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The first 24 hours as a volunteer

Blogpost written by Hanae Garrison,  Volunteer

4:30 am – I rise before the sun has woken up and while the nocturnal organisms are still out. I shove some food into my body in preparation of the day ahead. Another volunteer and I are staying at the cabins near the farm, where Osa Conservation grows much of their fresh vegetables, fruits, medicinal plants, and cares for their animals, restoration plots, botanic garden and much more.

5:00 am – After gearing up with our head lamps and day packs, we head out on the main road and walk for 25 minutes to the Biological Station. The stars shine through the trees and the hum of insects is more noticeable. Cars occasionally roll by with people starting their day before the sun’s heat gets too hot.

5:30 am – We meet up with Manuel Sánchez, the Sea Turtle Conservation Program Coordinator.  We hike through the woods as the sun begins to rise. He shows us a taste of what he does every morning to aid the survival of 4 species of endangered sea turtles – Olive Ridley, Green Sea Turtles, Leatherback, and Hawksbill (with the Olive Ridley and Green Sea Turtles being most common in the Osa). We look for threatened sea turtle nests along the beach and, when needed, the team will help excavate and transport the eggs to a protected hatchery, away from predators and poachers. When the time comes many weeks later, the baby turtles are released on the beach with enough distance to imprint on the sand while making their way to the waves, helping ensure their return to this same beach as adults.

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The hatchery allows sea turtle nests to incubate safely, without the risk of predation or poachers.

6:45 am – We release two Olive Ridley nests containing around 100 turtles. All of them safely reach the waves, some faster than others. Crossing the open beach is often the most difficult part of the turtles’ journey.  With this relocation and careful release, we help provide a safe passage for the tiny turtles across the beach and increase their chances of survival. In the wild, it’s estimated that only 1 in 1,000 makes it to adulthood. As the waves crash onto the shore and sweep the sea turtles into the water, you can see their tiny black heads bouncing up and down and then diving down under the current.

 

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Baby sea turtles imprint on the sand while they make their way into the ocean

8:00 am – We make it back to the biological station and fill up on some beans and rice, a staple in our diet.

11:00 am – I spot some leaf cutter ants working away carrying their characteristic green pieces of leaves, sometimes as much as three times its weight. One after another, they move along, wearing away the grass and carving unbelievable paths along the forest floor.

12:00 pm – We eat a much-needed delicious meal of rice, beans, salad, banana chips and a glass of fresh lemonade.

1:00 pm – I head out on a trail with Sam to conduct field research on spider monkeys and their “latrine sites.”. We hike for about 40 minutes until we reach a turn in the path under a large tree. Spider monkeys prefer to sleep in trees with interlocking branches near their feeding trees and choose one spot where they all excrete their waste, also known as a “latrine site.” All day, they jump around from tree to tree, snacking on fruit. As a result, we can tell the diet of the spider monkey by going through their waste. The spider monkeys, thus, become primary seed dispersers and the “latrine site” can be identified by many tree saplings growing in one area.

 

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Researchers can determine the diet and ecological role of spider monkeys by examining what grows at the “latrine sites.”

2:00 pm – Our task was to observe the spider monkey poop and notice if ants appeared – which in theory, should attract poison dart frogs. Although field biology can seem repetitive and boring at times, it is extremely rewarding when you find what you’re looking for after patiently waiting. Great to see your work pay off!  As we sit there taking notes, I listen to the sounds around me and start to notice small things in the forest. A dung beetle crawls by, proudly rolling his perfect spherical ball of monkey poop. The beetles are a lot smaller than I had imagined but the impact they have on the forest as secondary seed dispersers is extraordinary!

3:45 pm – A howler monkey starts to howl near us. Sam tells me that howlers howl for only a few reasons: As a “wake-up call,” an “I’m going to sleep” howl, a “territorial” scream, and an “I’m wet and mad about it so I’m going to complain” cry. By this time, the rain had started coming down. We hadn’t felt it much before because the trees had caught most of it. But soon it got darker out and the rain got stronger. so we headed back.

The rest of the evening was composed of relaxing, showering, preparing and eating dinner, and getting to bed early for an early morning. The cold refreshing shower was definitely a highlight of my day along with the fresh pineapple with dinner.

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Osa’s First Junior Christmas Bird Count – Results Are In!

