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



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.


Connecting Golfo Dulce’s Fish Populations

Blog Post by José Luis Molina Quirós, Alvaro Ugalde Scholarship Awardee

Costa Rica has a great diversity of species and marine ecosystems that protect and provide food to hundreds of organisms in various phases of their life cycle. For example, El Golfo de Papagayo and Golfo Dulce are just a few of the many hot spots that harbor this diversity of marine species and ecosystems, but these species have not been completely protected.

Sampling of species (Lutjanus guttatus, L. peru and Centropumus viridis) product of artisanal fisheries.

Currently, our country lacks the basic information necessary to evaluate the population structure of bony fish species, which have been exposed to heavy fishing pressure that make a natural recovery of their populations impossible. This problem not only afflicts Costa Rica but also all of Latin America, since there is no scientific data that gives real support and defines the units of a given fishery. For this reason, it is critical to clarify the degree of genetic connectivity among fish populations throughout their geographical distribution in order to maintain the productivity of the populations and ensure the sustainability of fishery resources over time.

Sampling and release of Sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) in offshore sport fishing with Crocodile Bay in Puerto Jiménez.

Therefore, the present research proposal aims to study the genetic connectivity of several species of teleosts that play a critical role at the ecological and economic level (tourism, sports, and crafts), such as roosterfish (Nematistius pectoralis), snappers (Lutjanus peru and L. guttatus), bass (Centropomus viridis) and sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus). Through the use of nuclear molecular markers (microsatellites), it will be possible to define regulations and estimates of the maximum sustainable level at which a stock can be exploited.

Sampling and release of Roosterfish (Nematistius pectoralis) in inshore sport fishing with Captain Roy Zapata in Quepos.

The results of our research will allow us to generate the first biological-fishery information of these species along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and establish baseline information that could suggest possible fishery management strategies and measures.


Research Field Assistant Journals

Blogposts written by Research Field Assistants Mariam Weyand, Bryan Graybill, and Alexandra Mörth

Rewarding Research

Working as a research field assistant (RFA) for the Sea Turtle Conservation Program with Osa Conservation is really different from the other places I have worked for, and so far, it has been really rewarding.

Every day, we conduct morning patrols to register any activity from the previous night and relocate nests that are at risk to the hatchery. I wake up between 3:45 and 5:00 a.m. depending on which beach I am going to patrol and on the presence of groups. At first, it was a bit hard to get used to the rhythm, heat, and humidity, but now that it’s been a month and a half, I only see the bright side of this job.

Every day is different; the diversity and abundance of fauna on the Osa peninsula is amazing and surprising, not to mention the breathtaking sunsets. When it comes to releasing baby sea turtles and protecting them from predators, it is the best reward I could get and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Moreover, it is really satisfying to be able to share our experience and knowledge with groups and volunteers, spreading awareness about sea turtles’ status.

It is also really interesting to work with Osa Conservation due to its diversity of projects and conservation programs.

-Mariam Weyand

RFA Mariam taking care of olive ridley babies after releasing them.


The Importance of the Work

Six days a week, I wake up around 4:00 a.m., get dressed, slip on my rubber boots, turn on my headlamp, and begin the day with a hike through the jungle to one of two beaches that the research field assistants (RFAs) patrol. Along the way, I am greeted by the sounds of frogs’ mating calls, howler monkeys’ gravelly morning bellows, and bats swooping in and out of my vision.

When my co-RFAs and I reach the beach, we begin the patrol looking for sea turtle nests laid the night before. If we find nests in a vulnerable location, we’ll open the nest, delicately extract all 60-130 eggs, and move them to a walled off hatchery where they will be protected from the tide and predators. When the patrol finishes a few hours later, I’ll hike back through the jungle to the Biological Station for breakfast with the other researchers living at the station, praying that today is pancake day.

Though the ability to participate in sea turtle conservation is a reward in and of itself, the surprises and differences between each day are what make the work truly special. It could be a sunrise that fills the sky with colors, a miniature blue jellyfish that has washed up on shore, or a sea turtle making a nest in the sand for a new hatchery we haven’t started using yet. The holy grail are the days when we enter the hatchery and, after opening the mesh net that covers each nest, we see a teeming mass of newly hatched sea turtles, full of energy and eager to get to the ocean.

