Toucans, Parrots, and Other Wildlife in Costa Rica's Forests

Expedition Briefing


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The Research

Over the past 70 years, more than three-quarters of the original tropical forest in Coto Brus, Costa Rica has disappeared (Malavasi and Kellenburg 2002). Today, this landscape is made up of mixed- use agricultural fields and plantations, some of which have been abandoned, while others are still in use for crops or cattle. These lands are interspersed with remaining forest reserves, which are teeming with wildlife—more than 2,000 plant species, 100 mammal species, and 400 species of birds occur in this region.

To regenerate, forests rely on vertebrates such as toucans, parrots, and other tropical birds, iguanas, and monkeys to consume and disperse seeds over long distances (Aslan et al. 2013). But ongoing habitat fragmentation and destruction are putting these species at risk and threatening biodiversity in Costa Rica.

In recent years, scientists working in Coto Brus have noticed something unusual. Local landowners are planting or maintaining fruiting trees on their properties, which are interspersed among homes and agricultural fields across the landscape. Researchers hypothesize that these trees are supporting the re-growth and resilience of the forests by serving as seed sources and providing food and stopover points for seed dispersers.

By demonstrating the ecological benefits of these fruiting trees, Earthwatch teams could help to inform policies that support local communities, enabling landowners to continue or possibly scale up their tree-planting practices.

Research Aims

This research will address the hypothesis that the planting and maintaining of non-agricultural, fruiting trees by landowners in rural Costa Rica serves an important ecological and conservation function both by supporting seed dispersers and seed dispersal services across the region and by providing a seed source for forest regeneration following disturbance.

Because much of Costa Rica’s remaining forest is located on private land, it is important to understand private conservation and restoration efforts. The research will address the social hypothesis that landowners are aware of the ecological benefits of their land management practices and that this awareness contributes to their decision to plant/maintain such trees.

This research aims to provide ecological and societal benefits, in addition to facilitating a greater understanding of the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of planting trees in Coto Brus. By measuring seed dispersal within the focal landowner plantings, this study will extend these previous efforts by determining the ecological and conservation implications of an existing practice and the motivations underlying this practice.

How You Will Help

Volunteers will perform the following tasks:


This will be the most common activity for volunteers. Volunteers will work in groups of two or more. The first full day of each volunteer session will involve training, with each group accompanying one of the project leaders to practice the methodology and identification. Thereafter, groups will perform 1–3 observations per day, mostly in the morning to be sure to avoid any afternoon rains. Observations will take place at various times throughout the day. Observations will consist of 10-minute blocks, with periodic breaks. During the observation, volunteers will record the animals (birds, mammals, and lizards) consuming fruits and seeds in the focal trees, the behaviors of those animals, and the total number of ripe fruits visible.


Volunteer teams will collect seeds that have fallen into seed traps. All seeds from a given trap will be placed in a plastic bag and labeled with the trap number (in order to keep track of its source location). Volunteers will assist with sorting seeds into groups by appearance.


Seeds that have been collected from fruit traps, as well as those that have been collected from the ground beneath the trees, must be examined for intactness. This will be done under a microscope or magnifying glass. The degree of seed intactness will be recorded on a datasheet and seeds that are visibly intact sorted into a separate container for planting in germination flats. Using example photographs, volunteers will be trained in the appearance of an intact seed for each focal species as well as the appearance of seeds that have sustained minor, medium, and major damage, so that they can assign an intactness category to each seed.


Seeds that are deemed intact or have minor damage will be scattered across the surface of germination flats and watered. All seeds in a given flat will be from a single species and fit a single category of intactness. Flats will be labeled with that species and the date of planting. Before planting the seed, photographs of each seed type will be taken along with information on its location in the germination flat. Following planting, flats will be watered three times per week and the number of germinants recorded each day. Volunteers will assist with germination data collection, planting, and watering.


During the break periods within the 3-hour observation, volunteers may collect seeds that they observed being regurgitated, dropped, or defecated by frugivores (if such activities are observed), which they can safely collect. They will use surgical gloves to avoid direct contact. Any collected seeds will be placed in small coin envelopes and labeled with the names of the fruiting plant and the frugivore observed dropping the seed.


The majority of the work with which citizen scientists will be involved entails collecting the ecological data discussed above. The social science data collection requires Spanish proficiency, experience interviewing, and Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. IRB prohibits engagement in the data collection by volunteers because they have not gone through IRB training or received approval. However, if volunteers are interested in learning more about this part of the research, they will be able to talk to the researchers about it. If any community forums about the research are planned during the volunteer’s trip, he or she might be able to attend. Occasionally volunteers will meet landowners while conducting surveys in the field.

