During the first two weeks of March students and staff from Forman School, Wamogo Regional High School and Litchfield High School, accompanied by CAS staff members Frank Gallo and Twan Leenders, headed to the Costa Rican rain forest again. For the 20th year in a row students got their chance to put the skills they learned in class in action and to test the research hypotheses they'd developed in class before traveling to the tropics. With guidance from their experienced project leaders these students studied the strength of local spider silk, recorded katydid calls, banded birds that winter in the rainforest but breed in temperate regions, tracked the recovery of several endangered frog species, documented the local moth diversity and much more. Below is a brief overview of some of the work these young scientists did, focusing on the three invertebrate-centered projects. Part 2 of this narrative will be posted on this blog tomorrow. If you would like to hear the whole story first-hand from the students themselves, they will be presenting their findings during the 20th anniversary Rainforest Project Dissertation Day on Friday April 27th starting at 9AM at the Forman School, 12 Norfolk Road, Litchfield. Everyone is welcome!
The Rainforest Project takes place in Selvatica and Rara Avis Rainforest Preserves, located in the buffer zone of the Braulio Carrillo National Park complex in northeastern Costa Rica. This park complex covers over 475 square kilometers (117,500 acres) of protected land ranging from near sea level to almost 3,000 m (9,850 ft) in elevation and contains several dormant volcanoes. On the way into our study area the group stopped briefly on one of those: Poas Volcano.
|Clouds cover the rim of Poas Volcano's main crater which still bears the signs of its most recent eruption.|
|A nearby old and inactive crater in the side of the mountain has meanwhile returned to cloud forest habitat|
|The main building at SelvaTica Preserve is called 'El Plastico' and is the administration building of an old prison colony. Convicts were forced to sleep outside under plastic tarps - hence the name.|
|The Lowland Rain Forest in the preserve is overwhelmingly dense and lush.|
|The mountainous terrain in the area is full of rivers and streams. Navigating the slippery rocks and muddy streams can be challenging at times.|
|Every step of the way the view is worthy of a picture and the diversity of plant and animal life is truly mind-boggling|
Students learn all sorts of new skills early on. Apart from their respective research subjects they learn how to read maps and navigate the extensive trail system, photograph and otherwise document their research and experiences for presentation during dissertation day and in their research papers to fine-tuning their observation skills. There is something to be seen every step of the way, and some of those things need to be seen in time - spines and thorns on plants, biting ants and spiky caterpillars and there is always the chance of running into a venomous snake...
|Another good rainforest skill that students learned quickly is to read the weather patterns - especially useful if you want to dry your laundry....|
One of the program's research projects focuses on investigating the potential use of spider silk in the pharmaceutical industry. Silk from the Golden Orb Weaver (Nephila clavipes) is famously break-resistant and pound-for-pound can be considered stronger than steel. In addition it is lighter in weight and more elastic than any inorganic fiber equivalent. The project has been intent on developing a sustainable way to extract enough high-quality silk as to make this a viable home-industry that would revolve around the need to protect the spider's natural habitat. A type of 'spider-farming' set up in a way not unlike silk-worm farms, that can provide an alternative to destructive cattle ranching that locally takes a heavy toll on the forest.
|A female Agrioppe savignyi, an orb-weaving spider with a distinctive web design.|
|Students set up experiments with Golden-orb Weaver spiders (Nephila clavipes) moved into a small shed to simulate a farming setup.|
|A specially designed collection device is used to collect the spider silk from a Golden-orb Weaver|
|The amount of silk extracted from each spider, coloration of the silk and several other variables are carefully recorded|
|A dazzling variety of orthopterans is found in the study area.|
|The variety of dragonflies and damselflies is equally stunning.|
Since the animals in the target groups are poorly known and no easy field guides for their identification exist, all sorts of measurements, photographs and drawings are collected for each individual that is found. Data will be shared with expert entomologists in hopes that we can help expand the knowledge of these animals.
|Each cricket, dragonfly and grasshopper collected is carefully documented and released back into its natural habitat.|
The students on this project developed a small, portable sound studio that can be wired with a microphone to record cricket and katydid calls onto a laptop computer. Several frustrating nights were spent waiting for a stubborn subject to start calling - something that did not always work. Luckily patience and some tweaks to the recording method paid off in the long run and the calls of several species could be reliably documented.
|Sound recordings were stored and edited on a laptop computer. The white box in the background is a make-shift sound recording studio.|
|When seen up-close, the subjects of this project display an amazing variety of shapes, colors and adaptations.|
Artistic skills were a 'must' for these students since every new species found had to be documented with drawings illustrating the animal's diagnostic features.
|The project's resident artist hard at work|
|Immature praying mantis|
|A very well camouflaged stick insect seemingly covered in moss|
|Leaf-mimicking praying mantis (Choeradodis rhombicollis)|
|A large Cone-headed Katydid (Copiphora sp.)|
A third project focusing on invertebrates is the moth project which has been documenting species diversity in the preserve for the past couple of years. Due to the full moon and heavy rainfall this year (both factors that keep the moth diversity and density down at night), the team was also looking into some other lepidoteran diversity: caterpillars found during the day.
|Home-made insect traps with a built-in UV 'black' light were placed in different locations in the rainforest or hoisted into trees at night to sample local moth populations|
On a good night the traps and sheets are full of moths and other insects, but this year those nights did not happen very often...
|A canopy trap is lowered from the treetops and its contents examined|
|In addition to the traps, sheets with black lights are set up in strategic locations as well to attract moths|
|On busy nights the sheer number of insects present can be quite overwhelming!|
|Species not previously recorded in the area are carefully preserved and documented|
Here is a small sampling of some of the animals found:
|Some moths are as colorful as their diurnal butterfly relatives.|
|Even the seemingly less colorful ones have beautiful subtle markings when viewed up-close, such as the metallic gold highlights on this small moth.|
|It is no surprise that very few moths are seen during the day, given their amazing camouflage patterns!|
|Other unusual visitors attracted to the black lights included this small yellow Dobson Fly.|
|And a large yellow flower-beetle|
|A large sphingid moth larva with an intimidating spike on its back...|
|Many of these spiny caterpillars have to be handled with great care since they are often equipped with chemical defenses that can result in very painful stings!|
|You really don't want to touch these!|
|Other species try to escape predation by disguising themselves as something as unappealing as a bird-dropping.|
|Although not a caterpillar, the bright coloration of this flatworm is probably advertising some unpleasant experience for any predator careless enough to eat it|
|A large Malachite Butterfly (Siproeta stelenes) hides from the rain|
Check back here tomorrow for part II of the Rainforest Project narrative describing the two remaining projects, studying migratory birds and rare amphibians and reptiles.
All photos © Twan Leenders and not to be reproduced without explicit permission