Of course, there are also the days when we get to the beach and find mostly empty nests, either poached by humans or dug up and eaten by dogs or coatis, or we find the whole beach littered with garbage that has floated across the ocean from countries as far away as China. But these are the kind of daily experiences that remind me why conservation is such an important field right now, and why we all need to constantly strive to be more responsible consumers.

-Bryan Graybill

RFA Bryan with an olive ridley going back to the sea after nesting at Piro Beach.


Self-discovery in the Osa

My time as a Sea Turtle RFA has been an intense experience—rewarding and challenging at the same time.

Waking up every morning between 3:30 and 4:30 and hiking straight to the beach for the morning patrol before breakfast is quite a change of lifestyle, especially for a “night owl” like me who is used to going to bed late, getting up late, and can’t start the day without a cup of coffee.

We start the day with a hike through the still, dark rainforest and arrive to one of the beautiful and wild beaches we patrol. Watching the sunrise with this breathtaking view while patrolling the beach for sea turtle nests makes waking up so early more than worth it. During morning patrol, we relocate nests from critical spots to our hatchery, triangulate nests in non-critical parts of the beach, check predated nests, and hope to find nests hatched the night before in order to enjoy the best part of the job: releasing baby sea turtles into the wide ocean.

After morning patrol, we head to the Biological Station for breakfast. The rest of the day we work on the database or on our own projects. In the afternoon, we check if any nests have hatched, and if the season and weather allow, we go on a night patrol to look for females nesting. In the late afternoon we usually have time to enjoy this incredible place and hike at one of the various trails, spot animals, go to the beautiful Laguna (Kalman included) and the beaches, or just rest in a hammock and read a book. Every day is different!

A great thing here is definitely the community. There are many young researchers, assistants, farmers and kitchen staff living near each other in various houses and camping platforms. At lunchtime and in the evening it’s a great chance to spend time with very different people from countries all over the world.

I came here because I was looking for a life more connected to nature and to become a part of protecting the two ecosystems I love most, and which are, in my opinion, the most important to protect: the rainforest and the ocean. So, I started living the life I dreamed of here, although I really wasn’t expecting it to be so challenging. Arriving from cold Germany just three days before starting my position here, it took quite a while to get this European used to living and working in the jungle.

While becoming friends with my new roommates, cockroaches, ants, wasps, toads, geckos, a tarantula and fungus, worked out very well, the heat, humidity, and getting sick at the beginning really gave me a rough start. But by hiking, sitting in the middle of the rainforest and at these wild beaches, taking in the incredible biodiversity of giant trees, various frogs, monkeys, birds, and of course, sea turtles, and listening to the sound of the jungle and the waves of the Pacific Ocean gave me so much energy and peace that after a while I felt fitter than before and learned to adapt to everything.

This place has taught me a lot about nature and conservation as well as about myself. Seeing how many threats a sea turtle has to face during her lifetime—from the risk of rising sea levels, the exhausting first trip to the ocean, and predators and poachers, to the the dangers in the giant ocean—and knowing only one in a thousand survives, showed me how important our work is here. I am really happy that I am able to contribute to this hard work. Now, after two months, I can’t imagine a life without walking back at night through the rainforest in the moonlight surrounded by lightning bugs, crossing a river to get to my mosquito-net-sheltered bed, listening to the tropical rain while falling asleep and starting the day early with the sounds of the Howler Monkeys and a hike, all before having a coffee.

-Alexandra Mörth


Un Día de Tortugas: An Intern Experience

Blog Post by Breanna Hart

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Osa Conservation has allowed me to both live and learn in a beautiful environment that no other place in the world can contest with. The spectacular view of the ocean and rainforest back-to-back lead me to a tropical wilderness and the fascinating creatures within it. One magnificent creature that spends time on the unique beaches is the turtle, and this is my experience with them:

4.30 a.m – Morning Patrol: We get up, rain or shine, and meet at the pavilion with others to head down to the beach. Then, we start searching for turtle tracks to locate nests using the first light of day.  Two different turtles come to the coasts of Piro beach at this time of year – Green Turtles and Olive Ridley Turtles. After we find the tracks and locate the nest, we dig a small hole to take the eggs out. When taking the eggs out, we have to be careful not to rotate them because they are still developing. We move the nests that are in danger of possibly drowning from high tide or river flooding.

