Geography of Costa Rica
The Republic of Costa Rica is a unique country, both geographically and climatically. This is due to its mountain ranges and location near the equator. The country covers an area of 31,745 square kilometers (19,730 square miles), which is roughly the area of Vermont. To the north is Nicaragua, to the east is the Caribbean Sea, to the south is Panama, and to the west is the Pacific Ocean. Costa Rica is split down the center by the Guanacaste, Central, and Talamanca mountain ranges. Throughout the mountain ranges lie a number of volcanoes, with five of them being active.
Geographically, Costa Rica’s weather varies greatly and is dependent upon elevation and coastal position. The country is only 8 degrees away from the equator, giving it an overall warm climate. The typical temperature in Costa Rica ranges from 21 degrees Celsius to 27 degrees Celsius (71 - 81 degrees Fahrenheit). The coolest months are November through January, and the warmest are March through May. The dry season extends from January through May and the rainy season from May to November or December. With the constant heat, much of the water is evaporated into the atmosphere, later producing rain that falls during the rainy season. Generally, Costa Rica receives about 24 cm (100 in) of rain annually.
The rainforests of Costa Rica are extremely important when it comes to plant and animal life. Many tropical rainforests are made up of strata including the forest floor, understory, upper canopy, and emergent levels.
• Forest Floor:
Little sunlight penetrates to the forest floor due to the thick canopy above, creating a ground environment that does not support many large plants. Although there is little sunlight, it is still very warm and muggy, and mosses, liverwarts, and other tiny plants hug the earth. The forest soil is poor in nutrients, but abundant fungi ensure the rapid decomposition and recycling of leaves and branches ending up on the forest floor.
The next layer of rainforest is the understory, otherwise known as the lower canopy. This level consists of trees and shrubs that are relatively short in height and include plants like palms and ferns that may grow to about 18 meters (60 feet) high.
• Upper Canopy:
The upper canopy collects much of the rainforest sunlight. The trees here range from 18 to 40 meters (60 to 130 feet) tall. Their branches are widely-spreading and efficient harvesters on sunlight. Many epiphytes, like orchids and bromeliads, are supported by and thrive in this layer of the rainforest.
Finally, the emergent level of the rainforest is the highest level and consists of immense trees that range from 30 to 73 meters (100 to 240 feet) tall. These trees, such as the Kapok, are easy to spot because they are isolated from other emergent trees and they are much taller than the other trees of the canopy.
Primary and Secondary Rainforest
There are two main classifications of rainforest, the primary rainforest and the secondary rainforest. Primary rainforests are rich in old-growth trees, and are not as abundant nor as common as secondary rainforests in Costa Rica. Most old-growth forests were logged out by the mid 1980’s.
A forest that has not been tampered with by humans and is in the same state that it has always been since it developed is known as a primary forest.
• The canopy of a primary forest is well-developed and thick, so the forest floor sees little plant growth.
• Since there is a well-developed canopy, there will be a large variety of epiphytes and animals that live there.
• In addition, large animals are found on the forest floor due to the amount of habitat is present in primary rainforests.
Secondary rainforests are successional forests which have replaced logged out primary forests.
• Canopy trees in a variety of age groups allow more sunlight to penetrate to the ground so there is more understory growth.
• Secondary rainforest do not contain a full canopy so there are not as many canopy animals as there are in primary forests. The lush forest floor provides habitat for numerous smaller animals.
Costa Rica contains a number of different ecosystems. Ecosystems that are present include: deciduous, lowland, cloud, and gallery rainforests, as well as mangroves and coral reefs.
• Most deciduous rainforest lie in the Guanacaste region, which is in the low altitude, northwest part of Costa Rica.
• The climate here is hot year round with little precipitation.
• The overall heights of the trees tend to be relatively shorter than in other rainforests and there is thick growth on the forest floor.
• Many trees in deciduous forests shed their leaves and have thick bark for water conservation. This is important because of the extended periods of drought that are present in these areas. Also, the roots are embedded into the ground deeper than in other types of rainforests.
• Epiphytes such as, orchids, bromeliads, and cacti can be found.
• The lowland rainforests are considered to exist at altitudes less than 1005 meters (3,300 feet) or less.
• Generally, lower elevations exist near the coast lines and have a more hot and humid climate with a temperature of 26 degrees Celsius (79 degrees Fahrenheit).
• The precipitation level here is greater than in many other rainforests of Costa Rica.
• Lowland rainforests are secondary rainforests and contain very diverse plant and animal life.
• These forests reside in elevations around 1005 meters (3,300 feet) and higher and are enshrouded in clouds due to the high level of moisture in these forests.
• The climate is much cooler than in lowland rainforests, with temperatures around 15 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit).
• These forests have incredible biodiversity while the trees of cloud forests are typically shorter than those of lowland forests, resulting in a less-developed canopy.
• There are many species of trees that exist here, as well as an assortment of epiphytes.
• Gallery Rainforests are wetland forests specifically located along river banks7.
• The temperature is warm and the level of humidity is high. Often, these forests will be flooded because of the rise in water on the rivers5.
• Because the soils are waterlogged and soft, trees in this forest are small and have stilt roots and wide buttresses for stabilization.
• Mangroves are located along coastal areas, and are constantly in the water, depending on how low the tide gets.
• Mangroves are not very tall and are unique because they reside in salty, warm water above 22 degrees Celsius (73 degrees Fahrenheit).
• They can be seen easily because there are no other plants around besides the mangroves and they have prop roots, pneumatophores, and other adaptations that allow them to stabilize and get oxygen from the air.
• There is a great variety of wildlife that live in and around them. For instance, sea horses, tunicates, clams, and upside down jellyfish use the roots for habitat, nursery areas, and gathering food.
• Coral reefs are also known as “the rainforest of the sea” harboring a variety of algae, sponges, corals, anemones, and other life that live there.
• These amazing reefs can be found in warm waters that are always above 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).
• They are so spectacular because of the variety of colors which can be found there, from different morphs of parrot fish to the many-different hues of coral, and algae.
• Corals include staghorn, rose, flower, pillar, and brain corals, while other animals include cushion starfish, brittle starts, long-spined black sea urchins, damselfish, and butterfly fish.
1. U.S. Department of State. January 2009. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2019.htm
2.Go Visit Costa Rica. Delfina Travel Group Inc. http://www.govisitcostarica.com/travelinfo/climate.asp
3. Eggar, Marc. “Costa Rica Weather, Geography and Climate”. Costa Rica Exotica Natural Travel and Tour Agency.
4.“Layers of the Rainforest”. Tropical Rainforest. http://www.blueplanetbiomes.org/rainforest.htm
5. Butler, Rhett A. “Types of Rainforests.” Mongabay.com / A Place Out of Time: Tropical Rainforests and the Perils They Face. 9 January 2006.
6. Costa Rica. http://mapcr.com/index.php
7. Kricher, John. A Neotropical Companion. 2nd ed. Princeton University Press. 1997.
8. Costa Rica Ecotourism: The Caribbean Coral Reef at Cahuita. NatureAir. 2003-2008.