Life in the Field

Typical research days may vary somewhat. The first day will be spent in training and a day in the middle of the session will be a recreational/rest day for volunteers. Project staff will suggest activities volunteers may choose to do on this day to further experience the region. Remaining days will contain a variety of field tasks. The typical day described here may vary somewhat as some tasks need to be performed only once per month at each site (e.g., seed trap checks, fruiting tree surveys). Others may be performed depending on the number of volunteers and their energy level (e.g., a second observation set in a day), and others may be determined by weather. Some days will start early (around 5:30 a.m.), requiring breakfast to be eaten in the field, and some days the team will head out to the field after eating breakfast at the field station, around 7:00 am. Early morning and late afternoon observations are important because those are peak times for bird activity, but some volunteer groups may be unable to work at those times and will be accommodated. Every day will contain free time for the volunteers.

  • 5:30 a.m. Early-start departure for field site (bring “bag-lunch” breakfast)
  • 6:30 a.m. Breakfast (if eating at research station)
  • 7:00 a.m. Late-start departure for field site
  • 8:00 a.m. Collect dropped seeds, check fruit traps, etc.
  • 9:00 a.m. Frugivory observation
  • 11:30 a.m. Return to field station
  • 12:00 p.m. Lunch
  • 1:30 p.m. Siesta/free time
  • 3:00 p.m. Flat planting and maintenance and data entry
  • 5:00 p.m. Free time
  • 6:00 p.m. Dinner
  • 7:30 p.m. Evening discussion, film, presentation, or free time

Accommodations and Food

Las Cruces Biological Station is a very comfortable field station. In addition to providing housing for researchers (short and long-term), Las Cruces also receives Natural History Visitors (i.e, ecotourists). Given this, the station is able to provide many amenities.

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.


The quarters in which the volunteers stay will depend on the size of the group and time of year, and will be assigned by Las Cruces staff according to room availability. The number of participants per room will vary depending on the specific quarters the team is assigned.

Generally speaking, the Wilson House will be used for larger teams, as well as student groups and teen teams, as it provides sleeping and classroom space, and a wonderfully sunny common room in a spacious building located in the center of the botanical gardens. Wilson House accommodations have several comfortable bunk beds per room and ample shared bathrooms, with several toilet and shower stalls on each floor. Smaller teams will more likely be split across various cabins on campus which have 1-2 bedrooms per unit and include twin and bunk beds accommodating up to three people per bedroom. Each cabin has a bathroom and balcony. For comfort, rooms have fans, and windows have either screens or glass. Towels and bedding (e.g., sheets, pillows, light blankets) are provided.

Single and couples rooms can be requested, but whether that request can be accommodated will depend on availability during each team, which is often confirmed by Las Cruces upon arrival.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.


There are showers at Las Cruces Biological Station, which are supplied with solar hot water - this means there is often hot water available for showers, but not when there has not been a lot of sun. There is also conventional sanitation. Toilet paper is not flushed down the toilet due to the type of septic systems used in Costa Rica. Instead it must be deposited in the small trash bin next to the toilet (in order to avoid clogging).


There is electricity in all the rooms throughout the station. You are welcome to bring electrical equipment. Electrical outlets in Costa Rica are 110v just like in North America. However, although most wall outlets are being switched to

3 prongs, if your device uses a 3-prong plug, we recommend bringing an adapter that converts from 3 to 2 prongs. Power in the rainforest can be unreliable, so come prepared for outages.


All buildings, including bedrooms, have wifi access that is free and available 24/7. You may bring your own laptop, tablet, or smartphone for free-time use.

Please note that personal communication with outsiders is not always possible while participating in an expedition. Earthwatch encourages volunteers to minimize outgoing calls and immerse themselves in the experience; likewise, family and friends should restrict calls to urgent messages only.


Las Cruces Biological Station provides family-style meals, served at 6:30 a.m., 12:00 p.m., and 6:00 p.m. When teams are performing early morning observations (before breakfast) or working in a more distant observation site or performing plant surveys after observations, a team may miss a scheduled meal. In this case, volunteers will be provided with box lunches and/or breakfasts prepared by kitchen staff. There is also an area with coffee and tea available throughout the day. Given that Las Cruces has a dedicated kitchen and staff to make meals, volunteers and research staff will not be involved in any cooking, shopping, or cleaning up—other than bussing their dishes.

The kitchen has refrigeration, and refrigeration is also available in some of the cabins, and can be used for storing medications needing refrigeration. Also, if you are accustomed to snacking between meals, please note that this is not a typical custom in Costa Rica so you should plan to bring your own supply of snacks. You may store them in the refrigerator to avoid attracting ants.

Water from all taps at Las Cruces is spring-sourced and safe to drink.