Blogpost by Luis Carlos Solis, Asistencia Técnica

We are excited to present the results of the “First Junior Christmas Bird Count, Península de Osa 2017” in conjunction with the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, Fundación Neotrópica and 16 educational centers in the Osa. During this special day, participants saw a total of 93 different species and 595 individual birds!

Throughout the event, school children learned about the importance of local and migratory birds and their habitat,  helping to create the next generation of guardians for Osa’s natural heritage. The logo of the event consisted of a Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera), which was selected due to its status as a wintering migratory bird in the Osa from Canada/United States and its threatened status, classified by the Red List IUCN due to the loss of its habitat from agricultural expansion.

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This First Christmas Junior Bird Count in the Osa was carried out on December 5 – 7, 2017 with the participation of 165 children from local schools.  In each of the 16 schools, children learned from a naturalist guide about why birds are important indicators of global health and they learned about the migratory Golden-winged Warbler as they colored the logo in creative ways.  Students then went out with the naturalist to walk around the school property looking for birds and registering all of the birds that they were able to see. Students learned how to properly use a scope and binoculars, to identify different bird species, and to record data from their sightings.

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With the success of this First Christmas Bird Count, children were able to experience the beauty of nature while supporting research to monitor the health and long-term condition of bird populations worldwide.

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Many thanks to the support of the following institutions and organizations: Golfito Campus, UCR, Ficus Tours, Osa Birds: Research and Conservation, Osa Wild, Osa Dreamcatcher Tours, Utopia Drake Outdoors, Osa Birders Tours, Lapa Rios Ecolodge, Danta Corcovado Lodge, and the La Palma Academic College. Thank you very much for your collaboration!

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Ornithology & Neuroscience: A Student Research Experience

Blogpost by Patrick Newcombe, Volunteer and Student Researcher

My time at Osa Conservation’s biological station was an incredible experience, full of birds, nature, and exploration in the tropical rainforest. It was particularly meaningful as I got to follow up on my highschool ornithology research in the Osa and present it at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, D.C.

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Society for Neuroscience Conference

Over 30,000 people from 80+ countries attended the annual meeting, which filled DC’s convention center. I presented a poster that included my research on the elaborate courtship displays that manakins use to attract their mates in the Osa. As scientists walked by my scientific poster, they were eager to learn more about my findings!

 

Newcombe's poster on his research

Newcombe’s poster on his research

As a part of my summer research, I hiked the trails around the biostation searching for manakin “leks” – a term used to describe the gathering of two or more males performing courtship displays. I found that for each of three manakin species found in the Osa – including Red-capped, Blue-crowned, and Orange-collared –  each one frequented and displayed in different habitats.

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Red-Capped Manakin, by Manuel Sanchez

The Orange-collared Manakin lived in secondary growth forest, within meters from trees that remain from plantations that previously occupied the same land. This was really interesting as it illustrates Osa Conservation’s success in reforestation and the importance of not just preserving existing rainforest, but also re-growing new rainforest, which is valuable for birds such as the Orange-collared Manakin! I also found Red-capped Manakins in primary forest, although they were near the borders with secondary growth. Blue-crowned Manakins were in both primary and well-established secondary growth rainforest.

 

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Students at the Society for Neuroscience Conference

 

Overall, I had a great time doing my research in the Osa and enjoyed being able to present what I found in the field to bring together ornithology and neuroscience at a conference in DC! What an experience!

 

Note: Patrick visited Osa earlier this year and is part of the Sidwell School’s Upper School’s BRAIN Club. Click here to learn more about the students and their “Biological Research and Investigations in Neuroscience” Club!

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Cornell College Field Course: Reflections from Students

Blogposts written by Cornell College students

Cornell College visited our biological station for week-long field trip. While at the station, they collaborated with our science team, carried out primate point count surveys every morning and afternoon, and participated in the sea turtle program. The primate data collected will be analyzed and paired with the dung beetle research we have been carrying out, investigating the patterns of this link. The students worked incredibly hard trekking through the jungle for hours and we can’t thank them enough. Below is a series of short blogs about their experiences with us.  We can’t wait to see you next year Cornell College!

The Cornell College Field Course Group

The Cornell College Field Course Group, photo by Eleanor Flatt

Where Forest meets Beach

 By Andrew Hanson.

