First line of defense: An interpretation the forests of Monteverde

By All Nine Members of the 2016 Field-reporting Team

Introduction by Lauren Barnas

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica – Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get. As journalists, we’re often taught not to use clichés, but as we near the end of our time in Costa Rica, we think we’ve figured out what kind of chocolate Forrest Gump has handed us. You know those Ferrero Rocher truffles that are hard to unwrap and even harder to pronounce?

If we could put Bajo del Tigre, the Cloud Forest Reserve, and La Selvatura into chocolate form that’s what we’d get. Now, hear me out. You start with the hard outer shell, and reveal a little bit of what’s hidden beneath its surface. It’s exciting. There are so many layers! Some are dark. Some are light. Once you make it to the middle and bite down on that crunchy center, you’re satisfied. But you realize something more. Each layer is individually good, but that one bite with every layer is truly magical.

As we stood in the epicenter of the cloud forest on our last day of hiking, that’s exactly what we realized. The individual forests stand alone and function independently to serve the plants and animals living there. But, the species that make up Monteverde as a whole are truly something that you have to see and smell and hear to understand. The sheer darkness of the skies in Bajo del Tigre that help illuminate the stars…the light mist that tickles your face during the day tour in the cloud forest…and the sight of the clouds at the top of the canopy as you zoom through the forest on a zipline culminate to create a community that has graciously welcomed us.

Although we hope you will experience the beauty of Monteverde on your own, we want to share the different layers of the forest and how those come together to form a system even more enchanting in its entirety.

An important aspect that we noticed about the species here is their use of defense mechanisms. Many plants and animals have specific skills to protect themselves from predators and preserve the beauty of this system I’ve described.

NIGHT WALK IN BAJO DEL TIGRE

Let’s start at the bottom. Turn on your flashlight and pay special attention to the species hiding in the night.

Our group rang in the New Year and celebrated our first day in Monteverde by participating in night hike at Bajo del Tigre on Thursday, December 31. We were in awe of the beauty and how despite the late hour, the forest was wide awake. Audio by Catherine Wendlandt

Emerald Toucanet by Sean Roberts

Found in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the emerald toucanet is one of the smallest toucan species in Central America. It is the only toucan in the region with its unique green color, so it is never confused for any other species, according to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.

Small critters are victim to many predators. The toucanet’s green gives it the advantage of camouflage, said Victorino Marina Rojas, a naturalist guide from the Monteverde Institute. This is only one way it hides from animals wishing to make it a meal.

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The toucanet camouflages sits on a thin tree branch in Bajo del Tigre, sleeping soundly as it holds on. Photo by Sean Roberts

During the nesting season, this clever bird will protect itself and its eggs by creating an in-house nest by carving a hole in a tree. If the bird doesn’t create one itself, it will steal one from another bird, such as a woodpecker. Sometimes, it gets lucky and finds a smorgasbord of woodpecker eggs as well, Marina said.

Though unable to see in the dark, the toucanet sleeps without worry, said Guillermo Vargas Prendas, a guide at the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. When it’s not nesting season, the bird perches on a narrow branch, high up in the forest. This is key to its “pura vida” lifestyle, Vargas said.

This strategy leaves predators, such as the tayra, which is part of the weasel family, or small cats, like the ocelot, hungry. While trying to reach the bird, the weight of these hunters will create vibrations on the branch, signaling the toucanet to fly away, Vargas said.

Since it can feel such vibrations, the bird is free to ignore sounds, Vargas said. The cloud forest gets loud at night because of animal noises and wind.

This is the sound of a toucan. Source: Cornell University Lab of Ornithology

To resist the chill of the night forest, the toucanet tucks its bill under its wing and its tail feathers under its feet, like a cat rolled into a ball.

Another adaptation helps the bird survive the heat of the day. Its bill is built to circulate blood. Some scientists think this is a way to help cool it off in warmer temperatures, Marina said.

“It is just a hypothesis,” Marina said. “But an interesting study.”

There is still the issue of daytime predators. Lucky for the toucanet, it has one more defense to intimidate and chase off these enemies. When an animal gets close enough to make the bird nervous, it will create a guttural noise. It might not seem threatening to a human, but it works to scare other animals away.

The emerald toucanet is a small and unique animal. Self-preservation is the name of the game, and this bird has it covered.

Two-toed Sloth by Emily Rackers

Shine your light two trees down. Now follow the bent branch up until it meets the trunk of the tree. Barely visible through the muffled outlines of the leaves is a sloth native to this area.

The two-toed sloth is a humble creature. As the name suggests, this species of sloth has two front toes. But it also has big, black eyes and a lazy smile. 

