Small mammal biodiversity research among Costa Rican coffee farms

In November of 2011, as I was getting snowed out of sensitive species surveys in the West Cascades of Oregon, I flew down to Costa Rica to spend the winter in the coffee fields of the central highlands. I’d been hired as a field assistant for a PhD candidate investigating small mammal biodiversity at several coffee forest matrices in the Turrialba area. Many people are familiar with organic, fair trade, and bird friendly certifications for coffee. Mandi, the researcher, wanted to see how coffee farms of various sizes and management practices related to small mammal abundance and diversity.

Turrialba
Turrialba

We had three study sites that we would rotated through sampling 10 days at a time. One was Rainforest Alliance Certified, which meant it had a variety of trees to provide shade and habitat scattered throughout the property, as well as meeting some social and economic sustainability benchmarks. Another farm consisted of coffee patches scattered between fields of sugarcane, peppers, and bananas (great for on-the-go snacking). Our third site was located on CATIE’s commercial farm, just across the road from campus.

Work entailed waking up early, piling into our 40 year old land rover and heading to one of our study sites. We would then break into groups to check the traps. At the beginning of each round of surveys we’d set out Sherman (mouse traps approximately the size of a sleeve of saltines) and have-a-heart(wire cages for raccoon-sized animals) traps in a grid pattern throughout the coffee farm, forest, and cane fields. We’d bait them daily, with a delicious smelling but foul textured mix of dog food, oats, peanut butter, vanilla, and banana. This always attracted ants, and sometimes attracted mice, rats, possums, and Marmosas. If we did find a mammal, we’d identify the species, then carefully measure, weigh, and staple it’s ear with a numbered tag. Recording what percentage of mammals were new and how many times we recaptured each one helped us estimate the individual range, and overall population size at each site. At some sites, we worked with local farmers and high school students, which brought me closer to understanding and experiencing the local culture.

Hiking in a grid pattern through a farm sounds like a piece of cake, maybe even boring. But it was an Indiana Jones level adventure. Rope swings, Turciopelos (poisonous snakes), barely jumpable rivers, mudslides and surprise stinging plants were all par for the course. Of course, if I stood anywhere long enough, I was sure to be covered in biting ants. Every day was a test of my reflexes.

We lived together on the CATIE (Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza) campus. This quiet housing complex on an agricultural college brought us in contact with researchers from around the world investigating a variety of agricultural (bananas that taste like apples) and wildlife (toucans as seed dispersers) questions. We worked well together, which was important given how taxing our field days could be! In our free time we cooked delicious, vegetarian meals — a welcome respite after a long day hiking in the rain, got hooked on Game of Thrones, and used our weekends to go on adventures throughout Costa Rica. Which were always fun, but tame compared to our workdays.

This work opportunity fused many of my passions: getting fit, speaking Spanish, working towards a better understanding of biodiversity in agricultural lands, and growing closer to my one enduring love– coffee.

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