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Sea Turtle Conservation – It Just Takes One

There is an often cited estimate that only 1 in 1000 sea turtles that hatch and make it to the ocean will survive to adulthood. With odds like that one can sometimes feel like the work is futile and has little impact. As Olivia points out in her blog this week – it just takes is one brush with success to remind us that every individual counts.

By: Olivia

Upon arriving to Osa to start my position as a Research Field Assistant (RFA), I was so excited to start a new life that involved working in my field of study and a new place to call home. To say each category has surpassed my expectations within the time I have been here would be only an understatement.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 7.56.23 PMComing from Canada, life in Costa Rica was going to be a massive change for me, however one that I was going to greet with open arms. I had my final exam for my Biology Degree at the end of April, and not two days later I was on a plane headed for my new life abroad. I finished University knowing I wanted to enter the field of conservation straight away, and am willingly missing my own graduation to do so.

Ever since I arrived for my first day on the job, I have been working and learning collectively with my fellow Research Field Assistant and Program Coordinator Manuel Sanchez Mendoza. Beach patrols are done everyday, at morning or at night, and our job as Sea Turtle RFAs involves monitoring the beach for sea turtle nesting activity. Our job is to record data on turtle observations from both our beaches, Playa Piro and Playa Pejeperro. On my second day and first patrol on our longer beach Pejeperro, Manuel and I found a group of green turtle hatchlings and I was ultimately able to help them reach the ocean.

I’ve come to realize that as unpredictable as the nesting turtles are, their hatchlings are just as much so. Only last week, I was taking a walk along Pejeperro in the mid-afternoonScreen Shot 2016-06-17 at 7.56.34 PM and felt something brush against my foot. Looking down, I watched an Olive Ridley hatchling crawl along the top of my foot and shuffle as quickly as it could to the ocean – asymmetrically of course. Looking up along the sloping sand, I saw many siblings following behind. That afternoon, I was able to help around thirty hatchlings reach the ocean and avoid the majority of the scorching sun. After spending most of my time trying to save predated nests and rescue as many eggs as possible, it was incredibly rewarding to see what exactly I’ve dedicated my work here towards with the oddest timing.

We just finished building our sea turtle hatchery where we relocate nests in danger of being washed away by the river or of predation. The eggs from these nests are placed carefully in our nursery to ensure safety and healthy growth. Once the babies are ready to leave, we will release them early in the morning to avoid the day’s heat and many predators. This week we have been working diligently to finish the construction and hopefully in a couple days we shall be placing our first nest in the hScreen Shot 2016-06-17 at 7.56.41 PMatchery. The nursery has had major success over the past two years with over 20,000 baby turtles released last year, and I cannot wait to see how many hatchlings we will have this year.

Entering the field of conservation, especially sea turtle conservation, I knew the difficulty of working against so many factors and having such little chance of rewarding results in the short term. I spent some time questioning how much of a difference one person can make in conservation with so many oppositions. All of that changed though, and all it took was one baby turtle crawling over my foot!

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Osa Verde and Vanilla Farming

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The beneficial mycorrhizal fungus found in large amounts in wild plants on Osa Verde. This fungus is one that gives several benefits to the plant.

Beginning four months ago, the National University, Osa Conservation, and University of Costa Rica have been uniting forces in order to carry out the establishment and development of organic mother vanilla plants in the Osa. Since the cultivation is very profitable, it would be a good economic opportunity for the farmers in the southern part of the country, many of whom do not have job opportunities. A trial plot has been placed on Osa Conservation’s Osa Verde farm.

One of the problems facing the cultivation of vanilla is that of pests and diseases that affect a part or all of the cultivation. Often the use of agricultural chemicals has controlled these problems but we are undertaking a completely organic trial. Beneficial microorganisms from University of Costa Rica’s Agricultural Microbiology laboratory strains bank and other beneficial microorganism that already have been isolated from Osa Verde’s forest soil are being utilized for this trial. The microorganisms will be multiplied and evaluated in the trial. In this work, one creates an organic techno12688270_764387100362270_4366647257822921076_nlogy packet, a base of bacterias and and fungi that serve to control the pests and diseases.

