Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Welcome to the Jungle

La Selva Biological Field Station is the crown jewel of the Organization for Tropical Studies system. Established in 1954 as an experimental station to research natural resources, it was purchased by OTS in 1968. Since then, thousands of researchers have worked here to unravel the mysteries of the tropical rain forest. This is not small potatoes; an incredible 240 scientific articles are published each year based on research conducted at this site. As you can imagine, there is a steady stream of students, professors, and biologists coming through the area at any given time.

Our travel to La Selva was delayed three hours as our bus waited in traffic and we were well behind schedule by the time we finally arrived. I craned my head out of the window as we rolled onto the property to watch a herd of collared peccaries grazing nonchalantly in the fading light, wholly unconcerned by our sudden presence.

After we unloaded, I took advantage of the few minutes remaining until dinner to stroll around and soon came across the famed suspension bridge over the Río Puerto Viejo. The bridge separates the dorms, administration building and cafeteria from the forest, and as it creaks back and forth, one is afforded a great opportunity to see wildlife in the tree canopy, which is now at eye level.

There was chattering in the trees as unknown birds, perhaps toucans, bickered with one another and a soulful hooting as Great Tinamous, bulky ground birds, called to each other in the coming darkness. Howler monkeys hooted in the distance, letting other troops know the limits of their territory. The forest was alive with animals. Much of La Selva is primary rainforest, meaning the trees have never been harvested. This also means that much of the native wildlife is here as well.

There was little time to go searching for them though, as we soon departed on a night hike after dinner. Several frogs were seen, including the charismatic Red-eyed Tree Frog, but as the hike wore on more and more people dropped out to return to the dorms. By the time we returned, we had been hiking in the dark for three and a half hours. It was a hike to set the tone for the next day.

After breakfast we undertook another hike, to learn of the forest and become oriented to some of the common species and processes occurring in this area. The climate at La Selva is much different than at Cerro, this is the jungle you think of when someone says “tropical rain forest” and the muggy heat made it difficult to stay hydrated.

Lunch provided a brief respite from more hiking, which took place in the afternoon. After dinner, we briefly discussed the project we’d be researching the next few days, an attempt to characterize amphibian populations in several wetlands. Of course, to reach these wetlands required more hiking, which we started as soon as we ended our discussion. In the darkness, we stumbled through the forest and conducted searches for amphibians and reptiles once we were inside one of our study swamps. Many frogs were grabbed, as well as a Lichen-colored Slugeater ( a small, semi-arboreal snake, you can probably guess what they feast on).

Our second wetland proved to be a physical challenge and we struggled mightily to free ourselves from its deep mud, hungry for our rubber boots. It was difficult to focus on finding and catching frogs when unable to take a step without a valiant effort to free ourselves. The swamp drained the energy from our already tired legs. I figure we had spent about twelve of our first 30 hours at La Selva hiking, and I was drained. By the time I finally got back to my room, I could barely bring myself to remove some of the mud off my body with a paper towel before I fell into bed, unconscious before my head hit the pillow.

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