On our first night in Cuerici I was sitting in lecture, learning about high altitude ecosystems. Most of the lecture centered around an ecosystem called the Páramo, which is a high altitude ecosystem (3000 meters above sea level). It contains many shrubs and grasses, and has rapidly-changing and unpredictable weather. People normally imagine Costa Rica as this very hot and sunny place with temperatures always in the 80’s, but those sort of people may be in for quite a shock if they visited Cuerici and the Páramo! The high altitude means it is colder than expected – around 40 degrees Fahrenheit most days - and not many plants can survive the extreme climate changes.
Our first visit to the Páramo disproved any thought I ever had about Costa Rica always being sunny and warm. Upon arrival to our hiking spot, it was misting from the clouds moving over the top of the mountains. The mist itself was not terrible, but the added wind made conditions less than desirable. We all returned to the station freezing cold and wet, but our second visit went much differently. It was bright and sunny, cold with a light breeze, but not cold enough to require anything more than a long-sleeve shirt. No stormy mist to block the view of the valleys, mountains and Pacific Ocean—a much more enjoyable visit.
Both visits to the Páramo were extraordinary, sparking interest in how anything survives in such climates. As previously mentioned, the Páramo consists mostly of shrubs and grasses. We saw some Poaceae (the bamboo family), Rubiceae (shockingly enough, the coffee family), and Asteraceae (the daisy family). If you visit, you’ll notice none of the plants are large growing plants, since being smaller helps protect against wind, and there are not many nutrients available, meaning larger plants have a much harder time surviving. In fact, the whole trip, we only saw two plants that were any higher than our waists!
Out of all the adaptations, I find the one performed by flowers to be the most interesting. Some flowers found in the Páramo will grow with the petals growing almost straight up. This helps reflect the light off the petals and into the center of the flower. Pollinators looking for heat amidst the cold will take shelter in the warm center of the flower, pollinating the flower in the process. The flower usually does not have much nectar to attract or offer to the pollinator, which makes this adaptation that much more interesting and sly. It’s almost as if the flower is falsely attracting the pollinator, since the normal pollination relationship involves an insect receiving nectar and the flower is pollinated. While the interaction is still mutualistic, since the pollinator still receives the benefit of warmth and the flowers pollen is still carried, it is different than the expected relationship.
The Páramo is by far one of my favorite places we have visited so far, even the stormy weather was amazing to hike in, and I cannot wait to visit later. It showed that even tropical countries can be cold, even if it isn’t cold enough to snow. The plant adaptations demonstrate just what is needed to survive within a “tropical” climate, and just how variable the ecosystems can be across Costa Rica.
College of Wooster