Day 7 – Wild Nights Are Calling

View of Casitas Eclipse (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We sleep in for the first time since setting foot in Costa Rica. We soon discover two things. First of all, anything hand-washed in the name of being practical will never dry… ever. Secondly, our next three breakfasts will be to the strangest soundtrack of US music ever compiled. The newest Red Hot Chili Pepper’s track will be followed with Simon and Garfunkel, and then most distressingly by Kenny G.

The Manuel Antonio National Park is a short drive down the road from where we are staying. We park our little mud-streaked Daihatsu near a bus-stop populated with opportunistic tour guides (who will try to maintain the official air of being associated with park,which they are not). This is what kicks off our fateful encounter with Mauricio, who promises that the amount of wildlife we will see in the park will be negligible with what he can show us for $20 a head, money back guarantee if we don’t agree with his conjecture after half an hour into the tour. This will set off a whirlwind of the wildest stories I have perhaps ever heard from one man. Just a seed of truth would delight me.

Costa Rican stink bug (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Mauricio has a rugged Swarovski-brand telescope and tripod slung over his shoulder as he leads us into the park after paying his entrance fee (another clue he is not an officially park-sanctioned guide). Right near the entrance, he alerts us to the presence of a species of land crab that dwells in the rainforest. We soon discover, while overly confident and willing to sing his own praises, he is absolutely spot on about his abilities to point out the seemingly elusive wild-life. He has learned the ranges of animals living within the park and once something of note is spotted within the park, it appears a sort of altruistic exchange of information takes places among the guides.

He points out plants along our route – ones used to weave textiles for clothing or other useful purposes, but mostly he focuses on those plants with medicinal value – anti-inflammatory, cholesterol-lowering – the problems a rainforest can solve with more completeness than modern medicine. Mauricio tells us he was raised in the jungle by his mama before the area was turned into a national park, that his uncle was responsible for the now wide-spread availability of anti-venin for snakes such as the Fer-de-Lance and his visage graces an old version of the 2000 colones bill. He explains all this while we munch on the sweet flowers he hands us from a Heliconia plant.

Golden Orb Spider (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

He begins to tell us about his son who is currently studying in the States (Los Estados Unidos) and about his wife that died from cancer when his son was just two years old. But he also tempers the situation with a tale about monkeys who once dragged his baby part-way down the beach while he and his wife swam unknowingly near-by.

In the midst of his recanting, he sets his scope to focus on a baby three-toed sloth all the while relating the somewhat fantastic story of this animal’s relationship with the Cecropia tree it spends the majority of its time in. The Cecropia tree provides the sloth with lots of alkaloids (a diverse group of chemicals, some having medicinal or even toxic effects. This same group of compounds makes poison arrow frogs harmful.) – a good energy source for the sloth. If a sloth has young baby and has to wander from its tree, which happens rarely, it can leave the young sloth nestled among the Cecropia’s dead leaves, where it is well-camouflaged.

Dead cecropia leaves

However, once the baby is old enough to start eating (at around 6 months), Mauricio tells us the mom will leave her offspring in some other type of tree as it is thought the alkaloid content of the Cecropia tree is too strong for the sloth until he has amassed a more significant body weight. (Read more about both the two-toed and three-toed sloth’s ecology here).

Cecropia trees are also known to harbor stinging Azteca ants that have formed a symbiosis with the tree, often living within its core and pouring out of the tree’s trunk to ward off invading insects or other herbivores, and on occasion, an unlucky human or two. However, the sloth can live and eat in the trees un-vexed, primarily due to another partnership formed with the sloth (Sloths also have an untold number of additional relationships with species of insects and algae that can be found living in their coats.). This one may have to do with the habit of the sloth to defecate once a week or less, by carefully creeping to the bottom of the tree, doing its business, then burying its feces. For lack of a better descriptor, the sloth poo is likely an excellent source of nutrients for the ants.

Manuel Antonio - lizard (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Mauricio describes the emerging problem of Columbian drug runners approaching guides and other lookouts to start serving out as lookouts for them on beaches. Mauricio claims skills as a pilot at a nearby airstrip and says he works for the police in the evenings after his days serving as a park guide. He continues his tales while pulling down a cluster of maroon fruit from a nearby tree. Eating them is a similar process to eating the mamon chin I mentioned in an earlier post. You must bite into the outer skin to get at the tangy fruit inside and suck on it to avoid swallowing the pit. He only knows it by the name “uva”, spanish for “grape.” He hands us small slices of lemon from trees growing right near the sand and explains the salt content of the fruit changes during the dry and rainy seasons. He tells us he and his mama used to leave little dishes of lemon juice out to evaporate and would use the sea salt left behind.