Additionally, we intend to provide local farmers that are interested in sowing vanilla with high quality cuttings for the plant with the desired characteristics of vanillin. These cuttings can be purchased on the market, but the sales of these species of vanilla is often of poor quality. In order for the farmers to undertake their own production and gain access to the market, both nationally and internationally, the National University will help by serving as a guide and collaborator.

In order to carry out this research, the following objectives have been defined:

  1. Develop and establish organic mother plants of vanilla, so that the IMG_20160219_091546farmers in the area have high quality and healthy vanilla cuttings for the establishment on their own farms.
  2. Establish a vanilla farm that is demonstrative and educational for the farmers in the southern area, where a protocol for growing organic vanilla in agroforestry systems is implemented.
  3. Determine the main phytosanitary problems present in vanilla plants found in the wild and identify potential biocontrol found in association.
  4. Identification of vanilla plant species that are isolated in the forests around Osa Verde.

This exciting research happening on Osa Verde is just on example of how we are partnering with academic institutions and researchers to conserve the Osa and it’s biodiversity; create a sustainable and local food production system; demonstrate best practices to visitors; and also provide economic alternatives to locals.

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Alvaro Ugalde Scholarship Fund Updates

A little over one year ago conservation lost one of its finest and both the Osa and Corcovado National Park lost their greatest champion.

The founding of Corcovado National Park, the so-called jewel of the Osa, and other national parks was spearheaded by a few tenacious conservationists and visionaries, among them Alvaro Ugalde Viquiz. The contribution Alvaro Ugalde made to conservation extends far beyond this one park and the Osa – but he made no secret of the fact that Corcovado was his favorite park and the Osa was his most cherished place in Costa Rica.

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To that end, he stayed involved as a board member of Osa Conservation and continued to be a voice advocating for the protection of the Osa until his final days. Both the parks and the man behind them hold a place in history and in the hearts of many in Costa Rica and abroad. Alvaro’s legacy will be celebrated by furthering his work and his vision of empowering others to make a difference in the fight to protect Osa’s biodiversity and ecosystems.

With the support blue moon fund and other individual donors, Osa Conservation created “The Alvaro Ugalde Scholarship Fund” as a means to engage young people in conservation of the Osa.

The scholarships will enable young people to work side by side and learn with conservation biologists, environmental educators, community activists and other stakeholders working to safeguard the future of the Osa Peninsula that Alvaro so loved and dedicated his life to.

We are very proud to announce this year’s recipients of the Alvaro Fund Scholarship Award, Cristian Castillo Salazar, Phoebe Edge, and Laura Robleto Villalobos.

Cristian Castillo Salazar is dedicated to bat conservation and will study how humans living in urban environments have impacted the local bat population. He intends to determine the most effective artificial shelters for these bats living in urban areas and to educate the community of La Palma via workshops and presentations about the importance of bat conservation on the peninsula.

Phoebe Edge will provide important technical training in data collection, biological inventory techniques, and environmental stewardship to students in a variety of studies. Students will learn routine research principles and maintenance in the sea turtle hatchery on Playa Carate and provide COTORCO with much needed assistance on nightly beach patrols.

Laura Robleto Villalobos will use her award to purchase a GPS unit to document the land cover in Rincón National Park subwatershed. She would also like to integrate with a GIS (geographic information system) and obtain water quality data. Using this information, Laura will be able to make suggestions for land use that will benefit the water quality of the Rincón River basin and create a conservation model that will be able to benefit other basins in the Osa.

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Bananas: The Spotty Past and Precarious Future of the World’s Most Consumed Fruit

The banana is one of the most popular fruits in the world. However, since each banana is genetically identical it is highly susceptible to disease. The Osa Verde Farm is able to combat such disease by planting genetically diverse bananas, not using chemical inputs, and maintaining other sustainable practices.

