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A researcher’s paradise: La Selva Biological Institute

A trail at La Selva takes you directly to the confluence of the Puerta Viejo and Sarapiquí Rivers.

Costa Rica is a country known for emphasizing its biodiversity and conservation practices.  In the world of tropical studies, one particular Costa Rican research center reigns among the most prominent: La Selva Biological Institute.

La Selva is a station in Sarapiquí nestled in the Caribbean lowlands of northern Costa Rica.  Located near the intersection of two rivers, the Puerto Viejo and Sarapiquí Rivers, the station comprises 3,900 acres of land, of which 73 percent is primary, tropical rain forest. Throughout the year, La Selva consistently averages over 13 feet of rainfall, leaving the area humid and abundant in biodiversity.

According to its website, La Selva was first established in 1954 by Dr. Leslie Holdridge.  Holdridge wanted to dedicate a farm to the experimentation of plants to improve the management of natural resources.  In 1968, La Selva was purchased by the Organization for Tropical Studies.  A non-profit organization, Organization for Tropical Studies that has grown to include approximately 64 universities from all over the world.

“It is a big organization, a big consortium of universities, actually,” said Lenin Duarte, a naturalist guide at La Selva for the past four years.  “Around 40 are from the United States. There are other parts from Africa, from Australia and from Latin America, too.”

OTS  also has a station on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, and two on the Pacific Ocean side.  Las Cruces Biological Station, on southern Costa Rica’s Pacific shores, is home to the most famous botanical garden in Costa Rica, the Wilson Botanical Garden.  The station in the Pacific north, Palo Verde Biological Station, is a dry forest with a widespread marsh area. La Selva is a rain forest.

During a walking tour, Lenin Duarte, a naturalist guide at La Selva, describes the history of the biological station. 

“La Selva was actually the pioneer biological station in the world, doing research programs in the forest,” said Duarte. “Whenever some biologists are trying to get their degrees, or their post-degrees, they think about coming to La Selva to do their research.”

Researchers stay anywhere from two weeks to two years.

Duarte said that La Selva Biological Reserve and neighboring Braulio Carrillo National Park are “really important for the ecosystem balance and dynamic here in the Caribbean lowlands.”

Alexander Defrancesco, a graduate student from the University of Connecticut, is doing research on primary and secondary reforestation at La Selva.  Defrancesco is observing why different species prefer different conditions.  Pioneer species – plants species with very little seeds that depend on sunlight – are ideal species to plant when reforesting an area, he said.

“This particular research that we are doing now, finding the different traits for all the different species, would be seeing whether the 500 species we are looking at are pioneer species, secondary species (or) old growth,” he said. “With that, we will know which species are pioneer species to add to pastures and get reforestation started.”  Unlike other research facilities, La Selva has the old-growth forests necessary for scientists, like Defrancesco, to facilitate their particular study.

The research is also helping scientists understand secondary forests worldwide and with conservation efforts. Results can shed light on which animals will survive climate change and how it will affect them.

“It goes into not just the reforestation, but also the conservation of the forests,” Defrancesco said.

Defrancesco, along with many other researchers at La Selva, find many benefits in researching at this station over other research facilities.

“There’s a lot of documentation of where certain species are, soil data, climate data, and time series (data) as well.  It’s essentially the main base in Costa Rica,” said Defrancesco. “It’s so great to have these resources right in front of you.”

In addition to the large archive of data available at La Selva, researchers find many colleagues at the facility which whom they can exchange ideas and socialize.

Diego Dierick (right) talks with a colleague outside the dining hall of La Selva. The community of scientists researching at La Selva is a distinct quality that makes it stand out from other research facilities.

Diego Dierick, who has been stationed at La Selva for approximately one year and three months, finds station life delightful and the community of researchers very useful.

“It’s not normal life.  Station life is a bit different. But for me, its been working well,” Dierick said. “We have fun times here, sitting on the porch, hanging out.”

Like Defrancesco, Dierick finds the resources available at La Selva to be the most beneficial. He appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with other scientists.

“From a scientific point of view, you have all these people working on all these little different topics, and you get a little bit of information from all these different corners.  That is something I have never experienced,” he said.

“When I did my Ph.D., it was more of a closed system and we didn’t interact much with people of different disciplines. And here, you have people working here on ants, on birds, on bats,” Dierick said. “You get a broader picture of biological and environmental research in general, and you get insight from different angles that make it better than other research institutes.”

More than 300 scientists from 25 different countries work at Costa Rica’s OTS sites each year.

La Selva Biological Reserve near Sarapiquí, Costa Rica

Photos by Annie Mercer.


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