Sunday, January 29, 2006

Cloud Forest

The last few posts I have made were about information I gleaned on a guided tour of the Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserve near San Ramon, Costa Rica. The first thing our guide asked us was if we knew what a cloud forest was. I had done some research ahead of time and knew that it was high up in the mountains (Costa Rica is a very mountainous country) where the clouds hung around almost all day long, resulting in a very humid atmosphere. To this he added that the reason the clouds are there is because the moisture-laden winds from the Caribbean are forced up the mountains, where they cool and form clouds.

Besides the cloud forest that we toured, there is the famous Monteverde Reserve nearby and another a few hours south of San Jose called the Cloudbridge Reserve. From this extremely interesting page of their website comes this information that helps make it clear how things in the environment are so interconnected:
" production is directly affected by downslope deforestation. Winds that blow across pastures and farmland are warmer and drier than winds that blow across forests. When warmer and drier winds rise along the slopes of the mountains on their way to the alpine forests, they must rise higher before clouds are formed. The Chirripo preserve is along the top of the continental divide: if clouds are formed higher they will be formed above, not within the forest. This will rob plants of the mists so critical to their survival."
So without the forest the animals, birds and insects that live there will be without their home.This picture if from the website of the Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Hotel, which is at the Los Angeles Cloud Reserve.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Leaf Cutter Ants

If you see pieces of leaf moving across your path, you are looking at one of the most fascinating activities in the rainforest - the work of the leaf cutter ants! The bits of leaf, approximately one half inch in diameter, can weigh as much as 12-30 times (opinions vary) the weight of the ant. The female ants climb a tree where they harvest the greenery and carry it to a nest that can be as much as 100 meters away. The nest is a huge hill and underground cavern, containing a fungus. I was puzzled when our guide mentioned fungus. Now that I am researching this subject to make this entry, I understand that the leaves are for the purpose of feeding the fungus and are not for the ants to eat. From the Insecta Inspecta World website comes this fascinating description:
"The average ant nest contains several of these gardens, each with an average life span of about 3-5 weeks. As leaves reach the nest, they are cut up into a gooey mulch and licked clean of all other fungus spores that may interfere with the growth of the harvest fungus. Licking the leaves also helps get rid of natural antibiotics. Next, in a clean terrace within the nest, the plant matter is laid out and covered with fecal droppings. The fecal matter acts as fertilizer and breaks down the proteins that the fungus can not. Finally, a piece of fungal hyphae (the growing, nutrient-using part of the fungus) is placed on top of the plant matter. As it grows, a part called the gongylidia (gong-ee-lid-ee-ah) of the fungus is fed to the members of the colony."
It would be like us making compost and then eating the compost.

Leaf cutter ants are adaptable. When their rainforest home is cut down to make way for farmland, they simply demolish the crops! Now that is an effective way to get back at mankind for disturbing their lives!

(photo is from the website of Cafe Cristina. Lots more about them to follow)

Strangler Figs

(picture is from South Florida Information Access website)

The strangler fig sounds a bit scary, but don't worry, its not out to grab you as you wander through the forest! Like most plants, it starts from a seed, however the seed lodges in the moss or bark on a tree trunk then sends out long roots that drop to the forest floor. They often wrap around the trunk of the host tree on their way down to the soil. This fascinating plant can somehow detect when it is about to reach the ground, and each vine divides into several smaller branches or roots, supposedly making it easier to find water and nutrients. Once a root system is developed the vines that were wrapped around the host tree start to thicken and grow branches and leaves. The trunk of the original tree appears to be strangled by the fig, which a criss-cross of roots surrounding it and the new growth at the top starves the host of sunlight. It is thought that it is the lack of light that kills the host plant, not the strangling of its trunk.
(picture is from the website of Lamington National Park in Australia)

Eventually the host tree dies and decays, leaving a hollow trunk. Many creatures of the forest use the interior of the fig for a home. More information can be found at the Monga Bay website, including the fascinating relationship between the strangler fig and the gall wasp.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

More Epiphytes

Yesterday I spent a lot of time in Google Images looking for a tree loaded with epiphytes, and couldn't find what I was looking for. Then today I stumbled upon one while looking for pics of strangler figs (which will be the next blog entry). I found it on a website about the Tropical Ecosystems of Costa Rica and Panama.

Click on the picture for a larger image.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Epiphytes on tree near San RamonThis isn't the greatest picture of epiphytes, but at least you can pick them out quite easily. Most pics of the vegetation in Costa Rica are so dense with greenery that it can be difficult to see the individual plants. This tree was in the San Ramon area, just north and west of San Jose. In moister parts of Costa Rica you can see huge trees heavily laden with epiphytes such as orchids and bromeliads. According to a tour guide at the Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserve, such trees can become so heavily laden with them (and vines) that they fall over.

Epiphytes in cloud forestSo exactly what is an epiphyte? It is a plant that grows on trees. Epiphytes are not parasites; they feed off water and dust and nutrients which accumulate around their roots and on their leaves. According to what we learned on our tour of a coffee farm (more about that later) it is important that mosses grow on the tree trunks because that enables the trunk to have a moist place for the epiphytes to grow.

The epiphytes, treetops and vines create a canopy that preserves the moisture within the forest, and also provides a home for many small animals and insects that live their whole lives in the canopy, never touching the ground. The cloud and Costa Rica rainforest comprise some of the world's most complex ecosystems.

Epiphytes are very common on the trees in Costa Rica. The tree on the left is in a cloud forest.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

I need to face the pain...

I have been going over the photos of Costa Rica and have had to face this one. This was the bridge repair traffic delay that we were in when my camera was "relocated". Maybe it was happening precisely when this picture was taken.... Our bus was the one in the center of the photo.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Eighteen Days in Costa Rica!!

Despite the beauty of our winter in December, I headed for the warmth and greenery of Costa Rica. What a beautiful place it is!! I took lots of pictures that I want to add to this blog, however some were lost when our cameras were stolen. The first incident was when I foolishly left it on our bus when I went out to try to investigate the source of the apparent traffic jam. Turns out that a one lane bridge was being repaired, in the middle of the day. We were stuck for an hour and a half. No air conditioning, as this was a local bus - nothing fancy about it. My mother was sitting right across from where I left my camera, and I placed something on top of it. But I guess someone created a diversion and my mom didn't notice someone reaching under and grabbing it.

So most of the pictures of sugar cane were on that camera, however my son had me take some photos of him in the cane, so at least I have this one. He is 6' tall, so you can get an idea as to just how tall these plants are!