Intro Santa Elena

Sector Santa Elena

Area de Conservación Guanacaste

Costa Rica

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).

From Cerro Ingles, looking northwest along the Filas of Santa Elena

From Cerro Ingles, looking northwest along the filas of Santa Elena

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. 

A typical serpentine cliff along the coasts of the Peninsula, here in Playa Potrero Grande.

A typical serpentine cliff along the coasts of the Peninsula, here in Playa Potrero Grande.

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.

Jess on pack horse out to serpentine sites.

Jess on pack horse out to serpentine sites. But horses make for slow moving.

A 4x4 can only go so far. Here, on the road to Playa Nancite, another access point to serpetine soils (and limestone too).

Even a 4×4 can only go so far. Here, on the road to Playa Nancite, another access point to serpetine soils (and limestone too).

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.

Poco Sol Programa de Fuegos, patrullando (patrolling), but here taking a break near Angostura, a ridge of Santa Elena.

Programa de Fuegos, patrullando (patrolling), but here taking a break near Angostura, a ridge of Santa Elena.

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.

Roberto Espinosa (right) and Guillermo Peira (left) taking advantage of a recently fallen Sideroxylon capiri to cut a cookie for estimating the tree's age.

Roberto Espinosa (right) and Guillermo Peira (left) taking advantage of a recently fallen Sideroxylon capiri to cut a cookie (or slice) of the tree trunk for counting the tree rings and estimating the age of the tree.

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).

Needs a good cleaning but this old ranch hand house will make for a decent pit stop/camp site for longer trips out onto the Peninsula.

Needs a good cleaning but this old ranch hand house will make for a decent pit stop/camp site for longer trips out onto the Peninsula.

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.

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