Posted by: Adam Kay | January 11, 2012

Field Ecology in Costa Rica – A Visit to the Mountain of Death

Field Ecology in Costa Rica – A Visit to the Mountain of Death

This January, 14 UST students and 2 instructors are taking part in a field ecology course in Costa Rica. We’re going to visit a variety of forests and ecosystems, ranging from classic lowland tropical rain forest to the endangered tropical dry forests to misty, montane cloud forests. The focus of the course is teaching students how to conduct field-based ecological research. Costa Rica is a great environment for teaching field ecology because there is so much biological complexity. In this environment, students can come up with their own research questions and carry out simple observations or experiments to address them. It’s exciting for everyone when someone is able to discover something new about the biological world using simple tools, ingenuity, and the scientific method.

Our first stop was the capital city, San Jose. Students worked on a statistics assignment on the patio of our hotel. It was a tough assignment, but working on it with a view of the mountains in the background sure beat a sterile classroom in frosty St. Paul.

Cory Birkestand, Mark Painter, Matt Scott – Stats in San Jose

Our next stop was Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death), a high elevation site about 3 hours SE of San Jose.  Cerro de la Muerte is in the Talamanca range, which extends from eastern Costa Rica into western Panama. According to Wikipedia, the name comes from the fact that, in the past, crossing the mountains from the central valley meant a three or four day journey and many ill-prepared travelers succumbed to the cold and rain. Well, it’s certainly misty and chilly but we’ll take care of each other so that no one will succumb to the elements while we’re here!

epiphytes everywhere at cerro de la muerte

Cerro contains many endemic species and interesting habitats. Many of the trees are covered in epiphytes – plants that grow on other plants. It’s so wet that there are sometimes epiphytes growing on epiphytes! Risk of UV damage is high because of the thin atmosphere at this elevation, and many plants have adaptations for dealing with UV stress. One thing that seems odd about this habitat is that there are close relatives of temperate species. For example, there are a lot of oak and alder trees, and the bird fauna include robins, finches, thrushes, wrens, and juncos. One place we’re excited about seeing is the paramo, which has stunted shrubs, dwarf bamboo, and tree ferns, and smaller plants like blueberry, gooseberry and lady’s slipper.

the field station at cerro de la muerte

Our field station at Cerro is a trout farm that aims to have minimal ecological impact. It’s an amazing place. One of the owners, Carlos, has raised trout on the land for over 20 years and has built much of the infrastructure. The trout farm is impressive. There are a series of tanks and ponds that are used to provide fish at different life stages with the conditions they need to thrive. The fish are fed a variety of food, including worms from compost supplied with on-site kitchen waste. Matt Scott made a cool video of the trout – it’s here. Carlos explained that his trout farming operation is completely organic, and that he has developed and optimized his own organic techniques over the last 20+ years.

There are a lot of admirable qualities about this place. Much of the electricity for the station comes from a turbine that is powered by a stream on the property (Evan Nolander explains the process here). The buildings and furniture are constructed primarily with oak and alder that has been harvested locally. Almost all of the food comes from local sources. Carlos emphasized that the most important thing to keep in mind when living here at this station is maintaining balance. For example, whenever any trees are cut down and used for building material, he makes sure to plant more seedlings in order to ensure that the forest’s diversity is preserved. He proudly demonstrated this by showing us trees he planted 25 years ago that are now flourishing in the forest, as well as seedlings of the endangered palm tree that he plans to plant in this area to ensure the survival of this species. Being here gives you a sense that it’s actually possible for humans to live sustainably. And so far, the simplicity of the life seems to suit us well.


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