WB 2015 – MSU Ecological Engineering in the Tropics

Costa Rica – MSU / UCR – December 26, 2015 – January 9, 2016

Jan. 1-2 – Emily

Friday, January 1st

On the first day of the new year, we woke up bright and early to eat a quick breakfast and leave for the Llanos de Cortes waterfall. The ride was long and bumpy and we were all asleep within 20 minutes of leaving UGACR, but the waterfall was well worth the trip.

Although the beach was crowded, the waters were clear and we spent a few hours in paradise. We even saw some of the Jesus Christ lizards sunning themselves. In Costa Rica, New Years Day is the busiest beach day of the year, so we decided to save our trip to Playa Hermosa for Sunday, and instead headed to the city of Liberia for some much-needed American food.

About an hour and a half later, we were greeted by Howler Monkeys in Palo Verde National Park where we lodged at the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) biological station. The rooms were humble and each bed was equipped with mosquito netting, but there were few words to describe the incredible landscape.


Palo Verde National Park

Saturday, January 2nd

The following morning, we enjoyed an early breakfast in the station’s common room before embarking on a hike to one of the parks highest points. Along the way, our guide, Davinia Beneyto, offered a wealth of knowledge on some of the most important biologic systems in Palo Verde.

We learned about the symbiotic relationship between the Thorn Acacia and the ant colonies that reside in its thorns. These insects defend the tree against predators and help clear the forest floor around them to prevent competition from undergrowth. In return, the Acacia provides the ants with food and shelter. We also looked at the Guayacán, an endangered tree whose wood is highly prized for its strength and ability to excrete oils when it experiences friction.


When we finally reached the top of the peak, we were stunned by the view of the wetland and the extensive forest that surrounded us. Our guide explained that Palo Verde had initially been a massive cattle ranch, and that the wetland had been maintained by the cattle grazing on the native cattails. Now, however, without any way to control the cattail, this ecosystem is out of balance and is transitioning to a new stage in its development. While it is part of an ecosystems natural cycle for a single species to dominate temporarily, Palo Verde is an extremely important destination for native waterfowl as well as migrating birds, and the integrity of original wetland is critical for their survival. This problem is extremely relevant to the challenge the wetland team is currently facing that calls for a system to be designed that facilitates efficient removal of wetland plants at Fabio. At Palo Verde, they combat this transition by actively maintaining it using tractors that harvest the cattails and by reintroducing the cattle.

Our next stop was the wetland itself, but on the way, we were surprised by a troop of Capuchin (white-faced) monkeys and one of the resident black iguanas.

We studied many of the wetland’s floating plants, including the water hyacinth and mimosa, or sensitive plant. We also saw the tree for which the preserve was named, the Palo Verde. This small tree had green, thorny branches and thin, grass-like leaves. Although it is often cleared to preserve the quality of the wetland, it is critical to the park’s biodiversity.

After a lunch of rice and beans, we took a boat tour of the Tempisque River, the largest river in Costa Rica. We boated past a secluded island called La Isla de Parjaros, or Island of the Birds. This place is home to the migratory birds that call Costa Rica home throughout the cold North American winters.

We were so inspired by our morning climb of La Roca that we decided to climb it again in order to see the sunset over the wetlands. The view was absolutely breathtaking.

Finally, to end our day, we walked out to the boardwalk late that night to see the most incredible stars. The wind was just right so we weren’t eaten by mosquitoes, and when we turned our flashlights off, we were surrounded by the sounds of wetlands at night.

Pre-Departure Information

January 1st

To start the new year, we will have breakfast at UGACR and say our goodbyes to Monte Verde as we depart for the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) Palo Verde Lodge. This biological station is located in the heart of Palo Verde National Park and will be our home for the next couple days.Palo-Verde-National-Park-Location

After lunch, we will visit the Llanos de Cortés Waterfall. Considered one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful waterfalls, the Llanos de Cortés is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including the Jesus Christ Lizard, named for its ability to run across the surface of the water.