My experience on the Osa Peninsula was absolutely incredible. From tromping through the rainforest looking for monkeys to being on the beach patrolling for sea turtles, this was an experience unlike any I have ever had before. The highlight of this experience was exploring the vast sandy Piro beach where the sea turtle hatchery was located. While the waves and riptides were not conducive to swimming, the amount of wildlife near the beach made up for it. Both times we went we observed around 10 capuchin monkeys and their babies. While we were able  to watch the capuchins interact,  they did begin throwing coconuts if we got too close! As a whole, I cannot explain everything about the Osa Peninsula. From the people to the places, this is a truly incredible place.

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Capuchin Monkey, photo by Manuel Sanchez

My Osa Conservation Experience

By Katie Stieber

This has been my first ever experience hiking in a tropical rainforest. On the second day, we ventured off on a 1-hour hike at 05:00am to reach a point to survey primates. As I am not very athletic, I struggled at the start but I eventually made it.  As we went to each of our points, we were surrounded by singing birds as the sun rose and I had a great sense of achievement that I completed the hike and participated in the survey. Then, at the last point in the hike, three scarlet macaws, the one bird I had hoped to see, flew over our heads while squawking loudly. I was taken away by the beauty of this sighting and it definitely made the hike worthwhile! If hiking at the biological station means I get to see beautiful wildlife in natural habitat, then I cannot wait to go and hike through the rainforest again.

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Scarlet Macaw, photo by Manuel Sanchez

Leaf-Cutter Ants

By Danielle Polson

Like a single parent with two jobs of the rainforest, these little leaf-cutter ants never stop working. It doesn’t matter if its dark, raining or even flooded – they keep going. With their “rain hats” made of leaves, the leaf-cutter ants carve pathways throughout the forest as thousands of them walk one-by-one in a line. They all go to the same plant, cut out what they will carry and then make the return trek back to their underground nest where they harvest and feed on the fungus that grows on the leaves. These tiny workers remind me of what “hard work” means and inspire me to reflect on my own work ethic, knowing that I like to sleep a lot and run for shelter when it’s raining. I admire the leaf-cutter ants for their work ethic and adorable choice of hats. I hope one day I can just keep moving through the mud with my very own little leaf hat.

Hidden treasures

By April

The rainforest is for the brave, but still full of charming creatures like sloths, ocelots and coatis. However, there are plenty of creepy-crawlies that are still very cool to observe. I saw many Golden Orb Weaver spiders, a boa constrictor as thick as my arm, and many interesting bugs. To see all these wonderful sites, you need to go out and adventure, hours of hiking in the mud uphill through the humid air and sometimes rain. While not everyone is naturally used to this type of adventure, the experience can be much like how Bilbo Baggins describes adventure: uncomfortable sometimes, but forms bonds between those in the group and not without its rewards. Overall, the adventure is worth the trek and I have seen animals here that I have never heard about before and found many hidden treasures.

 

A coati in the forest

A coati in the forest, photo by Eleanor Flatt

 

A boa

A boa, photo by Eleanor Flatt

 

Some students on one of the hikes

Cornell College students observing the biodiversity in the Osa, Photo by Eleanor Flatt

 

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Join us – Education through bird watching: “Give wings” to knowledge

Blogpost by Luis Carlos Solis, Asistencia Técnica

Each year from the middle of December through early January, Christmas bird counts are organized worldwide. These counts consist of the identification and registration of the number of bird species observed in a given period of time. This tradition has been established in the world of bird watchers and is taught to each new generation.

The Osa Peninsula is no exception to this tradition, as different organizations collaborate in December for one day to participate in tracking the progress of endangered species and assessing the impact of environmental threats on birds and their habitat. This year, children and young people from educational centers of the Osa Peninsula, through the coordination of teachers and local organizations, will be responsible for carrying out the first Osa Peninsula Children Christmas Count 2017.

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This event is possible thanks to the coordination and collaboration of several institutions and organizations: Osa Conservation, Neotrópica Foundation, University of Costa Rica Golfito Campus, Ficus Tours, Osa Birds, Osa Wild, Utopia Drake Outdoors, Osa Birders Tours, Lapa Rios Lodge, Danta Corcovado Lodge, and La Palma Academic College. They will lead guided walks around each school, lecturing about the birds that frequent the places and that are observed daily by the children. The purpose of this activity is to improve the relationship between the young population, birds, and their habitat, in order to create new guardians of the natural heritage of the Osa.

