Sunday, April 10, 2016

Surviving in the Desert: Observations from Palo Verde Biological Station by Julia Erskine

One of the best places to see the diversity at Palo Verde – and the sunset.
Palo Verde Biological Station was an entirely different world. I had gotten used to humidity and rain, two things you are never going to encounter in the dry forest of Costa Rica in March. But, in what seemed to be a desert we were able to witness how life changes and adapts to deal with such stresses. I wrote in a previous post about nature taking back lost land after manmade disturbances. But, what is possibly even more impressive than witnessing recovery, is to observe how nature can withstand natural environmental changes. (Although we might not be able to say that the current changes in weather are ‘natural’.)
Looking across the vertisol it is difficult to imagine that the area is annually filled with water, becoming an aquatic habitat for countless species of plants and animals. But, this is what occurs every rainy season. The cracked soil expands with water, the dried seaweeds are revitalized, and the crocodiles expand their territory. At the same time, the cattle are pushed into the forests now blooming with color. The trees in this ecosystem have adapted to shed their leaves and put their energy into flowering during the dry season. They have developed ways to conserve water and protect themselves from the harshness of droughts.
These adaptations were easy to see along our hike. The trees were unlike any we had seen in the other research stations. Seeds coated the ground alongside dead, fallen leaves, and we spoke about how much these seeds could withstand while waiting to germinate and grow. Yet, at the same time, the cattails spreading across the plains and invading the wetland, show the vulnerability of the land. Iguanas were everywhere at Palo Verde, perfectly suited for basking in the sun. Similarly, along our river boat ride, we spotted crocodiles that also appeared happy to lay on the sunny river bank before sliding into the muddy water.
The drought creates a desert-like environment with layers of sand and dust. A constant breeze of this thick dust seemed to coat us within seconds of walking outside. Thirst immediately hit us, and we knew that this is not an environment meant for us. It is easy to imagine the difficulties that humans attempting to live in this sort of environment might face. And, it was clear that we would not be able to survive the extremes of nature in the dry forest, which makes the biodiversity that can survive all the more incredible.
Upon thinking of Costa Rica, we imagine the biodiversity of the jungle. It was a valuable experience to be able to witness the extreme differences in ecosystems that exist within fifty miles of each other. We found once again that nature, if given a chance, can thrive in the most unlikely places.

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