Fluffy birds

Following a whopping 72 hours of rainfall and flooding in La Selva, I was eager to get back out into the forest and explore. We only had two days left before leaving for Cuerici, and I wanted to make the most of my time left in the jungle. However even though the rains had finally come to an end, the forest was still closed. I mean, don’t get me wrong I expected it to rain (it is a rainforest after all!) but I never thought it would rain enough to close the forest for 3 days… especially in the dry season!

The biodiversity found at La Selva is spectacular, whether you love birds, herps, mammals, plants, you name it- there’s hundreds of species for you to get out there and see. I had been here for almost 10 days and I had seen so much, and yet… I was still feeling like I had barely gotten a chance to see the jungle. So, what kind of wildlife could I find while confined to the El Commodore? My hopes were not high, but I went out to explore anyways. And then I saw it…

A fluffy little Green Honeycreeper sleeping under a leaf outside the dining hall. So close that I could have reached out and touched it! I mean I see birds flying around during the day from tree to tree, in and out of sight and here one is right in front of my face, fast asleep! But wait, there’s more. 16 different species of birds to be exact. All roosting under the leaves of these decorative trees near our common area. A Blue-gray Tanager here, an Olive-backed Euphonia there ….3 Golden Hooded Tanagers over there. It was fluffy bird madness! I was so amazed by the diversity that was hidden right in the middle of the highest area of human disturbance at La Selva.

Being able to spot a bird roosting up in the trees is nearly impossible, especially in the lush and complex canopy of the Jungle. The fact that we were able to see so many birds, all scattered right outside our cabins was a pretty magical experience for all of us. It just goes to show you that you don’t have to venture out to the furthest edge of the jungle to see incredible wildlife. Sometimes, all you have to do is walk from your cabin over to the dining hall for dinner!


Olive-backed Euphonia (aka rainbow fluffy butt) roosting by the dining hall

Olive-backed Euphonia (aka rainbow fluffy butt) roosting by the dining hall


Sara Piccolomini 

On top of mountains and beneath the stars

Unlike the other locations we have visited during our travels, Cuerici was by far the most surreal locations. During our stay at Cuerici we had a chance to decompress from our busy schedules and enjoy some downtime by taking a hike to “El Mirador” to enjoy the vista and taking a day to travel to Cerro de la Muerte and reach the top of the 3,451 meter mountain overseeing the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

The nights were cold but they could not take away from the beautiful night sky, the tranquility of the mountain, and the company of my friends. The sunrise was majestic as the warmth of the sun began to breathe life into the mountain and lifted the fog away. I made it a point to wake up each morning to take a seat on a rocking chair and sip a black cup of coffee while taking in this beauty. These experiences plus the conversations had with Don Carlos and Albert reminded me that we are constantly surrounded by natural wonders but rarely do we take the time to sit, listen, and marvel.

[Pictures to come]


A call for connectivity in tropical ecology and conservation

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.rangemapsDead 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, Frontera Audubon, Weslaco

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.

-Amber Carver

PhD Student, University of Colorado Denver


50 Years of DATA: OTS legacy for young scientists

It has only been a week since the OTS field ecology course has started; yet everyday is more overwhelming than the day before. Every single day students are exposed to different areas of ecology, the great diversity of Costa Rica, the amazing facilities of La Selva Biological Station, and the tico’s culture.


OTS courses open the door each year to young scientists to interact with tropical environments in a way I have never experienced before. La Selva Biological Station provides a wide range of areas to study, from stream macroinvertebrates, to plant carbon fluxes. Besides the close natural environment that we find among the station (monkeys looking at us near the bridge, birds interacting with us in the comedor), the facilitates are high quality standard!, including great variety of laboratories, technological equipment, library, confortable rooms, laundry service, large range wifi connection and a wonderful variety of food that even provide vegetarian options.


As wonderful and comfortable as it sounds, La Selva Biological Station was not always as accessible as it is now. When OTS bought this land in 1968 the access was not essay and the stay was not as comfortable. Nevertheless, ecologists, botanists, zoologists, and other nature lovers started making science with the available resources and the magnificence forest life.


Through the years, great scientists left their seed of knowledge in this natural resource for science. Big characters including Holdridge, Clark, Liebermann, Wilson, and Chazdon, among many others, contributed enormously to science with research taken place in La Selva. All this data and discoveries encourage young scientists like myself towards the future development of science. (D. Yaffar).


Magia Cuericí

It has been an intense two weeks of study, planning, and project execution, but at last we have completed our time at La Selva and have headed for the hills, leaving the wetforest heat far behind. Now I am curled up under three blankets in the bunkroom of a rustic cabin in the cloud forest of the Talamancas.

