Friday, September 25, 2015

More than a rainforest

Part of the reason I chose this OTS program for study abroad was the promise of seeing multiple different types of ecosystems. However, when I pictured the “different” ecosystems of Costa Rica, I assumed that they would not be all that different from each other; I mean a rain forest is a rain forest, right? Wrong. So very wrong. Despite what I had pictured originally, Costa Rica is not, in fact, just covered by varying forms of rain forest.
 The first and third sites we visited, Las Cruces and La Selva, do differ in type of forest, but both are still along the lines of what you would picture when you think of a forest in the tropics. In between these two forests though, we explored an ecosystem like nothing I had ever imagined before.
Our first day at Cuerici Biological Reserve, we hopped into the course car for what we thought would be another, typical OTS hike in a forest. But after driving about ten minutes to a spot near the top of a mountain – at an elevation of about 3000m – we stepped out of the car and instantly realized that it was like nothing we had seen before. This was the páramo.
All of the plants had shrunk. The world had been stripped of color. The air was cold, fresh, and quiet. As we hiked along the continental divide, we talked about why this place looked so different. At such high altitudes, all páramo life is subject to harsh conditions. The plants there have adapted to this and are able to to tolerate great extremes. With temperatures fluctuating from below freezing to above 80°F, strong winds, harsh UV light, and little rain, the páramo can definitely be called extreme.

To deal with the extremity of their environment, plants of the páramo have developed small, pointed leaves that angle upward to avoid the sun’s harsh rays. They grow low, close to the ground where the temperature is a bit more stable and the wind’s effects aren’t as strong. The soil is sponge-like to hold onto every drop of water possible. Many things living in the páramo have other, more specific adaptations as well. One of my favorite páramo-adapted plants was a flower called the eryngo (Eryngium sp.). This flower has stiff, silvery petals and a dark black center. Instead of the typical method of providing nectar or a scent to attract a pollinator, this flower instead creates a place for beetles to “hang out”. The petals direct the sunlight into the flower’s center to warm it. Then, like people in the cold huddling around a fire, beetles huddle around the flower’s center.  As they travel from center to center trying to stay warm, they pollinate the flowers.

I think it’s incredible that life can be so adaptable. Though it appears that the environment is unsuitable for life, the plants and animals living in the páramo have proved their resilience. Even in the harshest of environments, life in the páramo has found ways to not only survive, but to thrive.
Mackenzie Coden
Northwestern University

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