expectations of the rainforest.
While I had prepared for the heavy humidity and higher temperature here, I wasn’t ready for it after living in the comfort of Wayqecha. It took me several days to adjust. But the much greater density and diversity of beautiful plants, flowers, and insects make it worth it.
The almost daily rains required a change in routine as well. Sometimes they come late morning or early afternoon, giving us a siesta period to rest after lunch before returning to fieldwork around 2-3 p.m. Other days a downpour begins in the middle of the night and continues until late morning, which limits us from hiking the trails until the afternoon. We wake up too early here for my taste, so I’m not too upset about the extra rest the morning rain provides.
Yesterday I learned to collect beetles with a method called beating. This involves a sheet (fabric or nylon) on a wooden or PVC frame and a stick (e.g., a broom handle) to collect insects from trees and bushes. You hold the sheet under the branches with one hand and hit the vegetation with the stick with the other hand. The insects fall from the plants unto the sheet, and you can then quickly collect them by hand or using an aspirator. It sounds pretty simple, but for a first timer it is not so easy. Being 5’1” tall, it was a little difficult for me to reach some of the overhanging tree branches. Having a long beating stick made for some awkward moves. You also need to be quick to catch the insects before they recover from shock and fly away. Beating needs a lot of practice. Overall, it is an interesting to way to collect insects and also get some personal aggression out at the same time.
Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians. After taking a herpetology class last semester at KU, I became more interested in these animals. At Villa Carmen I have gotten to see many herps. The station has four tortoises in their small court yard and many frogs are active at night. von May & Catenazzi (2014)* recently showed that Manu National Park has the highest diversity of reptiles and frogs in the world.
One of my first days here, I saw a lizard from my favorite family, Varanidae commonly known as monitors (e.g., the Komodo dragon lizard is the largest in this family). It was walking down the trail but I did not get close enough to determine a genus or species. On Saturday, a small caiman was under a little bridge over a stream near the dining hall. This was amazing as I had never seen a wild caiman before, only in zoos. While beating (a method using a sheet and stick to collect insects living on shrubs), I saw another monitor and two more lizards on the path, but they were still too quick for me to get close.
For someone interested in Herps, Villa Carmen is a great place to observe and study them.
*von May R and A Catenazzi. 2014. Biota Neotropica
This past semester, I took a class with a professor who specializes in mercury in the environment. This exposed me to various research projects about mercury in the Long Island Sound, USA . I learned that there are variations in the natural abundance of mercury in the environment and that humans have increased this level via various industrial practices. Connecticut, where I attend college, is a prime area to study the cycling and effects of anthropomorphic mercury in the environment because of this area’s historical contribution to the hat-making industry. In the 1800s and early 1900s, liquid mercury was used to mat fur pelts that were manufactured into fashionable hats. Due to the neurological effects of mercury, the saying “Mad as a hatter” was born.
A large group of professors and students from Duke University Department of Public Health visited Villa Carmen Station this weekend. Their project in medical entomology and environmental toxicology examines gold mining in this part of Peru to see if there is a correlation between the environmental mercury concentration and the mercury concentration in residents’ blood, hair, nails, and food intake. Historically, mercury is a key component in gold mining. The global increase in the price of gold has resulted in a recent escalation of gold mining in this area, and possibly, an increase in the environmental mercury concentration. With these data, the Duke team will compare incidents of malaria (and other diseases) to see if mercury makes individuals more susceptible to infections. Their project is an example of how environmental mercury research is of interest to many different scientists from different disciplines around the world.
One of the clearest indicators of change in the environment from the Wayquecha cloud forest to the Villa Carmen rainforest is the abundance of fruit dotting the mass of green vegetation. Upon our arrival, we were guided down pathways lined with pineapple plants (imagine a ripe pineapple encircled by a fan of thick, large, green leaves). The garden, from which all the fruits and vegetables we eat at Villa Carmen come from, is full of papaya. Las trochas, or trails, are intermittently bordered with berries. Yesterday, we began training with various types of insect nets. During this session, Caroline pointed out a guava tree with many green fruit blooms. A little farther down the trail we finally spotted a ripe guava fruit begging to be picked. Having never picked a fruit of this size myself, I went for it! However, I immediately thought of those cartoons I watched as a child where the eager character bites into a fresh apple and meets an unwelcome worm, and I resisted my excitement to bite into the guava. Eventually I overcame my reluctance, took out my pocket knife, sliced up the guava, and dispersed it among the group members. It tasted incredibly fresh, slightly sweet, and had a relatively thick consistency. Needless to say, it was well worth the risk of a worm.