June was a very wet month, and we hosted an intrepid Earthwatch Teen team, that went way beyond comfort zones during their ten day stay. This Earthwatch Teen Team braved sometimes torrential rains to assist Principal Investigator Norman Greenhawk collecting Chytrid samples along the Ethnobotanical Nature Trail. The teens learnt teamwork rapidly and became skilled at how to set up collection plots, becoming familiar with the use of the compass, measuring tape, and twine. After letting the plots rest for two days, the team returned and conducted leaf-litter surveys, searching the fallen leaves and detritus of the forest floor for frogs and Sphaerodactylus geckos. All captured animals were weighed and measured, and all amphibians were swabbed to test for the presence of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), a fungus that can cause the amphibian disease Chytridiomycosis. This collection event is a part of Norman’s ongoing monitoring of Bd at Las Casas de la Selva. See more about the Chytrid fungus: https://www.amphibiaweb.org/chytrid/chytridiomycosis.html This team also measured and re-tagged 110 mahoe trees, (Hibiscus elatus), which are part of long-term study plots at Las Casas de la Selva, with Principal Investigator 3t Vakil.
Images by 3t and Chelsea Kyffin, who was the teen team facilitator.
These 13 and 14 year olds from Montessori schools in PR and US, braved the torrential rains of the Patillas mountain to join us at Las Casas de la Selva for a few days together, helping 3t with re-potting nearly 200 tree seedlings, and they also learnt some woodworking skills with Ricardo and Alex. Andrés was chef, and provided us with yummy foods and a barbecue. Thank you all.
Instituto Nueva Escuela, Puerto Rico, Staff: L-R: Juan Jose Rodriguez Fernos, Alberto Viera Vargas, and Elsa Román.
Back row L-R: Inset, Israel Guzman, Herb Wexler, Janet Richards, Kamal Daghistani, Ziyou Yang, Diane Bentz, Julio Rodriguez. Front: Magha Garcia, Marigail Bentz, Chari Kauffman, Danny Nip, Patricia Salomon, Riona Kobayashi, 3t Vakil, Andres Rua.
Israel Guzman, President of SOPI, led the team into the forest for the first Winter Bird Surveys at Las Casas de la Selva. Marta Edgar previously carried out two years of surveys in the summer months with Earthwatch volunteers.
Globalworks brought the whole of the 8th Grade from San Francisco Day School to Las Casas de la Selva, May 2015.
We hosted three teams consecutively, for three days each. This wonderful bunch of teens planted critically endangered endemic Cornutia obovata trees in the forest.
Thanks to SFDS teacher Chris Corrigan for his tremendous leadership skills, and the enthusiasm he has brought to Las Casas over the last several years on Globalworks expeditions. Thanks to all the wonderful staff and students for the hard-work planting these Cornutia obovata out in the forest, and for the wonderful evenings back at the homestead. We salute you all! Thank you also to Globalworks staff, and to Las Casas volunteers Alfredo Lopez and Helen Galli, for all their help. All pix by 3t Vakil unless otherwise credited.
Thank you Earthwatchers for your help in herpetological surveys, planting of endangered endemic trees, Cornutia obovata and Styrax portoricensis, and for help in the nursery re-potting seedlings collected from the previous year.
Principal Investigators: Dr. Mark Nelson, 3t Vakil, Norman Greenhawk.
2015 Images by 3t Vakil, Lisa Bennet, and Susannah Garrett.
Pepperdine University students spent seven days at Las Casas de la Selva, helping with various tasks led by Andrés Rúa, ranging from plastering the new retaining wall and walls on the main house, as well as work on the ethnobotanical trail, step-building, pruning, and prepping surfaces for more work. This team were lucky to have a cooking class with renowned gourmet chef Magha Garcia Medina, and a rocking Salsa Dance Class with Yara Soler Garcia.
We had a superb time with this team, and we thank you all for all the joy and enthusiasm that you brought to the project. Please revisit in the future! Thanks also to William Robinson who has been volunteering here for one month.
On the second day of the group’s visit, Simarouba, our beautiful white cat gave birth to 5 kittens. Magha Garcia Medina takes the students on an exploration of the foods of Puerto Rico, and we end up with a Sancocho for dinner. If you have never had Sancocho, here’s the place to come and try it!
