Tropical Ecology: Overview

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Updated: March 12, 2000


La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica

We are going to the premiere tropical biology field station in the world. The La Selva Biological station is "the place to be" for tropical biology. A huge portion of what we know about the tropics was done at La Selva and it continues to be an active research station. This means that the grungily-dressed people wandering about are working scientists from all over the world doing the science that you will read about a few years from now. Many are there for short periods of time, like we will be, others have and will be there for years.

La Selva is run by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) also called the Organizacion Estudios Tropicales (OET). OTS is a consortium of 50+ universities in the United States and Central America. They maintain three field stations: La Selva, Las Cruces and Palo Verde, all in Costa Rica. La Selva is the flagship station. OTS owns the land at La Selva and maintains and protects it for research and education.

La Selva is a dynamic place and you never know who will show up. It is important to keep in mind that because this is the "real deal" there are some strict rules about where you can go and what you can do, i.e. don't pick the flowers -- that flower may well be someone else's study organism that they have been monitoring for months. So, be aware that there is science going on all around you, at all times of the day and night, and that you don't want to accidentally mess up someone's experiment.

But, at the same time, this isn't a museum trip where you only get to look from a distance. You are going to be fully immersed in the rain forest (and more than likely lots of mud) and you will get to do pretty much what any scientist working there would get to do. Non-scientists are not normally allowed this kind of access to the forest, but because OTS has a long-standing committment to train new tropical biologists, they want you to have this experience. So, courses like ours are given special privileges. Make the most of it.

By the way, tourists are allowed to visit on a limited basis but they pay more than twice what you do and have much tighter restrictions on where they can go.


What we will do

The goal of this course is to give you an indepth feeling for what goes on in a tropical rainforest. To achieve that, we will carry out a series of observations, investigations and experiments. La Selva has an extensive network of trails passing through primary and secondary rainforest and we will make good use of these. La Selva also has a large arboretum to show you the myriad trees in the forest, a black-light assembly for attracting insects, a boardwalk transversing a swamp, etc.

We will do trail walks, night walks, moth observations, bat observations, and underwater observations (optional).

You can never count on seeing anything in particular in the tropics, and some days it rains unbelieably hard, so we will be flexible in our planning.


What you will do

You will be overwhelmed by the complexity and intensity of life in a rainforest.

After that, you will plan and carry out a field research project at La Selva. Projects will involve observations and simple manipulations. They will not involve mass destruction of the rainforest. The goal of your project will be to try to understand a piece of the incredible complexity that is a rainforest ecosystem.


Getting There

I haven't worked out our exact itinerary yet. The students will all fly on the same flight from Toronto on May 1 (Tuesday) and enter Costa Rica via Miami. I will meet you at the San Jose airport.

You will pre-clear US Customs and Immigration in Toronto (leave an extra 1/2 hour for this).


Contact Information

People and Addresses
	OTS - North American office
		Box 90630
		Durham, NC 27708-0630
		919-684-5661 FAX
	Mailing address
		Interlink 341
		P.O. Box 02-5635
		Miami, FL 33152
	OTS - San Jose office
		Organizacion de Estudios Tropicales (OET)
		(450 m west of the Licoln HIgh School in Moravia)
		Organization of Tropical Studies
		P.O. Box 676
		2050 San Pedro de Montes de Oca
		San Jose, Costa Rica
		011-506-240-6783 FAX
		general email:
		Contact: Ana Carter (Group Logistic Services Coordinator)
				email: "" <>
				Researcher Services (SJ office)
	OTS - address for FED-EX
		Organizacion para Estudios Tropicales (OET)
		450 metros Oeste del Colegio Lincoln
		Moravia, San Jose
		Costa Rica
	Robert Matlock,  La Selva Director 		

	La Selva Station
		011-506-710-1414 (FAX)
	Marcela Fernandez - Lab Manager at La Selva


It is usually warm to hot, and almost always humid. Sometimes it rains for days on end. Sometimes it rains a little each day. Rarely, it doesn't rain at all on a given day. It often rains at night. Remember, this place is a rainforest! It can get quite cool at night.