Don Carlos shares the wonders of the forest

The place where I take my rest is Cuericí Biological Station, a two-story building pieced together from the wood of fallen trees collected in the surrounding forest. Carlos Solano, known to many as “Don Carlos” manages the station and is part owner of the 200-hectare property encompassing the habitat of such creatures as the elegant quetzal and the elusive tapir.  My class is to stay at the station for three days, far too little time to absorb what Don Carlos and Cuericí have to offer. “I went to school for two years” Don Carlos told me earlier in the day “and then my education ended.”  Following him on a hike through the woods, however, it becomes apparent that this is patently untrue. We eagerly soak up the ecological, zoological, and ethnobotanical knowledge he effuses, expertise that was acquired not from a professor but from the classroom of the forest.

Multicolored lichens drip from trees and rocks, birds and insects shake the occasional bush, and ancient oaks soar to the canopy, silently holding secrets unknown to all.  After the bursting vibrant commotion of La Selva, Cuericí  seems full of a cool and quiet mystery. Content and brimming with a delicious homemade meal, I nestle deeper under my blankets. We have been told that elves dwell here, and I feel them, tugging at the edges of my consciousness, whispering and humming, sweeping me into a deep slumber. ~Libby Sternhagen

Fog and mystery of the páramo, uphill from Cuericí station

A Cachete

Three weeks into the course entitled Field Ecology: Skills for Science and Beyond, and I can confidently say the title is fitting. We spend a vast majority of our time in the field, learning about focal ecosystems (dry tropical forests (a forest where it doesn’t rain for much of the year), wet tropical forests (the jungle with lots of rain), premontane wet forests (the jungle but on a mountain and with lots of rain), and Páramo (or alpine tundra, or grass and shrubs on the top of a mountain, also with lots of “precipitation”)). Much of this is through casual walks along well maintained trails, but most of our time is spent out in the field collecting data as part of our three-day lighting science projects. We have five of these projects over the nearly 4 week course, and this time in the field is an incredible opportunity to get to know ecosystems that many of us only read about from our packed grad student cubicles. But it also offers a chance to try methods we may not be familiar with, maybe something we are thinking about doing back at home as part of our graduate theses. These trial and error sessions, in a constructively critical environment, are a crucial component of scientific education and development. Which brings us to the subtitle of our course, skills for science and beyond. The five research projects that are part of this course repeatedly push us into the scientific method, allowing us to very quickly experience and practice the steps that will define our careers. We 1) observe our surroundings and ask questions about what we see, 2) research our questions and construct hypotheses about our questions, 3) design an experiment that can best answer this question, usually by predicting what should happen if our hypothesis is true, and carry it out, 4) analyze our data, using statistical methods that will provide some level of confidence to accept or reject our hypothesis, and 5) communicate our results. These will be the primary points by which we will be judged for the rest of our scientific lives, so it helps to have lots and lots of practice. But maybe more importantly, we are learning to live together while also effectively and productively cooperating on these projects. It is this skill that is becoming more and more important as a professional scientist (look at trends in the number of authors on scientific papers…(its increasing)). So even though most of us won’t be publishing super significant p-values in prestigious journals (the number one predictor of scientific “success”), we will be learning the beyond skills that will be important in making us productive members of the scientific community.

Ben Branoff

Canopy, Cuericí

Canopy, Cuericí

Science and BEYOND!

In this course we have had the opportunity to visit, in a very short time, the main Costa Rican ecosystems. It is amazing how in less than two hours heading northeast from the capital you can be in one of the most exuberant and diverse rainy forest of the country in the Sarapiquí lowlands. As well in less than five hours you have the possibility to visit one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world, the Tropical Dry Forest located in the northern Pacific of Costa Rica. If you head southwest the magnificent oak trees and the delicate páramo forest of the Cerro de la Muerte in the Talamanca mountain range will amaze you.

Most of these places have been preserved thanks to the effort of a few people concerned about the proper management and conservation of our natural resources. As history has proven, ambition, the lack of consciousness and overall lack of education would have turned these forests into big monocultures, pastures for cattle and even uncontrolled urban areas; as it has happened in all of the unprotected areas of the country.

Therefore, as a researchers and a nature lovers we have the capacity not only to generate high quality scientific information about these ecosystems, but also the duty to translate it so it could be understood and used by rest of the citizens. If we really want to preserve the natural resources and at the same time have a good life quality, the gap between science and society has to disappear.

Gabriela Quesada Ávila

Welcome to the Jungle

I work in a lab where the light is artificial, the hot drink is tea, and the soil was until recently steam cleaned before use. It is a big change to come to Costa Rica, and work where instead the light is what wakes you up, the drink of choice is coffee, and the soil is something you wear rather than clean. I did not think I would comfortable carrying out hard science in such an alien environment, and being honest the change is hard. Almost everything is different here is different compared to my genetics lab back in Miami, but one thing that remains the same is the people.