University Of Colorado, Colorado Springs, students spent 6 days at Las Casas de la Selva, and helped build a retaining wall, as well as prune and maintain the wastewater garden. We all had a great time and we really appreciate all the hard work in rainy weather. U of C, we salute you all!
The steep and remote areas of Icaco and Hormiga Valleys of Las Casas de la Selva have never been surveyed for amphibians. Herpetologist Norman Greenhawk led a team of volunteers into the forest to search for target species of frogs in this vast area, to identify and gather information about amphibians to better assist with the future management of this area. The expedition started on 16th July, and continued to 8th August 2014. The team set up camp in the forest, prepared their own food, and faced some days of extremely challenging windy and rainy weather, including an interruption of the study by Tropical Storm Bertha! The team included college students from the continental US, Puerto Rico, an Earthwatch Teen Team, and Dr. Gabriela Agostini from Argentina. They and came back with a lot of data.
The target species that were confirmed to exist in the valleys were: IUCN Endangered Eleutherodactylus wightmanae (the Coqui Melodioso), IUCN Vulnerable Eleutherodactylus cooki (Coqui Guajon), and IUCN Critically endangered Eleutherodactylus richmondi (Coqui Caoba).
During the surveys, the team sampled for Chytridiomycosis, an infectious disease of amphibians, caused by the chytrid Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a non-hyphal zoosporic fungus, that is currently killing off amphibians around the world. GPS co-ordinates of appropriate information were taken to allow for mapping of the range of target species within the valley, and high quality photos of the frogs were taken to help show the myriad variation of colors and patterns within a single species.
The initial survey is over and the data is being compiled. Norman has met with personnel of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to help determine future monitoring and research. Once the results of the Chytrid sampling are delivered from the San Diego Zoo, a report will be written up and submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for publication. This survey will continue with a smaller team, as the mountain ridge that separates the two valleys needs to be accessed and sampled.
Norman expresses deep gratitude to team members Sarah Bryan, Jessica Rosado, Marla Gonzalez, Sara Gabel, Sara Zlotnik, Alessandra Belmonte, Sam Boas, Kaitlin Panzer, Lauren Billy, and co-team leader Gabi Agostini. Huge thanks also to Earthwatch Team members: Alana Salas-Yoshii, Josie Icaza, Samantha Riesberg, and their facilitator, Sushmita Sridhar.
Big, big thanks to the Mohammad bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, CREOi, Roland Pesch and Kathy Rosskoph, without whom this survey would not have been able to be carried through.
Lastly, a special thanks to Thrity Vakil & Andrés Rúa for help with logistics, Leah Chevrier-Rappaport for extra volunteer help, and to Jan Zegarra of the US Fish & Wildlife Service for his encouragement, help with analyzing the results, and for consultation concerning future research possibilities.
Meet the team: L-R Back: Sam Boas, Norman Greenhawk, Marla M. Barrios González, Lauren Billy, Alessandra Belmonte, Sara Gabel. L-R Front: Leah Chevrier-Rappaport, Sarah Bryan, Jessica Rosado, Gabriela Agostini, Sara Zlotnik
EARTHWATCH PARTICIPATION: For several days of the survey, the team also comprised of three teenage Earthwatchers, Alana Salas-Yoshii, Josie Icaza, Samantha Riesberg, and their facilitator, Sushmita Sridhar.
Photo credits: Norman Greenhawk, 3t Vakil, Andrés Rúa, and Dr. Gabi Agostini (frog pix below).
Thank you to all the Earthwatchers who fielded in our summer season. Through rain, mud, and slippery slopes, everyone made it over established comfort levels and discovered themselves anew at the end of each expedition. We are happy to have had Marta Edgar here as PI on the ongoing Bird Survey, and she worked with the first team. 3t continued on with tree data collection on the Liberation thinning study and also gathered, with team 2g, a complete monitoring of the endangered endemic tree species planted last year in a collaborative project with US Fish & Wildlife. Norman is carrying out a one month Herpetological survey in Icaco and Hormiga Valley and the teenagers on Team 3 along with their Earthwatch Facilitator, got to camp for 6 days and work on this study.
