Costa Rica expedition enriches professor, family

Calvin biology professor Dave Warners had several research projects well under way in the cloud forest of Costa Rica’s Talamanca Mountains even before the tree fell. It was a medium-sized tree, straddling the river where it lay, but it held a treasure trove of dependent plants in its moss-covered branches.

Prior to the fall, Warners could see the “epiphytes,” plants that grow on other plants, tucked into various places in the canopy formed by cloud forest trees. “I suspected that they were adding diversity. I also suspected that I was underestimating how many there were,” Warners said. “This tree that fell allowed me a close-up look, so I peeled them all off and counted them up.”

Dave Warners harvests epiphytes from a fallen tree in Costa Rica

Warners documented 561 total plants from 51 different species, many of them orchids and ferns. “This was a very fortunate episode,” he summarized.

Many of the epiphytes became part of the permanent landscaping of the Quetzal Educational Research Center, where Warners and his family were based for much of his spring 2005 sabbatical, a research expedition partially funded by a Calvin Alumni Association (CAA) grant. The plants also enriched Warners’ study of biodiversity of a former cloud forest in Costa Rica — which had years earlier been cleared for cattle ranching — as it transitions from pasture back into forest.

Studies of biodiversity in temperate zones show that, as pastures succeed to forest, the greatest diversity (the point at which the area contains the most plant species) occurs midway through the transition. Biodiversity is different in tropical zones, Warners said: “The most mature forest is the most diverse.”

Before getting his hands on the hard-to-reach epiphytes, Warners was already engaged in doing a quantitative analysis of biodiversity in the cloud forest. He was also compiling a basic inventory of the flora of the upper Rio Savegre Valley: collecting and drying more than 700 plant specimens and identifying them with the help of the staff at the National Institute for Biodiversity in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica.

And — with the volunteer help of five Calvin students — he was planting an experimental array of aguacatillos, small avocadoes that feed the resplendent quetzal, a bird that attracts a lot of tourism to the valley. (An aguacatillo nursery had earlier been established in the area by Warners, Calvin biology professor Randy Van Dragt and three successive Calvin Interim classes.)

Warners said his biodiversity study has already infused his teaching and research at Calvin. And in his progress report to the CAA board, he mentioned another unexpected benefit of the trip. He walked his son to and from school each day with a Nicaraguan father and son, and he grew to treasure the friendship he formed with this man: “Our lives have been significantly enriched during the time we have lived here,” Warners wrote, “enriched by the people we’ve been able to get to know, by the portion of God’s creation impressively displayed here, and by our displacement from what is familiar, comfortable and easy.”