By: Holland Cathey

The banana. A fruit that we have grown to love, rely on, and ultimately take for granted may be in danger of going extinct.  A seemingly incurable fungus called the Panama Disease is rapidly spreading to plantations around the world and wiping out the banana crops there.

        Despite the fact that there are thousands of varieties of banana worldwide, more than 95% of the bananas produced for export and over 40% of bananas total are the Cavendish variety.  The Cavendish is the variety that we are all familiar with.  This variety is tailor-made for export.  Not only is it mildly sweet, soft, and seedless, but it also continues to ripen after being harvested and has a thick skin that makes it both cheap and easy for companies to transport.  However, in order for the Cavendish to remain consistently viable for export, each is a clone.  This means that there is absolutely zero genetic diversity within the beloved Cavendish.  Additionally, strict monocrop agricultural techniques and lack of crop rotation make the Cavendish extremely vulnerable to threats such as the Panama Disease and pests.  Genetic diversity within a species is usually nature’s defense system against these type of threats, as it allows the organism to adapt to new and changing threats. However, with human intervention and domestication, that first line of defense no longer exists.

        Because the Panama Disease is a fungus, it stays in the soil and infects the plant through its roots.  Because each banana plant is biologically 1559300_10152980088081998_5301024009236505569_oidentical, the plant itself is defenseless.  The Panama Disease has the ability, and often succeeds, in wiping out entire plantations.  Then, the fungus stays in the soil for years after, making it difficult to plant a new crop.  Additionally, there are multiple variations of the Panama Disease spreading around banana-producing countries. One such strain is called Tropical Race 4, or TR4.  Panama Disease and TR4 are currently most prolific in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Australia; but it’s spreading.  Randy Ploetz, Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of Florida has called it the “worst threat to sustainable banana production worldwide” and noted numerous social and economic implications in the collapse of the banana industry.

        Believe it or not, this is not the first time that the world has seen such a pressing threat to its favorite variety of banana.  The Gros Michel is the sweeter, more-easily transported equivalent of the Cavendish and it practically went extinct in the 1960s when a fungus similar to the Panama Disease attacked it as well.  In fact, the Cavendish is a hybrid banana, bred for its fruit and immunity to the fungus that plagued the Gros Michel.

        Why is history repeating itself?  While the fungus has, over time, continued to evolve and change, the Cavendish has remained genetically exactly the same.  In effect, the Panama Disease and the banana are playing an evolutionary game of “Tag”—and the Cavendish is “it”!  In order to keep the Cavendish alive, banana companies have to use a huge amount of chemicals including pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to keep threats at bay.  Ultimately, there is a limit on the effectiveness of even the most toxic chemicals– not to mention the detrimental  impact of the chemicals themselves on both those consuming the bananas and the environment around the plantations.

        Banana companies have a long and dark history of exploitation and big business around the world and especially in Costa Rica.  Despite the fact that Americans annually consume more bananas than apples and oranges combined, there are surprisingly few regulations governing human rights issues in banana production.  Historically, the industry is notorious for its use of child labor, anti-union measures, substandard pay for workers, and exposure of workers to harmful chemicals.

        In response to the big banana businesses, smaller-scale companies have cropped up; making the commitment to use 11836844_10206183056766771_6671090466082792692_nfewer chemicals, treat workers fairly, and protect biodiversity.  Osa Conservation is doing just that! On the Osa Verde farm, we are committed to mastering the art of sustainable farming and teaching it to others.  Rather than grow the now-popular variety of Cavendish, our team is growing the previous favorite, Gros Michel without chemical inputs.  

If the Gros Michel is also susceptible to fungal infections, how is it growing in the Osa? And with no chemicals?  The small-scale agricultural practices that are utilized at Osa Verde allow our talented agronomist, Paola Vargas, to focus her attention on keeping the plants healthy.  According to Paola, preventing too much moisture and removing old leaves are some simple yet labor-intensive things that keep the bananas safe and the farm running without the input of chemicals.  Osa Verde is committed to maintaining the farm organically — and according to Paola, it’s not as difficult as it seems.  As long as the plants get the proper nutrients, then the farm is stable. The farm requires constant maintenance, but no more than an industrial farm working with a delicate balance of toxic chemicals.

