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RTPI Staff Teaches Litchfield High School Students in the Costa Rican Rainforest

Posted on Mar 13, 2014

Between February 24 and March 7 RTPI Affiliate Sean Graesser and Director Twan Leenders traveled to the Costa Rican rainforest again to teach Connecticut high school students about the importance of rainforest conservation as part of the Forman School Rainforest Project. This unique hands-on biology course based out of the Forman School in Litchfield, but also catering to high school seniors and juniors of local public high schools, is currently in its 22nd year. Every year a group of 12-14 students travels to the remote (and difficult to reach) rainforest preserve Rara Avis, where they work around the clock studying the area’s biodiversity and developing sustainable non-timber resource projects that can provide local people with alternatives to the commonly used slash-and-burn method of agriculture.

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The 2014 team

Since its inception the project has been a demonstration project of sorts, researching different ways to reveal the tremendous value of an intact rainforest – both biologically and financially. Only once people realize that it pays to leave forest intact and use its resources intelligently rather than replacing it with poor quality pasture land, a major step has been taken towards the preservation of these important habitats.

Every year students build on the knowledge and experience previous teams have accumulated. The students are directed and supported in their endeavors by a support staff of experts in their respective fields. Sean Graesser is a master bird bander and expert on Neotropical migrants. He joined the program for the first time this year to continue our migratory bird banding studies in Rara Avis.

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Sean and the bird paparazzi before he releases a capture

Sean and his students will help us better understand the needs of some of the migratory birds we see in the northeastern US during the summer months while they are on their wintering grounds. Birds are caught and banded so they can be individually recognized. Sean and his team managed to capture and band 20 migrants this year. Some of these migrants banded in Rara Avis are just passing through on their way north, but previous work by project director Frank Gallo has already shown that some species winter right there. For example a Chestnut-sided Warbler banded in Rara Avis was recaptured twice more over a four year period, each time in the same line of trees and roughly on the same date! This kind of information helps us understand how to better protect our migratory birds when they are not in the US and provides insights in the poorly known parts of these amazing animal’s biology.

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The bird team weighing one of their catches

Twan Leenders is one of the original staff members of the project and has been involved for 21 years. Twan is an expert on Central American amphibians and reptiles and very familiar with the other animals and plants in the area, since he was the preserve’s manager in the past. With help from Sean and another student team, Twan carried on his ongoing research on the amphibians and reptiles of Rara Avis. Among the highlights from this trip was the notion that several species of amphibians that were severely impacted by a deadly fungal disease are continuing their gradual population recovery and are reliably found in an increasingly large part of the preserve. One spectacular species, the Crowned Treefrog (Anotheca spinosa) was first discovered in Rara Avis in 2007. No fewer than 6 individuals of this rare species were found this year, including in areas where they were not know yet. The team even managed to add another species to the preserve’s already impressive (130 species) species list quite a feat after the area has been intensively studied for 22 years!

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Reptile and amphibian team exploring a rainforest stream

As scientific advisor for the project, Twan oversees the other projects that students work on this year, such as a spider project that researches the possibility to sustainably harvest silk from the Golden Orb-weaver (Nephila clavipes), a fiber that has great industrial potential and spurred a multi-million dollar industry attempting to artificially synthesize the silk rather than extract it.

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Spider team working at night with lighted sheets to attract bugs to feed their spiders

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Golden Orb-weaver (Nephila clavipes)

A new project this year, focused on Bioacoustics and Telemetry, is testing novel ways to do rapid biological inventories based on sound recordings. The students on this project also study habitat use and home range data for small rainforest mammals. After repeated and unsuccessful attempts to capture a rare Watson’s Climbing Rat (Tylomys watsoni) we managed to capture a Gray Four-eyed Opossum (Philander opossum) which we outfitted with a radio collar so students could track its movements and activity for several days.

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Bioacoustics team weighing the Four-eyed Opossum (Philander opossum)

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Bioacoustics team tracking the opossum

The synergy between students, teachers, project staff, scientists and local participants is tremendous and the information we gather each year is used to educate visitors to the preserve, landowners in the area and government officials in charge of country-wide conservation efforts in Costa Rica. Of course the project provides an amazing hands-on learning experience for all students involved, but even long-time staff members such as myself always return home with new information and even more questions that I’d like to find answers for than before. These kinds of projects provide a never-ending and stimulating opportunity to teach and learn for everyone involved – I can’t imagine any better way to spend a week or two each year!

Twan Leenders
President & Executive Director

Photos © Twan Leenders