Costa Rica – Ecological Engineering in the Tropics

MSU / UCR – December 15-29, 2012

Day 3 – La Selva – Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS) – Plant diversity in engineering

Luke DeSmet:

He publicado una versión en español a continuación para su conveniencia.

After a fun night of exchanging card games we woke up to howling monkeys and an early breakfast.  There were many Tucans flying through the trees and got everyone excited for our upcoming nature walk. After breakfast we met our tour guides, Kenneth and Albert. Soon afterward I split the group in two and went on a biodiversity tour through the rainforest. Around the cafeteria several telescopes were set up, scoped in on iguanas sunning in a nearby tree. We immediately saw some howler monkeys. The males were easily identifiably by their large white testicles. Along the way we saw an overwhelming amount of flora and fauna. Some of our favorite species included several poisonous plants, frogs, sloths (lazy bears as the Costa Ricans say) and a very rare river otter.

There are roughly 5,000 species of vascular plants, of which more than 700 species are trees. There are 57 species of snakes in the area, 7 of which are poisonous. This made Mariana very nervous along with most other bugs. Kenneth found this amusing and teased her at most opportunities. There were also 72 species of bats present. Some of them even feed on blood! The latest estimates conclude that there are 467 species of birds present.  Even though we didn’t see them, spider and whiteface monkeys also occupy the rainforest.  There is also an abundance of ants ranging from small harmless ants to inch long bullet ants who pack a powerful bite.

The La Selva station is operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). It is located near the Atlantic coast and covers 3,900 acres. It averages 4 meters of rainfall per year (13 ft). The elevation ranges from 35-137 meters above sea level making it a very humid area. More information about The Organization for Tropical Studies and La Selva can be found at the following link:  The number for La Selva is 27-66-65-65 ext. 107   Our tour guides emails are    and

Map of La Selva

Map of La Selva

Personally, I sweated more than I ever have before but it didn’t hamper my high spirits. My groups tour guide was Kenneth and it was immediately apparent that he knew what he was doing. He could mimic all of the animal sounds we heard and could even get birds to reply to him that we couldn’t see. There wasn’t a question posed that he couldn’t answer in great English. Some of the most interesting things I learned were that there are plants that can be cut to provide drinkable water, elastic plastic and certain medicines. We also found a nut “Pittosporum Resiniferum” that contains flammable juice that could be squeezed out of it. I would have spent hours burning them and smelling their sweet aroma if we had the time.

There are many ecological services that a healthy rainforest provides. It provisions food primarily in the form of fruit since the hunting of animals is strictly prohibited in a protected rainforest. The rainforest is also a massive source of biomass. However, the rainforests regulation of recycling of nutrients is paramount to its survival so the removal of biomass would be detrimental. Rainforest’s are very efficient ecosystems and have a good ratio of exergy to emergy (a topic that we discussed in detail throughout our trip) which quantifies the ecosystems sustainability. The rainforest also regulates erosion and maintains the health of the soil present. If the rainforest were to be turned into agricultural land the soil would be stripped of its nutrients and a large part of it washed away into the large river we all enjoyed crossing. This erosion would input a large sediment load to the river causing the death of fish and other physical deformations to the stream. The most applicable ecological service that we experienced was culture. Few of us had ever been to a rainforest and it really opened our eyes to how ‘wild’ the world can really be outside of Michigan. I was in a state of wonder and euphoria throughout the entire hike and it made me feel guilty for all the times I have littered and abused Mother Nature.

I strongly believe that everyone should have the opportunity to experience a rainforest. And with the rate at which we are losing them more needs to be done to protect them for future generations. Fortunately, the La Selva rainforest has been protected since 1954. In order to preserve the rainforest while allowing for research and tours; 50 km of thin cement paths were constructed. They were marked every 50 meters to help in case someone got lost. These cement walkways both reduced and increased erosion depending on the slope. However, the total impacts of these trails were minimal in the scope of the rainforest. There were also electrical wires buried below the trails that ran to several observation towers. These towers monitor animal sounds and movements and are used to track their movement patterns.

