I’m lucky enough to be in Costa Rica at the moment for a 5-week course run by the Organization for Tropical Studies, to learn how to identify tropical plants. I’m really excited to be on this course, because identifying plants or even trees in the tropics is a daunting task, given the high diversity of these places. I want to look at trends in tree diversity in regenerating forests during my PhD, so this course is essential training.
We started off by taking a trip to the Costa Rican National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), a non-profit organisation based in San Jose that has been collecting, identifying, and classifying the country’s biological diversity since 1989. In that time, INBio has documented an impressive 300,000 specimens, including over 10,000 plant species (Costa Rica has an estimated 12,000 plant species, so they’re nearly there!). This incredible feat has been made possible by the organisation training up local people to collect specimens, so called “parataxonomists”, many of whom have continued in science and have made huge contributions to our knowledge and understanding of tropical biodiversity. Sadly, INBio is experiencing hard times financially and has had to significantly scale down its operations. I really hope they can obtain funding to continue this work.
Brad Boyle, one of the OTS coordinators and instructors, stands in front of piles of plant specimens waiting to be pressed and dried at INBio’s herbarium
Just some of the thousands of plant specimens waiting to be correctly identified. Each specimen will be entered into the INBio database, one of the largest on-line herbaria resources in the world.
The final product: this is a photo of a plant specimen like those in the herbarium at INBio (photo courtesy of Las Cruces Biological Station). Herbaria records like this one are an important resource for many biologists, providing a long-term record for each species. Herbarium records enable us to keep track of the total number of species known to science, and help us to confirm that new species are really new. I will most likely use herbaria in the future to compare their named specimens with my own collections to check that I have identified plants correctly.
Following the trip to INBio, we headed southwards to our first field station location: Las Cruces Biological Station, making regular stops to identify plants. The photos are from our visit to a very interesting páramo bog. Páramo is a high-elevation ecosystem (the bog we visited was at approximately 2,800m) found above the tree-line, and it tends to have very high levels of biodiversity and endemism (i.e. species that are found nowhere else on the planet). It can be thought of as “tropical alpine”. (NB: not all páramos are bogs.)
Who would have guessed that this tree hung with epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) was an oak?! Check out its leaves and even an acorn we found on the ground underneath it in the photos below.
Robbin Moran, our second course instructor, holding the stem of a fern we found growing in the bog. The pattern on the stem cross section is due to the vascular bundles (xylem and phloem) and is characteristic of this type of fern (family Cyatheales).
A young fern frond or “fiddlehead” unfurling (of a different species).
The top leaves and unopened bud of the bromeliad Puya dasylirioides (family Bromeliaceae), which is endemic to this particular area of Costa Rica – the Talamanca Mountains (meaning it occurs nowhere else in the world). To me it looked rather like an alien coming up from the bog, but it’s possible I have an over-active imagination… It can grow to be up to 2.5m tall.
More stories and photos from Costa Rica coming soon! Please let me know if you have any questions about anything I write on here – it would be great to get more of a dialogue going.