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Tropical Research & Conservation

RTPI staff carries out several active research and education initiatives in Central America. We coordinate student research programs in Panama and Costa Rica, run active banding stations in those countries to study migratory birds on their wintering grounds and carry out important conservation research on some of the most endangered amphibian species in the region. You can find more information about some of our programs here.

RTPI is a partner organization of the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA) and our work in the Cocobolo Nature Reserve in Panama is receiving global attention in the FrogLog, the quarterly publication of the ASA.

See the article on page 61 by RTPI President Twan Leenders – and don’t miss his cover photograph of a tiny and undescribed species of ‘tink frog’ (named after the loud, metallic ‘tink’ call this group of frogs is famous for). The specific article is in the PDF below or can be downloaded here.

In the 60 years that the illustrious journal New Scientist has been around they’ve never run a photo-led feature. Twan is very proud and honored that they decided to break with that tradition with a story on our work with endangered frogs in Panama. Our research on a population of the exceedingly rare Limosa Harlequin Toad (Atelopus limosus) in Cocobolo Nature Reserve in Panama will hopefully give us more information on why these frogs are seemingly doing alright while its surrounding populations are going extinct. And with some luck, that information can help direct conservation efforts to revert the global decline in amphibian populations. The feature is in PDF form below or can be downloaded here.

A big thanks to our wonderful partners, Clay Bolt, Alex Shepack, Michael Roy, Cocobolo Nature Reserve, Laurie Doss, Sean Graesser and the Marvelwood School for their support of this project. Much of the work we do at home inspires projects farther away, and many of the lessons we learn in field sites far away add perspective and help us do better work in our own backyard. It’s these natural connections that keep life and work fascinating!


Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) by Sean Graesser. This Neotropical migrant breeds throughout the eastern U.S. into extreme southern Canada.

Nicoya Peninsula Avian Research Station, Costa Rica
The Nicoya Peninsula Avian Research Station (NPARS) of northwestern Costa Rica is an ornithological research and outreach initiative focused on migratory connectivity, winter ecology, conservation of Neartic-Neotropical migrants, and the biology of non-migratory Central American birds. NPARS is one of the few banding stations involved in the MoSI, or Monitoreo de Sobrevivencia Invernal (Monitoring of Winter Survivorship), program in Costa Rica and overseen by the Institute for Bird Populations. NPARS is part of a network of mist-netting stations operated to identify and understand winter habitat quality for neotropical migrants during the months that they are not on their North American breeding grounds.


Prothonotary Warbler on Tea Mangrove (Pelliciera rhizophorae)


Sean notes that Tea Mangrove conservation is vitally important as well

Led by RTPI Affiliate Sean Graesser with his research partner Tyler Christensen and several seasonal staff members, NPARS operates three banding stations each winter at Refugio de Vida Silvestre Curu, at Reserva Nacional Cabo Blanco, and at its headquarters in Finca Pura Vida. The 2013-2014 research season started on December 1 and is ongoing. See our blog and media section for regular updates from the field by Sean Graesser and his staff!

Hummingbird frenzy! Check out all of these hummingbirds, sometimes over 50 at one time and several hundred in a short period, visiting feeders at Finca Pura Vida.

Here is a video of Sean discussing banding and detailing why it is important while putting a Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) through the process.

This is a recaptured Northern Waterthrush that has spent years flying across our planet! Finding such individuals is one of the goals of the tropical research in Curu Wildlife Reserve.

Here Sean talks about banding, molts and the tropical research on such resident species like this American Pygmy Kingfisher with their relatively unknown biology.

Sean and fellow researcher Tyler Christensen answer RTPI President Twan Leenders’ questions and discuss the Nicoya Peninsula Avian Research project, related initiatives, conservation and why their work is novel and important.


‘Building Migratory Bridges’ Program,  Cocobolo Nature Reserve, Panama
RTPI works with students and staff of The Marvelwood School in Kent, CT, and with the Panamanian non-profit Conservation through Research Education and Action (CREA) on the annual ‘Building Migratory Bridges’ program. Marvelwood School Science Chair Laurie Doss, CREA and RTPI staffs provide high school students with the unique opportunity to study migratory bird populations on their Panamanian wintering grounds through their participation in the MoSI banding station at Cocobolo Nature Reserve (CNR). MoSI, or Monitoreo de Sobrevivencia Invernal (Monitoring of Winter Survivorship), is a bird banding protocol that helps us better understand the biology of Neotropical migrants during the months that they are not on their North American breeding grounds.  Students are also involved in monitoring of the local amphibian and reptiles populations of CNR, which includes several exceedingly rare species. The discovery of breeding Limosa Harlequin Toads at the reserve during a March 2013 research expedition was a true glimmer of hope for these endangered frogs.

Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) by Sean Graesser. Much of this southern species moves into Central America during the winter.

Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) by Sean Graesser. Much of this southern species moves into Central America during the winter.

The individual held here by Sean is a male.

The individual held here by Sean is a male.

Forman School Rainforest Project, Rara Avis Rainforest Preserve, Costa Rica
Now in its 22nd year, this annual tropical research project for high school students is supported by the Forman School and Wamogo High School in Litchfield, CT, as well as staff from the Connecticut Audubon Society. RTPI President Twan Leenders has been one of the moving forces behind this project since 1993 and serves as the project’s director of science and staff biologist. Each March students spend two weeks in Rara Avis Rainforest Preserve researching migratory birds, endangered amphibians and reptiles, spider silk and diversity of the area’s orthopterans under the supervision of experts in each of these fields. Past projects have focused on conservation of an endemic understory palm, sustainable production of canopy orchids, pharmacological research on the venom of the large ‘bullet’ ant Paraponera clavata and inventory of the preserve’s moths. Among the many accomplishments of this project is the discovery of a salamander species new to science!

Rainmaker Conservation Project, Costa Rica
After seemingly disappearing from its entire distribution range in the early 1990s a small, isolated population of the Variable Harlequin Toad was discovered in a remote section of the Rainmaker Conservation Project in 2003. Subsequent to this discovery a long-term monitoring program for the remaining harlequin toads was developed by Dr Twan Leenders in close cooperation with the management of Rainmaker Conservation Project and the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment and Energy. The main purpose of this project is to accumulate and analyze critical biological and abiotic information on the toads and their habitat, assess the risks that this population faces and ultimately to develop a conservation strategy to ensure its survival into the future. This study is designed to collect the maximum amount of information with minimal impact on the population and research is ongoing.

Endangered Amphibian Surveys, Costa Rica
A recent expedition to a select number of sites, primarily in the Costa Rican highlands, resulted in the confirmation of breeding populations of several rare amphibian species. RTPI President Twan Leenders, an amphibian expert with more than 20 years of experience in herpetological research and conservation, and his crew encountered six species that have undergone dramatic population declines in the 1980s and 90s. In some cases these species were even feared extinct, but recent sightings of small numbers of individuals provide an encouraging sign that all may not be lost yet. Most likely these species declined rapidly after a deadly fungal disease spread throughout their native home ranges. Although this fungus still persists even in relatively pristine areas, small signs of recovery provide hope – especially when breeding populations can be found!