He continues to point out more wildlife, including lesser white-lines bats, golden orb and arrow-shaped spiders, and smooth-billed anis. He carefully pulls down a leaf to show us a tarantula with her spiderlings menacingly nestled in the base of a leaf. Even while leading us out of the park at the end of the tour he is advocating for more local experiences, including trying ceviche from a trusted vendor on the beach – a mix of fresh shellfish, onions, and a local version of cilantro, all marinated in citrus juice which helps to mimic cooking the raw seafood. Costa Ricans often eat the mixture with hot sauce, ketchup, and mayonnaise added to the broth.  There are also men walking the beach with machetes and coconuts, ready to hack off the top and hand you a straw so you can enjoy the milk inside. One of these men is a very tall and skinny man who has the lowest voice I may have ever heard. Mauricio tells us this man once worked in television in has native country of Mexico due to this very trait.

Tarantula and spiderlings (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We will come back later to swim at a beach bearing the park’s name – Playa Manuel Antonio. It’s a stunning white sand beach. When we ask a local if there are any shells around, he points us to the hollowed-stump of a tree likely downed during some previous storm and crawling with a colony of rather large hermit crabs. My objective of snorkeling around the near-by rocks is quickly left by the wayside as I lose my snorkel not 5 minutes after wading out into the waves. I have never swam in the Pacific and the water is bath-tub warm and very saline.  I also however, have never experienced the sheer engine of energy behind these kind of waves. It is high tide and with just our feet in the surf, there are several occasions when a large wave will pull us under, scrape us along the bottom, and hold us there, never letting us go until it once again ebbs back out to sea. My pockets quickly fill with sand and it becomes evident that if I wish to snorkel or dive in Costa Rica, I will have to book a boat trip or two during my next visit.

We are exhausted. We just manage to take advantage of the hotel’s 50% off Sundays at their restaurant, the gato negro (the black cat) and fall into a dead sleep for the next four or five hours rousing only enough energy afterwards to stumble back into the gato negro for dessert. As we head back to our little villa, we hear the strangest cries emanating from a little owl perched on a nearby tree and are reminded just how wild everything here really is…

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Day 5 – With My Head In The Clouds

Monteverde Cloud Forest (http://www.monteverdecostarica.com/)

Monteverde is an interesting place but in some ways represents the lull in our trip. The region is home to a rare type of ecohabitat called cloud forest which is characterized by low-level clouds that sit at canopy-level among the trees. The constant presence of the clouds means the forest is always wet and mossy. The composition of flora and fauna tends to be very different here than elsewhere in Costa Rica. However, wildlife is harder to see here, thus a tricky endeavor during shorter visits like our own. Most people are better served here by an interest in plants. There are hundreds of epiphytic species that use stronger, hardier plants for structural support, but typically derive nutrients from the air that surrounds them (“All I need is the air that I breath…”) and from detritus that accumulates around their roots.

Leaf edges serrated by a bat (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

There are two reserves to visit, the Monteverde Reserve, and the Santa Elana Reserve, named for a nearby town. We choose to visit the Santa Elena Reserve as it’s close to some other interesting local attractions, including the Selvatura Park.

Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011

As we are about to start out for a relaxed hike, we meet a group of graduate students including a PhD canidate from UConn researching ants, who tell us they are headed to biological research station somewhere nearby.  After searching online, their description most likely fits the Monteverde Conservation League, a non-profit dedicated to research, outreach, education, and the preservation of the cloud forest. This work seems even more timely as cloud forests are extremely sensitive to the effects of climate change. Though they have been resilient in response to historical temperature fluctuations, too much warming could affect the characteristic cloud cover here and completely change the hydrological regime.

We start our walk through the forest and start to appreciate most of the diversity we see on a more micro scale. Tiny dew drops that refract the incoming bursts of light. The forest is abuzz with texture, smells, and sounds. Just like every location we will visit during our stay, we hear the constant throb of cicadas in the background, a sort of gregorian chant celebrating the sheer grandiosity of the life force surrounding us.

Small epiphytic plants are abundant in the Costa Rican cloud forest (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Cloud Forest epiphyte (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Monteverde Cloud Forest Canopy - light from above (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

There are a few errant clips of bird song and we do manage to spy a collared red start hopping along the path – one of the happiest looking birds I’ve ever seen. Though we’re never lucky enough to see one, Monteverde is also home to a renowned bird called the quetzal.

