The less visible wonders of tropical forests

I’m headed back to the Osa region of Costa Rica again tomorrow night, an area where I’ve been working for 12 years now. My lab members and I go to Osa largely for it’s forests…and so do a lot of tourists. With whom the same basic exchanges have played out for years – they tend to go something like this:

Tourist: “Oh, you’re biologists! Are you studying the jaguars? Or the tapirs? Maybe the monkeys?”

Us: “Um, no. We study dirt. Oh, and trees.”

Tourist, searching for something hopeful here: “Oh, uh, what about the trees? Are you studying animals that live in them?”

Us: “Um, no, we’re kind of studying the nutrition of the forest – you know, what elements in the soil they need most to grow. Plus things like how much carbon the forest stores today, and what it might be like in the future.”

Tourist: “Oh, uh…hey…there’s my guide…gotta go!”

(Damn good thing I went to that science communication workshop this month…)

Except the thing is…trying to figure out how these staggeringly diverse places cycle the key elements of life – e.g. carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus – really is fascinating. How does a tree get so damn big on a soil that seems so poor? Why do all these trees only live on this soil, while all those only live on that one? Why does this tree have these leathery leaves that last for months when they fall to the ground, while that one’s leaves disappear like melting ice cream? When you start to piece together the answers to questions like these, it can then lead you down some new paths, ones that matter to all of us. E.g., will these forests store enough carbon well into the future to help slow the rate of climate change? Can they help clean up air pollution? What happens to the air people breathe and the water they drink, not to mention the risk of some nasty diseases, if they keep getting cut down? Can we figure out ways to help communities that live near rain forests develop in ways that allow the best of 21st century comforts…but keep good chunks of these forests around for generations to come? And which forests do we keep – not only for the sake of the jaguars, tapirs and monkeys of the world, but the sake of our climate, water and air?

These are the kinds of questions that keep us coming back, and keep leading us down new avenues of inquiry. Internet access willing, I’ll try to post some more real-time updates here from this trip. It’s one I’m looking forward to – not only because of a chance to spend time in the field with Cory Cleveland, with whom I started the Osa work back in ‘99, but also because we’ll be joined by a pack of students, one of whom is making her first trip to the tropics. Always fun to see a place like this through the eyes of a newbie. Plus it’s fun to end your days looking something like this…

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