The following are examples of foods you may encounter during this experience. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

  • Breakfast: Dining In: Gallo pinto (rice and beans), eggs, toast, pancakes/arepas, cheese, plantains, fresh fruit, coffee. To Go: Sandwich bag lunch with peanut butter & jelly, or lunch meat and cheese options plus juice, cookies
  • Lunch: Dining In: Similar to Dinner. To Go: Sandwich bag lunch with peanut butter & jelly, or lunch meat and cheese options plus juice, cookies
  • Dinner: Chicken, beef or fish option, plus steamed vegetables and rice, beans, tortillas or pasta, salad bar, fresh fruit
  • Dessert (served w/ lunch): Tres leches cakes, and other pastries, fruit, rice pudding
  • Beverages: Fresh juice, water, coffee

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms.

Las Cruces can provide meals for vegetarians, vegans, lactose intolerance, gluten-free, and other restrictions. They are used to—and enjoy—accommodating diets of researchers and travelers from all over the world. Food allergies or dietary/restrictions should be reported in advance and the kitchen will plan meals that accommodate those requests. If you have made a special request, but cannot tell which meal options on the buffet apply to that request, please feel free to ask project staff (or the very friendly kitchen staff, if you speak Spanish) for guidance.

Project Conditions

The information that follows is as accurate as possible, but please keep in mind that conditions may change.

Costa Rica is known worldwide for its abundant tropical wildlife, friendly people, and pleasant climate. It is known as a fairly easy country to travel to and explore, with infrastructure and laws that are easier to navigate than most tropical countries. This study involves direct observation of tropical species including birds (toucans, trogons, parrots, tanagers), reptiles (iguanas), and occasionally primates (white-faced capuchins). Other animals volunteers may see in Costa Rica, during research or recreational outings, include additional attractive bird species (motmots, quetzals), snakes and crocodiles, agoutis, coatis, kinkajous, jaguarundi, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, sloths, macaws, hummingbirds, and butterflies.

The climate is tropical, with warm temperatures year-round (average 23°C), although due to the station’s elevation, it can be cool at night. Rain and storms are possible at any time (annual rainfall of 3.5-4m), but there is a drier season in January-March.

Even during the rainy season, rainfall has a certain pattern (e.g., afternoon) and it will not usually rain all day.


For weather and region-specific information, please visit and search for your project location.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Take an active role in one’s own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of the team.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is not your own.
  • Enjoy being outdoors all day in all types of weather, including rain, heat, and humidity, in the potential presence of insects, snakes (rarely), and other wild animals. Fieldwork may continue in rainy conditions depending on duration and intensity (birds are not active in heavy rain but will usually be very active as soon as it stops).
  • Walk slowly up to three miles total per day, along pre- established paths that may be muddy or uneven due to tree roots or through cow pastures, searching for fruiting plants and seedlings.
  • Stand for periods of about three hours while observing frugivore activity (volunteers may wish to bring small, packable camp stools to assist with this).
  • Get low enough to the ground to collect fallen seeds and sometimes to crawl under fence wires.
  • Look up into trees through binoculars for extended periods— this can be tiring on the neck and back.
  • Carry personal daily supplies such as lunch, water, and some small field equipment.
  • Get themselves up into and down out of a four-wheel-drive vehicle, minibus, or car and ride for up to 90 minutes at a stretch, seated with seat belt fastened.
  • Handle approximately 45 minutes of very steep and winding roads by vehicle at the beginning and end of the team (traveling from and to Golfito).
  • Ascend and descend several flights of stairs between accommodations and dining hall.

Health and Safety


Project staff members are not medical professionals.

The project will have cell phones and two-way radios for communication among the team while conducting fieldwork. If an emergency occurs during field work, the volunteer team should immediately use those methods to contact the project leader on duty, who will respond to the emergency, transporting the volunteer team back to Las Cruces or to the hospital or police station in San Vito, as appropriate.

Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.


Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or region where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions


We may encounter poor road conditions including landslides. Only qualified, experienced drivers will transport volunteers in project vehicles; we ensure project vehicles are well maintained. Seatbelts must be worn at all times. Volunteers are not permitted to drive. Driving after dark will be avoided, except in cases of emergency. Drivers and project staff will: stay abreast of local road conditions in order to avoid driving in inclement weather or on compromised routes; maintain appropriate distance between vehicles and travel at safe speeds (particularly on unpaved roads); carry cell phone and emergency equipment, such as GPS unit, first aid kit and water, spare tire and jack, in case of accident/break down on road.


You’ll likely traverse uneven terrain and hike uphill in humid tropical conditions; there’s a risk of sprains, strains, bruises or breaks due to falling or tripping. You should never walk ahead of your team leader, and should follow the leader’s instructions. Wear appropriate footwear (hiking boots with ankle support or high rubber/wellington boots with good tread) while hiking. Participants should take regular breaks, avoid overexerting themselves, use a walking stick or hiking pole if needed, only hike on terrain they are confident they can navigate safely and to inform a staff member if feeling tired or ill.