The tractor-looking marks on either side of the log in the middle of the picture are Olive-Ridley tracks.


For each nest we relocate, we mark the date, the sector of the beach it was found in, the time it was found, count the eggs, and measure the width and depth of the nest to simulate a similar nest in the hatchery.

After collecting the eggs, we go to the hatchery, where we safely relocate the eggs to ensure a better survival rate by recreating a similar nest to the original one. Before we start placing the eggs in the new nest, we record the weight of the first 20 eggs that are put in the nest. Their average weight is an indicator of whether or not a female is laying eggs for the first time this season. For the first few nests a turtle lays, the eggs are stronger, and therefore heavier. Finally, we cover the nest with a mesh net to keep predators out.

After collecting the eggs, we go to the hatchery, where we safely relocate the eggs to ensure a better survival rate by recreating a similar nest to the original one.

3pm – Hatchery check: We check the hatchery for newly born turtles. It is a simple process where we lift open the mesh nets and pat the sand for any indication of baby turtles. It takes about 60 days for the turtles to hatch and make their way out of the sand.  Almost every other day, we run across a newly hatched nest. Then we release them!

The line which people stand behind and from where we release the tiny turtles. The line is 6 yards from the water line to ensure that the turtles use their muscles before they make their way through the ocean.

8 p.m. – Night Patrol: We make our way again to the beach to begin our search for nests. If we see a turtle coming up on the beach or already creating a nest, we wait back to avoid disturbing the turtle. When she starts to lay her eggs, she goes into a trance-like state, and we tag both of her front flippers. We also record the length and width of her shell as well as the number of scales on her back and between her eyes.  After she finishes laying her eggs (this process can take up to an hour), we turn off the lights and watch her go back into the ocean. If the nest is in a dangerous spot, it will be dug up and moved to the hatchery.

During night patrol, red lights are necessary as not to disturb the turtles.

This schedule reflects what my days have been like during my two weeks in the Osa peninsula. It was a wonderful and amazing experience, from witnessing the mother turtle lay her eggs to watching the little babies make it to the sea. I was fortunate enough to see this little part of the circle of life with my own eyes. I can’t wait to one day come back to this magnificent corner of the world.


Potoos and Point Counts

Blog Post by James Purcell, Restoration and Rewilding Intern

The daylight was rapidly disappearing, as we clambered through the thick undergrowth, over vines and palm leaves bigger than me, then across a muddy stream and still more dense brush. Then, we heard it again –  a long, mournful series of calls that sounded like a child laughing, or perhaps crying, in the distance. We all stopped, holding our breath; the only sounds were the omnipresent croaking of the frogs and the pumping of our excited hearts.

Then, as casually as if he were pointing out a Balsa tree, Manuel said, “There it is,” as he pointed into the canopy of a large tree overhead. Sure enough, the Common Potoo that two other young eager birders and I had been seeking was sitting calmly on an overhanging branch high above, perfectly camouflaged against the bark in its mottled gray plumage. The potoo, which is a nocturnal bird related to nightjars and nighthawks, was just starting to wake up from its daily snooze as the light began to fade. This was just one of the many exciting moments from several weeks of intense birding around the environs of Osa Verde Lodge and Osa Biological Station.

All of this birding was part of a citizen science project through Osa Conservation and partner National Geographic Eco Lodge Lapa Rios in order to establish a set of long-term point counts for bird biodiversity. We would pick spots in certain areas of the property around the lodge – including the primary and secondary forest, our restoration experiment plots, and open garden areas –  and we would record all of the bird species we could see and hear at that spot. This information was entered into eBird, a global database of bird sightings contributed by everyday people. Scientists then use this data to track movements of certain species, map distributions of birds in different places, and define key areas for species of conservation concern that need to be protected.

Throughout several weeks of conducting point counts, the other interns and I had many exciting discoveries like the potoo. Whether it was a Spectacled Owl perched up along the Tangara trail giving deep resonant hoots, a tiny American Pygmy-Kingfisher twittering above the swamp on the Discovery Trail, or a Tamandua snoozing in a small tree along the trail, there were always new and amazing things to find while interning at Osa Conservation.


