Consolidating Costa Rica’s flora research

October 5, 2012

MONTEVERDE, Puntarenas – Trekking along a lightly maintained trail closed to the public, research technician Sergio Vargas locates a meteorological station and connects it to his mini-computer. Data about the area’s temperature, precipitation, wind and evapotranspiration flow into the machine. The information, as well as measurements of the area’s plant life, is compiled in an ongoing nationwide study to better understand Costa Rica’s flora.

Vargas could be collecting this data at any of the 120 research parcels around Costa Rica. But at the moment he is based out of the Tropical Science Center at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, in north-central Costa Rica. For more than a decade, scientists have monitored research parcels, but with little consistency or standardized methods.

“There have been so many studies done, but little of that research stays in the country,” Vargas said. “It’s important to let people know why we should protect these places, but we also need to know what all we have.”

The permanent parcel study began in 2007. Study areas are spread nationwide at all elevations and types of ecosystems. Sites cover different latitudes, and span both Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Monteverde has seven study sites.

Mauricio Sánchez, forestry engineer and lead scientist on the parcel project, said the research is important to understand how tree life is changing in all of the different ecosystems in Costa Rica.

“We all know the sad story of species like the golden toad disappearing,” he said.

“Understanding the vegetation these animals depend on is crucial to their conservation.”

Studying the parcels entails measuring tree growth, noting new and fallen trees, identifying tree types and quantities, and documenting animals observed in the areas.

“We want to know what is happening in the structure and composition of forests at all ecosystem levels,” said Gustavo Hernández, Sánchez’s project assistant.

Flora Research

Research technician Sergio Vargas during a recent outing in Monteverde. David Nikonow | Tico Times

Hernández’s work often entails three-day excursions to some of the more remote parcels. Loaded with camping gear, monitoring equipment and other provisions, he and other researchers hike for up to eight hours to collect data.

The main goal of the parcels project is to create a standardization of research, where every scientist conducts work with similar methods so that data is credible and beneficial to other studies around the country. Information is then consolidated into a public database.

But monitoring each parcel every three years costs up to $3,000 for wages, transportation, lodging and equipment.

“In Costa Rica, there’s a high level of competition among researchers from all the different agencies,” Sánchez said. “We don’t share our data well and there are limited resources we are all vying for.”

Yet, with the parcel project, nearly 30 scientists representing dozens of organizations and universities are collaborating. Participating groups include the Tropical Science Center, the National Biodiversity Institute, the National University and the University of Costa Rica, among others.

Back in Monteverde, Vargas points out a particularly impressive strangler fig tree. He and other scientists once spent weeks in the tree’s massive branches studying the amphibians and orchids that live and grow there.

“We have to protect what’s here now,” Vargas said. “We’re already in trouble, in terms of conservation, and we have to try to do better with the time we have here.”

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