After our nature hike everyone was sweaty and ready for lunch. We had a common but yet delicious meal of beans, rice and beef stir fry.  After lunch we were encouraged to start working on our designs and calculations for the floating wetland mats that we will be building and installing at a new Anaerobic Digester and treatment wetland at the UCR research facility in San Jose. There were many ideas bounced around and I can’t wait to see all of the finished products.

We then had another delicious meal for dinner and went out on a guided night hike. We saw sleeping birds, giant poisonous toads “Bufos marinus” and a camouflaged bug “Katydid” that looked just like a leaf. Also a lucky group got to see a cute kinkajou that ran up and down the suspension bridge giving them all a nice show. When we made it back to the station everyone was exhausted. A few cards were thrown and then everyone went to bed. I opted to sleep in a hammock outside and woke up very wet but well rested and excited for the day.

By this time all of the students (both American and Costa Rican) had gotten to know each other well. I couldn’t imagine a more diverse, fun and spontaneous group of people to be with. This is a beautiful place and I am so glad to be here.

Throughout the rest of our trip we saw numerous other examples of biodiversity within rain forests. Each tour provided use with new information regarding the wildlife and symbiotic relationships present. Personally, the most applicable thing I learned pertaining to rain forests is the concept of Emergy vs. Exergy. The two terms used in conjunction are valuable tools used to asses the sustainability of an ecosystem. It relates the amount of solar energy that is converted into usable energy. These terms help to quantify the energy within the system and prove its sustainability.

If you would like to learn any more about rain forests the following address is a fun and informative website about rain forests with many Costa Rican examples:

And here is a short Youtube video that is a couple shots at the La Selva biological station that we visited.

A tree with very stout spikes. I would really hate to run into this guy.

A “Sandbox Tree”

I found this on the ground. Not really sure what it is but I thought it was pretty cool. The beans inside were impossible to smash.

I found this on the ground and have been unable to identify it. The beans inside were impossible to smash.

A small waterfall.

A small waterfall.

Interesting leaves with holes in them. Any guesses to why this might be an advantage?

Interesting leaves with holes in them. Any guesses to why this might be an advantage?

(Vande580’s comments explain it well)

A very pretty cactus covered rock.

Pitaya “Hylocereus Traingularis”

Ben showing off some big leaves.

Ben showing off some big leaves.

A huge spider we found in our rooms garbage. It really freaked Ben out.

A 3 inch diameter “wandering spider” we found in our rooms garbage. It really freaked Ben out.

The Puerto Viejo River. The river otter is in this picture but he is very hard to see.

The Puerto Viejo River. The river otter is in this picture but he is very hard to see.

A large bug caught on a sticky paper that is used to measure the amount and variance in species of flying nocturnal insects.

A large bug caught on a sticky paper that is used to measure the amount and variance in species of flying nocturnal insects.

A  telescope shot of a large red throated bird. It reminded me a lot of a turkey.

A telescope shot of a “Crested Guan”. It reminded me a lot of a turkey.

Mating centipedes.

Mating centipedes.

A little land turtle. He had ticks on his shell.

A little land turtle. He had ticks on his shell.

Ben taking it all in.

Ben taking it all in.

A colony of ants bringing some leaves into their home.

A colony of leaf cutter ants bringing some leaves into their home.

Katie and Alex eating some tangerines.

Katie and Alex eating some tangerines.

A howler monkey.

A howler monkey.


An epiphyte. They grow everywhere!


Some of the gang going on a walk.

Everyone in a great mood.

A “Pejibaye Palm”. Each spike was on average 3 inches.


Everyone in their usual good mood.

He aquí una traducción para todos nuestros seguidores en Costa Rica. Pido disculpas si algo de esto no tiene sentido. He utilizado un traductor en línea.

