Sunrise over the Talamancas

(due to lack of internet access, this post was not published until Feb. 15)

It’s 4:20 a.m. on our last day in Cuericí, and all is dark and quiet.  Careful not to wake my bunkmates, I slip into field clothes and tiptoe downstairs, where two other classmates and our TA are standing, groggy-eyed but ready for adventure.  Armed with headlamps and lots of layers, we’ve decided to make the trek through the oak forest up to a lookout point to watch the sunrise over the Talamanca Mountains.

A hike up a mountain in the temperate zone doesn’t tend to feel taxing until an hour or so into it, but five minutes up even a moderately steep slope in the montane oak forest and your legs are as sore as if you’ve just run a 5K.  Your lungs and heart feel like they’re working much harder than they need to be, and the chilly early-morning air is hard on your throat.  Nonetheless, our excitement to see the sunrise powers us up the mountain.

The oak forest before 5 a.m. isn’t much to speak of.  During the day you can see the ribbon-like, aquamarine tail feathers of the Resplendent Quetzal float and flutter between branches, or hear the warblers singing from the trees.  But now, through the darkness, all that is heard is the babble from the creek that runs down the mountain (and provides water to the towns below).  No birds, not even insects grace our path.  We reach the lookout point having made excellent time; it’s still dark and the mountain line can just barely be seen against the moonlit navy sky.


Once we’ve had time to catch our breath, we bundle up in the layers previously shed while making the hike.  The town of San Isidro is dressed in lights, filling the valley between the mountains.  One distant mountain peak is draped in a cloud that pours down over its slope, giving it the appearance of a glacier.  We watch as a much closer cloud engulfs us from all sides, picking up moisture over the forest and funneling down to the valley below.


The first shreds of light make their way over the far ridge at about 5:15.  The sky has a faint pinkish hue, and soon we can see that there is another set of silhouetted mountains beyond the first.  Ten minutes later we start to see the dark green foliage of the trees scattered below us.  While dancing around to stay warm, we notice some of our “glacier” start to melt away.  By 5:37 the sun has crept high enough to drop golden dollops over the trees and valley.  Then, out of the silence, a single finch sounds from the shrub behind us.  Within seconds other birds of all different species are joining in—morning has arrived.

On the hike back down, spots of sun breaking through the trees light our path.  Many birds are up and about, including the female quetzal perched precisely where we’d spotted her mate the day before.  When we arrive at the station, we look up and see that the remnants of our glacier mountain still linger.  Full of accomplishment and content, we slip into the cabin a few minutes before 6:30, just as the rest of our classmates are gathering for breakfast.


The Talamanca Mountains in full daylight, from lookout point


Into the mist

(due to lack of internet access, this post was not published until Feb. 15)

The usual foggy mist and chorus of brown-hooded parrots greeted us on our last morning at Las Cruces.  Hiking packs and warm clothes at the ready, we strapped the rest of our luggage on top of the vehicle we’ve all come to know well and set off down the bumpy, winding road to our next destination: the montane forest at Cuericí Biological Station.

A few hours up the mountain, the temperature drops to that of a temperate region’s autumn afternoon (around the low 50s).  Suddenly the view outside the window turns to white as we become enveloped by a cloud—we’ve reached our elevation of 2,900 meters above sea level.  Our vehicle is too large to continue on the path to the station, so we send our luggage on a small truck and make the short hike on foot.

Our first sight of the station is a beautiful, wood cabin complete with polished rocking chairs on the porch and a wood-burning stove inside.  Our bunks and dining area are set up camp-style; upstairs, one large room with rows of beds, and long benches for the picnic-type tables on the ground floor.  The smell of smoky campfire drifts throughout the cabin, tying together an all-around woodsy, cozy atmosphere.

Once settled, we return to the porch to meet trout farmer Don Carlos, whose farm merges with the biological station.  When we walked into the house five minutes earlier it was foggy and raining, but when we emerge the sun has draped a golden blanket over the farm—such is the precise nature of this high altitude ecosystem, where clouds rolling in and out change the weather in an instant.

The rainbow trout farm, composed of a network of channels and ponds, houses an astounding 3,000 adults and 30,000 juveniles; you’d never guess given the property’s unassuming size.  Lamps hung over the ponds attract insects for the fish to eat.  A designated pond holds the breeding females, whose eggs are taken and incubated in the nursery elsewhere on the farm.  The juveniles are sold by the thousands, or else raised and used to replenish the adult population.

After stopping off at the earthworm composting hut and tossing a few worms to the young fish, we’re back at the cabin just as evening draws in.  With an hour to spare before dinnertime, we crowd around the wood-burning stove to play cards, read books, or drift into a dream of what’s to come.

Got coffee?

Whether it’s a cappuccino to start your day, an evening espresso to pull that all-nighter, or a casual latte with a friend, coffee is the fuel that keeps societies moving all around the globe.  Despite its ubiquity, we rarely consider where coffee comes from.  Today my comrades and I were invited to visit a local coffee plantation and speak (Spanish) with farmer Don Roberto Jimenez about the process of growing and harvesting coffee.

