Four days after arrival in Costa Rica, we hiked into the forest at Las Cruces Biological Station, a mid-elevation premontane wet forest. While this was not our first class strictly speaking, it was our first venture into the forest as part of our coursework. Once in the forest, we were all assigned various locations about 10 m apart to sit and observe the forest structure for around 30-45 minutes. Initially, I was worried that I would run out of observations after the first 10 minutes, but three pages of notes later when it was time to return to the classroom, I was rushing to jot down my last few notes and wishing I had more time to continue observing this amazing rainforest.
While observing the forest, I began to notice more and more differences between this tropical rainforest and the temperate forests I am accustomed to in my hometown and at my home institution. With this, came many realizations about my lack of knowledge about tropical ecosystems and all that I will learn while studying in Costa Rica. Every observation I made was followed by a multitude of questions. For instance, when I saw thick, woody vine lianas curving around trees and winding up through the canopy, I wondered what young lianas look like and how these lianas affect tree growth. Similarly, when observing the unique forest structure, containing many trees with tall straight boles that lacked low branches, I wondered how this affects herbivory.
Our post-forest discussion answered many of my questions and also informed me about other fascinating phenomena. For example, I learned that many tropical leaves have pointed drip tips, allowing water to sheet off the blade in order to reduce the amount of nutrients leached from the leaves and in order to diminish epiphyll growth, as epiphylls can reduce the plant’s photosynthetic ability. Wet leaves are also more susceptible to bacterial and fungal epiphyll growth.
This first hike and discussion left me thrilled for the rest of the course and excited to integrate all of this new information into the theories and hypotheses I learned in past ecology and biology courses. I found it fascinating to compare this unique tropical ecosystem at Las Cruces to the ecosystems I had studied in temperate forests, and I couldn’t wait to compare these ecosystems to those at the other research stations here in Costa Rica. Hearing my professors’ and peers’ observations and knowledge left me very excited to share and incorporate new viewpoints into my perspective.