Después de una noche de diversión de los juegos de cartas intercambio nos despertamos a los monos aulladores y un desayuno temprano. Había muchos Tucans volando por los árboles y todo el mundo tiene emocionados por nuestro próximo paseo por la naturaleza. Después del desayuno nos reunimos con nuestros guías turísticos, Kenneth y Albert. Poco después yo nos dividimos el grupo en dos y se fue en una gira de la biodiversidad a través de la selva tropical. Alrededor de la cafetería de varios telescopios se han creado, en el ámbito de iguanas tomando el sol en un árbol cercano. Inmediatamente nos vimos algunos monos aulladores. Los machos son fácilmente identificables por sus testículos blancos grandes. En el camino vimos una enorme cantidad de flora y fauna. Algunas de nuestras especies favoritas incluyó varias plantas venenosas, ranas, osos perezosos (osos perezosos como los costarricenses dicen) y una nutria de río muy raro.

Hay alrededor de 5.000 especies de plantas vasculares, de las cuales más de 700 especies son árboles. Hay 57 especies de serpientes en la zona, de las cuales 7 son venenosas. Esto hizo que Mariana muy nervioso junto con la mayoría de los errores de otros. Kenneth encontraron esta divertida y se burlaban de ella en la mayoría de las oportunidades. Había también 72 especies de murciélagos presentes. Algunos de ellos incluso se alimentan de sangre! Las estimaciones más recientes concluyen que hay 467 especies de aves presentes. A pesar de que no los vio, araña y monos cara blanca también ocupan la selva. También hay una gran cantidad de hormigas que van desde pequeñas hormigas inofensivas hormigas bala a pulgadas de largo que llenan una mordida poderosa.

La estación de La Selva es operado por la Organización para Estudios Tropicales (OTS). Se encuentra cerca de la costa atlántica y abarca 3.900 hectáreas. Tiene un promedio de 4 metros de lluvia al año (13 ft). La elevación varía desde 35 hasta 137 metros sobre el nivel del mar, por lo que es una zona muy húmeda. Más información acerca de La Organización para Estudios Tropicales y La Selva se puede encontrar en el siguiente enlace:

Personalmente, yo sudaba más de lo que nunca antes pero no obstaculizar el ánimo alto. Mi guía era Kenneth y fue inmediatamente evidente que él sabía lo que estaba haciendo. Podía imitar todos los sonidos de animales que oímos y podría incluso llegar las aves a responder a lo que no podía ver. No había una pregunta que plantea que no podía responder en Inglés grande que era refrescante. Algunas de las cosas más interesantes que aprendí fue que hay plantas que se pueden cortar para proporcionar agua potable, un plástico elástico y ciertos medicamentos. También se encontró una nuez “Pittosporum Resiniferum” que contiene jugo inflamable que puede quedarse fuera de ella. Me he pasado horas quemarlos y oler su aroma dulce si tuviéramos el tiempo.

Hay muchos servicios ecológicos que proporciona una selva saludable. It provisiones de alimentos, principalmente en la forma de la fruta desde la caza de animales está estrictamente prohibido en una selva protegida. La selva es también una fuente masiva de biomasa. Sin embargo, la regulación de las selvas tropicales de reciclaje de nutrientes es fundamental para su supervivencia por lo que la eliminación de la biomasa sería perjudicial. Rainforest son ecosistemas muy eficientes y tienen un valor muy alto de emergía (una unidad que hemos discutido en detalle a lo largo de nuestro viaje). La selva también regula la erosión y mantiene la salud del suelo presente. Si la selva iban a ser convertidos en tierras agrícolas del suelo serían despojados de sus nutrientes y una gran parte de ella lavó en el río grande, todos disfrutamos de cruce. Esta erosión sería introducir una gran carga de sedimentos del río provocando la muerte de peces y otras deformaciones físicas a la corriente. El servicio ecológico más aplicable que tuvimos fue la cultura. Pocos de nosotros hemos estado en una selva tropical y realmente nos abrió los ojos a la forma “salvaje” que el mundo realmente puede estar fuera de Michigan. Yo estaba en un estado de asombro y euforia en toda la caminata de todo y me hizo sentir culpable por todas las veces que hayan parido y abusado de la Madre Naturaleza.

