Community Outreach, Land Conservation and Forest Restoration, Sustainable agriculture

Into the wild: Revealing the secrets of wild vanilla

Blogpost by Charlotte Watteyn, doctoral researcher at KU Leuven (Belgium) and the University of Costa Rica, collaborating with Osa Conservation

If you think about vanilla, you immediately start to imagine delicious ice creams, cakes and other yummy sweets. But where does this vanilla come from? Well, it is extracted from the fruits (beans or pods) of orchid vines, producing an intense aroma resulting from a complex of molecules. These orchids belong to the genus Vanilla (Orchidaceae), a diverse group of climbing hemi-epiphytes growing around trees with their aerial roots. The genus contains over 100 species and is pantropic, meaning that they are present all around the tropics. However, the aromatic vanilla species, the ones that produce the lovely smelling pods, are native to the Neotropics.

Overview of the 5 different vanilla species growing in our study region ACOSA (Area de Conservacion Osa). Photo: Adam Karremans

Nevertheless, when you buy vanilla and take a further look at the country of origin, you will probably read “Madagascar.” But Madagascar does not fall within vanilla’s native growing regions, so only the introduced species that was brought over from Mexico a long time ago, Vanilla planifolia, is cultivated in Madgascar. Vanilla cultivators in Madagascar have to pollinate flowers by hand, because natural pollinators are absent, and use intensive production systems. Furthermore, the market chain involves several intermediaries that keep prices artificially high by holding back large quantities, explaining the currently high market prices. As a result, we realized there is a need for innovation in vanilla cultivation.

We want to determine the possibility of contributing to a more sustainable vanilla provision through a joint land sparing and land sharing approach (SPASHA), ensuring the conservation of wild vanilla populations while cultivating the economically interesting ones in a sustainable agroforestry system. There are several wild vanilla species, known as crop wild relatives (CWR), growing in the lowland tropical rainforests of the Neotropics, with presence of pods (that smell very nice!), indicating natural pollination. However, there is very little known about the distribution, biology and ecology of both the orchids and their pollinators. We are interested in determining the potential to cultivate wild vanilla and therefore create an alternative income source for local communities.

Left: The beautiful flower of Vanilla trigonocarpa. Middle: Fruits (green beans) of Vanilla hartii, the result from natural pollination, a mysterious process that we will study in more detail during the coming year. Right: Flower buttons of Vanilla hartii. All three species are native to the lowland tropical rainforests of Costa Rica and are growing within our study region ACOSA. Photos: Charlotte Watteyn & Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya

As part of the study, we made experimental plots, where we planted four aromatic vanilla CWR—V. hartii, V. odorata, V. pompona and V. trigonocarpa—in both reforestation areas and organic cacao plantations. One of the plots is located at Osa Conservation’s Osa Verde Agroecological Farm. We will measure growth and survival rate over time, as well as production and pollination processes during later stages.

We will be monitoring the vanilla’s success over the next few months and keep you updated with the first results of this exciting (and delicious) research!

 

The planting team at Osa Verde (Marvin, Johan, José, Ruth and Charlotte). We planted 120 vanilla plants, 30 plants of each of the four species, in our experimental plot within a 3-year old reforestation area with a mix of native tree species that act as tutor trees. Photos: Charlotte Watteyn and Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya

Science and Research

Massive treefrog breeding aggregations at Shampoo Pond

Blog Post by Brandon André Güell, NSF Pre-doctoral Fellow and Ph.D. Student, Warkentin Lab, Boston University

Brandon Güell observing a breeding aggregation at Shampoo Pond. Photo: Brandon Güell

It was about 06:00 after night-long heavy rains ended a short dry spell, and already you could hear a deafening chorus of creatures gathering at the pond. Though sleepless and mosquito-ridden, we trudged chest-deep through the murky swamp waters with notebook and camera in hand to reach the source of the chaos. That’s when we saw it: One of the largest aggregations of treefrogs likely ever to be witnessed.

Tens of thousands of adult gliding treefrogs (Agalychnis spurrelli) literally poured over each other in attempt to breed and lay eggs. And for two Costa Rican tropical biologists and herpetologists, this rare biblical magnitude of frogs was like heaven on earth. This is Costa Rica. This is Osa. This is “Shampoo Pond”.

Agalychnis spurrelli breeding aggregation on palm leaf at Shampoo Pond. Photo: Brandon Güell

 

Since 2015, I have been studying how frog embryos use environmental cues to change their behavior. My current Ph.D. research in the Osa aims to understand how specific reproductive strategies interact with both environmental cues and development to affect embryo behavior and survival. For these gliding treefrogs, tens of thousands of reproducing adult frogs mean hundreds of thousands of frog eggs and embryos. And in this species, embryos are left alone to fend for themselves after they are laid. That means this event leaves behind a massive all you can eat frog-egg buffet for hungry predators

Why have a massive population lay their helpless eggs all at once in one location? That’s a great question, and it’s one I hope to answer!

In some cases, an overwhelming amount of prey can function as an antipredator adaptation if, for example, the overabundance of frog eggs decreases the probability of any one egg’s chance of being eaten. Basically, it can serve as a form of “safety in numbers”. This is known as predator swamping (or predator satiation). Shampoo Pond offers a pristine ecosystem where this hypothesis can be tested using these treefrogs.

In 2018, with the assistance of Katherine González, a Costa Rican tropical biologist, we conducted initial egg clutch monitoring studies in the hopes of determining whether this reproductive strategy has any impact on offspring survival. But this system has even more to it!

