Gira Santa Elena Part 2: In the clouds

I was apprehensive about this second trip. The logistics weren’t as seamless as the first trip and the expenses were reality awakening. Coordinating with two macheteros and one cocinera proved to be a little more difficult than I thought it would be but they were crucial components for making this trip a success. Back in home base Hacienda Santa Elena, drying out, all that running around seems to have paid off.

The expedition crew from left to right: Daniel Hill, Catherine Hulshof, Hazel, Patricio Blandon Ortiz, Jose Carmen Hernandez with Adrian Guadamuz taking photograph

The expedition crew from left to right: Daniel Hill, Catherine Hulshof, la cocinera Hilda, machetero Patricio Blandon Ortiz, machetero y gusanero Jose Carmen Hernandez with botanico Adrian Guadamuz taking photograph, Capitan Anibal Lara Victor in background preparing bote Tiburon

I am realizing that this project is becoming more than a postdoctoral research project. What I am trying to set up here is a lifelong research program to catalog the taxonomic, functional, and phylogenetic diversity of plants and caterpillars within Santa Elena Peninsula, Area de Conservacion Guanacaste and all of its beautiful environs. “Know thy park“, literally. ACG’s own botanicos Adrian Guadamuz and Roberto Espinsoa are truly helping me plant roots here. I’ve never had any formal botanical training so being able to learn from some of the best botanicos in Costa Rica is an added bonus and wouldn’t be possible if ACG didn’t back this hungry vision of mine.

Botanico Adrian Guadamuz in foreground and gusanero Jose Carmen Hernandez in background at 720 m elevation Cerro Santa Elena 24 julio 2013

Botanico Adrian Guadamuz in foreground and gusanero Jose Carmen Hernandez in background at 720 m elevation Cerro Santa Elena 24 julio 2013

The most impressive aspect of this second trip was being able to explore both valleys and ridges of western Santa Elena. The topographical variation created by millions of years of tectonic plate movements, uplift, and erosion results in many different types of environments for plant species to grow within a relatively short distance.

Valle of Santa Elena

Valle Santa Elena

What was even more curious was finding a subset of species that can exist in both valleys and ridges but take on different life forms in the different habitat types.

Haematoxylon brasiletto stunted shrub at 440 m elevation

Haematoxylon brasiletto stunted shrub at 440 m elevation

Haematoxylon brasiletto tree forest at 0 m elevation

Haematoxylon brasiletto tree forest at 0 m elevation

Or even species that occur along the entire elevational gradient (like Lonchocarpus phlebophyllus).

Lonchocarpus phlebophyllus covered in epiphytes at 700 m elevation Cerro Santa Elena 24 julio 2013

Lonchocarpus phlebophyllus covered in epiphytes at 700 m

Or even species that are often found in hot, younger secondary puro bosque seco forests back home in Santa Rosa that occur on top of Cerro Santa Elena (like Cordia guanacastensis….really!).

Cordia guanacastensis (or so it appears) at 650 m

Or species that occur in Bosque Humedo back home in Santa Rosa (like Garcinia intermedia, Manilkara chicle, Ocotea veraguensis) growing in the serpentine valleys.

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You’d think you were in Bosque Humedo back in Santa Rosa, but really you’re in a serpentine valley

So what species are found on serpentine Santa Elena? A subset of species will only be found on serpentine soils, these are called serpentine endemics or specialists. Another subset of species common to nearby volcanic soils of the Santa Rosa plateau will also be found out on Santa Elena. And a final subset of species commonly found on volcanic soils will never be found out on serpentine. The first goal of this project is to figure out which species of plants (and then caterpillars) are found where, and then on to the the more interesting why.

And how does topography influence species diversity and composition? This question is trickier to answer and I’m still thinking of ways to disentangle the effects of topography and climate on species diversity. On the one hand, topography plays a strong role in driving local climatic conditions. On the other hand, climate alone has its own influence on plant life as elevation rises from sea level to cloud level and above.

La ruta pa’ la cima.

During this second trip, I was able to install several dataloggers to collect temperature and relative humidity data. Maybe this will give me a better idea of climatic variation between cerros, valleys, and lowlands. I doubt the data will say anything more than “it’s hotter in lower elevations”, but maybe the variation of climatic conditions will be more insightful. I’ll return in 6 months to collect the dataloggers and see what the data say…assuming they haven’t been taken down by a tree fall or jaguar.

A few days to breath, dry out, organize and process data, plants, thoughts, and then on to organizing the next and final trip of the season.

At Estacion Isla San Jose

At base camp Estacion Isla San Jose

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