Health and Safety

The tropics always strike a chord of danger in people and even more so in parents and those who have seen the movie "Anaconda" -- by the way, there are no anacondas at La Selva. There are, however, several dangerous things. Just like you know not to walk in front of a truck in North America, there are things that you just don't do at La Selva and most of the danger goes away.

Snakes. The most dangerous things at La Selva are the snakes. They are also some of the most fascinating creatures and you will learn to appreciate them. There are a lot of snakes, though most of them spend their time hiding. Many are active at night; however, you never know when or where you will see a snake. I have gone days without seeing any, but one day last visit I seemed to find one every few minutes. Many of them are completely harmless. Others will bite you if they feel threatened. A very few will bite you just because you come close to them.

The troublemaker in the latter group is a snake called the fer-de-lance. The bite of this snake is extremely serious, and potentially fatal. However, despite the fact that the fer-de-lance is common at La Selva -- hopefully we will get to see one or more -- they need not be a problem. Why?

Because you will follow a few simple rules.:

NEVER walk anywhere at night without a flashlight pointing to where you are about to step.

NEVER wear sandals or open-toed shoes of any sort (don't even bring them along). Wear your boots at night.

STAY ON THE TRAILS and look where you are going.

NEVER, EVER pick up a snake. Any rule that you might have learned about which snakes are venemous and which are non-venemous DOES NOT apply at La Selva and could get you seriously injured or worse.

Ants. While snakes are the most dangerous creatures, ants are the most likely to cause you injury. The worst offender is the bala ant, Paraponera, often called the bullet ant because of the sensation you feel when it bites you. The bite doesn't kill you, but it hurts intensely and may cause your hand, arm or leg to go numb for a few hours.

Bala ants don't roam around looking for victims; rather they live on trees or logs which they defend fiercely. They are large ants, over an inch long, and dark black. They protect their trees from anything that touches the tree. In North America, hikers often grab a tree or branch to steady themselves -- don't do this at La Selva.


Touching a branch for as little as a second is long enough to alert the bala, and she will run to your hand and let you have it. I have seen this myself. If it is unwise to touch a tree, hopefully it will be obvious that you never just sit down on a log without checking it carefully.

Jaguar: Theoretically there are some big cats around La Selva. People have seen tracks or droppings but the last jaguar sighting was a long time ago. If you should actually see a jaguar, you will be the envy of hundreds of people who would have loved to see one, so I wouldn't worry a whole lot about being consumed by one.

Annoying Insects. Besides crawling with snakes, most North Americans envisage the tropics to be teeming with biting insects. That is no doubt true of some places, but not at La Selva. You will be pleasantly surprised by the number of mosquitos. There may be a few, but it is nothing like a canoe trip through Algonquin Park. I hardly ever wear any insect repellent. Some people who work a lot in certain swampy habitats wear insect repellent so you should probably bring some, but don't bring a litre of it. This isn't the mosquito coast (that is a few hundred miles to the northeast in Nicaragua, by the way).

This is not to say that there aren't insects, or even insects that land on you. It's just that the bulk of them don't seem to bite.

The nastiest insects at La Selva are chiggers. These are tiny mite-like things that crawl up your legs and have a special affinity for burying in places where your clothes are tight against your body. They don't hurt you per se, but the bites itch incessantly. Unlike a mosquito bite which might itch for a day then stop, these things itch for days. You can buy ointments to stop the itching and I find these quite helpful. One way to keep the little devils off of you in the first place is to sprinkle sulphur powder on your boots. You can get sulphur powder at a pharmacy, though the pharmacist may be suspicious or even reluctant to get it for you. I take about a half-a-cup for a three week trip so you only need a part of that. Don't eat the stuff, it's not good for you!

Malaria: Malaria is a serious, widespread disease throughout most tropical regions, however, Costa Rica has an excellent health care system and malaria is rare. It is not a problem where we are going. All anti-malarial drugs have side-effects, some serious, so you don't want to take them unnecessarily. I will not give you medical advice on whether to take anti-malarial medicine, but I can tell you that I never take it for going to La Selva, nor do the bulk of the researchers who work at La Selva.

You might consider getting an immunity booster shot before you go. I used to get these in years past, but don't now, mostly because I can't be bothered. Check with your doctor. Also check whether you have had shots for Hepatitis.

