Costa Rican Natural History

Costa Rican Natural History

by Daniel H. Janzen

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This volume is a synthesis of existing knowledge about the flora and fauna of Costa Rica. The major portion of the book consists of detailed accounts of agricultural species, vegetation, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds, and insects.

"This is an extraordinary, virtually unique work. . . . The tremendous amount of original, previously unpublished, firsthand information is remarkable."—Peter H. Raven, Director, Missouri Botanical Garden

"An essential resource for anyone interested in tropical biology. . . . It can be used both as an encyclopedia—a source of facts on specific organisms—and as a source of ideas and generalizations about tropical ecology."—Alan P. Smith, Ecology

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226161204
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/14/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 823
File size: 142 MB
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Costa Rican Natural History

By Daniel H. Janzen

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1983 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-39334-6



L. D. Gómez and J. M. Savage

The early, radical transformation of the geographical significance and the social structure of Costa Rica was produced by coffee agriculture (Hail 1978). Monocultures and their dependent economies are characteristically a predominant aspect of underdevelopment, and the exclusive exploitation of a single product like coffee generally is a poor use of physical and human resources. But the cultivation of coffee in nineteenth-century Costa Rica is an exception to this rule in that it established a social climate that has encouraged strong development of the natural sciences in this small tropical country.

Discovery and Conquest

About the mid-1400s, Spain expelled its Moors and Jews. Scientists (not to mention bankers and others) left Spain, leaving behind very little in the way of a scientific tradition to be exported to the newly discovered Neotropics. By thus confirming messianism as the role of Iberia, Spanish rulers condemned their country and its colonies to prolonged intellectual obscurantism. Nevertheless, even if we exclude as literary hyperbole Columbus's glowing comments on the exuberant scenery of his newly discovered continent (Colón 1972), as soon as the Spanish had settled in various parts of the Americas some of the literate pioneers, mostly ecclesiastics, began to write descriptions and accounts of the natural marvels of the New World. Thus we find in Father José de Acosta's Historia natural y moral de las Indias (1590) a man in theological quicksand, trying to explain the existence of some species such as "the dirty foxes" and how they happened to be in Peru, far from Mount Ararat, where Noah's ark had come to rest. At the northern end of the Spanish domains, Friar Bernardino de Sahagún gives detailed descriptions of the Mexicans' use of hallucinogenic fungi and peyotl.

But these authors lived in rich viceroyalties. In Central America the poor friars had little leisure for writing. The first chronicler was Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, whose Historia general y natural de las Indias, islas y tierra-firme del Mar Oceano, written between 1535 and 1549, is a rich mélange of the earliest Americana but is nevertheless an uncoordinated array of events and descriptions, often lacking geographical precision and adorned throughout with the florid and poetic usage of sixteenth-century Spanish.

Following Oviedo's style but more focused on the Mexican–Central American region, Francisco López de Gómara's Historia general de las Indias, published in 1552, devotes several detailed descriptive chapters to Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica; Antonio de Remesal's Historia general de las Indias Occidentales y particular de la gobernación de Chiapas y Guatemala (1615–17) is valuable for its accounts of the peoples and the environment, as is Antonio de Alcedo's Diccionario geográfico de las Indias Occidentales (1786–89), which abounds in information of all sorts, indexed to the geographical names then in use.

Perhaps to us the most important, yet the least known, of the early chroniclers is Francisco Ximénez (1666–1729), who compiled the grammars of several aboriginal languages, discovered and published the Popol Vuh, or Mayan cosmology, and wrote the Historia natural del reino de Guatemala. Father Ximénez covers all aspects of Central American natural history in an orderly manner, devoting each fascicle or book to a given theme (animals, flowers, minerals, etc.) drawn from a direct, personal knowledge de rerum naturae.

