Costa Rica is a Central American haven for backpackers, famed for its tropical beaches, smoking volcanoes, and beautiful rainforests. Despite the best efforts of what the New Economics Foundation ranks as the world's greenest, happiest country, global warming is having a major impact on its amazing wildlife.
Increasing temperatures have changed its renowned cloud forests – cloaked in a mysterious mist – for good. The clouds in the highlands have thickened, and in a region famous for its biodiversity, some of the plant and animal species, such as the beautiful golden toad, have already disappeared. Hundreds of species are thought to be at risk.
For more than 20 years, Manchester Museum has been developing a special connection with Costa Rica, working on ways to conserve its biodiversity. As a result, biology students and researchers from the University have had the opportunity to focus their study there.
Each summer over the past four years, students have joined a field course carrying out their own research at the Organization for Tropical Studies' La Selva Biological Station. Dozens of projects have examined species including the strawberry poison-dart frog and the leafcutter ant.
But it's the 300 or so species of hummingbirds in Costa Rica that captivated student Anna Kell last summer. "Because hummingbirds have a poor sense of smell, I was interested in the extent to which colour determines which flowers they visit for feeding," she says. "So I studied different coloured flowers and observed how many birds and of which species, at specific points in the day, visited those flowers."
Her experience in Costa Rica – "an astonishing country" – has clearly inspired her as a scientist. "Science isn't just about sitting in a lab," she explains. "It's also about applying your skills to less conventional environments. It isn't any less important or interesting because it doesn't involve lab coats and test tubes." And conservation work is not just taking place in the field. In December, the Faculty of Life Sciences and Andrew Gray, Curator of Herpetology at Manchester Museum, launched a global educational campaign to save one of the world's rarest frogs: the Lemur Leaf Frog.
Backed by Sir David Attenborough and fronted by nine-year-old Lucy Marland, the campaign aims to teach primary-age schoolchildren in the UK, Sweden and Costa Rica's Guayacan region, where the frog still survives, about the amphibian and its threatened rainforest habitat.
"That this University project supports environmental education in primary schools in Costa Rica, where these rare frogs occur in the wild, reflects a genuine commitment to helping conserve endangered species," says Professor Amanda Bamford, Associate Dean for Social Responsibility at the Faculty of Life Sciences, and one of the key people behind the field course in Costa Rica.
"It also provides a wonderful opportunity for our undergraduates to exercise their global citizenship."