Osa Verde has a group of 4-8 people that are responsible for all of the work on the farm including planting, harvesting, maintenance, and any other tasks that may arise.  The work being done here has huge implications for the future of sustainable agriculture.  The Osa Conservation team works in the hopes that people around the world can learn to make more sustainable choices when it comes to responsible food production, healthy food, and food security around the world.

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Osa’s Healthy Rivers and the Future of Water in Costa Rica

The Nation: http://www.nacion.com/vivir/ambiente/Ticos-agua-persona_0_1550044983.html

“Costa Ricans will have 65% less water per person by the year 2020”

March 22, 2016, Michelle Soto M.

 

Osa’s Healthy Rivers has been working to conserve the water quality in the Osa Peninsula.

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Figure 1. Group from The Gamba School monitoring The Gamba River, close to the Golf, May 2016.

This march in 2016, The Nation published an important article about the quantity and quality of water in Costa Rica, the critical theme in the work of Osa’s healthy river project, which monitors the quality of water in the river and ravines of the Osa Peninsula with the help of the participation from community groups. The article titled “Costa Ricans will have 65% less water per person by the year 2020”  shares the incredible news that each costa rican will use 19,000 m3 when in 1970  they used 55,000 m3. This critical decrease is due to all of the changes in the climate, the deterioration of the environment, and the growth in demographics. It is not only the quantity but also the quality of the water is diminishing, as Gueillermo Calvo of the Institute of Technology of Costa Rica show us in his two year experiment. He and his team of scientists took samples in the 10 river basins of the country, using the dutch index to measure the biochemical demand of oxygen, dissolved oxygen, and ammonia nitrogen in the water. They also measured phosphates, nitrates, turbidity and fecal coliform, this type of analysis also are carried out by the groups from Osa’s Healthy River Project.

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Figure 2. Members of Osa’s Healthy Rivers participating in a workshop in Osa Conservation’s Piro Biological Station, December 2015.

The results indicated a relationship between the population density and the contamination of water. They discovered that there was a notable exception with the Ricon and Tigre rivers on the Osa Peninsula, which do not have big populations around them but are contaminated by the produced pollution of fertilizers and human activity. Those two rivers are monitored usually by members of Osa’s Healthy Rivers, who monitor the state of the rivers in the time. Calvo’s experiment emphasizes the importance of Osa’s healthy river, not only in monitoring the rivers and streams of the Osa Peninsula, but also in educating and gain the participation of the members of communities in that region.  

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Figure 3. Group from the Piedras Blancas School monitoring in the Piedras Blancas River, April 2016.

Today, Osa’s Healthy Rivers monitors 10 rivers and includes 8 community groups monthly,  it is expected that this number will increase in the future with the interest and participation of more people. The members of Osa’s Healthy Rivers perform visual, chemical, and biological monitoring, measuring parameters such as dissolved oxygen, turbidity, nitrates, conductivity, temperature, pH and coliform bacteria. The groups also evaluates the biological health of the monitoring sites using an index to measure the diversity of the species of macroinvertebrates in the river. With the support of a coordinator, who assists a lot of the monitoring, the groups collect high quality data and learn how to analyze and communicate the results.

The last discussion in The Nation article emphasized the role that the trees play in the quality of the water. The roots of the trees maintain the water in the soil and trap contaminants and nutrients before they arrive at the rivers and ravines. A new direction for the Healthy Rivers Project will focus more on the aspect forests and planted trees on the bank of the rivers. The members of Healthy Rivers, with the support of Osa Conservation, hope to continue and expand their work around the peninsula. Monitoring monthly in the rivers, planting trees, educating our young and neighbors… Healthy Rivers is fighting against pollution and wear of the water of our region, which are so important to the human race and their own environment. Please help us in this fight!

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The Return of the Jaguar

The lush and enchanted forests of Piro, Osa Conservation saw the return of their majestic King of the Jungle after two long years.