Creo firmemente que todo el mundo debería tener la oportunidad de experimentar una selva tropical. Y con el ritmo al que los estamos perdiendo aún queda mucho por hacer para proteger a su majestad para las generaciones futuras. Afortunadamente, la selva tropical de La Selva ha sido protegida desde 1954. Con el fin de preservar la selva tropical al mismo tiempo a la investigación y viajes de 50 km de caminos de cemento delgadas fueron construidos. Ellos fueron marcados cada 50 metros para ayudar en caso de que alguien se perdió. Estas pasarelas cemento reduce la erosión y aumentar en función de la pendiente. Sin embargo, los impactos totales de estos caminos fueron mínimos en el ámbito de la selva. También había cables eléctricos enterrados debajo de los ensayos que iban a varias torres de observación. Estas torres monitorear sonidos de animales y movimientos y se utilizan para el seguimiento de sus patrones de movimiento.

Después de nuestra caminata en la naturaleza todo el mundo estaba sudoroso y listo para comer. Tuvimos una comida común, pero delicioso y de frijoles, arroz y carne de res salteado. Después del almuerzo nos animaron a empezar a trabajar en nuestros diseños y cálculos para las esteras flotantes de humedales que vamos a construir e instalar en un digestor anaerobio y humedales nuevo tratamiento en el centro de investigación de la UCR en San José. Había muchas ideas rebotó alrededor y no puedo esperar a ver todos los productos terminados.

Luego tuvimos otra deliciosa comida para la cena y salieron en una caminata nocturna guiada. Vimos pájaros dormidos, gigante sapos venenosos “Bufos marinus”, y un bug camuflado “Katydid” que se parecía a una hoja. También un grupo de afortunados pudieron ver un lindo kinkajou que corría arriba y abajo del puente colgante que da a todos un buen espectáculo. Cuando lo hizo de nuevo a la estación todo el mundo estaba agotado. Algunas cartas fueron arrojadas y luego todos se fueron a la cama. He optado por dormir en una hamaca fuera y me desperté muy húmedo pero bien descansado y entusiasmado por el día.

En ese momento todos los estudiantes (tanto estadounidenses como de Costa Rica) había llegado a conocer bien unos a otros. No podía imaginar un grupo más diverso, divertido y espontáneo de la gente para estar con ella. He tenido una sonrisa en mi cara desde que llegué Costa Rica y no se prevé ninguna razón para que eso cambie. Este es un lugar hermoso y estoy muy contento de estar aquí.

En el resto de nuestro viaje vimos muchos otros ejemplos de la diversidad biológica en los bosques tropicales. Cada tour proporciona el uso de nueva información sobre la vida silvestre y las relaciones simbióticas presentes. Personalmente, lo más aplicable que aprendí relativa a los bosques tropicales es el concepto de exergía Emergy vs. Los dos términos que se utilizan en conjunto son valiosas herramientas utilizadas para evaluar la sostenibilidad de un ecosistema. Se relaciona con la cantidad de energía solar que se convierte en energía utilizable. Estas condiciones ayudan a cuantificar la energía dentro del sistema y probar su sostenibilidad.


10 thoughts on “Day 3 – La Selva – Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS) – Plant diversity in engineering

  1. fascinating to be in on the action from the ease of my computer chair

  2. Great update Luke….looking forward to hearing more from you upon your return and anxious to read more on the blog….have a great time….Uncle Randy

  3. I am enjoying these blogs so much I can hardly stand it! It almost feels like I am there, yet I rarely break a sweat!

    Otters and toucans and “lazy bears”, oh my! So far no casualties, right? No bat landed on anyone and said, ” I vont to suck your blood?” The bullet ants and poisonous snakes behaved themselves?