Priests, army surgeons, and barbers collected, digested, and divulged the natural marvels of the New World on their own initiative. Unfortunately, the more apparent wealth of some of the viceroyalties captivated kings, who sent out royal expeditions such as those to Nueva España, Nueva Granada, or the Pacific. These were led by illustrious men of science such as Sessé, Mociño, Mutis, and La Espada and were not interested in the poor, insalubrious isthmus of the Americas.

Early Times

The numb and tattered epoch of colonial exploitation that ended for Central America in 1821 could not have been more sterile in terms of the development of local cultures and intellectual ambience. Prepotent and royal Spain hardly allowed for the scant and elementary education of her subjects, while the iron hand of the church treated intellectual endeavors as works of the devil, fatal to the souls of her charges — particularly if these endeavors were contaminated by the ideas of the French Revolution and other demoniacal inspirations, such as Freemasonry. The condition of public education in Costa Rica during the colonial period is well documented by González F. (1978), and the capital importance of French liberalism in the movement for independence is presented by Láscaris (1964). Debilitated from its very inception (González F. 1978; González V. 1977; Soley 1940), the economy of the area could barely sustain the first twenty-odd years of republican life. But then, despite the fashionable efforts of the Duchess of Bedford and her cup of tea, England settled for a cup of coffee. And quite unexpectedly, too.

In 1843 William LeLacheur, an English merchant, docked the Monarch in the port of Caldera on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The holds of the brig were almost empty for his homeward voyage, and LeLacheur wished to obtain some cargo that would compensate him for the long and hazardous trip around Cape Horn. He rode a mule into San José, where he met Santiago Fernández, dealer in coffee. Fernández trusted LeLacheur, and on his credit LeLacheur departed carrying 5,505 hundredweight of Costa Rican coffee. He returned in 1845 to pay Fernández, and this time he brought more vessels and a good supply of sterling.

A new industry had been born. Ships arriving to load the coffee brought holds full of goods, including Manchester cotton fabrics, which were to open entire continents to British imperialism. And, of course, they brought people. The cash flow turned a dilapidated region into a prosperous one, changing many things as the criollos became able to barter for cultural goods as well.

Coffee was responsible for the initiation of diplomatic relations between Costa Rica and England, France, and the Hansa in 1849 and for the expansion of agricultural areas and many of the subsequent movements of the population, as well as for the opening of access roads and railways. Coffee was perhaps also responsible for the first officially recognized coup d'état in Costa Rica; J. R. Mora Fernández and R. Aguilar, partners in a coffee export firm, parted on bad terms owing to a financial disagreement. Later, Mora was given pecuniary satisfaction and eventually became president of Costa Rica, but he was deposed by a vengeful Aguilar in 1859. The importance of coffee in the development of the history and geography of Costa Rica is documented by Hall (1978) and Estrada (1965).

The Traveler-Naturalists

Why did people come to Costa Rica aboard the growing coffee fleet? A look at the history of continental Europe in the last third of the nineteenth century would provide many of the answers, but even a brief overview lies outside the scope of this chapter. Immigration of Europeans to Latin America in general, and Central America in particular, was primarily a response to the sociopolitical situation of Europe and the apparent utopian conditions of the New World. The relative stability of Central American politics, coupled with niches for the crafts and professions in the flourishing regional economy, enticed foreign entrepreneurs and scholars. Cities that had lacked elementary schools suddenly had private "academies" catering to a clientele eager to learn, be it bookkeeping or fine arts. The streets resounded with foreign names as the general stores gave way to specialized shops and cottage manufactures yielded to incipient industries. This birth of cosmopolitanism is both the cause and the effect of immigration. The Gold Rush of 1848 also fueled the demographic explosion in Central America; the way to California was either around Cape Horn, a lengthy and hazardous enterprise, or by the much faster route across southern Nicaragua (Houwaldt 1975; Folkmann 1972), along the present border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