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The Jaguar Is Back!

In the late hours of 23rd March 2016 the first images of this beautiful creature was captured on the camera traps on the Ajo trail. Since the last sightings of the jaguar on the camera traps here was back in 2014, his return is very exciting. Especially for the big cat programme and its researcher Tabea who ran out screaming “JAGUAR JAGUAR” when she was processing the data. With this hard evidence that the big cat was on Osa property and probably somewhere close by I suddenly had a strong desire to go hiking in the hope to witness this rare beauty of this endangered animal. So a few other volunteers and I planned numerous ‘jaguar hunts’ on most of Osa Conservation’s forest trails.

After two weeks and with more and more images capturing the jaguar on nearby trails we still had no luck finding him for ourselves. So being very unsuccessful at tracking the jaguar I decided to stop looking. I believed in the philosophy that if I stopped trying to find him, he would find me. And so with my new profound realisation, I carried on with my normal routines of morning and night sea turtle patrols.

Early last week a volunteer, Kate, and I were walking along the beach around 10pm after a rather successful turtle night patrol where Kate was able to see her first nesting Green turtle. We were still on the beach so we weren’t using our flash lights, there was only a slight glimmer of moonlight lighting up the beach ahead. Nearly 100 metres from the exit of the beach is Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 4.52.33 PMwhen I stopped. I noticed a large dark silhouette only five or so metres in front of me. Moving fast up from the ocean to the vegetation. I cry out to Kate “What was that?!” grabbing her arm and experiencing a weird sensation of all the hairs on my legs standing up at once. We stood in silence for a couple of seconds allowing our brains to figure out what our eyes had just witnessed, trying to conjure up different possibilities.

“It’s too big to be a dog….it is too small to be the water buffalo?”

We both turn our white lights on and scan the sand, hoping to not find anything and to accept being fools of our own imagination. Alas, we walked forward and discovered large, rounded big cat prints that had been prowling the beach ahead of us. By now all fear had disappeared or turned into pure amazement and adrenaline. Still in disbelief we thought it would be a good idea to take pictures of the prints for identification and to have as evidence of our encounter.

Once we were back at the station we were able to compare our pictures and measurements with that on the track board which gave us enough reason to believe it was the jaguar we had been searching for. Later that week we collected the images from the camera trap by the beach and we got 100% confirmation it was a jaguar that night.

Hopefully this particular jaguar will stick around for some time as it is a great sign that our forests are heathy and diverse!

It’s safe to say that my philosophy does work. If you are looking for something …Don’t look for it!

 

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Healthy Soil for Healthy Food

Bokashi: Improving the Soil through Solid Waste

By Yngrid Espinoza

In a time of unparalleled consumption, intensive agricultural production, mass exploitation of raw materials and countless other activities that advance ‘development’ – we in Costa Rica are generating an enormous quantity of solid waste daily. According to the University of Costa Rica, each individual produces a staggering 1.3 – 2.4 pounds of waste daily. 45% of this ends up in illegal dumps and approximately 50-60% of this waste is biodegradable material.

With this in mind, the vision of Osa Conservation’s Sustainable Agriculture Program is utilize organic waste to generate organic fertilizer for our farm. It is essential to consider the sufficient input of nutrients to the soil and rather than reply on external inputs (like non-organic and chemical fertilizers), we are working with bokashi. Bokashi is a Japanese word that means “organic fermented material ” and is a method that differs from traditional compost.

 

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Figure 1: production of bokashi at Osa Verde Farm

To prepare Bokashi, we add substrates from the rainforest soil to the organic waste in order to inoculate the waste with beneficial microorganisms that accelerate the organic microbial diversity, improve the chemical and physical conditions and maintain a healthy soil that supplies nutrients needed for crop development (Shintani, et al. 2000). In order to accelerate the decomposition process or fragmentation of the waste particles, we will be using a chipper.

In this way, soil nutrients are cycled through each growing season, taking advantage of waste that otherwise would end up in landfills. With this model we are using an integrated system of production with less dependence on external sources for nutrients and are more sustainable.

