1963 was a pretty eventful year. Martin Luther King declared, “I have a dream,” U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and Beatlemania started to sweep the world.
Undoubtedly less known, but nevertheless of considerable importance, 1963 was also the year the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) was founded. Forty-five years later, the nonprofit consortium of 65 universities and research institutes from the United States, Latin America, Australia and South Africa is considered one of the world’s leading centers for research on tropical ecology. On average, 300 scientists from as many as 25 countries work at OTS research stations each year.
To celebrate the anniversary, approximately 200 people gathered earlier this month in the auditorium of the University of Costa Rica’s City of Research. In addition to recognizing past achievements, including an address by National Council of University Rectors President Olman Segura and tributes to long-serving staff members, the event also looked to the future, with the launch of a new initiative called “Global Change and Tropical Ecosystems.”
Through several decades of research, OTS scientists have come to understand that tropical ecosystems are much more fragile than first thought, and that they are severely threatened by human activity. For example, studies at the La Selva Biological Station in the Caribbean lowlands have shown that 50% of forest bird species have declined or disappeared entirely over the course of the past 45 years. Not a single species has registered a population increase in that time.
The organization recognizes that these changes cannot be pinned down to just one cause; habitat destruction, global warming, pollution, introduction of non-native species and overexploitation of natural resources are all cited as contributing factors.
“The OTS … is in a great position to approach and tackle the impact of global change on the tropics,” OTS President and CEO Elizabeth Losos said at the ceremony.
The Global Change and Tropical Ecosystems initiative is focused on three main areas: science, education and action.
The OTS has always had a strong focus on scientific research. However, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, the organization will create a network of scientists that will foster greater cooperation among academics.
“Everybody is worried by global warming, which is normal and is something that we should be worried about,” said Eugenio González, director of the OTS’ Palo Verde research station, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.“But everyone is focused on the changes that are happening at the poles with melting ice sheets, etc. When is the focus going to move onto the effect in the tropics?”
To help redress the imbalance, data from research stations in Panama, Brazil and Peru as well as Costa Rica will be analyzed and monitored, acting as an “early biological warning system” for tropical ecosystems.
“The idea is that those places, which have so far been working in isolation, can now work together,”OTS spokeswoman Alejandra Zúñiga told The Tico Times. “Up until now, we could have really interesting results but they were always limited to a very specific site in Costa Rica. In contrast, by having a network including four different places that all have important data about the tropics,we will obtain much more valuable information.”
The second area on which the initiative is focused is education, an area that has always been a central aspect of the organization’s work. The OTS has for a long time offered courses for postgraduate and undergraduate students, conservation professionals, public policy makers and the general public.
As part of the initiative, the OTS will be increasing the number of courses it offers, while remaining committed to its hands-on, field-based approach to education, centered on its three biological stations (see sidebar).
With a commitment to practicing what it preaches, the OTS actively seeks to be a leader in progressive environmental thinking, and this is the basis for the third and final thread of the initiative: action.
The organization is aiming to become carbon-neutral within five years. To achieve this, it plans to invest in ecofriendly technologies at its offices and research stations, and to offset unavoidable emissions through reforestation projects.
“Basically, with this initiative, we are going to be able to understand, first, how these global changes are really affecting the biodiversity of the tropics,” González said. “Second, we are going to be able to work at a global level, not just within Costa Rica.”
It is an ambitious plan, but, with a track record of success stretching back 45 years, the OTS can be justifiably confident its new initiative will bear fruit.
Visitor-Friendly Research Stations
While the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) is a serious and highly respected educational institute, part of its success comes from the fact that it is not exclusively the preserve of academics. In fact, the organization actively encourages laypeople to get involved with its work through its ecotourism projects and BioCursos programs.
The OTS operates three research stations in Costa Rica, all of which are in areas of outstanding natural beauty: La Selva, in the northern Caribbean lowlands, Las Cruces, near the Southern Zone town of San Vito, and Palo Verde, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
“Each station is working on a different ecosystem,” OTS spokeswoman Alejandra Zúñiga explained. “In Palo Verde, for example, they work on mangroves and tropical dry forest habitats, while in La Selva it is tropical rain forest and in Las Cruces it is premontane forest.”
Visitors are able to stay at each of these stations, enabling them to explore some beautiful and rarely visited areas of Costa Rica and learn about the huge variety of flora and fauna from world-leading scientists.
“Our idea is that, in addition to the research work, other people can go to the stations and get to know them. They are all open to the public,” Zúñiga said.
In addition, the OTS runs “BioCursos” both within and outside the country, allowing those interested in tropical science to gain a unique insight into nature’s complexity.
Perhaps one of its best-known courses is on the Isla del Coco, Costa Rica’s lengendary “Treasure Island,” 365
miles off the Pacific coast.
“The idea with the BioCursos is that ordinary people can really get to know interesting places with high biodiversity,” Zúñiga said.
For information about the OTS, its ecotourism and learning opportunities or donating to help further its work, visit www.ots.ac.cr.