Hidden Treasures: The Search for Caves on the Osa Peninsula

Blog Post by Stanimira Deleva, Alvaro Ugalde Scholarship Awardee

The Osa Peninsula is a place where, even after hundreds of exploratory expeditions, there is always something to be discovered. As one of the world’s most biodiverse sites, the Osa is home to a vast variety of bats, most who use caves as a refuge, that have not yet been fully explored. I first visited the peninsula in 2015 to study the bats. Several of the bats that we caught in mist nets were cave-dwellers. I wondered where these bats live, since no caves are officially known on the peninsula. There were two options: bats have either changed their ecology, or there are caves we don’t know about. As a specialist on cave-dwelling bats, I was intrigued by this question and started to plan a cave exploration expedition on the Peninsula. I knew that discovering large cave systems in Osa was unlikely because of the lack of limestone that rock caves are generally comprised of, but my experience in Costa Rica showed me that small volcanic or sea caves can be as populated with bats as large caves and just as interesting.

In front of the entrance of Catatatas Cave near San Josecito.

This year, thanks to the strong support of Osa Conservation, I was able to search and explore caves and other underground habitats on the Peninsula. I had previously identified several sites for searching, like an interesting old gold mine near La Palma. The landowner informed us about the mine when he found out that we were looking for caves, so we paid a visit this February. We managed to create a map of the interior parts, and marked bat colonies instead of gold treasures. For several hours in the cave, we described the specific features of the relief and microclimate and discovered that the cave was over 200 meters long and branched like a maze.  We also found two species of bats and an extremely rich invertebrate fauna.

The narrow entrance of the old coal mine.


Mapping the gold mine.


Goose barnacles discovered in one of the marine caves.

Next, we searched for sea caves on the west coast of Osa. On previous trips, we had known that these sea caves existed there, but we had not mapped them. So, after a few hours of hiking from the San Josecito beach, we set out to explore three caves. The cave near the Campanario research station shelters one of the biggest colonies of mustached bats in Costa Rica with several thousands of individuals from three species!

Exploring a marine cave.


A bat colony in the marine cave.


Exploring marine caves in Isla Violin.

I found out from local people about a cave on Isla Violin. This island is hard to reach, but I managed to organize a visit, thanks to the people at Violin EcoLodge who helped me with the field expedition and took us to the cave by boat. The “cave” turned out to be an abandoned gold mine once again. And this time we were fascinated by the variety of bats we found—over 500 bats of 6 different species! Difficult access to the cave has kept the bats undisturbed from any raiders. On the floor of the cave, we noticed many invertebrates. During this expedition we found another cave on the island, located on the seashore. We rode horses to cross the island because our boat could not stand against the intense waves around the beach. After reaching the beach, we had to compete with the coming tide by jumping between waves and climb several boulders in order to reach the sea cave. Finally, we found the cave, but alas, there were no bats. We made a sketch and left, racing with the coming tide.

The boat ride through the mangroves was an adventure on its own.


Bats in the Isla Violin cave.

Crossing the island on horseback.

Our next plans are to explore the southern part of Osa around Sirena station, where we learned of another promising bat cave. We hope to find other hidden treasures!



Creating the First Conservation Action Plan for the Golfo Dulce Poison Dart Frog

Blog Post By Marina Garrido, Restoration & Rewilding Program Assistant

As one of the assistants of the Restoration & Rewilding Program, I am happy to announce a new project entitled “Creating the First Conservation Action Plan for the Endemic and Endangered Golfo Dulce Poison Dart Frog using Citizen Science and Tiny-Tech.”

Phyllobates vittatus posing perfectly for Robin Moore´s camera lens at Osa Conservation’s Biological Station. Photo taken from the book In Search of Lost Frogs by Robin Moore.

Many of you might be wondering, what makes the Golfo Dulce Frog special so as to have its own project?” Well, there are many fascinating qualities of this species. This beautiful little frog, Phyllobates vittatus, is endemic to the area and is a flagship species to the Osa. It is a unique frog from the genus Phyllobates, and is the cousin of one of the most poisonous frogs, Phyllobates terriblis. Despite how charismatic this species is, it is highly endangered, and no conservation efforts are currently underway. The Golfo Dulce Frog is threatened by habitat loss, water contamination and illegal pet trade. Limited research has been conducted on this endangered species, and a conservation action plan has never been developed, until now.