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Figure 2: diagram of nutrients in the soil

Healthy soil is vital to creating healthy food and we aim to demonstrate that farmers can create great, productive soil without having to purchase agricultural inputs that are damaging to ecosystems and to the health of wildlife and humans.

Sources:

UCR, 2011. Expertos analizan el manejo de la basura en Costa Rica. Información on line [http://www.ucr.ac.cr/noticias/2011/11/17/expertos-analizan-el-manejo-de-la-basura-en-costa-rica.html].

Shintani, 2000. BOKASHI: Tecnología Tradicional Adaptada para una Agricultura Sostenible y un Manejo de Desechos Modernos. Costa Rica 24p.

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Plants, Bats, Katydids, and Alberta Kids – a Research Journey to Osa

Written by: Evan Whitfield and Tye Dubrule

In February 2016, 13 undergraduate students and faculty members from the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus in Camrose traveled from snowy Canadian winter, to the Osa Peninsula as part of a year-long tropical ecology and conservation course. This trip was the culmination of five months of preparation that included learning about neotropical biota, developing our field research proposals, and organizing trip logistics. For most of us the dream of an adventure to Costa Rica was many years in the making, and for all of us it became a trip of a lifetime.

After a day-long drive from San Jose, we experienced a world unlike anything we had previously known upon our late afternoon arrival at Piro. Following a delicious first supper, we donned our headlamps and entered the forest guided by our curiosity and the long anticipated first-hand view of the ecology that we had thus far only learned about in the classroom. We walked from leaf to leaf in utter amazement at all we saw, including spiders, scorpions, and insects. With our first sighting of a katydid we were confident that our project inventorying these insects would be a success. The sounds of the Osa peninsula were equally stunning. Between the restless bird and insect calls, we could barely hear ourselves think. However, once these calls subsided, we were made aware of a much more powerful sound; the ocean in the distance ceaselessly crashing upon the shore had us looking to the skies in fear of thunder showers that never came.

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As a welcome to Piro, on our first night we witnessed a katydid molt right before our eyes.

Even more impressive were the sounds experienced during our first early dawn where the ocean’s booming waves created a remarkable backdrop for the chorus of howler monkeys whose calls could easily be mistaken as some terrifying creatures of the night. These sounds only added to the mystery of the Osa.

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The katydid research team (aka katydids) , Samuel (left) and Emily (right) were excited to find many different species of katydid on the Piro trails.

Our first full day was incredible. Between our early morning beach walk and our fun around the research station, we had already seen three of the four monkey species (spider, squirrel, and capuchin), many hermit crabs, pelicans, and hatched turtle eggs. As if our introductory day was not good enough, we ate the freshest fruit and had the coolest showers, which quickly became staples of the trip.

 

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The bat research team excited to catch and release their first bats. From left to right: Evan, Jonathan, and Kieryn.

While our trip to Costa Rica promised to be an adventure, we could not forget about the research projects that we had spent so much time developing prior to our arrival at Piro. We were grouped into four research teams. The katydid team set out to create the first katydid inventory on the Osa Peninsula. The bat team focused on evaluating the local abundance of leaf-nosed bats in comparison to broader neotropical trends. The understory vegetation group investigated the relationships between plant diversity and environmental factors (e.g., canopy cover, soil moisture). The forest structure team evaluated habitat characteristics (percentage of understory density and canopy cover) and their relationships to old growth, secondary, and gallery type forests. Up to this point in our university studies, we had not anticipated the unpredictable and adaptive nature of research that we experienced at Piro.

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The vegetation group, Jaynita (left) and Carly (right), posing next to one of their first survey plots.

While we progressed further into our research, we were surprised by how busy the days became with three to four simultaneous project activities; there was little time to rest between activities. One of the benefits to being in such a large and tight-knit group was the many helping hands. Our tailgate meetings every morning allowed us to identify the course of action for each day. Hard work and enthusiasm to share in each other’s research were important characteristics of our time spent at the station.  

