Over the summer 2010, Dr. Mike Mooring, Professor of Biology at Point Loma Nazarene University, led a group of four students in the first systematic study of the large mammals inhabiting the cloud forest of the Upper Savegre River watershed. The Upper Savegre Valley is a buffer zone for wildlife populations in the largest contiguous protected zone in Costa Rica, stretching 130 km from Los Santos Forest Reserve to Amistad International Park on the Panama border. 

Although tropical cloud forests are extremely species-rich and highly threatened, they are less studied than lowland forests because of remoteness, steep slopes, and harsh climate. Very little is known about the distribution and abundance of mammals in these cloud forests. Because large mammals are most likely to suffer from alterations to the local landscape from land use, hunting, or climate change, they are a barometer for the overall health of cloud forests. In particular, a diverse predator fauna indicates abundant prey species and a healthy ecosystem. 

The goal of the mammal study was to gather preliminary data on the presence of predator and prey species using digital motion sensor cameras placed throughout the forest, a technique known as photo trapping. Trail cameras were set up along the trail system and monitored for activity. The team hiked trails daily to collect data on tracks and scat (droppings), which were identified to species and analyzed for diet content. In addition to the trail work, the team conducted interviews with long-time residents of the valley to construct an historical overview of mammal population trends over the past 50 years. These interviews provided new insights. For example, they discovered that coyotes did not arrive in the valley until the 1970s, and sloths are reported to still reside at middle elevations.

Support from the local community was instrumental to the success of the study. A community meeting was held at the QERC field station upon the team’s arrival, and at the end of the summer the team presented preliminary results in a follow-up meeting. Over 30 people attended each meeting, including key community leaders, indicating a high level of interest in the project. A news crew from the popular Costa Rican television program ‘7 Dias’ interviewed Dr. Mooring a few days after their arrival and the program aired in July, highlighting the research to viewers across the country. Local residents supported the research by giving the team access to trails, reporting signs of animal presence, and volunteering to help monitor the cameras after the departure of the research team.  

The research team was able to confirm the presence of 4 species of large predators and 3 species of prey animals in the valley within the first year. Tracks of coyote and puma were frequently seen on the trails and confirmed with photos. A single photo of an ocelot established that small cats are also present. Most surprisingly, a photo of a melanistic (black) jaguar was recovered from one of the cameras, indicating that this top predator includes the Upper Savegre Valley in its large home range. Reports are suggesting this to be only the third melanistic jaguar recorded in Costa Rican history. This sighting caused great excitement because no interviewees had seen a jaguar in the valley for at least 40 years and many assumed they were no longer present. Important prey species sighted were raccoon, tapir (the first sighting in the lower valley), and paca, a flagship species for Quetzal National Park. 

The mammal research team returned again the following years to expand their photo traps including higher elevations in the valley, as well as comparison sites at Cerro del las Vueltas Biological Reserve and Quetzal National Park.  In the meantime the QERC spring semester students will incorporate the ‘Mammal Cams’ into their environmental monitoring program under direction of the field station manager.  A scientific collaboration with biologists at the University of Costa Rica will provide further support and expansion of the project. 

Effects of human activities will be incorporated into the study, including tourist trail use, commercial development, and a proposed hydroelectric project on the Savegre River.  By understanding how large mammals use the Savegre Valley, the team hopes to contribute to the conservation of montane cloud forests throughout Costa Rica.