Friday, March 13, 2009

Manglares Y El Mar

After finishing my first Costa Rican research paper – a nice ten-page essay all about the extrafloral nectaries of morning glories – I hopped onto the bus for yet another Costa Rican adventure.  Seemingly as a reward for completing the first draft of our papers, we were taken to a mangrove forest on the coast of Puntas Arenas the following day.  Mangroves are plants adapted to live in areas of high salinity, meaning they are only found near the ocean, often juxtaposed by sandy white beaches.  The place we visited was no exception. 

However, our first stop was an inland mangrove that only floods during the rainy season.  There were two species of mangroves here: white mangrove and red mangrove.  The white mangrove deals with salinity by excreting the salt from glands on its leaves.  This leaves a coating of crystallized salt on the surface of the leaf – and it tastes extremely salty!  This species also has roots called pneumatophores that look like little pencils sticking up from the ground everywhere.  The red mangrove is even cooler in my opinion.  It uses lenticels (openings) on its roots to filter salt out of the water and so must expose its roots to the air.  Since the tide often inundates these trees in the rainy season, the roots must be high enough out of the mud to be able to breathe at some point every day.  This means that in the dry season, when the mud is exposed, these rhizophorous roots can be up to fifteen feet off the ground!  They are often in a big tangle and, since the species is a hardwood, the roots are very strong. 

The main reason that I am spitting out all of this natural history is to illustrate that these mangroves create the perfect treeclimbing environment!  In the dense thicket of trees you can easily move between multiple trees while remaining off the ground completely …  natural ladders are also abundant, lending themselves to exploration and copious amounts of swinging.  Needless to say I have discovered a profound liking of mangroves.

When we had all had our fill of monkeying around in the mangroves, we were taken to yet another biological station.  This one was quite small and we were only staying the night, but we made the most of our time in such a mesmerizing place as the mangrove beaches proved to be!

About 500m from the station there was a very nice white beach that opened onto a sheltered cove with waters of a brilliant aquamarine.  As this was our first real chance to swim and our first interaction with the ocean thus far on the course, many of us threw on our bathing suits and booked it to the water’s edge for the remaining hours of daylight we had that first day.  Seeing the ocean for the first time in a little over 6 months, I immediately jumped in.  A frisbee was pulled out and a game of 500 commenced in the surf, complete with many unnecessary layouts and tackles.  Once satisfactorily exhausted and salty, we watched a painfully beautiful sunset over the cove before heading back to the station for dinner. Rice and beans are still going strong.  After dinner I returned to the beach with a few friends and refreshments to enjoy stargazing and watching the tide come in.

The next day we visited some more mangroves along the beach and spent some more time playing in the surf.  It was definitely a great break from collecting data and writing our research papers.  I knew that once we returned to Palo Verde that afternoon, the following week would be consumed by studying for midterms and working on final drafts of the research papers.

But before leaving the beach, we were able to do a bit more exploring in the waters just behind the station, where a boat launch leads out into a swathe of ocean bordered by a vast spread of mangrove forests.  There were several small dinghies anchored around the boat launch, and about 10m out there was a larger, wooden vessel.  The clan of guys on the course who call themselves “the BioPirates” decided that this would be the perfect craft to commandeer as their pirate ship.  They swam out to the boat and, naturally, I joined them. 

The vessel was really only half a ship capsized, and with its portside mostly absent.  It was encrusted in barnacles and ridden with broken planks of splintering wood, as well as ropes covered in a thick green layer of slime.  After deciding that it really only needed a paint job and a few touch-ups, we climbed aboard (this was harder than anticipated since the boat was leaning at a 45-degree angle).  All five of us ended up bleeding by the time we gained stable footing on the boat…the barnacles and broken planks proved to be very sharp!  So the color of choice for the paint job was chosen to be blood red, since we already had a head start.  With a bandana flag raised at the helm and the mission hailed as a success, we descended the ropes back into the salty water and went ashore to grab some grub.

Our afternoon was spent traveling … through the Nicoya Peninsula and through time.  On our way back to Palo Verde, we stopped at the Megafauna Park alongside the road.  This is a set of trails complete with life-size statues of many of the large animals that used to roam Costa Rica’s lands. Giant sloths, massive armadillos, and the famed gomphotheres were all on display – in addition to the towering tyrannosaurus rex that greets you at the entrance.  Oddly enough, we spotted a ctenosaur (big iguana) sitting in the jaws of the T-Rex.  I felt that this display aptly captured the living ctenosaur’s triumph over the extinct tyrannosaur.

I am now back at Palo Verde, mentally preparing for the onslaught of the coming week.  Only seven malaria pills left… that’s less than seven weeks left in the jungle!

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