Despite the rapid pace of our sampling, we continued to make time to appreciate the Osa Peninsula’s beautiful sights, sounds, and smells throughout our trip. Early morning starts allowed us to look for sea turtles with our volunteer hosts. The beaches at pre-dawn were beautiful, and these treks gave us the opportunity to feel the soft sand on our toes, see some falling stars, and even experience a small earthquake first hand while others were still sleeping. Through our early morning hike on the discovery trail, we encountered a diversity of wildlife including cheeky monkeys and a quickly fleeing curassow who, like us, must have been in a hurry to get to breakfast. We also enjoyed our guided tour of the Osa Verde farm with Beatriz. Coming from rural Alberta, it was incredible for us to see the amazing diversity of agricultural plant life and sustainable practices, in contrast to large scale monoculture farming. This experience was enhanced by Lassie (the lovely farm dog) and Hermes’ hospitality in providing us a snack of freshly cut coconut.

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The habitat characteristics research group, Shane (left) and Tye (right) taking a break from their survey and admiring the mighty ajo tree.

There were times when we could not help but feel a spiritual connection to the land. We felt the age and experience of the large ajo trees and the vulnerability yet surety of the newly hatched turtle that we guided to the ocean. In doing so, we were constantly reminded of our place within the universe. Being present within every waking moment, and actively engaged with the natural environment rather than a passive bystander was a much needed change from our hectic lives back home.

During our final day at Osa we hiked up (both ways) to the Greg Gund Conservation Center. We were amazed to see how quickly the forest is regenerating from its past use as pastoral land and teak stands. Our journey also highlighted what a fantastic group we had. On the hike, as on any other day, we always managed to laugh (editor’s note: this may not be helpful when trying to spot elusive wildlife) despite being hot, sweaty, and smelly. We even had enough steam to play a game of bocce ball at the peak! Although the trek was long and the heat was intense, it was worth every moment just to see, from a new perspective, the whole preserve where we had been studying and learning. With the view from Greg Gund Conservation Center, we understood the magic of the Osa, and its conservation value. We also appreciated how our research project contributions may also contribute towards the goal of conserving the Osa Peninsula.

We are grateful to the OC staff for sharing their knowledge, time, and their generous hospitality. See you next time Piro!

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One big happy group at the top of the Greg Gund research station.

What a view! (Professor Doris Audet (center) and professor Anne McIntosh (far right)

 

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What are BCATs? Why is their conservation absolutely critical?

Written by: Adam Parr

Black-cheeked Ant-Tanagers (Habia atrimaxillaris) may not be most glamorous bird on the Osa Peninsula.  They lack the striking colors of a Scarlet Macaw, or Fiery-billed Araçari, and are mostly dull black, with just a splash of salmon in the throat and breast.  Their vocalizations won’t send a chill down your spine like the eerie pan flute-like songs of a Common Potoo, and consist instead of a slurred two or three note whistle of a song.  However, these superficially lackluster attributes belie a truly fascinating species, and one that is important to conservation on the Osa Peninsula.

BCAT

Black-cheeked Ant-Tanagers, or BCAT, to use the four-letter bird banding code and save a little breath, belong to the genius Habia.   This genus of birds’ common name, Ant-Tanagers, comes from their behavior of joining the mixed flocks of birds that follow swarms of army ants in order to catch the insects and other small invertebrates that attempt to escape the relentless predatory ants.   Some other members of Habia are obligate ant followers, which means following ant swarms is their main strategy for finding food.  BCATs will follow ant swarms if they are present, but that strategy is not their primary source of food, so they are classified as opportunistic ant followers.  They mostly feed by foraging at the lower levels of the understory of primary and well-established secondary forests.  Intently cocking their heads while searching, sometimes comically falling about on broad palm leaves, and snatching up the insects, spiders or even small lizards that they find.  BCATs also occasionally eat the fruits of some understory plants.  They usually live in small family groups, consisting of a breeding pair, and often at least one of the offspring of the previous year’s successful brood.  They keep in contact with frequent noisy chatter, and when they are nesting, it seems everyone chips in to help feed the new hatchlings.