We really appreciate the level of enthusiasm brought to our project by volunteers, because without you, data would be hard to collect. We salute you all.
Norman has been invited to give a presentation of his work at The University of Puerto Rico in February 2014.
NormanGreenhawk was away from Las Casas de la Selva for the majority of 2013, from April through Mid-November, on travel and training on the Earthwatch Neville Shulman Award for Emerging Environmental Leaders. Norman won the award based on his proposal to study not only various species of reptiles and amphibians, but also to conduct ethno-herpetological interviews with local people through Central and South America to record attitudes, uses (medicinal, ritual, economic, etc), and beliefs about frogs, snakes, lizards, and crocodiles.
Norman’s travels took him to Panama, where he studied with the brilliant Dr. Julie Ray of La MICA and with the Smithsonian’s Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation project. Norman learned to catch and relocate endangered crocodiles with the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary in Belize. In Honduras, Norman learned the finer points of monitoring the endemic Utila Island Iguana, a species of lizard that is adapted to inhabit only the mangrove swamps of Utila Island. Norman ended his trip with a month in Bolivia, studying critically endangered frogs and interviewing the indigenous people who ran the “Mercado de las Brujas”.
Upon his return to Las Casas, Norman led an expedition into Icaco Valley with Jan Zegarra of the US FWS, and Maria Cristina of Universidad Metropolitana. The purpose of the trip was to monitor the population of Eleutherodactylus cooki, the “Coqui Guajon” that Norman discovered in December 2012, but there was a pleasant surprise. This expedition confirmed the presence of Eleutherodactylus richmondi, the “Coqui Caoba”, an IUCN critically-endangerd frog. According to Jan, whose Master’s thesis was on E. richmondi, there is only one other area in all of Puerto Rico where E. cooki and E. richmondi share habitat; Jan said this makes Icaco is a very special and unique location.
Collecting seedlings sounds like an easy task, but carrying full tree bags up and down forest slopes back to the homestead is demanding physical labor. Our current Earthwatch Team assisted with this task on New Years Eve, and in one morning we collected 110 Ausubo (Manilkara bidentata) seedlings.
Ausubo (Manilkara bidentata), also known a balata, is a large evergreen forest tree that was probably the most important timber tree of Puerto Rico. It grows best in Puerto Rico on alluvial plain where it may reach the age of 400 years. Ausubo is extremely tolerant of shade. The strong and attractive wood makes it highly valued commercially an it is widely used in the tropics for many woo products. The tree is often tapped for its milky latex the source of balata gum. Although growth is slow, ausubo is planted for shade and timber.
Ausubo is one of the strongest and most attractive commercial woods in Puerto Rico. It is widely used in the tropics for railway sleepers, bridging, heavy construction, furniture, turnery, flooring, violin bows, and billiard cues. Its strength, high wear resistance, and durability qualify the timber for use in textile and pulpmill equipment. Its excellent steam-bending properties make it suitable for boat frames and other bent work.
The heartwood is light red when cut and turns to dark reddish brown when dry. The sapwood is whitish to pale brown. The wood is very hard, strong, fine textured, and heavy, with a specific gravity of 0.85. The wood rates excellent for boring, fair for planing, and poor for turning. It is difficult to air season and shows severe checking and warp if dried too fast. The wood finishes very well and resembles mahogany.
Planting endangered endemicsWe have an enthusiastic team of Earthwatchers here till the 6th January 2014. Continuing our collaborative project with Fish & Wildlife, we planted critically endangered endemic tree saplings, Styrax portoricensis and Cornutia obovata. To date 116 Styrax and 21 Cornutia have been planted in our spectacular secondary forest here in the Mira Flores mountain, better known as Las Casas de la Selva.
SUMMARY 1984: In general the plantation design was to plant at approximately 3m (10 ft) spacing within the lines and 10m (32.5 ft) from line to line through the forest. In the process of line planting, larger trees and valuable native timber species were left in place and the lines continued with a gap left around them. This technique closely mimics a medium-sized tree fall gap, in which the forest floor litter and soils are undisturbed, but the above ground nearby competition is removed, such as vines and overhanging branches. 2000-2008 19 study plots, 1 acre (0.4 hectare) in size 16 plots of mahogany 3 plots of mahoe. 997 trees studied. Complete sets of reading taken twice. Range 24 to 42 mths between readings.