With this project, I aim to create the first conservation action plan for this tiny frog. In order to do so, the current main objectives are:

  1. Enhancing scientific knowledge of the species’ ecology.
  2. Determining the current and past distribution of the species throughout the Osa in collaboration with citizen scientists.
  3. Identifying key areas for habitat protection, habitat restoration, and population translocations.
  4. Improving long-term local conservation leadership by raising awareness about the value of this species and building the scientific skills and knowledge of local citizen scientists.

In the first phase of this project, I completed expeditions along the Peninsula, searching for populations of Golfo Dulce Frogs. I traveled to different areas of the Osa, visiting partners like Saladero Ecolodge, Los Pargos, and Lapa Ríos Ecolodge. I have also been studying a stable frog population in a known area, checking every morning for individuals and following them for some hours. In this way, I have found some  interesting and rather surprising male-male and male-female behaviors and interactions.

Female Phyllobates vittatus. Photo by Marina Garrido.

The Osa Peninsula marks where the rainforest meets sea, with streams connecting these two valuable ecosystems. The diverse tropical forests of the Osa are not only inhabited by the Golfo Dulce Frog, but many other unique species as well. Therefore, conserving forest and riparian habitats through the protection of the Golfo Dulce Frog will also provide protection for the vast array of species here.

Marina Garrido with Phyllobates vittatus. Photo by Marvin Sánchez.

Fortunately, this project is starting to catch people’s attention, and I have been grateful to receive funding from Alongside Wildlife Foundation. Little by little, it will be possible to create a suitable conservation action plan to protect the Golfo Dulce Frog for generations to come.

There will be many updates to come as the plan to preserve the Golfo Dulce Frog develops, so be sure to stay tuned to learn more about this beautiful frog, this project, and how you can lend your support!


Fresh Perspectives on Freshwater

Blog Post by Avery Kaplan, Rios Saludables Intern

One sunny day this summer, the Ríos Saludables team was wading through the rivers Agujas, La Palma, Montarey, and Sabalo, collecting shrimp traps number 122 through number 132. It was the third time in three months that we had set and collected traps all along these rivers, and we were back the second time that week to check on the traps that we had set the day before. In other words, sometimes even the best field work gets repetitive.

The Ríos Saludables team in Río Agujas, from left to right: Hilary Brumberg, Keje Nagel, and Avery Kaplan.

Out of the ordinary though, we started off the day at a sustainable farm in La Palma to pick up Alex, the coordinator of the Osa palm farmers’ cooperative and one of Ríos Saludables’ local river monitoring partners, and Brian, the Peace Corps volunteer working with him. Alex has participated in many Ríos Saludables expeditions before, and was excited to see the new multiparameter probe we were using to take water quality measurements.

Avery, an Osa Conservation intern, and Brian, a Peace Corps volunteer, using the multiparameter probe to get conductivity, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and temperature measurements at a trapping site.

As we walked through the straight rows of palm plantation down to the first collection site in Río Agujas, we explained to the new volunteer why we were trapping shrimp: Osa Conservation is conducting the first ever study of giant freshwater shrimp in the Osa Peninsula to understand whether diversity is affected by the type of land-use adjacent to the river. Shrimp are a good indicator species because they migrate throughout rivers, making their abundance a reliable measure of river health.

Walking to a river that cuts through palm plantation. Plantation is one of four land use types we are studying. The others are grassland, old growth forest, and secondary forest.

After arriving at the first site and taking water quality and canopy measurements, we pulled the shrimp trap from the river to see what we would find. As we took shrimp out of the trap, being careful to avoid their pinchers, seeing the shock on Brian’s face at the size and variety of shrimp reminded me just how extraordinary these creatures are. They range from less than a gram to more than 70 grams, can be bright blue or perfectly camouflaged, and—due to anthropogenic impacts (such as deforestation and river poisoning)—are becoming a rare sight to see.

A Macrobrachium americanum, patiently waiting to be identified. Similar to the design of a minnow trap, this homemade shrimp trap is made from upcycled wood, bottles found on the beach, and mesh.

