Sector Santa Elena
Area de Conservación Guanacaste
For the past few weeks I’ve been able to explore the Santa Elena Peninsula in northwestern Costa Rica as part of my larger postdoctoral research. The Peninsula itself is the oldest mainland formation within Central America (with an estimated 85 million years).
Geologically speaking, serpentinite is a type of rock that is typically formed when mantle bursts out from the sea floor. Under the right temperature and pressure, the chemicals in mantle react with ocean water to eventually produce serpentinite. This blue-green-gray rock, and the soil that eventually forms after millions of years of erosion and build-up of organic layer, is enriched in metals like magnesium, nickel, and cobalt.
The resulting serpentine soils make it difficult for plant life for two key reasons. First, the abundance of metals in the soils are often toxic to plants. Second, serpentine formations are generally characterized by steep slopes which makes rain (and any nutrients in the soil) run off more quickly, leaving less around for plants to use. These two conditions create the unique plant communities found on serpentine formations around the world and often the division between adjacent soil types and serpentine soils is quite dramatic.
Although these conditions create an interesting place to study ecological and evolutionary processes, access to these sites, especially in Santa Elena, is challenging. For years, I’ve tried to explore the Peninsula by bike, by foot, by horse, by truck, all without much success.
This February I had a chance to take several trips out onto the Peninsula with ACG Firefighters (Programa de Fuegos) as they were surveying the condition of the roads.
And again with ACG’s gusanero Guillermo Piera and botanico Roberto Espinosa as they were collecting a galleta of a recently fallen Sideroxylon capiri (“tempisque”) tree in order to estimate the age of the forest remnants near Potrero Grande, one of the largest and most beautiful intact saltwater mangrove backed by freshwater swamp, near the western end of the Peninsula.
But back to logisticos. A project like this one-to survey, inventory, collect, measure plant diversity and function and its relationship with different soil types throughout the Peninsula, has been years in the making (more soon) and would be impossible without the assistance and support of the ACG family (read some of my thoughts on the relationship between foreign researchers and the protected areas we work in). This recent trip is dedicated to nothing but logisticos and I’ve been able to map out potential sites, acquire a walkie-talkie to communicate with the guardaparques del Poco Sol in case I get stuck or run into any other trouble while out on the Peninsula, pick Janzen’s brain about the Peninsula, browse the market for cuadraciclos, the few semi-reliable mode of transportation for exploring the Peninsula, and found a ‘new’ field house (or what’s left of the ranch hand houses when parts of Santa Elena were used as cattle pasture)…all with immense help and resources from ACG. But this project is as much mine as it is ACG’s and has great value for determining conservation priorities within the Peninsula (more on this soon).
So what’s next? A pit stop in Tucson to pack up books, head out west to settle into life in Davis, CA, work on a few manuscripts, train for a hard field season, cross my fingers ENSO conditions remain neutral, stare at a map of the Peninsula and wait till May when I can return and hit the ground running.