SURVIVAL RATE Mahogany plantings – 28% approx (dependent on plot aspect- see results, sw best) Initial planting approx. 370 trees per hectare (148 trees per acre) Mahoe plantings – 66%. Initial planting approx. 415 trees per hectare (166 trees per acre) DBH Mahogany trees are increasing in dbh by an average of 0.6 cm per year Mahoe are increasing by an average of 0.91 cm per year. HEIGHT since planting: Mahogany has grown in height at a rate of approximately half a meter per year. Mahoe at a rate of approximately one meter per year.
INDICATIONS The growth data indicate the Mahoe plantation has been far more successful than the mahogany in terms of wood production. At current rates of increase it would take the mahogany at Las Casas another 27 years to get 30 cm dbh trunks for logging, giving a total time from planting to harvest of 43 years. It is currently possible to harvest marketable wood from the mahoe at 15 years. Current conservative estimates for standing marketable wood for mahoe are approximately 58 cubic meters per hectare (25,000 board feet per hectare or 10,000 bd ft per acre). This makes the Mahoe a good candidate for sustainable forestry management where the aim is to get the trees on a cycle of harvesting and replanting to provide a continuous income. A final evaluation of this line planting method as a model for sustainable forestry will be possible when trees are being annually harvested selectively, replanting begins, and the wood and products successfully sold for profit. Future challenges with the Mahoe plantations will involve working out the best thinning and replanting strategies, (and dealing with issues of extraction on slopes, drying techniques, and forest road and bridge repairs after nearly thirty years and two hurricanes). The challenge is on.
Ongoing research on the Mahoe plantation: 2010 – 2012 Jimena Forero is pursuing a PhD Degree at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. As part of her dissertation she is describing the stand density and the canopy structure of our mahoe enrichment plantation in order to make recommendations for its management. Using our three 1-acre permanent mahoe plots, she has, with the help of undergraduates and Earth Watch volunteers conducted a forest inventory over two years (2010-2012) of these plots at Las Casas de la Selva. Her academic supervisor is Dr. Jess K. Zimmerman, Environmental Sciences professor at University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. Another part of her dissertation involves interviewing artisans all over the island, who use forest products.
2000-2004 Amphibians: Amphibians are especially useful as biological monitors of environmental health (Wake, 1991). Because in Puerto Rico frogs are the most important vertebrate nocturnal carnivores, a change in their population dynamics could have an important effect on the forest food web (Joglar, 1998). Thus, monitoring amphibians at Las Casas de la Selva was a suitable way to assess the impact of a line-planting forestry approach to tropical forest ecosystems. Main difference between the studied forested areas was that one had been disturbed to plant trees of potential economic value (line-planting), while the other area had been left undisturbed. There was no difference in species composition between the two areas studied. Eleutherodactylus coqui and E. wightmanae are the two most common species in both forests, with occasional sightings of E. portoricensis.
We were happy to note: Analysis of variance (ANOVA) of mean relative abundance of the two most common species revealed no significant difference between forests.
This is encouraging data.
These results suggest that the degree of disturbance caused by planting economically valuable trees had no effect on amphibian diversity or density in Patillas, Puerto Rico. At a time when the impact of anthropogenic activities on amphibian populations are being evaluated (Stuart et al., 2005), it is important to show that the type of forestry enrichment practiced at “Las Casas de La Selva”, did not have a negative impact on frog abundance. Our work in Las Casas de la Selva is the first record of population densities of E. coqui in the central cordillera of Puerto Rico, and the first record of population densities for E. wightmanae.