It’s the two-toed sloth that guide Guillermo Vargas Prendas pointed out on our night tour of the Children’s Eternal Forest. With a pointed flashlight in hand, he told us this story:

The sloth lives its life in the canopy, moving from tree to tree without touching the ground. It does this because the forest floor is full of defenseless uncertainty for the sloth. Their hind legs are unable to support their furry bodies; and in times of desperation, the sloth must resort to digging its front toes in the ground and dragging itself.

There’s only one reason, one deep-seated and unavoidable need that will lead these ground-challenged creatures down: to poop. Once a week, each sloth will slowly descend from their current tree of residence and dispose of their waste under the cover of night. Then it’s back up to the safety and security of the treetops.

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This two-toed sloth holds on to a branch. Source: Flickr

In the treetops they can hide from predators like jaguars and ocelots. But they aren’t protected from birds of prey or anacondas. Their slow movements aren’t slow at all, but are rather stealthy.

The two-toed sloth has one last trick up its sleeve to prevent becoming dinner in the forest: green algae. The algae grows on the fur of the sloth, helping it blend and become one with the trees.

And so the sloth lives to sleep through another sunrise and awaken with the rest of the cloud forest at night.

DAY WALK IN THE CLOUD FOREST RESERVE

Put your flashlight away and follow us down the stone steps dirty with knowledge. 

In the early morning hours of Saturday, January 2, we toured the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The sun cast a golden glow upon the trees and the birds sang out as we made our way though the forest. Audio by Catherine Wendlandt

Sapote Tree Nut by McGuire McManus

The Sapote Tree nut is another great example of the way different types of species defend themselves in the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Who knew even a nut could stand up for itself against nature?

According to Specialty Produce, the Sapote Tree is grown in subtropical high elevation regions of Central Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. The Sapote Tree nut contains fruit inside that both humans and animals want to eat. Our tour guide Esteban Mendez Vargas informed us that these nuts are completely edible, however they have to be fully ripe to be safe to consume.

He said before the fruit inside the nut is at total ripeness, the nut emits  a dangerous and potentially fatal chemical, cyanide. The cyanide is the nut’s defense aimed mostly at protecting itself against the animals in the cloud forest reserve.

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One student holds the poisonus nut in her hands to observe its unique shape and feel. Photo by McGuire McManus

By emitting cyanide until full maturity of the fruit, this weans off animals from over-eating the Sapote Tree nut. This is especially helpful because the nuts fall off the trees and can be located on the forest floor, a part of the forest where almost any and every ravenous animal has easy access to gather its food.

The preservation of this nut until its full maturity also has benefits for humans. The fruit is sold commercially at grocery stores, especially in Guatemala where they are popular among the people there. “They make for a really good fruity drink,” Mendez told us.

Orange-Kneed Tarantula by Catherine Wendlandt

Give your eyes a rest from the forest floor, and instead focus them on the slope to your right. That’s more than just a hole in the dirt.

When Kevin McAllister dropped his brother’s pet tarantula onto Marv’s face in Home Alone, the Wet Bandit’s blood-curdling scream became an iconic movie moment. Although meant as comic relief, this scene reflects the popular image of tarantulas: big, scary hairy spiders that will hurt you.

In reality, tarantulas are incredibly shy and have adapted many different ways of defending themselves, like Kevin defended himself in the movie. The most predominant feature involves staying hidden. As nocturnal creatures, tarantulas typically remain in underground burrows unless provoked by a potential meal or predator.

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Our tour guide said he no longer tries to get the tarantula to come out of its burrow because one bit him when he was a child after he provoked it with a stick. Photo by Sean Roberts

Despite having eight eyes, they have extremely poor eyesight. As a result, tarantulas use the hairs on their body to feel the vibrations at the opening of their burrow to know if they have a visitor and if they need to protect themselves. If they do, then they will use their back legs to fling their hairs forward, which will sting their attacker, said Esteban Mendez Vargas, a guide in the Monteverde Reserve.

If that doesn’t work, the tarantula will bite down. Although their venom isn’t lethal, the bite is still very painful, Mendez said.

Female tarantulas have also developed several more defense mechanisms. She will usually remain close to home while males will wander around to find a mate. If a male shows up to mate and she isn’t ready, she’ll kill him. If she is ready, Mendez said that she’d then mate with him and then kill him to ensure that she and her offspring have enough food to eat.  

Although tarantulas can be found around the world, only the Zebra and the Orange-Kneed species are found in Costa Rica. In fact, Mendez said that the Orange-Kneed tarantula is endemic to Costa Rica and the western mountains of Panama, meaning that they live only in this region.

