Biology students spend spring break in Costa Rica

By Zachary Gotthardt

SC Staff Writer

On March 14, ESU’s tropical ecosystems class took a weeklong trip to Costa Rica. As a student in the class, I was fortunate enough to attend this excursion.

The tropical ecosystems class is offered by the biology department every spring semester and is taught by Dr. Master, Dr. LaDuke, and Dr. Whidden.

As the name suggests, the class discusses the organisms, ecology, and interactions in tropical environments. The biology department focuses heavily on field work, and this trip offers that field experience to ESU students.

The majority of the trip took place at the El Zota field station, a privately owned preserve near the Costa Rican city of Limon. It covers an area of 2,400 acres, but has more bird species than the entirety of Pennsylvania.

The station is in a convenient location for the tropical ecosystems class; it boasts biodiversity and has been relatively undisturbed. It also exposes the students to the organisms on which they will be tested.

We spent four full days in El Zota’s forest. The forest of El Zota is characterized as a dry lowland forest.

It receives a decent amount of annual precipitation, but not as much as a true rainforest.

At the time of our trip, Costa Rica was in a long drought, making the forest even drier than normal.

Days at El Zota began with a bird walk at 6:00 AM. The station is home to an abundance of bird species, and the early morning walks reinforced this fact.

El Zota is home to some of the most famous bird species, such as Macaws, Tucans, and Parakeets. There were so many species we saw – too many to name!

After the walk and typical Hispanic breakfast of rice and beans, we would take a hike around the property. We had no particular goals, and no time constraints. We were just trying to take it all in.

During these walks, we were fortunate enough to find various frogs, including several species of poison dart frogs, exotic insects, and spiders, which are much larger than those found in our own backyard here at ESU!

As with birds, the diversity among reptiles and amphibians was incredible!

It turns out that the drought made the diversity among amphibians lower than is typical, but I couldn’t notice.

At night, an entirely new ecosystem emerged. Most of the mammals we saw on our trip came out during the night – including bats!

Most of the mammals in the tropics are small and nocturnal, aside from the monkeys.

A good example of a nocturnal animal found in Costa Rica is the Mouse Opossum, which you can find out more about on this page!

The largest mammal of which we had any evidence was a tapir, which is no larger than a dog.

Most mammals only made their presence known through the shine of their eyes.

The metallic-colored retinas located at the back of the mammal’s eyes cause this. These specialized retinas help their brains to sense light and give them a brighter image at night.

Sound was a necessity for identifying species at night. Nocturnal birds, such as owls, were typically only noticed this way.

After four days at El Zota, our class traveled to Monte Verde, a mountaintop located in the center of the country. This area is known as a cloud forest, and is much damper than the lowlands of El Zota.

The environment was particularly suited for tropical birds. The Resplendent Quetzal and Three Wattled Bell-Bird were among the most magnificent animals I have ever seen.

The reptile, amphibian, and mammal diversity has been compromised due to recent human activities, but we did see some unique cases. A palm viper, black shrew, and a rare anole were lucky finds for our class.

Monte Verde was a completely different locale with its own unique flora and fauna.

If you would like to see Costa Rica for yourself, please look into the tropical ecosystems class!

Also, please think about joining David Good on his trek to visit a native Costa Rican tribe in May. This is the trip of a lifetime!

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