The Christmas Children’s Bird Count will take place on Tuesday December 5 – Thursday December 7, 2017 of this year with the participation of 17 educational centers in different sectors of the Peninsula including the communities of Carate, Piro, Carbonera, Saturnino Cedeño of Puerto Jiménez, Dos Brazos of Tigre River, Gallardo, Cañaza, Agujas, Guadalupe, Riyito, La Palma Academic College, Alto San Juan, Chal Bay, El Campo, Admiral de Banegas, Rancho Quemado, and Aguilas de Bahía Drake.

Through experiencing nature and research, each of the participants contributes greatly to the monitoring of the health and long-term condition of bird populations and contributes to their conservation worldwide.

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Photos by Manuel Sanchez

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Spider Monkeys: Reforesting the Rainforests

Blog by Danielle Connor, Undergraduate Student at University of Exeter

Earlier this year, I spent many hours following the endangered spider monkey in the Osa. As part of a new project being carried out by Osa Conservation and my own research with the University of Exeter, I looked for sleeping sites and latrines to better understand the ecological role of spider monkeys in seed dispersal and their potential to regenerate rainforests.

A spider monkey hangs from a tree

 

Spider monkeys live in fission-fusion societies that split into smaller subgroups and fuse into large subgroups. At night, spider monkeys use specific “latrine sites” to excrete at key sleeping trees. These latrines are communal toilets and provide a perfect location for us researchers to examine how the rich fruit diet of spider monkeys are impacting the plant community.

A spider monkey latrine

A spider monkey latrine, indicated by the consolidated saplings

During my research, I successfully found 41 sleeping trees and 30 latrine sites. The sleeping trees were mostly large trees with long lateral branches, but some spider monkeys also slept in very small trees. Latrines were composed of many young tree saplings, excreted seeds and poo! I also found they consumed 32 species of fruit as well as other foods, such as epiphyte leaves that they feed on to add protein to their diet.

Typical spider monkey diet

Typical spider monkey diet

Through their role in seed dispersal, spider monkeys have a capacity to help regenerate rainforests. It is believed that some seeds like dialium rely on being passed through a spider monkey’s stomach in order to regenerate. In the future, we can use this information to assist with restoration efforts by planting the tree species spider monkeys prefer to sleep in, with the hope that spider monkeys will be attracted to them and, through their seed dispersal, continue their role as “an architect of the rainforest.”

If you missed our previous video blog about this project, please check it out here to learn more!

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The Battle: Sea Turtles vs. Predators!

Blogpost by Manuel Sanchez, Sea Turtle Conservation Program Coordinator

 

Nature is not always kind; sea turtles face a multitude of life threatening obstacles that reduce their chance of survival throughout their lives. Predation of eggs, hatchlings and adults by numerous predators is just one of the risks. Raccoons, coatis, opossums, crabs, dogs, birds and ants attack nests to indulge in an egg or a young sea turtle. Once the hatchling emerges from the nest, the challenge continues as hawks, pelicans, frigate birds, crabs and fish await a bite-size meal.  Once the hatchling defeats the odds of predation in their younger years, they reach adulthood where they are relatively safe from  such threats, excluding the occasional shark attack.

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Photo by Manuel Sanchez of a sea turtle hatchling making its way into the ocean

In the Osa, the coati populations have increased largely because of a change in the ecosystem balance with a decline of apex predator populations due to habitat loss and hunting. As the number of coatis increases, more of them are taking to the beach in search of food and often finding sea turtle eggs for their dinner. This unbalanced ecosystem is having a cascading impact on the survival of these sea turtle nests and increasing the need for us to help protect these vulnerable nesting areas.

Photo by Janell Canon on predation by coati and birds

Photo by Janell Canon of predation by a coati and birds

Unfortunately, natural predation is only one of the factors contributing to sea turtle population decline. Human actions can also have more of a direct threat to sea turtle survival.  In many coastal communities, especially in Central America, sea turtle eggs and meat can be a source of food and income, although often illegal. During peak nesting seasons, turtle poachers have been known to raid the beaches at night looking to steal eggs from nests, which can unfortunately are often sold to those willing to pay. 