However, due to all of their defenses, you would be hard-pressed to find one wandering about in the wild. Even if you did, then you would have to do something big for the tarantula to attack you, because, just like Kevin, all they want is to be left alone.

Stick Spider by Thomas Friestad

Hike up the hill 100 feet until you see the fallen branch. To its left exists a creature naked to the blind eye. Can you see it?

The stick spider is a shining beacon of the versatility with which cloud forest residents can use their defense mechanisms.

The forest floor is a place full of danger for various species, especially if they happen to be a cute (or not so cute) little insect or arachnid. Larger species have the luxury of the tried-and-true “defense through offense” strategy; others stick exclusively to offense.

The stick spider, on the other hand, melds a little bit of offense and defense into its namesake and calling card: its stick webs.

In addition to spinning sticky sticks to snag ‘sects, the stick spider’s webs offers them the perfect method of camouflage. Done right, these sticks render the spiders virtually undetectable for all but the masterful tour guides who spot the little guys for a living.

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The stick spider takes linear form to fool insects into flying into its web. Photo by McGuire McManus

Esteban Mendez Vargas, one of such guides, singled out the stick spider’s ingenuity: the frequency of dangling wood in the Cloud Forest allows the stick spider to camp out in the middle of its web-twig and blend right in.

“They’re clever little guys, and only really move from their sticks if they’re tapped in just the right place,” Mendez said, before demonstrating to a group of students.

The stick spider takes advantage of the cohesive nature of the forest in its defense mechanism. Its location can vary from the forest floor to slightly higher up in the tree branch layer, depending on the location it deems to be the most efficient for both catching prey and hiding from predators.

The stick spider and its wily ways serves as a microcosm for the Cloud Forest in general; all its species, large or microscopic, are soldiers, fighting in a multi-layered battlefield in the war for survival. It’s eat or be eaten, or…give the appearance that you’ve already been eaten?!

Monstera Deliciosa by Neima Omar

Shuffle along the edge of the trail, careful to avoid the stream of ants, and look for the beams of light shining through an unusual medium.

Another evolutionary plant we observed in the Monteverde Cloud forest is the monstera deliciosa. This plant, also known as the Swiss-cheese or split-leaf plant because of its holes, thrives in tropical climates and is native to the rain and cloud forests in Central America. Specifically, it belongs to southern Mexico, Guatemala and parts of Costa Rica and Panama.

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This plant’s holes trick insects into thinking that the nonpoisonous parts of the leaf have already been eaten. In reality, the entire leaf is safe for consumption. Photo by McGuire McManus

As you can see, the monstera deliciosa has holes; according to our tour guide, Esteban Mendez, these holes are actually natural and this plant has evolved this way as a defense mechanism.  This process is known as fenestration, whereby sections of the leaf stop cell growth or die early on in the developmental stage.

When animals see this, they assume that the plant has already been eaten by other animals and the parts that are left are poisonous so they avoid it. This is a genius example of self-preservation by the monstera deliciosa. 

Another benefit the monstera deliciosa receives with these holes is that it can withstand the wind better. That’s obviously really important in places like the cloud forest here in Monteverde because of the extreme wind. Instead, the wind goes through the holes and the plant has a better chance of not following down.

Strangler Fig Tree by Lauren Barnas

Walk forward and around the bend, side step the partially buried tree root, and look up.

Standing up to 150 feet tall, the mighty Strangler Fig tree towers over the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, spreading its arms over the canopy.

Deep in the heart of the woods, tour guide  Javier Perez Chavez leaned over and hugged his father figure Don Taco, winked at us, and chuckled while he pretended to strangle him.

He used this analogy to explain the Strangler Fig’s survival mechanism. In order to assert dominance and defend itself against the rest of the forest, the Strangler Fig tree attaches to a host tree from its branches and sends roots down into the soil.

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The first park ranger in Monteverde discovered this Strangler Fig tree in 1962 in the Cloud Forest Reserve. Photo by Lauren Barnas

The Strangler Fig eventually grows around the entire outside of the host tree, usually killing it in the process. A different tour guide, Esteban said the hollow inside of the approximately 300-year-old tree is unique.

“If you see here, there was a little entrance, but it was only for little kids or really thin people. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but I was told they blocked it because a fat guy got stuck in there. They had to oil him up and pull him out,” Mendez joked.

Although environmentalism is a key theme in the Monteverde area, tree huggers should be careful to trust this particular species.

LA SELVATURA ADVENTURE PARK

Buckle your helmet, cinch your harness, and don’t look down.

