Tuesday, April 20, 2010

CAS Staff Teaches Litchfield High School Students in the Costa Rican Rainforest -- Presentation 4/27/10

Between March 5 and March 16 Connecticut Audubon Society staff members travelled to the Costa Rican rainforest again to teach Connecticut high school students about the importance of rainforest conservation as part of the Forman School Rainforest Project. This unique hands-on biology course based out of the Forman School in Litchfield, but also catering to high school seniors and juniors of the local public high schools (Litchfield High School and Wamogo Regional School), is currently in its 17th year. Every year a group of 12-14 students travels to the remote (and difficult to reach) rainforest preserve Rara Avis, where they work around the clock studying the area’s biodiversity and developing sustainable non-timber resource projects that can provide local people with alternatives to the commonly used slash-and-burn method of agriculture.

Rara Avis Rainforest Preserve is surrounded by Braulio Carrillo National Park, a vast rainforest area on
the Caribbean slope of northeastern Costa Rica
The only access is by 4-wheel drive tractor-pulled cart
and even that can be tricky at times!

Since its inception the project has been a demonstration project of sorts, researching different ways to reveal the tremendous value of an intact rainforest - both biologically and financially. Only once people realize that it pays to leave forest intact and use its resources intelligently rather than replacing it with poor quality pasture land, a major step has been taken towards the preservation of these important habitats.

Golden-hooded Tanager (Tangara larvata)
Every year students build on the knowledge and experience previous teams have accumulated. The students are directed and supported in their endeavors by a support staff of experts in their respective fields. Connecticut Audubon Society's Frank Gallo, Director of the CAS Coastal Center at Milford Point is a master bird bander and expert on Neotropical migrants. He joined the program for the 9th time this year to run his banding station in Rara Avis.

This banded Wood Trush may show up in your backyard sometime soon...
His team's work will help us better understand the needs of some of the migratory birds we see in Connecticut during the summer months while they are on their wintering grounds. Birds are caught and banded so they can be individually recognized. Some of the migrants banded in Rara Avis are just passing through on their way north, but Frank’s work has already shown that some species winter right there. For example a Chestnut-sided Warbler banded in Rara Avis was recaptured twice more over a four year period, each time in the same line of trees and roughly on the same date! This kind of information helps us understand how to better protect our migratory birds when they are not in Connecticut and provides insights in the poorly known parts of these amazing animal’s biology.

Bay-headed Tanager (Tangara gyrola)

Frank and his team also carry out studies on the local hummingbird populations and document the avian diversity in the preserve each year.

The bird team carries out experiments with the local hummingbird population

After dark, nectar-feeding bats (Carollia castanea) take over the feeders

CAS Conservation Biologist Twan Leenders is one of the original staff members of the project and has been involved for 17 years. Twan is an expert on Central American amphibians and reptiles and very familiar with the other animals and plants in the area, since he was the preserve’s manager in the past.

Students stake out study plots to monitor poison-dart frog populations
Strawberry Poison-dart Frog (Oophaga pumilio)
Twan has been studying declining amphibian populations in Costa Rica for many years and his team has been documenting the recovery of some critically endangered amphibian species in the preserve, species that have all but gone extinct after being infected with a water-borne fungal pathogen in the late 1980s.

Ghost Glass Frog (Centrolene ilex), one of the species that almost disappeared in the 1980s

Even though the devastating effects of this disease on amphibian populations are best known from the tropics where many species are going extinct while researchers frantically try to come up with creative ways to save them, this is truly a global phenomenon and the pathogen has been reported from all continents, including North America. Twan is also involved with research programs in Connecticut that monitor local amphibian populations and track the spread of the disease.

Juvenile Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops asper), the most dangerous snake in Central and South America

This Short-nosed Vine Snake (Oxybelis brevirostris) is not dangerous at all, but fools most people

A bizarre Yellow-spotted Night Lizard (Lepidophyma flavimaculatum)

Banded Slug-eater (Sibon annulata). Most tropical snakes have a highly specialized diet

Helmeted Iguana (Corytophanes cristatus) in the lush rainforest vegetation

As scientific advisor for the project, Twan oversees the other projects that students work on this year, such as a spider project that researches the possibility to sustainably harvest silk from the Golden Orb-weaver (Nephila clavipes), a fiber that has great industrial potential and spurred a multi-million dollar industry attempting to artificially synthesize the silk rather than extract it.

Cupiennius coccineus is a large hunting spider, similar to wolf spiders

A fourth team researched the dazzling moth diversity in Rara Avis, a group of animals that still remains largely unstudied.

Owl Butterfly (Caligo atreus), named after the large eyespots on the closed wings
that supposedly deter predators by resembling an owl

Students work day and night on their projects

Butterfly traps with black lights are placed throughout the forest to capture moths and other nocturnal
insects and retrieved later for analysis

Caterpillar of the Owl Butterfly (Caligo atreus)

In the past, teams have also worked on radio telemetry of rainforest mammals (ranging from bats to tapirs), researching the potential to sustainably harvest and market canopy orchids and rare palms, and studying potential pharmaceutical uses of the venom of the largest Neotropical ant, the bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) in treatment of stroke victims.

Coati (Nasua narica) a relative of our raccoon

Leaf-cutter Ants (Acromyrmex octospinosus) are ubiquitous in a tropical rainforest

If you would like to learn more about this project and hear first-hand accounts of the experience and discoveries, on Tuesday April 27 students will be presenting their findings during their annual dissertation day. The event is open to the public and takes place at the Forman School’s Johnson Art Center, 12 Norfolk Road, Litchfield and starts at 8:45AM.

85-foot waterfall at Rara Avis
If you are interested in more travelogues, click here to visit the blog of Andy Griswold, Director of Ecotravel at Connecticut Audubon Society. Or if you would like to travel somewhere exotic yourself, click here to visit our ecotravel department and see what we have to offer. Enjoy!

All photographs and video © Twan Leenders

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