Here on Playa Piro and Peje Perro, sea turtle nests are threatened more by predation than poaching. Our Sea Turtle Conservation team works hard to reduce human-induced threats and to restore the natural ecosystem balance needed to save the sea turtles. This year, our sea turtle hatchery has already protected over 200 sea turtle nests and helped us to release over 7,000 hatchlings already this year! We are greatly appreciative of all our our conservation volunteers & visitors that help us protect these amazing and ancient creatures! Click here to learn more about volunteer opportunities with our Sea Turtle Conservation Program!

Sea Turtle Hatchery

Our Sea Turtle Hatchery in the Osa

 

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Rios Saludables First Workshop in Colegio Puerto Jimenez

Blogpost by Hilary Brumberg, Ríos Saludables Program Coordinator 

Students in bright blue uniforms dip nets into a small stream and retrieve soggy masses of leaves, branches, rocks, and candy wrappers. They comb through the leaves with plastic spoons, and excitedly pluck small insects and crustaceans from the foliage and place them into the stream water filled ice cube tray  – our fancy specimen holder.

The students rush the specimens over to our identification station, a tree stump bearing a laminated booklet with dozens of pictures of aquatic critters. They methodically scan each page of the identification guide, enthusiastically pointing at pictures that look like their specimens. When these young scientists finally decide on the identity of the critter swimming around their tray, they return their specimen to the stream and begin fishing again. Other groups of teenagers wander around the stream in pursuit of litter, tossing snack wrappers in black trash bags to help clean the streams.

Students identifying macroinvertebrates

Students identifying macro invertebrates

These students attend Colegio Industrial Técnico Puerto Jiménez, one of two secondary schools on the Osa Peninsula and the closest one to our biological station. In the yard behind their school is Cacao Stream.  Students usually eat lunch alongside the stream, and often snack wrappers mysteriously make their way into the stream.

Today, these students are surveying the stream for macroinvertebrates, mini mighty organisms that are bio-indicators for river health. Many of the students had never thought twice about Cacao Stream, let alone the crustaceans and insects that call it home.

A group of students measuring the water

A group of students measuring the stream quality

This field activity is part of Rios Saludables’ first ever workshop with the Colegio Puerto Jiménez. Before heading to the stream to sample, I began the workshop with a presentation, assisted by one of the program’s community partners.

We discussed the importance of water and specifically rivers for nature and humans. Reasons they suggested included sources of drinking water, important ecological habitat, and nutrient transport.

One of my favorite parts of these presentations is to show a map of Osa’s expansive freshwater network. Rivers and streams expand like a spider web across the peninsula in every direction. Students always gasp when the map is projected, because they realize the extent that the peninsula’s ecosystems rely on rivers.

Hillary and some of the students

Hilary & students analyze their collections

A trademark Rios Saludables saying is “the problem with water on the Osa is not quantity, but rather quality.” This leads nicely into an explanation of the ways we determine water quality, namely water chemistry tests and macroinvertebrate surveys. These students had recently learned about pH and alkalinity  in their chemistry class, and I described what ranges indicate that a river is healthy. Then I passed around samples of macroinvertebrates I collected with community partners across the region, many from rivers close to students’ homes.

Now it is time for these newly ordained freshwater ecologists to head to Cacao Stream to practice these surveys.

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Farming alongside apex predators

Blogpost written by Eleanor Flatt, Restoration and Biodiversity Research Field Assistant

Many intensely biodiverse tropical rainforests are not only inhabited by wonderful wildlife but also by people who call it their home. In these areas, farms offer opportunity to grow crops or maintain livestock in order to provide income for their families. In an ideal world, these two landscapes would be separated and conflicts would not exist. However, located where the rainforest meets farm, there is a matrix where the flora and fauna interact and where human-wildlife conflicts can occur.

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In the Osa, we witnessed first-hand this fascinating matrix between farm and wildlife when we recently heard that a goat had been killed by a predator on our farm. Interestingly though, when we arrived at the farm we found that not only one goat had been killed but two! But by what?

