Introduction to RainforestPlants
RainforestPlants is an internet teaching tool to help undergraduates learn about the plants of the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. Approximately 2,000 species of vascular plants, belonging to 132 different families, may be found in the rainforest at La Selva. This is more information than the average undergraduate, or most mortals for that matter, can assimilate. Therefore, RainforestPlants focuses on 65 of the most common families of flowering plants likely to be encountered at La Selva and similar sites in Costa Rica. Any student visiting La Selva for a week will encounter and be able to recognize all of these families! Students reading about tropical plants for the first time will find RainforestPlants to be a useful way to learn about the important traits associated with particular families of flowering plants. Thanks to widespread availability of internet access, even at remote field stations, RainforestPlants is available to students for use in the field as well as the classroom.
All students should begin by reading about “How to Examine a Plant.” Basic botanical terminology is introduced as well as a routine for examining a new plant specimen. If these basic terms are mastered and the suggested routine is followed, it should be possible to identify most forest plants to the family level. Students should feel quite satisfied to be able to make these determinations. Further identification of plants to the level of genus and species is often quite difficult and beyond the skills possessed by novice botanists. A glossary provides definitions and photographic illustrations of basic botanical terminology. The terminology may be daunting at first, but great effort has been made to keep terminology to a minimum and write descriptions in plain English (as well as in plain Spanish).
After following the routine for examining a plant, students may then consult the Plant Family Matrix, Key to Plant Families, or go straight to the Plant Family List and select the appropriate family page. The Plant Family Matrix is a user-friendly tool designed to work for most woody plants encountered in the neotropics. The Key to Plant Families is a simplified version of the one developed by Alwyn Gentry in his monumental “Field Guide to the Families and Genera of Woody Plants of Northwest South America.”
The Top Ten Lists are provided to help students develop a feel for which of the families, genera, and tree species are most common in the La Selva forest. This information has been gleaned from many years of scientific study and will not be common knowledge for most students.
A note from Dr. Shumway - The students in my Tropical Field Biology course at Wheaton College represent the original target audience for RainforestPlants. However, I hope that RainforestPlants will prove useful for tropical biologists of all kinds including undergraduates, graduate students, college professors, natural history guides, and ecotourists. While the families and examples have been chosen from the flora of La Selva, the same families and most of the examples, will be found at field sites throughout the neotropics.