WHAT WILL I BE DOING?
You will be working in the Pacific rainforests and beaches near Corcovado, one of the most remote National Parks in the country which has been described by National Geographic as “one of the most biologically intense places on the planet.” Home to one of the largest tropical primary lowland rainforests in the world, the Corcovado National Park is also the habitat of a large range of endangered plant and animal species. Dense rainforest creates a dramatic habitat for hundreds of bird and mammal species, along with a high population of marine turtles nesting on the beaches each year (please note that the peak season for turtle monitoring begins in June and ends in October/November. Markedly fewer surveys are typically conducted outside of this period.)
On our Costa Rica Forest Research Programme you will be carrying out extensive and broad biodiversity surveys. Work will include walking primate transects to collect valuable data on the white-faced capuchin monkeys, squirrel monkeys, Geoffroy’s spider monkey and mantled howler monkey which thrive in these biologically rich forests. You will also be patrolling the beaches of nesting endangered marine turtles to assess nesting preferences, hatchling success and population health, undertaking a big cat research project which aims to address one of the biggest threats to wild cats globally, human-wildlife conflict, undertaking groundbreaking work on the Data Deficient neotropical otter whilst walking the course of the rivers, and surveying populations of exotic birds, invertebrates and other animal groups in this exciting, relevant and comprehensive research programme.
In addition to these wildlife research projects you will also be involved in other activities which play a key part in conservation. For example, typically twice per week all project participants assist with projects led by partner and land owner Osa Conservation, a non-governmental organisation whose mission it is to protect and support habitats, people and wildlife of the Osa Peninsula. Programme participants may be involved in the creation and maintenance of trails which facilitate the majority of the surveys we conduct, assisting on their Agro-Ecological farm in order to secure a more sustainable food source for camp and Osa Conservation or on Reforestation programmes
This programme has also secured opportunities to assist with additional surveys in the local area led by a Carate-based turtle conservation programme, and operate out of a satellite camp situated a few kilometres away where participants may be given the opportunity to milk cows and make cheese on the farm as well as conduct wildlife surveys in the surrounding forest previously largely unstudied.
Though there is enough downtime to get yourself stuck into a good book, swim in the rivers and take part in horse riding, canopy tours and a trip to Corcovado National Park (not included in the price) among others, the project boasts a busy schedule focusing on its broad range of high conservation impact science for which participants will receive full training in the field.
Sea turtle monitoring
Volunteers patrol two beaches close to camp. The patrols not only help to gather valuable population data of the endangered marine turtles, but also serve to discourage poachers and predators trying to raid nests and collect eggs. The two species of turtle most frequently observed are the Olive Ridley and the Pacific Green Turtle. During peak nesting season (July-November), turtles found nesting on the beach at night are tagged and given a health check. In the mornings we also conduct nest excavations which involve checking the hatched nests to assess reproductive success after the hatchlings have emerged. Total clutch size, number of successfully hatched eggs and the number and stage of development of un-hatched eggs are recorded. Any hatchlings that might have remained trapped in the nest chamber are freed and placed on the beach to allow them to reach the sea.
Many mammals are social animals which frequently travel in pairs or groups. The most abundant mammal species found in the area are the four species of monkey: squirrel monkey, mantled howler monkey, Geoffroy’s spider monkey and white-faced capuchin monkey. Primate surveys are typically conducted three to four times each week recording every troop encountered whilst walking slowly through the forest with a pair of binoculars. The primary aim of this project is to estimate density of all four primate species in Costa Rica and so it is important to firstly take an accurate count of the number of individuals within the troop (a good pair of binoculars will certainly prove beneficial) as well as calculating the size of the area surveyed by taking measurements of the distance between the trail and the troop of monkeys.
Big cats and people
Costa Rica is home to six species of wild cat and five are found on the comparatively tiny Osa Peninsula; the large jaguar and puma, the small jaguarundi and margay and the intermediate spotted cat, the ocelot. These species are elusive and sightings are rare and even if you don’t see them whilst out on the trail or on camp (an ocelot was seen at the time of an early morning toilet visit in early 2013!) you will likely find evidence that they are around, leaving tracks and faeces and being caught on camera traps. Seeing a big cat is mostly down to luck, being in the right time at the right place, and to increase your chances further, we also offer night walks into the forest to search for some of the world’s most incredible wildlife as your torchlight is reflected in the eyes of a wild cat.