Suspended on bridges high above the canopy at Selvatura on Friday January 1, our group was able to truly digest the majesty of the cloud forest. However we were also able to begin to comprehend the impact that humans have on the environment. Audio by Catherine Wendlandt

Ziplining by Emily O’Connor

Inspecting the intricacies of the forest floor gave us an idea of the parts that make up the Monteverde Cloud Forest.  But seeing the entire forest at once was an entirely new experience.

Ziplining above the forest’s canopy was like flipping over a woven tapestry.  We had only seen individual parts of the masterpiece, but flying above the forest, we could see the finished product.

A whole new appreciation arose for the each symbiotic relationship and organism found in the forest below.  Without these tiny pieces of the puzzle, this natural beauty expanding below would never exist.

As we sped through the sky with the wind and clouds in our faces, we were awe inspired and dumbfounded at the sheer power of the forest.

Human Defense Mechanisms by Emily O’Connor

A shoe, a fly swatter and insecticide– all weapons in the war against the natural world.

For many humans, nature is a pest.  Monkeys are nuisances that eat valuable crops, and insects are annoyances that give temporary bites. Consequently, our defense is to change its natural course to better fit our lifestyles.

Dr. Daniel Janzen, biologist at Santa Rosa National Park, said we destroy nature because we don’t understand it.

“We are interested in seeing a peace treaty between us and the wild,” said Janzen.  “We want society to see the value of the wild.”

Janzen said people’s perception of nature as an enemy would change if only they understood its value.

Today, farmers use pesticides, fungicides and insecticides as a defense against annoying characters in nature’s larger story.  Using these chemicals creates higher yields and profit in the short-term.

What about the long term?

“Without pesticides, the world’s farms would require more labor-intensive production. Thus, feeding the growing global population would be more difficult and expensive. However, since pesticides are poisons, they also pose a health risk to humans, other animals and the environment,” according to a science update from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Oldemar Salazar Picado, an organic coffee farmer in San Luis, Costa Rica, lived through the harmful effects of chemical use on farms.

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These coffee plants will be harvested until February when the season ends. Photo by McGuire McManus

In 2001, Salazar suffered major intestinal issues that were caused by overexposure to pesticides while working in the fields.  After that experience, he made a commitment to never use chemicals on his own crops again.

Salazar said we could learn something from insects when we buy our own food.

“People look for the most beautiful produce at the grocery,” said Salazar.  “But it might be better to take the lettuce that has been eaten by a worm.  If a worm is okay with eating it, then we should be, too.”

In reality, most humans view traces of insects as a sign of uncleanliness and potential sickness. Instead of learning something from their instincts, we try to destroy them.

The ultimate irony of the human defense mechanism is that when we attempt to overcome nature, we further destroy our own planet.  Rather than self-preservation, we will reach self-destruction.

Climate Change by Emma Diltz

With humans continuing to destroy the environment, different species have developed adaptations and various ways to defend themselves, but one predator may just push them to their limit — climate change.

Scores of scientists across Costa Rica have worked for years to study the effects of climate change. They are noticing shifting patterns in many organisms, but the key to what may happen down the road is still locked away.

“There are short-term fluctuations that are really hard to say what is what,” said Deb Hamilton, Executive Director of the Monteverde Institute. “But I will tell you that the oceans are the warmest they’ve ever been.”

Warmer oceans have caused disruptions in local weather patterns, according to climate scientists. Researchers around Costa Rica have said this is triggering problems for many species on land, including a variety of birds and bats, as well as when fruits and flowers bloom.

For example, naturalist guide Esteban Mendez Vargas said because of a warmer climate, birds such as the Magnificent Hummingbird has started to show up at a higher altitude in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve where it has never been seen before.

Other parts of the environment that are affected and causing complications for citizens are water concerns and the forest fires that could arise out of a more arid climate, according to conservation firefighter Sergio Cascante.

Even though these changing times may present dangers for different creatures, in order to combat these issues and help the environment, Hamilton has helped create three steps for solving this concern.

“One is raising awareness. One is cutting back on your emissions. And the next is building adaptions and resilience,” she said. “Through creating this resilience and adaptations, we will be raising awareness and people will be inspired to cut back their emissions.”

Hamilton said even taxi drivers have commented on how dry the climate is becoming and how it is humankinds’ time to suffer for what it’s done to the environment.

One driver told her, “‘it’s so dry, it’s so warm.’ ‘We have to pay the fine. We’re about to pay the fine.’”

Although biologists are learning what steps to take to preserve these forests, among those going to pay is the rich biodiversity that thrives in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

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