But why did the traveler-naturalists come? Certainly neither Sutter's findings nor the area's economy and politics were the explanation for their presence in this part of the world. The accounts of Humboldt, La Condamine, and other less illustrious but equally good propagandizers provide the reason. The romance of travel, exploration, and discovery, triggered by European expansionism during the seventeenth century, was rampant in the Europe of the Industrial Revolution, and such adventurous observers were far from immune to the call of the vast and unknown American continent. A glance at the titles of some then-popular books is illuminating: Bülow, Auswanderung und Colonisation in Interesse des deutschen Aussenhandels (1849); Bard, Waika; or, Adventures on the Mosquito Shore (1855); Scherzer, Wanderungen durch die mittelamerikanischen Freistaaten (1857); Marr, Reise nach Zentral Amerika (1863); Boyle, A Ride across a Continent: Personal Narrative of Wanderings through Nicaragua and Costa Rica (1868); Pim, Dottings on the Roadsides of Panamá, Nicaragua ... (1868); Wagner, Naturwissenschaftliche Reise in Tropical America (1870); and many others (cf. Fernández 1972).

We cannot boast of personalities of the stature of Alexander von Humboldt, who scarcely saw the high volcanoes of Central America from his ship bound for Mexico, but, unlike that meteor of the Parisian salons, those who came usually stayed, sowing the seed of interest in natural history. To this period belong several important names: the already-mentioned Moritz Wagner, who in association with Karl Scherzer published in 1886 Die Republik Costa Rica; the Danish Anders Sandoe Ørsted, who visited Costa Rica from 1846 to 1848, publishing his famous opus L'Amérique Centrale: Recherches sur sa géographie politique, sa faune et sa flora, printed in Copenhagen under the auspices of the Costa Rican government. A somewhat unknown figure who deserves credit for his active part in advancing local natural history is William More Gabb, whose endeavors in the geology, paleontology, and zoology of the lower Talamancas (Ferrero 1978) were crowned by later publications by E. D. Cope, L. Pilsbry, and J. A. Allen, among others.

This is the period of F. Duncane Godman and Osbert Salvin, initiators of the single most comprehensive work on Central American biology, aptly entitled Biologìa Centrali-Americana; it appeared between 1879 and 1915 in many volumes, with the approval of the leading authorities on the diverse groups of fauna and flora. Karl Sapper, geologist by profession and naturalist by avocation (Termer 1956), closes the period. His collected writings on Costa Rica have been published (Sapper 1943).

The Emergence of Costa Rican Biologists

Separating this period from that covered in the previous paragraphs is highly artificial, since Costa Rican field biology stems from the causes mentioned there. In 1853, scarcely ten years after the opening of the European coffee market, President Mora Fernández welcomed two German physicians who carried a letter of introduction from Alexander von Humboldt — Carl Hoffmann (1833–59) and Alexander von Frantzius (1821–77).

Hoffman explored the upper portions of the central volcanic ridge (Hoffman 1856, 1857), collected plants and animals that he sent to Berlin, and fought William Walker in Nicaragua in 1856. He died in 1857 and is commemorated in the names of a dozen species. His colleague von Frantizius was also very active; his botanical explorations made Costa Rica known to the scholarly world, and his faunal collections were used for one of the first annotated lists on the mammals and birds, both by himself and by the famous Cabanis of Berlin. Frantzius opened a drugstore in San José, and his apprentice, José C. Zeledón, became deeply interested in nature, later becoming known worldwide as an ornithologist. Frantzius and Zeledón's drugstore was a germination chamber from which sprang the first batch of local naturalists such as Anastasio Alfaro and J. F. Tristán (fig. 1.1).

Costa Rica was oriented toward England commercially, but culturally it was French. In the natural sciences its practitioners were truly Victorian, and soon the "drugstore gang" and their disciples were to be seen rummaging through the countryside with nets, pillboxes, and other paraphernalia.