Water: You can drink the water! You don't need any purifying tablets or devices.

Lower Intestinal Distress/Montezuma's revenge: Although the water is fine, some people may react to it and may get diarrhea. I seldom have in all my trips but on the odd occasion when I have, I use Imodium, which is available at your local drugstore. It works for me (and I am not being paid to say this).

Plane sickness: We are flying on large planes so there is little chance of this, but if you are susceptible, bring what you need, e.g. Gravol.

Bathrooms: La Selva is fully equiped with bathrooms, just like the one in your home or apartment, though the La Selva ones are probably cleaner. They have showers, hot water, toilet paper and even soap. Bring your own shampoo, toothpaste, etc.

Electricity: The station has normal electricity in all buildings, with standard North American outlets.

Telephone: The station has a few telephones, but it can be very expensive to make international calls, as in the "dollars-per-minute" range, so I wouldn't plan on making any half-hour calls to Canada.

Physical fitness: We are not going to be doing anything that requires you to embark on a major training program; however, we will be doing a lot of walking. If you lead a sedentary life, you might want to increase your physical activity by walking or some other exercise; otherwise you will likely get very tired.

Personal Health Issues: If you have any unusual health issues, e.g. allergies to insect bites, serious food allergies, epilepsy, diabetes, etc please let me know and be sure that you bring with you whatever medications you need. BE ABSOLUTELY SURE that any prescription drugs are in clearly marked containers. We will be passing through the US on our way and we don't want any incidents: US customs and immigration officials are not known for their sense of humor. If you are unsure whether a prescription drug is illegal to transport into the States, find out in advance. If you absolutely need this drug, e.g. insulin, pack it in your carry-on luggage, not your checked luggage, which may inadvertently end up in Peru or Antigua.



You will be staying in one of the lodges, called cabinas. In general, the lodge rooms have sets of bunkbeds in them. Some have four people in a room, some six. Bottom line: there will be other people sleeping in the same room as you, so if you have any unusual habits like wandering around in your sleep, you might want to curtail them for a few days. You might also want to consider appropriate sleepwear. If you are a light sleeper, consider bringing ear plugs.



We will be served three meals a day at La Selva as part of our accomodation. The meals are served at precise times, in the dining hall. If you miss the meal, you miss the meal. Lesson: don't miss the meal!

Personally I like the food at La Selva. It's not fine French cuisine and it can get a bit redundant during a long stay (which we aren't doing), but it is excellent field station food and it is nutritious and filling. They serve a modified typical Costa Rican diet which means that most meals consist of beans, rice and something else. For variety, they serve rice, beans and something else.

They can accommodate vegetarians, though the vegetarian meals are often uninspired. Bottom line: it's good food and even if it isn't your favorite birthday dinner, you won't starve. I don't suggest bringing food with you -- it will decompose in the heat and humidity faster than you can possibly imagine. If you do bring some snack food, be sure to seal it in plastic bags, otherwise the ants will haul it away instantly.

San Jose

We will spend from the evening of Friday May 11th through Sunday night in San Jose, prior to departing early Monday morning. We will be staying at the Hotel L'Amistad, which is about a fifteen minute walk from Avenida Central (the center of the city).

One of the things you may learn is that in Costa Rica they aren't really big on signs, street names and particularly street numbers. In fact most addresses are given relative to landmarks. For example, the OTS office is 500 meters west of Lincoln High School. The Hotel is right near the General Hospital.

The downtown area does have street names whereby the streets on one side of Avenida Central are the odd numbered streets and the ones on the other side of Avenida Centrale are the even numbered streets.

San Jose is a relatively safe city, much safer than where I used to live in Toronto, but you don't do stupid things like wear expensive watches or dangle gold chains around unless you want someone to take them from you. This is common sense in the third world (and anyplace in fact).


Alcohol or Drugs

Don't even think for a second about bringing any alcohol or drugs. Costa Rica has extremely strict drug laws and I have a zero-tolerance policy. I will send you home at your expense if I find you violating this policy. If you violate Costa Rican law, you are on your own.

This course is not an excuse to get drunk in a novel setting -- it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which you will want to be fully aware at all times.


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