All scheduled fieldwork is planned on land the teams have permission to access, in partnership with the landowners. Sometimes a landowner may not be able to unlock a gate or meet the team at a specific time, and so access to a property may sometimes require ducking under or over a strand of barbed wire, or navigating a gap in the fence line. Be assured that these are not instances of trespassing or unplanned access.

Animals and Plants

Venomous snakes, such as the fer-de-lance, are present in the area but are more common in the forest than in the open research sites. Team members should: always look before stepping, and under no circumstances attempt to handle snakes. Additional protection can be added by bringing tall rubber boots or snake guards to wear in the field (see packing list), particularly when hiking on forest trails.

Pumas and jaguars tend to avoid humans and attacks are extremely rare. If a large cat has been sighted near a field site, teams will focus on plots in different locations. Large cats tend to be most active at dawn and dusk; teams will be extra cautious during these times and ensure that volunteers and staff make noise as they arrive and begin an observation, so that no cats will be startled. All plant surveys will take place midday, when cats are least active. Being in a group also decreases the chances of encountering large cats.

You’ll likely encounter many insects in the field; wear long–sleeved shirts and long pants and apply insect repellent frequently to avoid bites. Those with insect allergies should bring the proper emergency treatment (such as an Epi-Pen, with spares) and inform staff of the problem and the location of the treatment; they should take special precautions while collecting field data.

While hiking, we may encounter plants with irritating spines or sap. These plants are easy to avoid by not reaching out or touching plants while hiking.


Dehydration, heat exhaustion, sunburn, and other heat–related illnesses can occur, but you can protect yourself by drinking sufficient water, wearing high–SPF sunscreen, and wearing appropriate clothing. Dehydration from sweating can be a problem; please bring your own water bottles that you can easily carry and refill. Staff will attempt to stay in the shade and leave strenuous tasks until cooler times of day whenever possible. Participants should exercise these precautions even in cooler temperatures and/or when the sky is overcast. Teams will have appropriate materials in First Aid kits (sunscreen, rehydration salts, etc.), and always have kits readily available in the field and at the research station.

In instances of adverse weather events, project staff will be responsible for monitoring weather forecasts and changing weather in the field, and determining site location and travel route for the day to minimize exposure to adverse weather. This will include contingency plans if weather changes unexpectedly. In the event of unexpected severe storms, teams will seek shelter in a station building or other stable structure, and avoid trees.

Personal Security

Participants should take standard precautions such as storing their passport and money properly at the research sites and en route, not traveling or walking around alone (especially after dark), avoiding wearing expensive jewelry and flashing money or electronics, leaving unnecessary valuables at home, and guarding against pickpockets, particularly when travelling out to the project, and in urban centers during recreational time or before/after the team.

Travelers’ Diarrhea

Meals will be prepared by research station staff, experienced in safe food handling. Field staff will ensure good hygiene practices are maintained at the research station and during fieldwork. Ample potable safe water will be provided (water from the taps at Las Cruces is good for drinking). Participants should always wash their hands with soap and water or a hand sanitizer before eating, and drink filtered or bottled water. Also, prior to travel, participants should speak to their doctor about other options for treating travelers’ diarrhea.

Distance from Medical Care

The hospital is never more than a 45 minute drive from any field site (and only about five minutes from the research station). However, if you have a chronic condition which could require urgent medical care (e.g., heart conditions, kidney problems, severe asthma, etc.), or if you are pregnant, please discuss your participation on this expedition with your physician.

Travel Planning


Golfito Airport, Golfito, Costa Rica

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.


Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.


Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website:

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.


  • Lonely Planet Guide to Costa Rica
  • The Rough Guide to Costa Rica
  • Frommer’s Guide to Costa Rica
  • A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, by F. Gary Stiles
  • A Bird Watcher’s Adventures in Tropical America by Alexander F. Skutch
  • The Natural History of Costa Rican Mammals, by Mark Wainwright
  • Costa Rican Natural History by Daniel H. Janzen
  • A Neotropical Companion: An Introduction to the Animals, Plants and Ecosystems of the New World Tropics by John C. Kricher
  • Aslan CE, Zavaleta ES, Tershy B, Croll D. 2013. Mutualism disruption threatens global plant biodiversity: a systematic review. PLOS ONE 8:e66993.
  • Malavasi EO, Kellenberg J. 2002. Program of payments for ecological services in Costa Rica. Building Assets for People and Nature: International Expert Meeting on Forest Landscape Restoration, Heredia, Costa Rica 27:1-8.

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