One of the world’s most prominent tropical research centers is located in Costa Rica. A few years back, we had the pleasure and honor of being guests there, settling in with the rainforest creatures.
La Selva Biological Station is located in a lowland rainforest in northeastern Costa Rica. It is owned and operated by a consortium of about 50 universities and research institutions: Organization for Tropical Studies. They are dedicated to the study and preservation of the world’s tropical rainforests.
Although Costa Rica is a small country, it is home to more than 500,000 wildlife species making it “one of the 20 countries with the highest biodiversity in the world.” (Wikipedia) As a Central American country it is a natural land bridge, formed 3-5 million years ago, allowing the very different flora and fauna of the two continents, North and South America, to mix.
Today this biological research station hosts approximately 300 scientists from all over the world. Among the research labs, herbarium, classrooms and dormitories are a few stark rooms for laypeople visitors, where we stayed for four days.
Although our accommodation was a concrete cell, La Selva was one of our very favorite places to stay because we were in the center of a pristine rainforest teeming with wildlife. And to be surrounded by enthusiastic scholars of the rainforest, young and old, was a humbling joy.
Every day began when the howler monkeys and screeching parrots announced the dawn. Covered with DEET, long pants and long sleeves, Athena and I headed out into this humid, buggy rainforest each day. Interesting to note: of the 500,000 different wildlife species that Costa Rica hosts, 300,000 of them are insects.
This howler monkey was scarfing up the tree’s orange fruit.
Every day after our cafeteria breakfast, we would visit the tree with the two-toed sloth. S/he was always in the same tree, same limb, and always sleeping. And every day we stood under the tree craning our necks, binoculars and cameras ready, faithfully waiting for the sloth to move.
One lucky day it opened one eye and stretched a little. Of course we were both thrilled.
In La Selva we saw many birds and mammals, reptiles and insects. It is the nature of rainforests to have frequent rain; muddy and moldy ground; an abundance of ants, mosquitoes, gnats; and predators.
Much of the rainforest was dark, due to the thick canopy, but an occasional clearing offered photo opportunities.
We were pretty excited to find this three-toed sloth, a different species than the two-toed above. It was also asleep. They have an extremely slow metabolism, and are so slow they grow algae on their coat. If you look closely at this one below, you can see its furry arm is green-tinged…that’s algae.
There was a suspended pedestrian bridge where we spotted this big male Green Iguana. They are native in Costa Rica.
We also found a Little Tinamou near the bridge. Residents of Central and South America, they are very timid and rarely-seen birds.
We spent all day every day on the La Selva trails. When it got so hot we could no longer stand it, we would buy an ice cream bar at the gift shop and watch toucans and aracaris in the trees above.
Coatis were often around; a raccoon-like mammal seen in Central and South America, Mexico and the southwestern U.S.
Snakes are prevalent in this rainforest. This is the Bothriechis schlegelii, commonly known as the eyelash viper. It is venomous and aggressive, but was quite a distance from us.
There are 894 bird species in Costa Rica, more than all of the United States and Canada combined. Trogons are residents of tropical rainforests, this male was often outside our room.
Oropendolas are large songbirds in Central and South America, in the blackbird family. We saw two different species in La Selva.
Located relatively near to the equator, there were 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of nighttime. By 6 pm every night it was pitch-black.
We walked nearly a mile to the cafeteria, and after dinner the forest was black and very lively. We each wore a headlamp to light our way.
The first night we walked “home” we were intimidated. There were so many mysterious animal sounds, and lots of unidentifiable eye shine on the path beside us. We bravely kept walking.
A few paces later we discovered that what we thought was animal eye shine was actually lightning bugs twinkling in the humid air.
Each night we walked through this dark forest, hearing howler monkeys, watching swooping shadows of nighthawks and bats, serenaded by the tink-tink-tink of the “tink frog.”
By the end of our stay, the after-dinner walk had become a favorite adventure…but we were wise enough not to dally or deviate off the path.
One of my favorite night sounds, heard for miles, was the Great Tinamou’s loud and plaintive song. This is a recording (below) made in La Selva; you can also hear the cacophony of rainforest creatures.
On our last day, we had several hours between check-out and when our transport van arrived. Athena had a target species she wanted to photograph: the strawberry poison-dart frog. A student had told us where he’d consistently found them.
That day I would perform one of my most sacrificial photography-assistant tasks ever.
We found the grassy patch the student had described. It had an underlayer of squishy water, and was covered with fallen banana leaves and rotted logs. Because the frogs are small, smaller than your thumb, they vanish quickly in the debris.
We discovered if I walked out ahead, the vibration startled them to hop, exposing their bright tiny bodies, and then Athena would swoop in with her camera. The only problem was that every time I took a step, a cloud of a hundred mosquitoes poofed up around my ankles.
But we forged on, bent at the waist, scanning the grass and debris, enduring the mosquitoes and waiting for this tiny frog to pop up out of the detritus.
We found a few.
It would look like this at first…
… and then she would zoom in and click.
Their bright coloration advertises to birds and other predators that they are toxic. Are they toxic to humans? Yes, but only if you touch them. While the poison-dart frog wasn’t a problem, those mosquitoes made a hearty meal out of me.
I’m glad I could share with you this magnificent research station and our tropical adventure. The nice thing is, dear reader, you went through all of this rainforest and escaped every single mosquito.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.