To investigate this, we set up a camera trap near each goat, hoping the predator would return to collect their kill. As day turned to night, we used the lights on our phones to check the final camera and navigate through the field back to the car. As we were approaching the car, we looked up and found two big beady eyes shining at us – IT WAS A PUMA!  This was my very first sighting of a puma and we were only a couple of meters away! Laying down, the puma observed us as we observed him while we walked past. We quickly hopped into the truck as he got up and headed towards the goat. We watched as the puma approached the goat and dragged away the carcass to enjoy the dinner alone. What a very exciting experience for us to watch!

Photo taken from our camera trap

Photo of the puma taken by our camera trap

Yet, this young male puma wasn’t the only visitors to the goats. Through our camera traps, we were able to observe a common opossum, yellow headed caracara, black vulture and the magnificent king vulture – all feasting on these recently killed meals.

Photo of King Vulture taken by our camera trap

Photo of King Vulture taken by our camera trap

Observing this very real and natural event brought mixed emotions. While it was a sad loss for the farm, it was such an important wildlife interaction to witness. Seeing this first hand, brought to light the challenges facing farmers in  areas where they are trying to co-exist with important apex predators.

Predation of livestock by a wild cat is a monetary loss for a farmer that could mean not being able to provide food for the family. This challenge of farming alongside apex predators in a rainforest system is not only found in Costa Rica, but globally. Unfortunately, this type of human-wildlife conflict can often result in the killing of these apex predators to protect one’s farm.

Osa Conservations strives to build a balance between healthy ecological systems with sustainable practices. Our wildlife-friendly farm offers opportunities to see not only how to grow sustainably, but also within the context of the greater ecosystem through agroforestry and rewilding. Yet, as we can see, farming alongside apex predators is no easy feat. As we continue to use the farm, we look for opportunities to better understand these challenges and to find solutions for tropical farming.

 

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Passionflowers and Butterflies: A love-hate relationship

Blogpost by Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya, Biodiversity & Conservation Projects Coordinator and Botanical Assistant

After a long but successful morning collecting specimens for the botanical garden we headed back to the station, excitement and rumbling stomachs in tow. Suddenly, one small plant close to the trail caught my eye. I curiously approached it, going in for a closer look. What was it? I called over our botanical assistant Marvin to pick his brain. Immediately he smiled with happiness and enthusiastically screamed: “It is a passiflora, collection number 11 for the botanical garden and a potential new species of passiflora for the Osa Region!”

A flower of a passiflora vine

A flower of a passiflora vine

Passifloras are vines commonly called passionflowers. While some of them are purely grown for ornamental purpose, others are grown for their edible fruits (passion fruits, granadillas, etc.). Many tropical rainforest insects and plants have had a long love-hate relationship. I am fascinated by plant-animal interactions, and passifloras are a splendid example of coevolution and intelligence. This species of passiflora has an unfriendly relationship with heliconius butterflies, who lay their eggs on the leaves of passionflower vines, which eventually hatch into hungry leaf-eating caterpillars. Passifloras try to protect themselves with a range of defenses.

A passiflora mimicking the presence of butterfly eggs

Passifloras mimicking the presence of butterfly eggs

One example is that the passifloras contain a chemical defense, they produce cyanide present in the stem and leaves. However, heliconius butterflies have acquired the ability to integrate this poison and even use it to defend against their own predators. Another strategy is that the passifloras will perform mimicry by copying leaf shapes of other plants that are not hosts of the heliconius butterfly eggs. Through this form of camouflage there is a chance that they can avoid, or at least reduce the possibility, of being preyed upon by these hungry caterpillars. This passiflora method is to grow structures on the leaves to look like butterfly eggs. Since the female heliconius butterflies are extremely careful when selecting sites to lay their eggs, if the leaf appears to be occupied, the butterflies will move away and continue searching for a different place to lay the eggs.

A passiflora with glandular trichomes

A passiflora with glandular trichomes

Some passifloras also have glandular structures, which secrete sticky and smelly substances that trap small caterpillars to prevent them from munching on their leaves. Additionally, the passifloras will also receive help from other organisms by producing nectar to attract ants who will then pick off young heliconius caterpillars. In return, the ants are rewarded with sugar (a great example of a mutualistic relationship!).

Who knows how the heliconius butterflies will evolve to overcome these defense tactics! Meanwhile, we will continue searching for more species of passiflora native to the Osa Peninsula, learning more about this interesting plant and how it interacts with flora and fauna.

A picture of Ruth

A picture of Ruth, the author