La Selva Biological Station Costa Rica, Sierra Nevada College sustainability students in lowland tropical rainforest
A new group of students traveled to Costa Rica in January to continue research into sustainable agriculture and tropical ecology.

Agroecology in Costa Rica

SUST 380 Sustainability: Costa Rica Agroecology
BIOL 420 Biology: Tropical Ecology of Costa Rica
Professors: Nick Babin & Chuck Levitan
December 27 2018 – January 10 2019

For a second year, SNC Tahoe environmental science and sustainability students traveled to Costa Rica during winter break. There they studied tropical ecology and sustainable agriculture with professors Nick Babin and Chuck Levitan.

Agua Buena

Their first week was at a coffee plantation, the “Sustainable Forest Farm of Don Roberto and Noemy Jimenez” in Agua Buena. During the previous year’s trip, students had marked 1000 meter squared plots of coffee grown in three different kinds of shade management. The main differences are in the variety and kinds of plants which provide the shade. They tagged the trees, and analyzed soil samples to get base measurements of how healthy the soils were.

aerial view of the Costa Rica highlands from planeApproaching Costa Rica
Agua Buena Costa Rica, Sierra Nevada College sustainability students at a highland shade-grown coffee plantationDon Roberto on his sustainable shade-grown coffee plantation
Agua Buena Costa Rica, hand-roasting coffee at a sustainable highland shade-grown coffee plantationHand-roasting coffee

This year’s sampling provided more detail about how certain overstory plants improve the soil nutrient content. Banana trees drop a lot of leaf litter, which decomposes rapidly to make more organic matter. Bean plants were also a big contributor, because they “fix” nitrogen in the soil.

Agua Buena Costa Rica, distracting the bull at the rodeoNew Year’s Day at the rodeo
Agua Buena Costa Rica, Sierra Nevada College environmental science students at a waterfallStudents enjoying a waterfall
Agua Buena Costa Rica, Christmas nativity displayChristmas nativity in Agua Buena

Don Roberto preps and roasts small batches of coffee by hand. Agua Buena is a highland coffee-growing area, and the students also visited the local coffee cooperative. There, the beans are graded, cleaned, oven-dried, packaged, and shipped to coffee companies worldwide. Side trips included New Year’s Day at the rodeo, and amazing tropical waterfalls and forests.


Pura Vida

Sierra Nevada College students Taylor Greasley and Hannah Smith celebrate Pura Vida on a tropical ecology course in Costa RicaCosta Ricans (Ticos) use this to say hello, to say goodbye, to say everything’s great, to say everything’s cool. Literally it means “simple life” or “pure life”, but the words don’t reflect its true meaning. Pura Vida is the way Ticos live. It means no worries, no fuss, no stress—be thankful for what you have and don’t dwell on the negative.


La Selva Biological Station

For their second week, the students traveled to La Selva Biological Station. La Selva, one of the world’s top locations for rainforest research, is a very different ecosystem than Agua Buena. A lowland tropical rainforest, La Selva gets about 13 feet (156 inches) of rain a year. In contrast, Agua Buena gets about 4 to 4 ½ feet of precipitation a year, with a dry season from December through March. The SNC campus in Incline Village gets the water equivalent of about 2 feet each year.

La Selva Biological Station Costa Rica, Sierra Nevada College sustainability students Mckenna Bean and Jake Castro researching soil chemistryMckenna Bean and Jake Castro researching soil chemistry
Sierra Nevada College students with the college flag at the La Selva Biological Station on a tropical ecology course in Costa Rica
La Selva Biological Station Costa Rica, Sierra Nevada College sustainability student Nathan Turley researching ant food preferencesNathan Turley investigating ant food preferences

The students broke into three groups for their research projects at La Selva. This year, each group was able to conduct two different projects. The first projects focused on effects of disturbance. A strong tropical storm in August 2018 caused substantial damage in some places in the reserve but left others mostly unscathed. The questions the students investigated were

  1. Which species of trees were most and least likely to be blown over?
  2. Were trees with buttresses less likely to fall?
  3. Were trees with less epiphytes less likely to fall? (Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants for support but are not parasitic. They get their water and nutrients from humidity in the air, rain, and debris. The ferns, bromeliads, air plants, and orchids that grow on tree trunks in tropical rainforests are all epiphytes.)
La Selva Biological Station Costa Rica, peccary intercoursepeccaries going about their business
La Selva Biological Station Costa Rica, eyelash pit viper on treeThe eyelash pit viper can kill adult humans
La Selva Biological Station Costa Rica, Great CurassowA great curassow is the size of a turkey

The students chose their own questions for the second experiments. The questions were

  1. What kind of food do ants prefer? Result: they prefer meat to watermelon, by a lot! Research results with an unexpected practical use for your next picnic.
  2. What effect does a stream environment on oxidation and nutrients in tropical soils? Result: well-drained soils more oxygenated and oxidized, which makes the soil healthier.
  3. How does peccary vigilance affect their social structure and behavior? Result: not much around humans. The peccaries in La Selva are not tame, but they have learned that humans are not a threat. They ignore the people and go about their business, as shown in the picture.

The Kapok Tree

Ceiba pentandra the kapok tree, Costa RicaCeiba pentandra, the kapok tree, grows up to 200 feet in height. It is a deciduous tree which can grow as much as 13 feet per year. The silky fibers that disperse the seeds are too small for weaving, but make great stuffing for bedding and life preservers. In ancient times, the Maya believed that the kapok tree stood at the center of the earth.


Sustainability – environmental, economic, and social – is one of SNC’s core themes.

Relevant majors in the Science Department include Biology, Ecology, and Natural Resource Management. Environmental Science students intern with the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, USFS, USGS, state parks, the Desert Research Institute, CA & NV wildlife organizations, and environmental planning firms. They conduct their research in the wetlands and forests of the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Students in SNC’s innovative Interdisciplinary Studies program combine courses in all aspects of Sustainability with studies in Environmental Science, Ski Resort Management, Entrepreneurship, or Journalism. Their hands-on internships and service learning projects focus on real contributions to their communities – locally and globally.

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