My dad says, “There is no such thing as tropical ecology.” My dad is an ecologist who sometimes works in the tropics. His point is that, however many emergent differences there are between temperate and tropical regions, the underlying ecological principles are the same. I would extend this further. Tropical and temperate zones are part of an ecological continuum. Participating in the OTS Field Ecology course has reinforced my conviction that we need more multinational collaborative research and outreach. That is the only way to understand and protect species that do not recognize—but are affected by—political boundaries.Dead Snakes and Dead Anteaters
I am a birdwatcher. Last August, I went to Nicaragua with my family. We caught a bus before sunrise and took a seven-hour ride to the southern end of Lake Nicaragua. We then took a two-hour boat ride down the San Juan River and stayed at a small lodge billed as a bird preserve. I saw a lot of birds while I was there. I also saw a lot of arthropods, but no snakes. I took many pictures. During my stay, one of the lodge dogs attacked and killed a young anteater.
When we returned from Nicaragua, people said, “that sounds interesting, but I would never go there.” Why? Because it was difficult. Even when I said it’s possible to skip the seven-hour bus ride and instead fly to the southern end of the lake, I was told it wasn’t worthwhile. Why? Because there aren’t any snakes at the lodge preserve, which probably means the locals kill them as they pass through the preserve on their way to town. Also, there was that incident with the dog. The lodge should do something about that dog, people said.
After my trip to Nicaragua, I was asked why I didn’t go somewhere easier, like Costa Rica. The place I went was just over the border, and I could have seen a lot of the same bird species in northern Costa Rica. I don’t deny that Costa Rica would have been easier. I also don’t deny that there is an overlap in bird communities. I went there because I wanted to know what it was like.
The Sábalos Lodge on the Rio San Juan in far southern Nicaragua. Open-air cabins are on or close to the river, and the property has a high diversity of arthropods, birds, and mammals.
Migration to the Tropics
This OTS course marks my fourth visit to Costa Rica. The first time that I visited Costa Rica was with my grandmother in 1997, and we stayed at La Selva for a couple of nights. I stayed at La Selva again with my parents a few years later. Returning as a student this winter, I saw the station from a different perspective and was awestruck by the volume of work that goes on at La Selva, as well as the cumulative knowledge and wisdom of the individuals (past and present) who work there. I also got to thinking a lot about Nicaragua.
In addition to being a birdwatcher, I am an ornithologists. Specifically, I am interested in avian biogeography, or the environmental features driving bird distributions. Many North American birds are migratory, traveling between temperate and tropical regions and sometimes stopping en route to fuel up. The majority of research on migratory birds takes place in temperate regions, where many migratory birds breed. We know so little about what happens to them on the wintering ground.
Migratory birds don’t distribute themselves uniformly across the tropical landscape. Chestnut-sided Warblers and Summer Tanagers were some of the only migrants that I saw at La Selva. At Cuericí—in the mountains—these were replaced by Black-throated Green Warblers and Wilson’s Warblers. Birdwatchers who live in temperate regions like to claim these birds. They are “ours,” and they just go to the tropics for vacation. But the truth is that many of these species probably evolved as resident species in what are now tropical regions. Migratory behavior was likely developed with glacial retreat as a way to take advantage of new resources. The Wilson’s Warblers at Cuericí really belong to Costa Rica. More specifically, they belong to the mountains in Costa Rica. Chestnut-sided Warblers belong to wet forests lower down. I find these distribution patterns fascinating, and it highlights the importance of sometimes narrowly-distributed habitat.
Wilson’s Warbler, photographed by my father (John Thomlinson).
Nicaragua is Important
Nicaragua has many of its own migratory birds that visit temperate regions for “vacation” and breeding. I didn’t see any of them when I was there last August, because all of those birds were up north, breeding or attempting to do so. I went on day trips to explore the area. The lodge is on the river, with no major roads nearby, so the river is the highway. I hired a guide, Julio, who took us out in a boat. During a nocturnal search for caimans, I asked about his background. He said that he used to be a hunter but that now he prefers to make money by showing animals to people, not killing them.
There are bird research projects in Nicaragua, as well as science outreach organizations. However, the volume of avian research appears small compared to Costa Rica. A 19-year-old publication shows Nicaragua has one of the highest numbers of bird species among neotropical countries, but between 1979 and 1995 only seven papers on Nicaraguan birds were published. This hasn’t changed dramatically. A quick literature search revealed a handful of recent publications on Nicaraguan birds, compared to dozens of studies in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is Important
Costa Rican research is clearly important, and I’m impressed by the research culture that has formed here. I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with visiting Costa Rica as a tourist, even if one of the key motivations is that it’s “easy.” But I worry about what happens to “our” birds and other migratory and wide-ranging animals when they cross borders. There is a definite movement in Nicaragua to study local ecosystems and educate the public about nature. But to achieve these goals they need intellectual, monetary, and physical support.
I think that in order for successful long-term research/outreach programs to form, they require a nucleation point. They require dedicated individuals to visit places that might be hard to get to, go back repeatedly despite obstacles, reach out to the local community, and communicate compulsively about the work that’s going on there. Sometimes these movements form from within, as we learned at Cuericí. Other times, they are fed by a combination of internal and external resources, as seems to be true at La Selva. Always, they depend on passionate individuals.
Here, I focused on Nicaragua because many important habitat corridors cross the border between the two countries. I focused on birds because I think they’re really cool. I waffled, because I’m still processing these ideas. I think that these concepts apply to many other countries and are definitely not limited to birds. We need more large scale projects, finding ways to bridge the information gap between well-studied and under-studied regions. We need to encourage local conservation efforts, rather than boycotting those communities because they haven’t quite figured it out yet. And we need to be incredibly passionate and persistent. That is all.
PhD Student, University of Colorado Denver