    Luke, if I could, I would gift you with a satchel full of flammable nuts for Christmas!

    These poisonous bullfrogs–what is their deal? Touch them and you croak? I imagine you have to really be on your toes during those night hikes. Right Mariana?

    The pictures were tons of fun. I’ll play your game Luke…the holes in the leaves allow rain to pass through. The leaves themselves can not absorb rainwater. Rainwater on a leaf would disrupt photosynthesis?

    How cool that the guides were so knowledgeable and talented in their ability to mimic animal sounds. Envious…

    Glad you all are enjoying each others company. This is an auspicious trip. My heart soars for all of you.

  4. Karen, I’m glad you are carin so much for Luke. Great guess on the holy leaves! Another idea I had was that the leaf was so large that a large gust of wind might have snapped the stem, if it wasn’t for the ability of air to pass through. All in all this was an eye-opening experience that highlighted what biodiversity really can mean and how ecosystem services can be as simple as aesthetic beauty.

  5. With deforestation being the major impact on the biodiversity of rain forest, how could engineering initiate regeneration of plant life in the rain forest?

  6. It was really cool to walk through such a large and important research station for tropical rain forests. I have never had the chance to see firsthand the number of levels, or strata, of an ecosystem and how they interact. Not only did we get the chance to see the large amount of plant diversity, we were able to see what comes with that-animal diversity, since all of these plants provide food and shelter for animals. Great summary of our day, Luke!

    As for the picture with the leaves with holes- I saw some of the leaves with holes at the museum in San Jose on the first full day of the trip and was told that the holes are to decrease surface area. Due to that large amount of sunlight available, I believe it is unnecessary for the leaves to have a full surface and the holes keep them from drying out and taking in too much light.

  7. In regards to Dimitri’s question, engineering could have many benefits to promoting the regeneration of plant life/biodiversity in rainforests. First off, as Luke mentioned in his post, the rainforest provides many organic materials that can replace current aesthetic materials such as elastic/rubber and natural pharmaceutical products. Not only is this a major selling point to protecting our environment in terms of carbon and water footprints done to produce these products, but engineering can be utilized to plan and implement optimal management practices to encourage the growth of biodiversity in a given area. It is important to mention that engineering can have serious consequences if not properly managed. For instance, by developing plants with genetic alterations to withstand certain diseases or pests can lead to invasive species and could even have negative effects on restoring rainforests. Other major ecological issues such as erosion, nutrient depletion, and even extinction of certain species can occur as well.

  8. Luke, more information about the leaves with holes in them- there are a few hypothesis that the guides at Monteverde shared with us…1) to allow light to pass through the leaves at the top easier (leaves with more holes) and get to the leaves at the base of the tree 2) the same idea with water: let the bottom leaves get an equal amount of water as the top 3) when it’s really windy the leaves with more holes will be less likely to rip or break off. The reason why the amount of water on the leaf is important, because the real water source is from the ground, is because it helps keep the stomata open which increases photosynthesis. Hope that helps!

    • The final aspect of the holy leaves has to do with cunning plant deception. When a tree recognizes that a predator is going to nibble town on its precious leaves, it begins to secrete a toxin. That way whatever is eating it will stop, or suffer from some serious TD. When predators see the holes in the leaves, they assume that the leaf is filled with toxins. Therefore having holy leaves can help deter predators. GROOVY

  9. Thank you everyone for the feedback. It appears that everyone has done a great job keeping up with the blog and you have answered all of the questions posed to mine. Just another note on Kelseys reply to Dimitris question is that engineering can be used to model the rate of change and importance of diversity and those interactions within the ecosystem. For example, a trend may be developed that relates an increase in microbial diversity to the success of secondary successional undergrowth and subsequently the health of the mature forest. Engineering can also be used to quantify the health of this secondary forest in relation to a primary forest for a host of parameters. Biodiversity, biomass, infiltration rates, interception and a ratio of emergy to exergy are all quantifiable pieces of a rain forest.

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