The last thing we do before heading back to the lodge, is visit the Insect exhibit, “Jewels of the Rainforest.” in Selvatura Park. Both my Lonely Planet and Moon guide list this as a not-to-miss stop. The collection, one of the largest in the world, is the culmination of years of collecting by entomologist Richard Whitten , who moved with his wife to Costa Rica to begin collecting and studying metallic beetles, most likely in the Buprestidae family. The exhibit covers all manner of creepy crawlies however, with wall after wall of them encased in glass.

The highlight of the collection are most certainly the iridescent butterflies positioned ornately in spirals and geometric arrangements, or against other beautiful objects, like peacock feathers, that serve to enhance their natural elegance (Roger Whitten’s wife was said to be responsible). The morpho, a very large shimmering blue butterfly we’ve already seen around the country, is featured heavily in the exhibit. I also love the many delicate examples of glass butterflies, with their barely-there transparent wings on display.

Morpho butterfly - Jewels of the Rainforest Exhibit (http://www.flickr.com/photos/12928926@N06/sets/72157621807255630/)

There are many other examples of insects with less friendly personas. Viewing bird tarantulas, whip spiders, millipedes, parasitic wasps, and Giant Goliath beetles make my skin alight with a crawling sensation. There are walls dedicated to insects vectoring disease in Costa Rica and another showing the great variety of species in Monteverde alone including several ridiculously large spiders and more bullet ants. Though we saw sparse wildlife on our earlier hike, it’s a little unsettling to know what’s going on off trail.

We stop for a little while in the town of Santa Elana and have lunch at a local soda called the traveling man. Rice with pollo (chicken), crispy yucca, plantains, and some variety of local orange soda. The town is small, essentially a triangle of streets loaded with tourist traps, and a few interesting places we make a mental note to visit the next day. We work our way back to the Cloud Forest Lodge for a quiet night. There is yet another cat who seems to target the foreigners for love and affection. He (we’ll just call him “Alejandro”) makes no qualms about following us into our room, curiously checking out our luggage, and making sure to lounge on every inch of free shelf space we have to put our things.  We will later hear him pulling the same con on new arrivals, and meowing with loud intent the next morning at the door of everyone who just might listen…

Day 2 – When Night Falls

In the evening, I am excited to go on an ecology-focused hike with the Arenal Oasis company touting interaction with frogs, snakes, and other local wildlife. Apparently, not everyone gets as excited as I do, as I’m the only one waiting in the lobby a few minutes before 5:30. Gerald, the guide, picks me up at the hotel and we chat about the area. He informs me that people call the combination of much older, adjacent volcano called Cerro Chato and Arenal the sleeping Indian. In profile, the two volcanos appear to form a sleeping Indian with a sloping forehead, two lips and a chin, a bulbous belly, and Arenal forms the feet. I also find out that Gerald speaks excellent English because he had the opportunity to live with his aunt for two years in New York. The lack of a language barrier sets a precedent for the evening with a multitude of nerdy exchanges (I wish I could use the word “cerebral” here, but I think I need to call it what it is) on the local biota.

Arenal Oasis is an interesting project with an ecological conservation and sustainability bent. There are a series of cabins built over time that comprise their “eco-lodge” where guests can stay at their location in La Fortuna. The gardens are maintained organically. The night hike explores the nature reserve they’ve created on their property out of what was once a cattle field.

The night is thrilling. The sound scape sharpens in the rainforest as most of the wildlife is nocturnally active. We chat about the issue of invasive species (not as intense an issue as there is so much diversity, it’s hard for any one species to overtake an entire area) and Costa Rica’s attitude towards conservation (from what I gather, it’s much like a facebook status – “it’s complicated” but it appears there is some infrastructure for it ).

We start by exploring some of the local flora. There are local species of impatients which are similar to ones we have in the states. With a light touch, their seed pods burst open. It turns out, there is a small coil that is responsible for the pods breaking apart – a sort of naturally produced spring. Many of the plants here have broad leaves exhibiting countershading – green on the surface, deep maroon on the undersides, allowing them to absorb sunlight reflected off the ground. Others, like the plant locals commonly call “maracas”, have modified leaves meant to capture water opportunistically (Part of a Genus of plants called “Heliconias” that share similar characteristics). People have been known to shake the slightly ginger-smelling water from these plants and use the mixture as shampoo or as a natural insect repellent. Another similar, flattened version of the same adaptation is sported by a plant commonly called the “rattlesnake plant”. These plants also flower in stages from the base upward, allowing them to flower for upwards to a month, and making their resources last longer.

