Sharing Stroud™ Science
From the beginning, Maritza has rewarded Stroud researchers with unexpected insights. Because the area around the station is remote and undeveloped, the streams run clear and clean.
Maritza: Unlocking the Secrets of Water in the Developing World
The first thing that strikes a visitor to Maritza Biological Station, Stroud Water Research Center’s tropical campus in northwestern Costa Rica, is the remote beauty of the place. Set at the foot of the majestic Orosí volcano, Maritza looks west across Guanacaste Conservation Area (ACG) to the Pacific Ocean. In the evening, after the sun has dropped below the horizon in a brilliant ball of colors, the only visible lights are the few cars traveling on the Pan-American Highway that bisects the park, the flickering lamps of a small community, and the vast expanse of the Milky Way.
“In the dry season,” said Bern Sweeney, “I can walk into the forest and within 20 minutes have crossed six streams whose water is clean enough to drink with my hands, and I am reminded that this is how it used to be everywhere.”
Río Tempisquito, the stream that flows nearest to the station, might be described as the southern branch of White Clay Creek. Center scientists have been conducting original research in it since 1988. The work they do trying to unlock the secrets of freshwater ecosystems is very much like the work they do at the Center’s main campus in Avondale, Pa., except that the stream they study is tropical and the language they speak, however haltingly, is Spanish.
The Stroud family established Maritza in response to a request from noted evolutionary ecologist Dan Janzen to help create a park in which 90 percent of all species could be protected for 1,000 years. The result is the 300,000-acre ACG, one of the most diverse regions of the world, a critical “hot spot” for biodiversity protection, and a "water machine" that provides clean water for drinking, agriculture, and industry in the relatively arid northwestern Costa Rica.
Maritza Biological Station, with Orosí volcano in the distance
The Center’s role, said Steve Stroud, who has served on the boards of both ACG and Stroud, is to (1) understand the area’s freshwater ecosystems, (2) provide the scientific data essential for effective and enduring preservation strategies, and (3) educate the region’s people about the importance of their fresh water and the stewardship practices required to protect it.
Over Maritza’s history, Stroud scientists have vastly expanded their own and the world’s knowledge of tropical ecosystems, and they have shared their data with park officials who use it to make critical decisions about the region’s future. One result has been the creation of the only interdisciplinary database on freshwater ecology in the entire tropics. Another has been the creation of a replicable model that combines scientific research, biodiversity conservation, and economic development in an effort to produce a healthy environment and stable communities.
A History of Exciting Research
From the beginning, Maritza has rewarded Stroud researchers with unexpected insights. Because the area around the station is remote and undeveloped, the streams run clear and clean. But the scientists quickly discovered they are not pristine. Early studies revealed minute traces of pesticides in the water, which further research revealed had been carried west by the trade winds from the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, demonstrating once more that pollution is a global issue that knows no national borders.
“We started the research program because we realized that tropical stream ecosystems, with nearly constant water temperatures year round and almost three meters of rainfall concentrated in a rainy season, differ significantly from temperate ones,” said Sweeney. “Maritza was a long-term commitment to understand how natural tropical streams work and to provide a natural forest gradient from evergreen to deciduous that allows us to test theories about all stream ecosystems.”
Just as they had in Pennsylvania, Stroud researchers studied natural streams that would serve as a baseline for understanding, measuring, and eventually restoring polluted streams. Maritza, said Sweeney, is “the critical hub” for that effort, yielding knowledge that can be applied to tropical streams around the world.
What they had not anticipated was how important their work would become to the local communities, the Guanacaste region and the nation. “In Costa Rica, Maritza is held up as a model of how to use critical scientific research to build community awareness,” said Steve Stroud. “They understand the importance of our research to the protection of irreplaceable water resources.”
Two current projects highlight both the importance of Maritza to the Center’s overall vision and also how the diverse strands of that vision have become interwoven over time.
The first involves the collection of long-term data about the basic dynamics of the stream, which can be used as a baseline to measure other streams throughout the tropics. Led by John Jackson, the National Science Foundation (NSF)–funded Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) has expanded to eight sites that span the spectrum from wet forests to dry forests. Created in the image of the Center’s LTREB on White Clay Creek, Jackson’s multiyear study seeks to quantify changes over time and “explore the role of large-scale climatic processes (i.e., El Niño/La Niña) in the ecology of the streams across different years.”
The second project, also funded by NSF, builds on almost the entire history of the Center’s research. “The idea,” said Principal Investigator Lou Kaplan, “is to exploit new methods in molecular microbial ecology and molecular-scale analytical organic chemistry to test ideas first proposed by the River Continuum Concept (RCC).”
Sherman Roberts collecting rocks from the Neversink River. The thin film of microorganisms that live on them will be studied back in the laboratory.
Conceived at the Center in the 1970s by then-director Robin Vannote, the RCC revolutionized the study of freshwater ecosystems. Vannote’s 1980 paper describing the concept is still the most often-quoted scientific paper on stream ecology. But many of the processes Vannote and his colleagues hypothesized could not be verified at the time because the technology to do so did not exist. Consequently, researchers have been wrestling with its ramifications ever since, and now Kaplan and his team are employing methods, even fields of science, that were unknown 30 years ago.
Kaplan’s project is almost a microcosm of Stroud Water Research Center’s method and history, building on years of his own and others’ work; employing the most modern technology; collaborating with Jinjun Kan, the Center’s new microbial ecologist, post-doctoral scientist Jennifer Mosher, and Bob Findlay of the University of Alabama; and incorporating both the Center’s and ACG’s education departments to ensure that the findings are turned into programs for the general public, and in particular, for the next generation.
With sites on White Clay Creek, the Neversink River in New York and the Río Tempisquito in Costa Rica, the research team will work in waters ranging from small streams to small rivers in both temperate and tropical zones. Befitting a project of this magnitude, the goal is not to prove or disprove some arcane scientific trivium but to understand how microorganisms process organic carbon dissolved in stream water. “That processing,” said Kaplan, “constitutes a critical link in the global carbon cycle.”
Since its founding almost a quarter century ago, Maritza has become a vital piece of Stroud Water Research Center’s mosaic. It has enabled the scientists to understand streams in an environment that may well hold the key to the earth’s future, to work with researchers and communities in developing countries where the Center’s expertise is in high demand, and to provide Center researchers with knowledge they could get nowhere else.
“Our work at Maritza is critical to our mission,” said Sweeney. “It has enabled us to understand global water and climate issues in ways we could not have done without it.”