The Las Cruces Biological Station is one of three stations owned and operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) in Costa Rica. The station is located at 1200 m (3940 ft) above sea level along a spur of the Zapote coastal range, and is about 300 km southeast of the capital San José in Coto Brus County. Las Cruces receives approximately 4 m of rainfall annually and harbors a distinct dry season from December - April. The forest is classified as a tropical premontane rainforest according to the Holdridge system.
Coto Brus is one of the most deforested counties in Costa Rica; it is also one of the most recently deforested. The area is very fragmented and the regional landscape is made up of a mosaic of mixed-use agricultural fields. Originally a principal coffee growing region, most land has been converted to pasture in the last decade due to the global drop in coffee prices. Given the steepness of land and high annual rainfall, conversion to pasture has resulted in many environmental problems including soil erosion, water contamination, and flooding.
The Las Cruces Biological Station owns one of the largest remaining forest fragments in the region. With ~200 hectares of primary forest and over 50 hectares of adjacent secondary forest, the fragment is home to over 2,000 native plant species. Numerous smaller fragments are scattered throughout the area and some measure of biological connectivity exists in the form of living fence rows and narrow corridors along riparian zones. However, rather than viewing this landscape as an impediment to research, it is this setting that makes Las Cruces an ideal station to study the effects of forest fragmentation and isolation on animal and plant communities. The area is also ideally suited for research on biological corridors and restoration ecology.
Las Cruces is working to actively promote and facilitate research in these areas in a number of ways. In August 2005 we hired a fulltime GIS coordinator, charged with acquiring all aerial and landsat information available for this region. Collections date back to the late 1950s, which coincides with the earliest colonization of Coto Brus County. Accordingly, a comprehensive GIS database is being compiled for the land use history of this region. In addition to acquiring this information, our GIS manager is documenting the changes that have occurred in land use over the past 50 years. We are also determining the location and ownership of fragments around Las Cruces and mapping watersheds and other important topographical landmarks. These databases are available to all researchers at Las Cruces.
A second goal of our mission at Las Cruces is to continue a land acquisition program and, in doing so, expand our protected areas and connect some of the isolated forest fragments around the station. Given the predominant agricultural land use around Las Cruces, most new land acquisitions will be former pasture. Accordingly, these purchases will be ideally suited for restoration ecologists to conduct research on forest recovery and the design and execution of biological corridors to link up isolated fragments. The current land campaign is focused on the purchase of two adjacent properties on the western edge of Las Cruces (150 hectares total), which will consolidate several forest fragments in the immediate vicinity of the current property boundary, and protect over 50 additional hectares of forested land. A beautiful 1.5 hectare natural lagoon also falls within the proposed acquisition. This lagoon is of historical value and harbors the oldest known maize pollen record in southern Costa Rica (Clement and Horn 2001). The rest of the land is in pasture and will be made available for research.
In addition to the high plant diversity in our forest fragment, there are over 100 species of mammals at Las Cruces, of which 43 are bats. We also have an impressive diversity of birds with over 400 recorded species and 1000s of insect species. Nonetheless, seven mammal species are known to have gone locally extinct and many others are threatened (Pacheco et al. 2006). In addition, a number of bird species are now only found in the Las Cruces fragment and their long-term viability is not well known (Daily et al. 2001). Thus it is critical to understand the conservation dynamics of this region in order to make sound conservation decisions and increase the protected area that Las Cruces covers in a strategic manner. Over time, isolated forest fragments can be bridged and ultimately we may be able to connect Las Cruces to large distant fragments such as the Guaymi reserve (7500 hectares), some 8 km away.
The station also houses the Robert and Catherine Wilson Botanical Garden, considered the most important in Central America. The garden has a rich, internationally recognized, collection of tropical plants from around the world and includes the second largest collection of palms worldwide. Over 3,000 species of plants are found on the 12-hectare property.
Las Cruces can provide room and board for up to 80 people. The station is equipped with classrooms and wireless access to the internet, as well as laboratory and library facilities to serve researchers and academic courses for short- or long-term stays.
If you are interested in more information about Las Cruces and the possibility of conducting research at the station and/or donating to our land campaign, please contact the station director Zak Zahawi (zak.zahawi @ ots.ac.cr). In Costa Rica, the station number is 2773-4004. OTS is a nonprofit consortium of almost 70 universities and research institutions from the US, Costa Rica, Peru, Mexico, South Africa, and Australia. Our mission is to provide leadership in education, research, and the responsible use of natural resources in the tropics.
- Clement, R. M. and S. P. Horn. 2001. Pre-Columbian land-use history in Costa Rica : a 3000-year record of forest clearance, agriculture and fires from Laguna Zoncho. The Holocene 11:419-426.
- Daily, G. C., P. R. Ehrlich, and G. A. Sanchez-Azofeifa. 2001. Countryside biogeography: use of human-dominated habitats by the avifauna of southern Costa Rica. Ecological Applications 11:1-13.
- Pacheco, J., G. Ceballos, G. C. Daily, P. R. Ehrlich, G. Suzán, B. Rodríguez-Herrera, and E. Marcé. 2006. Diversidad, historia natural y conservación de los mamíferos de San Vito de Coto Brus, Costa Rica. Revista de Biología Tropical 54:219-240.