I do not claim to be an expert in anything, and I’m sure my peers would not make that claim either, but every morning I wake up and can have coffee with someone who knows more about wetland ecology than I know about anything. I have lunch with people who talk about plants in the same way other people talk about great works of art, and dinner with people who are unable to walk past a bird without giving its species name, common name, and migration patterns within seconds of siting it. We are all working in different fields, but what unifies us all is enthusiasm. This has been the same with any scientists I have worked with, but is exemplified by the cohort working together here. People are still happy to be knee deep in the field when the weather is taking a frustratingly pedantic take on the term ‘rain forest’, or when writing one sentence takes four people with three different first languages 15 minutes to word perfectly.

The work here is not easy; it is not easy for anyone from station directors to us graduate students. Everyone however embraces it with joy, passion, and a deep desire not just to understand something new, but to share that knowledge with anyone who will listen. This is what I’ve learned from the course so far, as much as experimental design and how to properly write a results section and that is what I hope to take home back to my fluorescent lights, cups of earl grey and clean clean soil.

Ed James

Jungle Survival 101

Ah yes, the jungle, the rainforest. You probably recognize some photos from that free calendar of iconic tropical animals like monkeys, toucans, iguanas, and jaguars. Or perhaps you’ve visited a zoo featuring some of those very creatures. The tropical forest seems like such an ideal place to live as an animal or a plant, given the warm year-round temperatures and surplus of water. What I would give to be a macaw, hanging out in the trees in the sunshine, eating fruit, and not stuck inside you may catch yourself thinking. It would be so much better, and so much easier, to be living in the jungle…

White-headed Capuchin, an easily recognizable monkey.

White-headed Capuchin, an easily recognizable monkey

But I’m going to stop you right there. I want you to keep imagining yourself as some tropical organism, animal or plant, but there are some things you may want to reconsider before you call jungle life “easy” or “pleasant.” With these seemingly abundant resources comes a full suite of animals and plants ready to exploit them. There are a gazillion things either trying to avoid you (prey), trying to outcompete you (members of the same species as you), or trying to eat you (predators). So how do you survive?

Puerto Viejo River at La Selva Biological Station

Puerto Viejo River at La Selva Biological Station

I consider myself lucky in that I am part of a graduate field ecology course right here in the heart of Costa Rica’s rainforest. Through the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), fellow students and I are exploring every crack and crevice that supports life in the tropical wet forest at La Selva Biological Station in the province of Heredia. (Cool side fact: This habitat contains the highest number of species of any habitat in Costa Rica.) We’re obsessed with what is becoming an increasingly rare ecosystem, and we want to do our very best to understand it and preserve it. We also want to show it off to people like you.

Organization for Tropical Studies students  "nature-ing."

Organization for Tropical Studies students

Alright, so back to the question at hand: how would you, as a tropical animal or plant, perfect the art of survival? Through hikes and presentations offered in this OTS course, I have made a few observations about how tropical organisms make it in the jungle. Over time these guys have really nailed the art of survival down to a science. I’ve compiled some rules to abide by as a plant or animal in the tropical rainforest. They are as follows:




  1. Get animals to do the work for you. Some trees up north in my home state of Minnesota easily place their “babies” into new areas by allowing their seeds to be windswept. The problem with the tropics is that there’s not much wind blowing through the thick forest. Instead you can attract animals with some delicious fruits that cover your seed. This seed will pass through their digestive system and leave the body intact, often in an area away from the parent plant, thus lowering competition with you as the parent. Peccaries (pig-esque dudes) and a variety of birds can be suckered into this ploy.
White-collared Peccaries are excellent seed disperse-ers.

White-collared Peccaries are excellent seed disperse-ers.

Golden-hooded Tanager dining on some Miconia berries

Golden-hooded Tanager dining on some Miconia berries

  1. Armor up. Having animals consuming your fruit is one thing. But eating your leaves is another issue. You need those to produce food for yourself, you know, like photosynthesis. One effective way to deter herbivory is to produce a structure that is painful or hard to break through. A prime example would be having thorns, spines, or sharp leaves. I made the rookie rainforest biologist mistake by grabbing a tree before looking at it. After three mini-operations another student managed to remove all of my splinters. Needless to say I won’t be making that mistake again. So please, pack a punch and you’ll be set.
Check out all the spines on this palm tree. *shudders*

Check out all the spines on this palm tree. *shudders*

  1. Lean on your neighbor. After all that’s what neighbors are for, right? Tropical plants know it better than anyone else. Walk up to any tree in La Selva and you will find a smorgasbord of lianas (woody vines), bromeliads, orchids, mosses, ferns, and more growing on the trunk and branches. Plants that receive nutrients from the rain and/or surrounding air while growing on a tree are called epiphytes. The epiphytes more easily access the sunshine and the “host” tree is neither benefiting or being damaged by these hitchhikers. This kind of relationship is called commensalism. Author tip: Use epiphyte and commensalism at your next fancy dinner party to impress the attendees.
Stuff growing on stuff growing on stuff--that's the theme in the rainforest.

