For once, I’m not on a bus. We’re not leaving Monteverde until tomorrow (Sunday), so I’ve done my best to write the account of this week in drips and drabs in my sporadic free periods (or at least, that was my goal, and now I’m writing practically the entirety of this post at 9:38pm on Saturday night).
This weekend, the bus took us to Santa Rosa, yet another national park (more than 25% of Costa Rica’s land is devoted to national parks and nature reserves, making it a really good place to study nature). The main conservation concern here are the sea turtles that come up onto the beach to nest and lay eggs. There are four species that have the potential to occur here: leatherbacks, hawksbills, greens, and olive ridleys. And we were going to see them (and other inhabitants of the area), while we still could. As Matt explained to us, turtles have such long generation times, sometimes not reproducing until decades into their lives, that they may be “living fossils.” In other words, individual members of the population are still alive, but the population is no longer sustainable, and will die off either this generation or in the next few. So how could an eager group of science students not visit Santa Rosa?
In order to get there, however, we had to endure a 12km hike. Now, I love nature, but I am not a person who hikes a lot (which, admittedly, causes me a little shame), so this hike was a huge challenge for me. I was helped by distractingly interesting conversations and the mostly downhill trek, but I was so relieved when we arrived on the beach and I saw the ocean again. We ate a quick lunch, all changed into our bathing suits, and raced into the ocean. It was the saltiest water I had tasted in a long time, and I sloshed up and down on the waves’ barrel rolls as they sped in towards shore. The current was strong, sometimes generating huge waves, sometimes (what seemed like) 10 feet above our heads. I quickly learned the best way to cope was to dive straight into the wave, as quickly and deeply as I could go. I could feel the rush of power generated at the top of the wave sweep over my back before I emerged on the other side. Above us, frigate birds swept the waves, looking for quick catches riding the waves like we were. We all agreed that this was the way to spend a weekend. After our stint in the water, we walked along the beach, inspecting a huge leatherback turtle carcass and some hermit crabs that lived on the fringes of the forest. I tried to test my crab’s intelligence by giving it a maze to solve. It took the crab maybe 30 minutes, and for most of that time I was pushing it into the cracks of my maze as it tried to climb out. It finally “solved” it and ran away, but my experiment remained inconclusive. I know it’s not the most scientific way, but I certainly got the feeling the crab had just gotten out of there by accident, later confirmed by Mark, the animal behaviorist with us.
After the sun set, we gathered in a circle on the beach to hear a sea turtle lecture in total darkness. On the one hand, this made note-taking rather difficult, but it also gave us a view to a star-speckled sky unlike any one I would have seen back home in New York City. We took a stroll on the beach and ran into our study subject: a female Olive Ridley who had already changed her mind about coming up the beach when we encountered her. We watched her shift her way through the sand back to the ocean so laboriously I just wanted to pick her up and thrust her into the waves. She eventually found her way there, and slipped into the dark water like a flash of the moonlight.
I went to bed exhausted from my exertions both on land and in the ocean, but couldn’t find my usual rhythm as the wind beat against the tent and blew sand in my face through the cracks. And I had half-awake anxiety dreams about losing my towel to the storm.
In the morning, we took yet another hike, this time through the mangrove swamp fringing the beach. We discussed the differences between compound and simple leaves, and alternate and opposite branching patterns, which are basic tools used in identifying plants. We picked leaves off of mangrove trees and tasted the salt on them, excreted from the salt water the often washed up here. We walked the beach back from the mangroves, and burned our feet on the sand, all in anticipation of lunch. That afternoon, we had more “unstructured time,” which for me, obviously, meant more time in the water. After washing off in the outdoor showers, I wrote in my journal and read a book by the beach, and felt nothing could be more idyllic than this. Now, I know I’m waxing philosophical about this beach experience, but it truly was an escape, and a welcome one for me. I love learning in the forest, but for me, the passion comes with the ocean.
That night, we had a lecture about hermit crab community structure and took another night walk, this time to watch the hoards of crabs gathered on the beach for social interactions. We picked them up and they would try with all their might to pinch us. Only the supersized ones would succeed.
I didn’t want to leave Santa Rosa when we left the next day, especially since leaving meant another 12km hike, and, this time, it would be uphill. I have never felt less athletic or more generally disgusting in my life as I sweated my way up that hill. By the time we had reached the summit, my fingers were puffy and pink from the effort. One of my friends had hitched with Eladio, the coordinator who set up our weekend in Santa Rosa (and is in every respect an awesome man), and she said she couldn’t stop laughing when she saw me, because I was so done with everything that I didn’t even fake a smile. She was right. I didn’t have the energy to. Nearing the end, Eladio came back and picked us up, maybe for the last mile, and I was relieved. I didn’t know I had to be an athlete to be a scientist.
We found ourselves on the bus yet again, this time to Monteverde, which is just what it sounds like: a green mountain. But there’s so much more than that. Monteverde is a tropical could forest, which basically means that it’s at such high elevation that it touches the clouds, which hold major influence over species composition and growth in the area. For example, epiphytes, or plants that grow on other plants, essentially, draw moisture from the air to grow on their hosts. They’re all over the place here, in mosaics unimaginable in forests at sea level. A vastly different forests from the mangroves we encountered in Santa Rosa.
On our first day in Monteverde (which, by the way, is a luxury resort in comparison to where we have been staying – we have hot showers and toilets here!), we spent most of the day finalizing our reports from our last study (if you remember, the strange sexual birds), as well as brainstorming ideas for our next project. I was instantly fascinated by the strange, furry creatures that lived all around the station. They’re called white-nosed coatis (Nasua narica). Their latin name literally means nose nostril, and for good reason: they have amazing olfactory abilities. Raccoons are close relations, but I personally consider coatis much cuter. However, I understand that I’m biased because I have been studying them for the past week. Here’s what I’ve learned. Coatis have a really interesting social structure: the females live in large groups called “bands” with the juveniles, while the adult males are excluded except for brief breeding periods. Like raccoons, coatis are also huge dumpster divers. They eat practically anything. On our second day in Monteverde, my group and I decided to put out “novel” food for the coatis, with an alternative option of compost we know they’re used to. One solitary male coati ate all of my friend Louise’s cookies, while chasing off other coatis who wanted to get a taste of that strawberry goodness. We therefore decided to look at the coatis’ response to novel objects instead of novel food. Every day we would put out two piles of food (dug from compost and pig feed bins in the kitchen, given to us by gracious but confused staff), and one pile would be “high risk,” so it would have more uncertainty associated with it, and another would be “low risk.” To clarify, an example would be nets we used: in one pile, we put the net over the food, and in the other pile, we put the net next to the food. We were trying to look at the decision-making time of group versus solitary coatis, which we ultimately found to be insignificant. The study was fascinating, though. And if there ever was a fun way to do science, feeding coatis and watching them interact is one of the best examples I’ve found.
I just came back from presenting the above results (in maybe a little more detail). I’m exhausted, but tonight I’m packing for Cuerici, our next field station destination, where I’m headed tomorrow. This will be my last transmission for a few weeks, as we won’t have wifi for a while. Off to the true wilderness I go!