But first, a little more background on this widely loved fruit (yes, fruit).  The primary two coffee species grown for export are Coffea arabica and C. robustaArabica is the higher quality, more widespread variety that you would typically get from a coffee shop, whereas robusta is lower quality, higher in caffeine, and usually used for instant coffee.   C. arabica’s current native territory is tiny, composed of select parts of Ethiopia, but it is exported and grown elsewhere in Africa, Central and South America, and parts of Asia.

There are two main ways to grow coffee: “sun coffee,” where the plant is grown in monoculture, and “shade-grown,” which involves interspersing shade trees (usually another crop that can be harvested) among the coffee.  The latter method won’t give you quite as many coffee plants per hectare, but among the many benefits are a better flavor due to slow development of the fruit, biocontrol via insects, reduced fertilizer input, and less erosion.  It might surprise some that shade-grown coffee was the original cultivation method; sun coffee came about later as a way to maximize yield.  Today, shade-grown has made a comeback due to the better quality coffee it produces and its friendliness to the environment (the Smithsonian Institution, for example, gives a “bird-friendly” certification to 100% organic shade-grown coffee because the inclusion of trees preserves the birds’ habitat).

At Don Roberto’s farm just a few miles down the road from the biological station, we were shown the coffee plants and their fruits at each stage of the process from harvest to roasting.  The coffee plant grows as a shrub, about 4-5 feet in height, and is harvested during the rainy season (May – November).

coffee plant

Coffee plant

coffee flower

Flower of coffee plant; different sections of the plantation flower at different times based on when they were planted


Using a machine, the pulp is removed from the berries to yield only the colorful seed.  These are left out to dry.

coffee beans drying

Coffee beans drying

coffee colorful

Close up–how pretty!


Once dried, Don Roberto removes the thin shells from the seeds (slightly thicker than the skin around a freshly cracked peanut) by pounding them in a huge mortar-and-pestle type device.  He even let us give it a whorl!


The beans, a pale yellow color, don’t have much of a smell at this stage.  But after toasting, the aroma of coffee is overwhelming.  The toasted morsels are packaged and ready to sell.


De-shelled coffee beans in a bowl; branch of coffee plant with berries still attached


The final product: roasted coffee beans.

Don Roberto’s coffee is shade-grown, so many banana trees and a few guavas are dispersed throughout the farm.  These trees provide additional crops to harvest and sell, as well as providing all the benefits of shade-grown coffee.

So the next time you grab that cup o’ joe, you can trace its origin back to a little shrub on a farm in Brazil, Vietnam, or perhaps right here in the highlands of Costa Rica.

It’s a jungle out there!

Just as we’ve all gotten comfortably settled into our lives here at the biological station, we’re assigned a reading that succinctly describes every possible danger about venturing into the tropics.  This was followed by a seminar complete with visual aids to make sure everyone was sufficiently concerned about the lurking creatures among us.  You thought ticks carrying Lyme disease were bad?  Try mosquitoes shuttling dengue, yellow fever, and malaria.  The chagas bug, or “kissing bug” delivers a lethal disease that affects the heart.  Botflies won’t kill you; instead they feed on you from the inside.  Adults attach their eggs to mosquitoes, which promptly deposit them onto you when they bite.  The eggs hatch and the spine-covered maggots burrow under your skin where they develop and eventually emerge through your flesh as pupae.  Talk about feeling your skin crawl.

Insects aren’t the only menaces.  Other arthropods like scorpions and centipedes like to hide in your boots or in your bed before delivering their venomous stings or bites.  Bats and other mammals carry rabies, and crocodilians with jaws powerful enough to break off a limb look an awful lot like logs sitting innocently at the swamp surface.

But it wouldn’t be a discussion about dangers in the tropics without mention of snakes.  While venomous snakes are not a common sight, you will be in a very serious situation should you be unlucky enough to get bitten.  It’s wise to never go out for a trek with anything less than rubber boots on your feet.  Coral snakes—members of the “red-touch-yellow, kill a fellow” club—usually stay out of the way under rocks and logs; however, we did happen to catch sight of one slithering a little too close for comfort on today’s hike.  The fer-de-lance, a type of viper, is another deadly species easily identified by the series of black triangles down its body.  A bite from a bushmaster snake is most certainly fatal, unless you can rush medical assistance to the victim quickly.

Despite the plethora of dangerous creatures, the tropics harbor an incredible number of fascinating—and generally safer—species to observe, protect, and discover.  That’s why scientists continue to flock to research stations in places like Costa Rica, and why I’m enticed to grab by rubber boots and get out there, too.