On the walk to the next trapping site, Alex spotted a boa in a palm tree. A little later, he disappeared into the brush and returned with a cacao fruit for us to snack on. Between Alex’s keen experienced eyes, and Brian’s fresh ones, I saw more that day in the field than I ever would have expected.  Every day in the Osa is an adventure, with much to learn.

The boa hidden in a palm tree. Can you spot it?


Animal behavior: Osa’s ‘magic well’

Blog Post by Dr. Mark Laidre, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at Dartmouth College

Few things are more fascinating to layperson and scientist alike than animal behavior. For some, this simple fascination can ultimately fuel a lifelong passion for discovering why animals do what they do. Perhaps no better example is the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Karl von Frisch, who, as one of the founding fathers of animal behavior, spent decades studying the social behavior of bees. It may at first seem puzzling how someone could devote such prolonged study to just one critter, but von Frisch explained it quite easily, remarking: “The bee’s life is like a magic well: the more you draw from it, the more it fills with water.” And so too for countless creatures: the more we learn about their behavior, the more new and exciting questions it raises, which keeps us coming back for more.

The tropics is an unsurpassed place for such intellectual seeds to flourish. In 2008, I first stepped foot in Osa, just as Osa Conservation was opening its field station. And I’ve been coming back to the Osa nearly every year since, first as a graduate student, then a postdoc, and later a professor, with 2018 now marking a full decade of studies in the Osa (hopefully with many more visits to Osa still to come during the ensuing decades!). Each year I return to the Osa, I fall in love with its amazing wildlife once again. Most of my time is spent studying social animals, ranging from ants to birds to primates. But it is Osa’s most abundant and dominant beach denizens—the terrestrial hermit crabs (Coenobita compressus)—which have been the object of my scientific obsession since 2008.

Laidre lab at Osa Conservation’s Biological Station. From left to right: Dr. Louise Roberts (postdoc), Leah Valdes (honors thesis undergrad), Clare Doherty (PhD student), Mark Laidre (PI), Elliott Steele (PhD student), and Dr. Jakob Krieger (visiting scholar).

These ‘social hermits’ have an especially complex social life, one which revolves around a housing market of architecturally remodeled homes, passed down across generations as an extra-genetic inheritance. In contrast to social insects (e.g., the bees von Frisch studied), which mostly live among close genetic kin, social hermits live together in what is effectively a vast city of non-kin. Among these unrelated individuals, there is a constant tension between conflict and cooperation, which permeates the very core of their societies. This social drama, combined with these animals’ unusually rich behavioral repertoire and amenability to field experiments, provides a fascinating system reflecting the evolution of social life. Indeed, social hermit crabs never cease to reward curiosity and persistence with further exciting scientific discoveries.

Social group of terrestrial hermit crabs (Coenobita compressus) on Osa beach.

This past field season was no exception. From January to March 2018, myself and five members of my lab from Dartmouth continued to dig deeper into the social lives of these amazing animals. Our experiments over several months spanned the intellectual gamut from the architectural foundations of social privacy; to the evolutionary loss of displays; to ecological constraints on vision; to massive chemically-mediated funeral celebrations; to coded messages sent via substrate-borne vibration through the beach sand. During August 2018, at the International Society for Behavioral Ecology, we presented scientific talks on these studies, including:

  • ‘Scent of death: how and why is conspecific death attractive?’ (Leah Valdes)
  • ‘Evolutionary loss of a threat display: from antisocial to social living’ (Clare Doherty)
  • ‘Leaf me alone: visual constraints on the ecology of social grouping’ (Elliott Steele)
  • ‘Get off my back: vibrational assessment of resource holding potential and ownership’ (Louise Roberts)
  • ‘Exclusive social circles: the construction of privacy’ (Mark Laidre)

The many fascinating questions that can be addressed with social hermit crabs reinforces von Frisch’s important point about the ‘magic well’: the magic arises through continued focused study of a particular organism, ultimately enabling deep insights into a topic of fundamental interest. In our humble opinion, the best recipe for science is therefore simply letting an inherent pleasure in discovering new things about nature drive ever deeper exploration of one’s favorite magic well. And Osa is perhaps the most magical well one can imagine for discovering new things about nature. Hope we’ll bump into you there during our next field season.