Under the administration of Bernardo Soto, Mauro Fernández, the minister of public education, achieved one of the most significant feats in Costa Rican history. He developed the new pattern of public schooling totally sponsored by the government, compulsory for all citizens until the seventh grade, and he opened high schools for both men and women. Manuel María Peralta, ambassador to Europe, was commissioned to hire European teachers that were to staff the Liceo de Costa Rica and the Colegio Superior de Señoritas. This precipitated the arrival of a Swiss mining engineer, Henri François Pittier, accompanied by others whose names are very much part of Costa Rican history: Pablo Biolley, Julian Carmiol, Gustavo Michaud, and Juan Rudin. With Pittier (1857–1950) begins the golden period of Costa Rican natural history (Conejo 1972).

Determined, indefatigable, tyrannical Pittier was soon in charge of all significant scientific activity in Costa Rica. Through his enthusiasm, Pittier promoted or founded several important institutions such as the Instituto Físico Geográfico, the Sociedad Nacional de Agricultura, and the Observatorio Nacional. He planned and led a multidisciplinary approach to field biology, inspired by his years as a disciple of the typical nineteenth-century gymnasium. Botanists owe him the national herbarium and his Primitiae Florae Costaricensis, begun in 1891. It is the first systematic flora of the country. The cloak and dagger circumstances of the Primitiae are summarized by Gómez (1978a, b). Pittier and his associates in all branches of science, notwithstanding financial and technical difficulties, amassed a body of information as yet unsurpassed. Revolving around him, willingly or not, were Adolphe Tonduz, Charles Wercklé, Geoffrey Cherrie, and scores of foreign researchers who at his insistence either visited the country or studied collections sent from the Instituto Geográfico or the national herbarium. Until 1904, when Pittier left the country, sciences from limnology to social anthropology flourished.

It is at this time that the Museo Nacional makes its appearance. The philosophical foundation of the Museo has been briefly reviewed by Gómez (1973), who attributed its origin to the Victorian craze for bric-a-brac and the French mania for "cabinets" of exhibits that seized the country when it plunged into the international marketing of coffee. In this context the figure of Anastasio Alfaro is of utmost importance, since it was through his efforts and persuasiveness, as well as the usual political intrigue, that President Bernardo Soto inaugurated the national museum in 1887. Alfaro, then twenty-two years old, became its first director. The liaison of Alfaro and Zeledón was in large part responsible for opening Costa Rica to North American scientific interest. Zeledón, the disciple of Frantzius, had been sent to Washington to learn under the tutelage of Robert Ridgway, and he prepared the Smithsonian grounds for Alfaro and others. From then on the flow of United States researchers has never stopped. A glance at the publication Costa Rica en el siglo XIX (published in 1902) informs us of the dozens of scholars who contributed their knowledge to Costa Rican field biology in the last twenty years of that century.

Three political events are noteworthy. (1) The government of Mora asked Monsignor Llorente y La Fuente to leave the country. The immediate result was the segregation of church and state in educational matters. This meant the introduction of krausism and fuller curricula into the system. (2) The government of Bernardo Soto enthroned positivism in the figure of Mauro Fernández. These two events helped to form the philosophical basis of Costa Rican republicanism. The profound consequences of these events could still be felt as late as 1921, one hundred years after independence, in the thoughts of Ricardo Jiménez (1921). (3) The same Mauro Fernández, positivist par excellence and architect of the Costa Rican educational system, was moved by political reasons to close the Universidad de Sto. Tomás in 1888. The only scholastic units to remain functioning were the school of law and the school of agriculture.


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Table of Contents

1. Searchers on That Rich Coast: Costa Rican Field Biology, 1400-1980
2. The Central American Dispersal Route: Biotic History and Palaeogeography
3. Climate
4. Geology
5. Soils
6. Agriculture
Species Accounts
7. Plants
Checklist of Trees
Species Accounts
8. Reptiles and Amphibians
Checklist of Reptiles and Amphibians
Species Accounts
9. Mammals
Checklist of Mammals
Species Accounts
10. Birds
Checklist of Birds
Species Accounts
11. Insects
Checklist of Insects
Species Accounts
Addresses of Contributors

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