At a time when amphibian populations are declining all over the globe, and populations of these two species are declining at El Yunque, these data from Patillas represent a very valuable baseline that will allow us to monitor population fluctuations and potential declines associated to climate change or disease. Chytrid fungus Since June 2004, various species of frogs at Las Casas de la Selva have been sampled for the incidence of a pathogenic chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). This fungus is specific to amphibians and has been associated to their decline in various parts of the world (Longcore, 1999), including Puerto Rico (Burrowes et al. 2004). Tissue is taken from toe clippings and/or ventral skin scrapes, and analyzed for the chytrid DNA via specific PCR diagnostic methods. Results show the presence of chytrids in Patillas as early as 2005. At present, the level of incidence of Bd infection in Eleutherodactylus coqui is of 50 % and in E. wightmanae is 44 %. Biodiversity of Trees: Overall the line-planting program has resulted in a small increase in overall diversity of tree species in those areas. See results in the full paper, link above.
COMING SOON: Jump into our current world of frogs, snakes, lizards and more with Norman Greenhawk, who has been carrying out herpetological surveys in the forests of Las Casas de la Selva for the last five years.
Ongoing Coqui frog research at Las Casas de la Selva: 2010 – 2012 Patricia Caligari (center) is pursuing a Masters Degree at University of Puerto Rico, and as part of her thesis is sampling for chytrid in three species of endemic frogs in different parts of Puerto Rico, including Las Casas de la Selva. Her crew of undergraduate students help in the field and lab with DNA extraction. Her advisor is Dr. Patricia Burrowes, co-author of our paper above. More info
All studies are a building block in the more complex strategy of developing techniques to both satisfying human needs and conserving the resource base.” Ariel Lugo
2013 – 2015 COOPERATIVE PROJECT BETWEEN TROPIC VENTURES RESEARCH EDUCATION FOUNDATION, US PARTNERS FOR FISH WILDLIFE AND THE EARTHWATCH INSTITUTE.
This program has been formulated to protect endangered flora and fauna by planting endangered endemic tree species, and working on habitat enhancement in subtropical wet forest. The location and the quality of the habitat of the 930-acre forest property of Las Casas de la Selva is ideal for the establishment of projects toward the recovery of various endangered endemic tree species. The property’s north-eastern border adjoins the Carite State Forest which contains another 6,660 acres of subtropical wet mountain forest land.
Most of these species have been identified on this land, which makes it eminently suitable for their long-term habitat protection & enhancement. The area also provides habitat for several listed trees that have been identified within this geographical area (Eugenia haematocarpa and Callicarpa ampla). The area also harbors habitat for two Candidate Species; the elfin-woods warbler (Dendroica angelae) and the vine/shrub Gonocalyx concolor. The proposed project will also focus on the establishment of two experimental populations of the federally listed tree Styrax portoricensis. Furthermore, the area to be enhanced is part of the Rio Grande de Patillas upper watershed, which serves a large regional population with potable water, and will benefit the water quality of this river by reducing soil erosion.
As part of this project, Tropic Ventures Research and Education Foundation agree to maintain and protect the specific areas to be enhanced or under restoration practices for a period of at least 10 years. The areas for habitat enhancement will not interfere with other areas of the property which have been planted with forest enrichment trees, and is already in a program of sustainable management including selective harvesting of timber trees. Las Casas de la Selva is certified as Stewardship Forest and under the auspices of the Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry (IITF) has an approved Stewardship Management Plan. Tropic Ventures Research & Education Foundation has a contract with Tropic Ventures (the managing entity) to conduct scientific studies and educational research work on the entirety of the land for the next 50 years.
Earthwatch volunteer collaboration
Initially Earthwatch volunteers will be engaged in the process of site selection, site mapping, tagging and planting, measuring the saplings, and data collection. A biologist from FWS may accompany us on some these expeditions to assist in the process. See below for long-term monitoring process. All tree work is dependent on weather and care will be taken on steep slopes as always. There will always be nursery work, which may include pruning, care and maintenance of young seedlings, and of endangered tree species.
PROPOSAL 1. ENDANGERED SPECIES: Establishment of new populations of Styrax portoricensis. Establish at least two populations composed of about 50 individuals each in approximately 2 acres. Expected survival is 75% after the 2nd year of planting. Styrax portoricensis, locally known as palo de jazmin, is a species of flowering plant in the family Styracaceae. It is one of the rarest endemic trees of Puerto Rico and is found only in the northeastern Luquillo Mountains (Sierra de Luquillo) and the north-central Cayey mountains (Sierra de Cayey).