First steps

After a six-hour drive from San Jose taking us twice up and over the serpentine mountain range, we emerged at Las Cruces Biological Station located at the ear-popping elevation of 1200 m (~4000 ft).  Our quarters and the rest of the Station’s buildings are set within the vast Wilson Botanical Garden, which harbors plants from tropical regions all over the world, including native species.  Within the first two hours of exploring the garden, I encountered a multitude of exotic species.  The first was an agouti, a medium-sized rodent whose rump is always raised due to its long hind legs.  Around here they are as common as squirrels.  When I reached the dining room, a parade of colors greeted me as tanagers, warblers, and other birds frequented some papaya leftovers laid out on the porch banister.



warblers and tanagers

Left: Speckled tanager; Center & Right: Silver-throated tanager

The crested guan is a somewhat rarer occurrence, but as I walked down the garden path it happened to fly into the tree behind me, sounding something like a cantaloupe falling through the canopy.

crested guam

Crested guan

A little bit farther along, past the pineapples and agave plants (ever eaten agave syrup on your pancakes?), a fan of black feathers with a white stripe fluttered from one treetop to its neighbor.  Whose tail was this? The bird’s face was obscured by foliage.  Willing the bird not to leave its perch, I bolted to a better viewing spot and suddenly caught sight of the unmistakable bill of a toucan.


Chestnut-mandibled toucan

As the sun began to set I walked back toward the dormitories, radiant with excitement and delight that glowed all through the evening.

Let the adventure begin!

Hello! Welcome to From Cloud Forest to Coral Reef: Studying the Tropical Biology of Costa Rica. My name is Sara, and I’m a student of biology at Cornell University spending the semester studying with the Organization for Tropical Studies.  For the next four months, I invite you to explore with me the fascinating biology and ecology of tropical Costa Rica.

What can Costa Rica teach you about biology?  Costa Rica is a hub for biodiversity—rich in its sheer number of species from parakeets to tree frogs to stick insects.  Standing on the bridge between two continents, this country’s modern wildlife continues to adapt after millions of years of evolution following the migration of thousands of species from North and South America to this central destination.  Today, Costa Rica comprises animals and plants originating from both continents as well as its own endemic species, making it an ideal location to study the behaviors and characteristics of a myriad of life.

Costa Rica’s small size—no larger than West Virginia—makes it feasible to tackle a good amount of this biodiversity in a timespan of something like four months. Here’s the itinerary:

Jan. 26 – Arrive in San Jose.

Jan. 28 – Feb. 10: Las Cruces/Premontane forest.  This middle-elevation forest on the south Pacific slope of the country is dominated by oaks and coniferous, or evergreen, trees.  Relatively cool and wet conditions have limited agriculture and kept this habitat well intact. Expect lots of types of vegetation including orchids and ferns, and a rich variety of hundreds of birds and mammal species.

Feb. 11 – Feb. 14: Cuericí/Montane oak forest.  This ecosystem will be similar to Las Cruces, but higher up in the mountains. Jaguars, several types of monkeys, and the famously resplendent quetzal can be seen here.  This will also be the chilliest stop on the trip—good thing our cabins will have wood-burning stoves and cozy fireplaces!

Feb. 15 – Mar. 7: Palo Verde/Dry forest, freshwater seasonal wetlands. Mangroves, swampy forests, salty and freshwater marshes, and evergreen, deciduous, and lowland forests can all be found in this reserve.  In addition to other fauna, this will be a great place to observe reptiles like lizards and crocodiles.

Mar. 8 – Mar. 12: Monteverde/Cloud Forest.  Aptly named, this forest habitat is high in altitude and usually covered in a thick mist of cloud.  It supports many of the same species as Cuericí, and the copious moisture in the air gives rise to plants known as epiphytes, or plants that grow on other plants, such as lichens and orchids.

Mar. 13 – Mar. 31: San Pedro/Costa Rica Language Academy.  Amidst all the incredible ecology, it wouldn’t be a full Costa Rica experience without a splash of Spanish learning!  I’m so excited to practice my Spanish skills—7 years in the making—and live with a Costa Rican family in San Pedro.

Apr. 1 – Apr. 9: Mid-term break.

Apr. 10 – Apr. 14: Bocas del Toro (Panama)/Island forest, marine coral reef.  Enough with land; what’s happening underwater?  Coral reefs are well known for supporting an astounding diversity of fish, corals, and other invertebrates.  Just grab a snorkel and fins and you’re ready to dive in!

Apr. 15 – May 8: La Selva/Lowland wet forest.  This is your quintessential tropical rainforest, situated in the lowlands of northern Costa Rica. Countless insects, birds, and big cats roam the jungle.  Amidst the wildlife is the La Selva Biological Station, well-known as a prominent center for research on tropical plants, animals, and the ecosystem at large.

Here’s a map of all the sites mentioned above (click to enlarge):

costa rica site map

So, that’s the semester at a glance.  If these brief descriptions piqued your interest, stay tuned for more in-depth stories from the field soon to come!



Ried, F. A., Leenders, T., Zook, J., and Dean, R. (2010). The wildlife of Costa Rica. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.