A rainy farm landscape in Agua Buena Costa Rica
Sustainability and environmental science students travelled to Costa Rica this winter to study tropical ecology and sustainable agriculture with professors Nick Babin and Chuck Levitan.

Tropical Ecology in Costa Rica

SUST 380 Sustainability: Costa Rica Agroecology
BIOL 420 Biology: Tropical Ecology of Costa Rica
Professors: Nick Babin & Chuck Levitan
December 28, 2017 – January 13, 2018

10 enthusiastic environmental science and sustainability students spent most of their winter break this year in Costa Rica, studying tropical ecology and sustainable agriculture with professors Nick Babin and Chuck Levitan. For the first week the group was in Agua Buena, Costa Rica, a highland coffee growing community. Dr. Babin is conducting on-going research there on the links between shade tree management, soil health, and farm sustainability. The class conducted tree and soil inventories in different coffee shade agroecosystems and in reference plots. The students stayed with smallholder coffee farmers in Agua Buena, sharing meals and experiencing the culture first hand. The hospitality – and the food – were a highlight of the trip for many of the students.

a pair of black, green, and turquoise tropical birds in Agua Buena Costa RicaTwo birds in the hand
tropical birds eating bananas in Agua Buena Costa Rica. . . are worth four in the tree?
Kellen Rhoda and fellow SNC student with their homestay family in Agua Buena Costa RicaStudents with their host family

Research Protocol

The group established 1000 meter squared plots in 3 different shade-management coffee regimes. The coffee plots differ in the variety and types of trees and shrubs that shade the coffee bushes. The students tagged and measured and all the trees, because this will be an ongoing project. Then they took soil health measurements at 5 randomly chosen locations in each plot. This year’s soil comparison of the shade regimes showed more organic matter, higher soil respiration rates, increased infiltration and higher nutrient content in the most diverse plot.

environmental science and sustainability students learning about coffee agroecology in Costa RicaShade-grown coffee ecology
ecology students tagging trees to study coffee shade agroecology in Costa RicaSurveying and tagging shade trees
a banana flower in Costa RicaOne banana tree flower!

Also in Agua Buena, the group visited the local coffee co-operative processing plant, where the beans are cleaned and oven-dried for shipping. They worked in the garden of a community vegetable cooperative, on a water control project to channel rainfall for irrigation and erosion control, and to refurbish the local playground. There they discovered a common feature in the developing world – new uses for old tires.

irrigation and erosion control on a coffee plantation in Costa RicaBuilding erosion control
Intake at the Agua Buena Coffee Cooperative in Costa RicaIncoming beans at the Agua Buena Coffee Cooperative
the playground in Agua Buena Costa RicaThe playground in Agua Buena
Las Cruces Biological Station

On a day trip to the Las Cruces Biological Station, the students explored some very rugged and very wet primary forest – the average annual rainfall there is around 13 feet! The station is home to an estimated 2,000 species of plants, over 400 species of birds, and over 100 species of mammals.

giant bamboo at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica
Giant bamboo
view from the top of the observation tower at Las Cruces Costa RicaView from the top of the observation tower at Las Cruces
a strangler fig at the Las Cruces Biological Reserve in Costa Rica
A strangler fig
Manuel Antonio National Park

The next stop on the trip was Manuel Antonio National Park, on the Pacific coast. There the students caught a little beach time surrounded by a coastal forest ecosystem.

The Pacific Ocean from the beach at Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa RicaThe Pacific Ocean
peccaries in lowland rain forest at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa RicaWhy do peccaries cross the road?
the coastal forest comes all the way to the beach at Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast of Costa RicaCoastal forest meets the beach
La Selva Biological Station

The second week of the course took place at La Selva Biological Station, a lowland rainforest reserve and research station. At La Selva, the students formed teams and picked their own research topics. One team continued with soil research; one measured the amount of leaf litter fall, to see its impact on organic material in the soil; one compared light levels on the ground in places where trees had fallen vs. where the canopy was intact; and one team investigated the competition for light between the tree leaves and the algae which live on the leaves.

environmental science students measure light competition in lowland rain forest at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa RicaCompetition for light between tree leaves and algae
orchids, bromeliads, and even cacti in lowland rain forest at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa RicaOrchids, bromeliads, and even cacti at La Selva
sustainability students measure overnight leaf litter fall in lowland rain forest at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa RicaMeasuring leaf litter fall

La Selva, managed by the Organization for Tropical Studies, is one of the most important sites in the world for research on tropical rain forest. Over 240 scientific papers are published yearly on average from research conducted at the site.

photos courtesy of Kellen Rhoda & Dr. Chuck Levitan