2. HABITAT ENHANCEMENT: Establishment of a shade nursery for caring and sheltering of saplings of threatened endemic species until planting.
3. LONG TERM MONITORING: The aim of this effort is to monitor the initial survival, growth rate, and success of the reintroduced material to ensure the best contribution to the recovery of the species.
4. REPORTS: Annually
5. OUTREACH: We will develop an outreach project to promote the recovery efforts and to educate the local community and visitors. This program will include fliers, brochures, and boards and signs along trails etc.
THE FOREST PRODUCTS ASSESSMENT PROJECT
This project has enabled Andrés Rúa to visit with sawmill owners over the island, interview dozens of artisans who work with forest products, as well as large & small scale wood & product dealers. The project aims to investigate use of forest products in Puerto Rico; where wood is coming from, what types of wood, who are the buyers, and what other forest products are in demand and use?
A symposium in April 2012 brought together over eighty people, ranging from foresters, arborists, woodworkers, DRNA staff, artisans, architects, professors, and UPR students, the symposium was hugely informative. The event was dedicated toCarlos Domínguez Cristóbal, author of “Panorama historico forestal de Puerto Rico”, and to recently retired forester Dr. Peter L. Weaver from IITF.
The Forest Products Assessment project continued with an in-the-field event in August 2012 led by Andrés Rúa. A pine tree was felled by arborist Andre Sanfiorenzo, hauled out by tractor, and milled. The event was to bring together and give those who shown an interest at the last Symposium the opportunity to actually partake in a timber project. Andrés showed the mill at work and several people had the chance to operate it. After a gourmet lunch, the afternoon continued in el teatro where lively and heated discussions dealt with the next steps to creating an intelligent future for timber production and forest products in Puerto Rico.
March 2013 saw the beginning of the second phase of the Forest Products Assessment, with a meeting at the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, (Images here) and then in in May 2013 at the University of Cayey, (Images here). More details on www.nuestramadera.org
CADA, Council for the Development of Agro-forestry, founded by Andrés Rúa and 3t Vakil, May 2013, was born from forestry discussions, which began with Frank H. Wadsworth in private meetings in 2008. The open membership includes individuals from universities and the private sector, members of Government agencies, and many other institutions, all brought together with an over-arching interest in the development of policies pertaining to the sustainable and intelligent use of all Puerto Rico’s valuable & unique natural resources.
Dec 2014 Symposium and Wood Expo at The International Institute of Tropical Forestry.
Nov 2014 Artisan Fair – Convention Center, San Juan.
April 2014 Talk at School of Fine Art & Industrial Design
Tropic Ventures Research & Education Foundation was incorporated in 1998 as a non-profit in Puerto Rico to support the project’s research and education activities. The Earthwatch Institute has been a key collaborator in assisting in the scientific mission since 2000. Tropic Ventures Research & Education Foundation has a contract with Tropic Ventures (the managing entity) to conduct scientific studies and educational research work on the entirety of the land for the next 50 years.
1) To carry out research into the raising and processing of valuable hardwoods as part of a project looking at a total systems approach to rainforest management emphasizing sound ecological practice and economic sustainability.
2) To maintain as a natural rainforest reserve, without human disturbance, approximately 800 hectares of secondary growth forest land at Tropic Ventures’ Las Casas de la Selva project site. The remaining 323 hectares being used to experiment with species enrichment and restoration of damaged areas as well as the raising of hardwoods.
3) To research and maintain a collection of ethnobotanically important rainforest plants, including fruits, ornamental plants, medicinal plants, culinary herbs and plants used for construction and handcrafts. Use of these plants will be researched as economic alternatives to logging.
4) To promote and carry out research and education in ecologically sound use of all forest resources including the utilization of “waste woods” ordinarily deemed not valuable, promoting rainforest preservation and sustainable forestry practice.
5) To hold conferences and workshops on rain forest ecology, including vectors of ecotourism, value added work on timber, economic alternatives and viability of rainforest communities, and sustainable use of rainforest resources.
TVREF relies solely on the generosity of individuals who value the work that we do. Forest research is an invisible yet crucial component of the future of sustainable forestry in Puerto Rico. Further outreach and education need your support, your donation is critical. Thank you so much, it means a lot.