Shortly afterwards, we’re heading to Playa Hermosa Guanacaste for a day at the beach. In Spanish, “Playa Hermosa” means beautiful beach, and this one certainly lives up to its name–it was awarded the “Bandera Azul” (Blue Ribbon) for its high environmental standards, excellent safety facilities, and pristine sands. This time of year, the temperature will be between 72-89ºF and sunny. In this part of the country, restaurants like Mario’s Cuisine, Roberto’s Bar and Restaurant, and El Quijote  Bar and Restaurant are well known for their fresh sea food.


January 2nd

On January second, we will start our day with breakfast at OTS Palo Verde. Today, the study abroad group will be learning about the differences and similarities of natural and treated wetland ecosystems. We will also be exploring Palo Verde National Park.

Interestingly, Palo Verde was not always a national park. Like many other preserves in Costa Rica, it was originally pasture land. Now, this this 45,509 acre sanctuary is very important, as it is one of the last remaining tropical dry forests. These forests receive little or no rain for half the year, and many trees lose their leaves to help conserve water.

The park boasts a wide array of flora and fauna. Around 75 species of mammal call Palo Verde home, including the juguarunis, a small, brown wild cat. There are also many reptiles and amphibians (the Tempisque River that runs through the preserve has the highest concentration of crocodiles in Costa Rica). It is best known, however, for its incredible flocks of birds. During the dry season (December-April), Palo Verde is inundated with migratory birds that call Costa Rica home throughout the cold North American winters.Isla de Pajaros

For More Information on These Sites:

OTS Palo Verde:

Llanos de Cortes:

Playa Hermosa:

Palo Verde National Park:

Image Credits (Pre-Departure Only):

Llano de Cortes: http://www.papagayovargastours.com/Cortes%20waterfall.htm

Palo Verde National Park Location: http://costa-rica-guide.com/nature/national-parks/palo-verde/

Jesus Christ Lizard Running On Water: http://www.strangeanimals.info/2010/12/jesus-christ-lizard.html

Playa Hermosa: http://www.anywherecostarica.com/destinations/playa-hermosa

Birds at Palo Verde: http://costa-rica-guide.com/nature/national-parks/palo-verde/


7 thoughts on “Jan. 1-2 – Emily

  1. Are there any ecologically special plants we should look for at Palo Verde? Or plants that may be beneficial for the treatment wetlands at Fabio?


    • Some species that could be very useful in the treatment wetlands at Fabio include Mimosa, Duckweed, and Azola, all of which we saw today in the natural wetlands at Palo Verde. In regards to special plants at the preserve, the most interesting included the Palo Verde tree that gives the park its name; the guayacán, which is an endangered hardwood tree prized for its strength and ability to secrete oils under friction; and the Thorn Acacia, whose unique symbiotic relationship with an ant colony allows it to survive the during the six month dry season.


  2. What kind of things can we expect to see that are noticeable/visual differences between a natural vs artificial wetland? As engineers, how do we treat a natural wetland differently than a man made wetland? What sort of differences and similarities will we see from both kinds of wetlands based on services which they provide to their environment?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Natural and constructed wetlands actually have a lot of similarities. They generally treat the same nutrients and feature many of the same aquatic plants, like water lettuce and water hyacinth. Natural wetlands, however, are more dynamic and have considerably more biodiversity. As they age, they actually have a phase in which the ecosystem is dominated by a single species, it is replaced by terrarian vegetation, and then the wetland moves farther downstream. Understanding how these systems work is very important when considering downstream communities, the building of dams, and controlling agricultural run off. Although both ecosystems do require some level of maintenance, the constructed wetland is a far more controlled system.


  3. Thanks for leading the group today and answering the questions we had today. The only question I have left is about the water levels of the tempisque and how much it changes depending on the seasons?


    • According to data from the OTS biological station (http://www.ots.ac.cr/meteoro/default.php?pestacion=1), the water level during the rainy season (from May-October) ranges from 1.0-1.3m, while the water level during the dry season (November-April) can drop below half a meter. This stark contrast between the two seasons actually causes many species of animals to undergo aestivation, which is very similar to hibernation in animals in the United States.


  4. Regarding the plants at the Palo Verde natural wetland and the Fabio Engineered wetland, what are some similarities and differences? Water hyacinth, for example, can be found at both locations. What are the noticeable differences, and did your porometer tell you anything interesting? Could any plants from Palo Verde help treat the water at Fabio without harming the ecosystem?

    Tell me everything, day leader!


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