Stuff growing on stuff growing on stuff–that’s the theme in the rainforest.




  1. Camouflage, camouflage, camouflage. Growing up I’ve been told motivational things like “be unique” and “stand out.” But if you’re an animal in the rainforest? Oh no. No, no, no, no, no. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to blend in with your surroundings. And while it may not be a new topic to you, critters near the equator take camouflage to the next level. Heck, insects do a better job at looking like leaves than leaves do. 
This katydid stands out against the wall, but imagine it among leaves. That would be tough to spot!

This katydid stands out against the wall, but imagine it among leaves. That would be tough to spot!

Try to find the leaf litter frog in this photo. (Hint: Look in the upper right corner.)

Try to find the leaf litter frog in this photo. (Hint: Look in the upper right corner.)

  1. Be a copycat. It’s like the one above, but rather than drawing attention away from yourself, you’re drawing attention to Look like something that is poisonous or venomous, or just freaky like owl eyes. You’re basically playing the ultimate hustle game to see if anyone will call your bluff. Sure it’s risky business, but usually it’s in your advantage because why would a predator want to chance it? Like in #2 in plants, a predator can never be too careful. I don’t have a photo of this one, but google “fake eyespots” and you’ll see tons of examples.
  1. Toxicity is key. There are plenty of examples of toxic animals in temperate regions, like the U.S., but it is also quite popular in the tropics. I’ll make a point here to clarify the difference between poisonous and venomous: poison must be ingested (e.g. licking your hands after picking up a poison dart-frog, or if you’re daring enough, eating that poison dart-frog) whereas venom must be injected in the form of a deliberate bite or sting. *Start mini-rant*: If you are a venomous creature though, be careful about how much you use. Venom production isn’t free, so don’t waste it on a human. Save it for when it really matters, like for immobilizing prey. This is why many venomous snake bites are actually just dry bites, meaning that no venom is injected. But they do still scare the living daylight out of humans, hence our caution or extreme fear towards these dangerous yet beautiful and often misunderstood snakes. *end mini-rant*


Strawberry Poison-Dart Frog showing off his warning colors, also known as aposematism.

Strawberry Poison-Dart Frog showing off his warning colors, also known as aposematism.

A young Fer-de-lance sporting its striking pattern. One way to identify a venomous snake like this one is by looking at the shape of the pupil--it is vertical in a number of venomous snakes.

A young Fer-de-lance sporting its striking pattern. One way to identify a venomous snake like this one is by looking at the shape of the pupil–it is vertical in a number of venomous snakes.

So the jungle life isn’t a walk in the park after all. Yet despite all these obstacles, a wide array of organisms thrive in tropical forests around the world. Costa Rica is the perfect place to study these organisms, as the country alone has nearly a quarter of its land protected and harbors roughly 5% of the entire planet’s biodiversity. But even such valiant conservation efforts cannot hide the fact that tropical diversity is being lost to habitat loss and climate change. You and I can still do our part by being mindful of our daily activities and donating to charitable causes like La Selva Biological Station (http://www.ots.ac.cr/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1061&Itemid=920). I do sincerely hope that you have a greater appreciation for the rainforest. Seriously, put “experience a rainforest” on your bucket list—you won’t regret it.

-Alyssa DeRubeis, University of Arkansas masters student

Being Comfortable Being Uncomfortable


(Photo by Johnny J. Quispe)

As part of our course, Field Ecology: Skills for Science and Beyond, we complete three FLPs, or faculty led projects. For these projects, we meet with a visiting faculty and complete a research project. We have two days of research, and one last day to complete data analysis, write a paper, and prepare a presentation. For someone who finishes assignments and projects a week or two in advance, this is a bit challenging.


For my first FLP I was part of the GHG F.A.R.T., or the greenhouse gas flux analysis research team. We looked at CO2 (carbon dioxide) and CH4 (methane) fluxes from an old growth lowland tropical forest and a nearby abandoned cacao plantation. We found that the old growth forest was a better CO2 sink, while the abandoned plantation site was a better methane sink.


While we were busy measuring greenhouse gas fluxes, we also found time to have some forest dance parties (thanks, Diana Ross) and climb a 40-meter tower overlooking the lowland forest. Between writing down pH, soil temperature, and salinity measures being yelled across the forest, we made horrible puns and measured leaf cutter ant nest emissions.


While working with very little time and relatively low background knowledge was pretty stressful, we had a great time. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is an important skill to have; having fun with it is even better.


Camille Delavaux

PhD Student at the University of Kansas