Costa RicaSite and situation

Ignacio EscalanteIt’s mid-June, 2017, in southwestern Costa Rica, a shining sun lighted the canopy of the tropical pre-montane forest this morning while I was doing fieldwork: the usual, grabbing daddy long-legs and finding the respective nail polish color combination to mark this individual. At 1:00 pm the rain starts, to the point that at 1:20 pm it is unbearable to be outside. My labmate and I decide to take a trip to the closest town, San Vito de Coto Brus, to get more field and lab supplies (and yes, more nail polish!).

In our taxi ride downhill through this mist-covered mountaintops scenery we encounter coffee plantations, pastures, forest patches, a hospital, an indigenous woman with long and bright-colored dresses, and many Costa Rican school kids walking along the road to return home. All of these sightings are the reflection of a highly fragmented landscape.

The fragmented landscape: land use

Coto Brus is a mid-elevation Valley county with ~43 000 people spread in a few towns over its 930 square kilometers. Pre-montane forests border the Southwestern slope of the main mountain range in Costa Rica and western Panamá: the Talamanca Cordillera, the biggest extension of mountain primary forest in the region, ranging all the way to 3800 meters in elevation — a forest so big that knows no boundaries. In 1988, the two countries signed an agreement to form the International La Amistad National Park.

However, in that last six decades, important land use change has occurred in the Coto Brus Valley. Now the landscape is dominated by coffee farms and pastures, as well as citrus and ornamental plants farms. This has resulted in a fragmented landscape where ecologists currently study how these land use changes affect biodiversity, ecological processes, and human health. How to protect ecosystems and their connectivity and keep up with human expansion and needs are important questions for researchers in this field station.

San VitoThe fragmented landscape: demographics

This landscape is also fragmented for the people that have been here the longest of all human settlers, the Ngäbe-Blugé indigenous group. With their biggest comarcas in western Panamá, the Ngabe-Buglé people know no borders, and their traditional nomad lifestyle involves moving between lowland and the mountains to harvest. Of course, they were not consulted during the creation of the Panamá-Costa Rica border. Nowadays, with some comarcas in southwestern Costa Rica, the Ngäbe-Blugé move between the two countries throughout the year to work mostly in coffee farms.

The major town in the Coto Brus Valley, San Vito, was founded by post-war Italian immigrants. After World War II, this Valley — and south to the Panamanian border — was suggested as a destination for some Italians to migrate, establish and grow coffee. With that offer, a few hundred Italians came, starting in 1952. Their experience has been fragmented. Although they were able to establish a community here, their economic success and prosperity were not as remarkable as expected, and nowadays only a handful of Italian-descent families live in this Valley.

For those school kids walking on the road, their future also seems fragmented. Currently, in the Costa Rican countryside, an economic transition is happening, from farm-to-services-based jobs, especially tourism. Costa Rica has done very well at bringing education, health care and services to all the corners of its territory. Nonetheless, working opportunities and higher education options are more abundant in the main cities, especially the capital San José. Consequently, many of those kids will migrate to the capital, 170 miles north, or they will even migrate to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream.

Sclerosomatidae daddy long-legs

My research

Amidst all this, I do my dissertation research, in which I am trying to understand how animals respond to environmental pressures — in this case, predation pressure. I study a group of arachnids (Sclerosomatidae daddy long-legs) that voluntarily release their legs to escape predators. With a mark-recapture design, I am studying if this defense mechanism has implications on how they use the environment and in which substrates they roost.

Also, with laboratory trials I am studying the potential consequences of losing legs to their reproductive behavior and mating success, to infer the evolutionary implications of this defense. Hence, for these animals, survival, and reproduction could be fragmented by their ability to release legs.

Where fragmentation ends: the open house

As a very conspicuous reflection of this fragmented landscape and in an effort to bridge it, the open house day comes in late July here at Las Cruces Biological Station/Wilson Botanical Garden. Plenty of kids and teenagers, their parents, landowners, field technicians and their families, tourists, artists, craftsmen, and farmers come to see the exhibitions about the research, outreach and education held at this place, and also to see local artists and buy from craftsmen, winemakers and coffee growers.

I set up an interactive show-and-tell station presenting a few species of arachnids. In either the microscope or in the 3-foot-long Plexiglas chamber I pointed out the jumping spiders, wolf spiders, and daddy long-legs I have on display.

Curious, grossed-out, interested, and amazed, children and adults stopped by my booth. People also came by and told me all sorts of stories about huge spiders they’ve found in their bathrooms, and ask me how to tell which are poisonous. Four hours flew by, and most of the 450 attendees stopped by our eight research tables. I ended up out of breath, yet happy to talk about my research and these animals, and to hear people’s stories all day… All of this in my beautiful native language, Spanish!

Ignacio Escalante is a PhD Candidate in the Elias Laboratory in the Department of Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management (ESPM) at UC Berkeley. He is doing field work studying behavioral ecology of animals in a valley with protected forest, coffee plantations, pastures, and where indigenous people, Italian immigrants, and Spanish-decent Costa Ricans are immersed in a fragmented land use and demographic landscape.

Categories: Headlines, November 2017
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About Ignacio Escalante Meza