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Laboratory in the Forest: article by OTS graduate professor

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Laboratory in the Forest

By Marcelo Casacuberta

Marcelo Casacuberta is a documentary film maker and photographer who specializes in the identification of fauna, and was a visiting professor to teach at OTS graduate course on scientific communications using videos.

It is five in the morning and the sky is just beginning to clear. About ten meters from the window of the room, the roaring of a male howler monkey sounds. The researcher, who daily follows them to record the activities dresses, takes her notepad and leaves the cabin. She will spend the next eight hours following the monkeys and noting all their activities. At lunchtime, to be refreshed you just have to go to the dining room, where a full menu including fruit juices and an excellent coffee is waiting for you.

This seems like ideal situation for those who want to do science, and this is how they work in the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. The study subjects (animals, plants, fungi, waters) are a few meters away from the academics’ rooms, and the whole environment has been designed to dedicate itself exclusively to research. The biological station protects about 16 square kilometers of wet tropical forest.

At La Selva  a large amount of information is generated about the tropical rain forest because of the number of research projects that take place . The findings from these projects are published in more than than 200 scientific publications per year. In fact, La Selva has one of the most important temporary data lines of tropics in the world. Long-term research have taken place on both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. By study systems over long periods, we can better understand nutrient cycles, the demography of plants and animals, the interactions with the community, the succession and the dynamics of the forests, agroecology and the effects of global warming.

In La Selva there are  comfortable cabins, classrooms, a large dining room and perfectly equipped laboratories, all in close connection to the flora and fauna that surrounds them. It is common, for example, to see groups of peccaries looking for fruits and roots among laboratories. The station also borders the Braulio Carrillo National Park, and this probably brings more diversity of species, due to the movement of animals between the two protected areas.

But the place is not open only to science. Tourists from all over the world visit the station for the guided tours, and it is possible to see them at any time of the day walking and looking at the trees with their binoculars in search of birds. There is an extensive network of trails, which total about 60 kilometers, with well-conditioned paths that allow you to move on foot, by bike and even in a wheelchair, so you can appreciate the tropical forest up close. At La Selva, one can find howler monkeys, toucans, iguanas, parrots, coatis, bright colored poisonous frogs and a great variety of fauna species unique to  this type of forest. Access is restricted so as not to distract too much from the research and only 80 people per day can visit the station so reservations are required. There is also a special group of park rangers that help with the e guided tours and protect the forest from poachers.

In this special environment OTS organizes, among many others programs, an international course called “Tropical Ecology and Conservation”. It was offered for the first time in 1974 and this year about twenty students participated. In the program, students visited the three OTS research stations during the six weeks of the course accompanied by teachers from different countries, who change according to the  workshops being offered.. This allows students to experience science first-hand with a wide variety of researchers from various disciplines from around the world.

To ensure any student can join the course,  OTS can offer scholarships to students. The students come from many Latin American countries, as well as the invited professors including Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Puerto Rico and, sometimes, even Uruguay.

For this year’s course, the professors were from the United States, Belgium, Colombia and Costa Rica. There were also two Uruguayan visitors: the researcher Anita Aisenberg taught a workshop on ecology and animal behavior, while I taught a workshop for young researchers focused on the use of scientific communication videos. With a few days off between classes, I had the opportunity to tour the station and take pictures of the wildlife I saw during my walks.

Walking the trails, it is easy to forget the civilized world and its noises, as you only hear the songs of toucans, parrots and dozens of birds. The humid aroma of the forest seems to come from the mattress of fallen leaves that carpet the floor almost continuously. There, in that environment, among fallen branches and mushrooms, small colorful frogs look for ants and aphids to eat. These frogs possess toxic substances to defend themselves; the native peoples impregnated the tips of their darts of these toxins and used them to hunt.

It is rare to walk more than five or six meters without seeing new type of animal, be it a small lizard that jumps between the branches, a colorful bird pecking fruits, bright beetles of metallic colors or a coati climbed in the branches.

The biological diversity typical of the forest is all around you. For example, there are more than 420 species of birds sighted in the station. Many animals are difficult to see because of their camouflage, like the huge grasshoppers that pretend to be leaves, and others because of their ability to remain motionless for hours. This is the case of bocaraca snakes, which, despite their yellow color, manage to go unnoticed and remain completely immobile. The distracted visitor passing nearby may mistake them for a dry leaf about to fall from a tree. These reptiles are accustomed to waiting a long time without moving, until some bird or frog comes within range of their fangs.

The long suspension bridge over the Puerto Viejo River, which leads to the section of cabins and laboratories, is a perfect place to observe monkeys and groups of toucans among the trees. You can often see monkeys using the bridge cables as if they were lianas to climb and cross from one shore to the other. On one day looking down into the river, we saw that there was a young crocodile walking along the shore.

In this environment, it is easy to understand that most of animal life is among the branches. It is possible to find iguanas over one meter long that are more than 20 meters above the ground. They are unexpected agility for such heavy animals. Howler monkeys, hammocks, black-winged toucans, spiders, bats, squirrels, butterflies and basilisks choose the heights to move, while on the ground you can see every so often a peccary or a solitary agouti.

That is why one travels these paths with an eye on the top; the expected neck pain is compensated by the possibility of seeing an amazing collection of curious creatures moving in a spectacular natural environment. Each walk along the trails of the forest always brought me a new photo of a species I had not seen before.