Our big cat research is a multi-phase project which combines an ecological study of the abundance and distribution of predators and other wildlife and a sociological study in which interviews are conducted with local people to understand perspectives of conservation and the interactions between people and wildlife with regard to livestock and crop losses. This conflict between landowners and wildlife is one of the most significant issues in wildlife conservation and the jaguar is one of the most heavily threatened species as a result of retaliatory killing and persecution as a preventative measure against livestock predation. The ultimate objective is to find solutions to any problems identified that benefit the livelihoods of local people and allow for the sustainable maintenance of predators and prey in this critical biological corridor neighbouring Corcovado National Park.
Neotropical river otters
The neotropical river otter (Lontra longicaudis) is classified on the IUCN Red List as Data Deficient as there is insufficient data on species distribution, abundance and habitat use for the population status to be assessed against the criteria used to decide whether the species is Critically Endangered, Vulnerable etc. Our study in Costa Rica seeks to provide one of the first year-round studies of a local population of otters with regard to the spatial distribution throughout the year. It is critical to study these animals all year round as it is expected that the otters will expand, contract or shift their core areas of use as the river changes in depth, width and course within and between seasons. This information has conservation significance as it ensures that any strategies to protect this species that are recommended as a result of this work consider the habitat requirements throughout the year and not just within a specific shorter period.
To determine the areas being used by otters we record indirect signs such as faeces (‘scat’) as evidence that an otter has been there. These locations are recorded onto a GPS unit in the field and are analysed within a Geographic Information System (GIS) to assess the spatial distribution through computer analyses.
Bird point count surveys
Bring your binoculars and set your alarm early and you can join in our bird surveys which take place throughout the forests and along the course of the Rio Piro. Many of Costa Rica’s beautiful birds can be found here, as well as several migratory species. Frequently sighted are trogons, antbirds, hummingbirds and tanagers, and if you are lucky maybe a Baird’s Trogon or Great Curassow.
Bird counts are a commonly used method of identifying avian species composition in an area and we aim to study the diversity of the bird community in primary and secondary forest as well as within the river course. Not only will you be identifying birds by sight, but you will start to learn to identify birds by the calls they make.
Butterfly diversity in the forest understorey (Dry season only)
Butterflies are a well recognised indicator of habitat quality, ecosystem function and health and can be used as an early warning system for environmental change. As a key part of the food chain a diversity and abundance of butterflies will promote greater diversity and abundance of animals at the top trophic level (e.g., wild cats) and any changes in the environment and forest health that results in detriment to butterfly populations will have significant negative impacts on other wildlife.
This project involves live trapping butterflies by the use of canopy traps suspended from trees within the forest at different heights. The traps are baited and checked daily and butterflies are handled for identification. This work is conducted only in the dry season due to damage caused by rainfall and typically therefore runs between October/November and May/June.
Leaf litter frog diversity and abundance
Costa Rican amphibians are a diverse group and are amongst one of the most sensitive to climate change due to their use of small microhabitats and the porous nature of their skin. Declines have already been seen amongst amphibian groups due to reductions in pool sizes, shortened rain fall seasons and increased temperatures increasing bacterial growth and disease transmission. The sensitive nature of amphibians to altered climatic variables makes them an excellent indicator group for studying the effects of changing climates. The focus of the study here is leaf litter frogs and as they lay their eggs in leaf litter, increasing decomposition rates due to increasing temperature can eliminate their breeding habitat to the point that reproduction of an entire population can be threatened.
Our study uses hand capture techniques to capture leaf litter frogs within the primary forest and collect scientific photographs of each specimen for ex situ identification to confirm identification based on small characteristic differences between species. Environmental data such as temperature and humidity is also recorded to monitor the effects of climate change on populations between years. By the nature of this project, it creates an inventory of all leaf litter frogs in the area, is able to estimate the number of species likely in the area and can be used to monitor not only the diversity but also the abundance of leaf litter frogs.
Overview of project objectives
The long term goal of this project is to investigate the effects of climate change on biodiversity and the subsequent implications of climate change upon Costa Rica's network of protected areas. The project addresses four important questions in order to safeguard the future of Costa Rica's economically and biologically important natural heritage:
What effect is global warming having on the biodiversity within Costa Rica's system of protected areas?
What future effect is global warming likely to have on the biodiversity within Costa Rica's system of protected areas?
Is there adequate existing connectivity between habitat blocks within Costa Rica, and within the Mesoamerican hotspot as a whole, to allow ecosystem migration?
What conservation efforts can and need to be put in place to ensure the continued existence, where possible, of the ecosystems which typify the natural habitats of Costa Rica?