"Maracas" - a plant in the Heliconia Genus (http://www.heliconias.net/)

We also see some of the large flat leaves with careful incisions along their lateral lengths. Portions of them are now bowed into a tent of sorts, apparently due to the action of  local species of bats that use them as shelter. We see a toad hop by on the path. He hops away until he is certain we cannot see him, then freezes in a sense of mock security. Gerald explains the difference between toads and frogs – some of them obvious – scaly, drier skin, less aquatic – other less so – the presence of paratoid (poison) glands behind their eye sockets. (Apparently the distinction between these two groups on a scientific level is not always so straight-forward) Arenal Oasis has also set up a slew of terrarium exhibits along the pathway to showcase species from the area as well as other parts of Costa Rica.

Bats use many of the local species of plants for a place to sleep (http://www.thenighttour.com/alien2/tent_making_bats.htm)

We start peaking at the tanks containing a series of frog species. Costa Rica has several types of poison arrow frogs, but they are hardly as toxic as those from other countries. They can cause numbness, tingling, mild sickness. They are delicate and beautiful, and quite minuscule – significantly smaller than expected. Several species are good examples of the effect of natural barriers on phenological features. There are several species on the opposite coast of the country that are visually very similar except for a different stripe of color or proportion of colors to one another.

We also discuss the different reproductive strategies of varied families of frogs – those that lay eggs in the water, on top of the water, in trees, or spread among varied locations in order to increase their progeny’s chance for survival. Some even go as far as carrying newly hatched tadpoles on their backs to more suitable habitat.  A Cane Toad looks menacingly from behind glass of one tank (see my previous post on Cane Toads) . There is another frog known as the chicken-eating frog who is known to on occasion eat itself to death due to what has been suggested to be a poor memory about the dinner it just consumed.

While we are looking at the first exhibit, it begins to rain – thunder and lightning bursting in the sky above. It’s the first time I begin to notice how nervous people in the region are when it comes to lightning. Rain phases few, but the lightning causes some worried looks to fleet across many of our guides’ faces. However, the storm allows the evening to take a strong biological turn. The level of sound rolls up a notch and animals start to come out in droves. We pass by the frog pond and see examples of many local species, including the red-eyed tree frog, one of the most photographed rainforest fauna – in essence becoming a sort of rainforest mascot.

Red-eyed Tree Frog (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

Other forms of life are enjoying the rainfall which is apparently essential to the flow of nutrients from the tree canopy to the forest floor. Snakes are delicately coiled among overhead branches, one of the reasons it is a poor choice to indiscriminately pull at branches without first glancing at what you are touching. We see an eyelash viper, one of Costa Rica’s poisonous species overhead. They are present in multiple color variations and utilize differing habitat space within their ecosystem. We see a lovely little black and white snake overhead elegantly coiling in and out of itself (I later determine this was most likely a coral snake).

The insects are fully active as well. A female katydid with an ovipositor the length of its body quietly sits under a branch while a nearby terrifyingly large spider launches itself, swinging back and forth in its attempt to capture the nearby bug. A bullet ant crawls along the length of a stem. They are called bullet ants not because of their size but because of the pain of their sting.

We quickly lose track of time as we both chat about the biology and fascinating things about the area. On the ride back home, I ask about the tourism in the area and what things have been like since the volcano has gone dormant. La Fortuna has only become a player in the country’s tourist game somewhere in the space of the last 30 years or so, but it’s interesting their future is based upon an ecological phenomenon with such an unstable and unpredictable nature. I hope they are able to continue sharing the awe-inspiring beauty of the rainforest there for some time to come.

The Real Lands of the Lost

An-iridescent-Beetle-foun-006

It’s exciting, the regularity with which we hear of researchers discovering new and wonderful species. With all the places we’ve been and seen it is amazing to imagine there are still so many new things to be found. The majority of these findings are happening in places that may have previously been hard to reach – remote, isolated areas in rainforests; dark ocean depths.

Scientists appear to be better at finding new species (in part due to bigger and better resources?), leading to a Golden Age of Discovery. There are large scale projects, such as the Census for Marine Life, fully devoted to collaberatively finding and describing diversity, abundance, and distribution of biological life.

The driver behind many of these novel organisms seems to be the amazing ability of life to adapt to living in incredibly narrow niches and extreme environments. There are many examples of living things that exist nowhere else on earth except in an isolated swath of habitat.

The-King-Bird-of-Paradise-007

Check out these two recent examples, both of which have related photo galleries:

Mount Basavi volcanic crater, Papua New Guinea

Mount Mabu, Mozambique