Perhaps most importantly, BCATs are endemic to the Osa Peninsula and the lowlands along the coast of the Golfo Dulce.  “Endemic” means they cannot be found anywhere else in the world, or even elsewhere in Costa Rica.  Their very limited range, and shrinking habitat have led them to be listed as Endangered by the IUCN.  Any threat to the region is a threat to the health, and even the survival of the entire species.

As with many tropical bird species, little research has been done on BCATs, and there is much that we don’t know about them.  I came to Piro Research Station and Finca Osa Verde in an attempt to assess the density of the BCAT population here, and to gain some insight as to their habitat preferences.  This involves repeatedly visiting randomly chosen points in different forest types, and counting the BCATs I can detect by sight or sound during a ten-minute period.  I also carefully estimate the distance at which I first detect them with the aid of a laser rangefinder.  I am still early in this process, but with enough data, and careful analysis, I hope to add to our understanding of this species’ health, and any threats there may be to its stability.

The wonderful people and scientific resources here, as well as the pristine old-growth forest, long-standing secondary forest, and even the sustainable farm and reclaimed pastureland that are protected by Osa Conservation are essential to my study, and many others like it.  I hope that my work can be a small part of the critical efforts being made at Osa Conservation to better understand and preserve this uniquely beautiful, and remarkably biologically diverse corner of the planet.

 

Photograph courtesy of: Manuel Sanchez Mendoza

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Pollinators in decline

IMG_7236By Ali Stahr

The world has recognized that there is a new major environmental concern: the decrease of multiple bee species. This is extremely concerning because of the vital roles bees play in pollination. However, bees are not the only species suffering – there is an overall decrease in pollinators. Other such pollinators include butterflies and some species of vertebrae (hummingbirds, bats, etc). The U.N. has shed some light on the dilemma in a recently released report that analyzed 3,000 scientific papers. From the reports, they concluded that 40% of invertebrate and 16% of vertebrate pollinator species are at risk for extinction.

Pollinators are important from two main standpoints. First, food security is weakened when there are fewer pollinators. One third of all agricultural output depends on pollinators. The UN report found that 75% of the world’s food crops depended, at least partly, on pollinators. This statistic translates into $235 billion to $577 billion worth of global crops being affected. Such crops include chocolate, coffee, apples, and almonds. Sadly, these impacts are not just projections for the future, they are happening now. China, for example, has already experienced food insecurity because of the sharp drop in pollinators from pesticides. To try to counteract these impacts, they have resorted to hand pollinating the apple trees. The impacts are also visible domestically. In California, many farmers needed to rent bee colonies to ensure that their almond crops remained healthy. These effects will negatively impact food prices as a whole, especially in developing countries.

Pollinators play a vital role in the food chain and support a habitat’s biodiversity. When plants are not pollinated they are unable to reproduce and this inability causes plants to produce less and eventually to go extinct. Plants serve many important purposes for the environment and their extinction would be catastrophic. They are used for medicine, decreasing erosion, as well as being the beginning of the food chain as energy for primary producers.

The UN cites many reasons for why the pollinator populations are decreasing. All of them appear to be human related. IPBES Vice Chair Robert Watson found that the primary causes are due to “changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices and pesticide use, alien invasion species, diseases and pest, and climate change”. The intensive agricultural practices are replacing more sustainable indigenous practices which help to protect numerous habitats. Then, there is also the issue of global trade allowing for the spread of invasive species and diseases.

However, there are possible solutions to this dire situation. We need sustainable farming practices to ensure a healthy pollinator ecosystem and secure food production. Both directly impact our well-being and health. There are such options such as pesticide control, which is relatively easy to do. The UN report also cites options such as adopting indigenous and local farming techniques, with an emphasis on diverse habitats for sustainable agriculture, crop rotation, reduction in pesticides, and improving bee husbandry.

Sources:

Picture Credit: Manuel Sanchez