If undisturbed, gliding treefrog embryos develop and hatch into the pond as tadpoles in 6 days. But with so many threats, many wouldn’t survive that long.

Brandon Güell and Katherine Gonzalez headed out to the field from the research station. Photo: Brandon Güell

How can frog heaven get any more interesting, you say? Well, what makes these treefrogs particularly interesting is their ability to respond to threats by hatching prematurely!

That’s right! These embryos can hatch almost 40% early to escape the jaws of a hungry predator like snakes, wasps, and even monkeys! However, many of them don’t hatch early, and thus will die during predator attacks. We know the embryos have the ability to hatch early, but sometimes they don’t. Why?!

In addition to predation, these embryos are susceptible to desiccation, fungal infection, and flooding. These threats provide unique cues, which the embryos use to inform their decision of when best to hatch. This is called environmentally cued hatching, and it’s presumable a very adaptive embryo behavior— it increases their survival and fitness. But for the gliding treefrog, this behavior may not be as plastic or adaptive as in other species. Here in the Osa, another focus of my research is understanding the mechanisms which cause these embryos to hatch or not to hatch in these contexts at different developmental stages.

Our work has only begun at Shampoo Pond, and we hope that it will elucidate the conservation importance of this fragile ecosystem and its inhabitants, particularly amidst the current anthropogenic environmental changes in Neotropical rainforests.

 

Above: A series of gliding treefrog (Agalychnis spurrelli) embryo developmental stages. After embryos undergo early and late cleavages (cell divisions with visible nuclei), they form the dorsal lip and the yolk plug becomes visible. Later, embryo bodies rise and begin to show muscular response as the external gills form. Then, their hearts begin to pump blood throughout the body and external gills, and they begin to develop pigmentation. At three and four days, embryos begin to respond to environmental cues and can hatch prematurely to escape flooding and predators respectively. In the last picture, Brandon collects eggs in the swamp to study. 

 

Land Conservation and Forest Restoration, Science and Research

Restoration’s exciting night life

Blog Post by Elène Haave Audet, Restoration and Rewilding Research Field Assistant

 

Elène holding a Noctilio leporinus, the Greater bulldog bat, which fishes from streams. Photo: Doris Audet

For many of us, the creatures of the tropical forest that dare venture at night remain elusive and mysterious beings, their ways of life foreign to us daytime dwellers. Among these enigmatic animals are bats, the group of mammals with the second largest number of species in the world, whose charismatic presence in the tropics will not go un-noticed to the keen nocturnal observer.

Like many sensitive animals, bats are particularly special as a group, since many species require natural areas that have not been disturbed by human activity to find food and places to live. Thus, the presence of many different bat species can provide information about the health of an area. For this reason, Osa Conservation has started sampling the diversity of bats in areas that are being actively restored into forest, after years of use by humans. Overtime, the presence of different types of bats in these areas will help determine the success of restoration.

Vampyrodes caracciolli, the Great striped-faced bat, the second of two new fruit eating bats on the OC property, enjoying a well- deserved fig. Photo: Hilary Brumberg

After seeing the restoration plots for the first time this May, I was convinced that the bat diversity in these areas would not be exciting: that is, I expected to find very little diversity, since the restoration areas are in their infancy and have very little forest cover.

Was I ever wrong! The bat life in the restoration plots is teaming with diversity. After four months of sampling, we have recorded 24 different species of bats, ranging from those that eat insects, fruits, nectar, fish, and yes, even blood. To add to this excitement, two species of fruit eating bats recorded in the restoration areas had not been previously detected on the Osa Conservation property!

Why, then, has the bat nightlife been much more exciting than anticipated? Although the restoration areas have very few trees, the surrounding areas are lush with tropical forest, providing ideal habitat for these endearing creatures. This is very encouraging news for restoration initiatives, as connecting the surrounding forests with restored habitats will continue to support the diverse lifestyles of our nocturnal friends, so they may continue hunting insects, fishing bats, and snacking on figs.

Now every night of sampling is an adventure, and I cannot wait to see what other bats we will encounter in these deceptively rich areas!

Chiroderma villosum, the Hairy big-eyed bat, one of two new fruit eating bats encountered on OC property, posing handsomely. Photo: Elene Haave Audet

 

Uncategorized

The Prevention of Ecosystem Collapse Project

Blog Post by Marco Hidalgo, Coordinator for Prevention of Ecosystem Collapse

Our tropical forests, including the extensions of mangroves that slope down the south pacific, suffer a constant threat from different man-made factors. One of the most significant threats is the lack of predators and their prey, which have decreased due to recreational and cultural hunting in the Osa Peninsula.

In the search for practical solutions on the ecosystem-level, Osa Conservation’s Prevention of Ecosystem Collapse project hopes to increase the resilience of ecosystems in the Osa Peninsula through the use of citizen science and rewilding practices. Osa Conservation also aims to connect their existing science network with the local ecotourism industry.

This initiative implements acoustic devices that detect the remote activities of the biodiversity in the Osa, which provides us with unique biological data, fast answers, and reliable wildlife monitoring from the canopy of our forest.

The project also offers education workshops and seeks to develop alternative opportunities with the goal of transforming hunters and their children into defenders of wildlife. This project has hosted talks in educational centers where our researchers and local hunters come together to learn about the importance of wildlife in our forests.

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