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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Laguna de Apoyo is the most beautiful place in Nicaragua

wildlife Nicaragua
A black iguana (Ctenosaura similis) is sometimes green, requiring characters other than color to distinguish it from the green iguana (Iguana iguana), such as the rings of enlarged scales in the tail, the presence of a single large, smooth scale beneath the eye, and the absence of an enlarged scale beneath the tympano. The black iguana is far more common in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Photo by Tessa Janga.
Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve is such a beautiful place precisely because so much nature is still in and surrounding it. We noticed, many years ago, how the forests were teeming with wildlife and a rich diversity in tropical plants, and that the beautiful clear, blue waters of Lake Apoyo depend on the presence of intact forest along the interior slops of this lake. Although many people visit this special place, it can still count as one of the secrets of Nicaragua.

Laguna de Apoyo viewed from Catarina. Photo by Sienna Potts. 
Mankind is the worst enemy of natural areas such as Laguna de Apoyo. Trash dumping, hunting, illegal construction, and deforestation with pesticide use are rampant wherever there are people, and Nicaragua is not different. Just below the Catarina overlook, for instance, a group of "investors" with the blessing of the then-president of Nicaragua built 65 bungalows, a hotel and convention center, all of which add up to a serious ecological disaster, as well as a financial nightmare for the non-Nicaraguans who joined the project as co-investors. But not just like in all countries, many conscious, caring people are found in Nicaragua. For instance, dozens of members of the local community came to Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve to participate in a tree planting activity earlier this year. Thanks to all for volunteering your time!
Young people from Masaya and neighboring towns came to plant trees in a reforestation activity in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Photo by Frank Lindt.
The lake is usually very quiet, especiallly at dawn, with trees along much of its shore attracting birds and other wildlife. Weekends, however, attract visitors from Masaya and other communities, and the lake shore can be festive with families enjoying a day out in nature. The lake stretches four kilometers across and is 180 meters deep, with slightly salty water filled with volcanic minerals. Water clarity varies from five to fifteen meters, making the lake ideal for SCUBA divers to enjoy. 
Dawn on Lake Apoyo can be serene. Photo by Christine Bruxer. 
Lake Apoyo is known for its water, but more is going on than may meet the eye. This lake is located inside a volcanic crater which exploded 23,000 years ago, leaving a gaping hole hundreds of meters deep in the earth. Hot spots still abound around and inside the lake, too. SCUBA divers can easily find volcanic vents in the lake, and a few are also found on the lake edge. Many water wells are useless, because the water they produce is hot, salty and corrosive.

Most people think of the water in the lake when they think of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, because it is simply spectacular. Our team of wildlife specialist and volunteers, however, have taken the opportunity to learn many of the secrets of the jungle around the lake, inside the volcanic crater. Over four hundred species of plants are found in this forest, along with dozens of species of mammals, reptiles, and hundreds of birds.

wildlife in Nicaragua
This photo makes the first documented gray four-eyed opossum (Philander opossum) in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Many secrets of nature await the intrepid observer. Photo by Lucas Betthauser.
Professional wildlife guides can arrange guided tours of the nature in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. A typical birdwatching walk of only one hour at dawn, for instance, yields around 25 species.
wildlife Nicaragua
The simple checkerspot, Chlosyne hippodrome, is one of more than two hundred butterfly species one can appreciate in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Photo by Helen Croll.
Estacion Biologica provides lodging, meals, and services such as birdwatching SCUBA diving, and kayaking the lake. We also provide courses in Spanish and in natural resources management. Our site is operated by FUNDECI/GAIA. Visitors and tourists are always welcome.
Click on the "escudo" to contact us.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Dive Laguna de Apoyo

Dive Laguna de Apoyo
Let's get in the water! Photo by Kim Bracken.
Most people who SCUBA dive have experience in the ocean. But diving in a tropical lake is a unique experience, especially when diving in Lake Apoyo. Its water is too salty to be potable, however it is still near the buoyancy of freshwater. Lakes differ from the ocean, too, in smaller waves and currents, and fewer dangerous animals. Lake Apoyo has essentially no moving water, making the dives easily managed. No fish or other animals in Lake Apoyo sting or bite!

Lake Apoyo is not just a freshwater lake, however. It is a volcanic crater lake, occupying a huge volcanic caldera between Volcano Masaya to the north and Volcano Mombacho to the south along the string of volcanoes across the Pacific side of Nicaragua. Because the Apoyo volcano is mostly a hole, however, the lake is its most prominent feature.

Dive Laguna de Apoyo
Divers discuss their dive plan before heading down. Photo by Kim Bracken.
FUNDECI/GAIA coordinates SCUBA dives in Lake Apoyo, where you can accompany scientists in their study of the fishes. Each month, our divers review fish populations in several habitats, and visiting divers can join us on our dives. Divers get to see many species of fish in a single dive, and learn how these fish live, breed, and how we are working to protect them.

Not so many fish species occupy Lake Apoyo: only jaguar cichlids (Parachromis managuensis), mollies (Poecilia sphenops), silversides (Atherinella sardina), and several members of the Midas cichlid species complex (Amphilophus cf. citrinellus) are considered native. These fish populations probably got their start in Lake Apoyo by hurricanes, birds, or even the precolombian human populations that could have brought some individuals from Lake Nicaragua, just four kilometers to the east.

Dive Laguna de Apoyo
Several endemic fish species from the Amphilophus species flock occupy Lake Apoyo. The research group at GAIA has discovered five species to date. Photo by Balasz Lerner.
The Midas cichlid population of Lake Apoyo has attracted the attention of scientists for many years, and has been the principal cause behind the studies we pursue. In 1976, George Barlow began the current trajectory of interest in Lake Apoyo by declaring the arrow cichlid (Amphilophus zaliosus), as a new species. This lake is among the best study sites in the world for sympatric speciation among animals. 

Our group at Estación Biológica has studied these fascinating fish several years. In 2002, we published the official description of three new species in Lake Xiloa. Then in 2008, we published another set of species descriptions, giving official names to three species in Lake Apoyo. In 2010, we then followed with two more species descriptions in Lake Apoyo among the Midas cichlid species group. 

Our ecological studies in two lakes, Apoyo and Xiloa, where we have also performed several years of monitoring, are essential to the Midas cichlid species discoveries. Without being in the water, observing the fish month after month, we would never have been able to distinguish these very similar and closely related species. Our monitoring program has given us a wealth of information which is behind the species discoveries and several other new findings. 

The members of the Midas cichlid species complex found in Laguna de Apoyo are: 

Amphilophus flaveolus
Amphilophus supercilius
Amphilophus zaliosus

These six species are elegantly displayed on our new Laguna de Apoyo t-shirts-please purchase one and support nature research in Laguna de Apoyo!

Dive Lake Apoyo
Among the more common fish in Lake Apoyo today is the Bigmouth Sleeper (Gobiomorus dormitor). This fish was introduced to Lake Apoyo in 1991, and its population has grown dramatically. We at GAIA are studying the impacts of this introduced fish on the native species of Lake Apoyo. Photo by Wito Lapinski. 
The fish of Lake Apoyo are not just some rare novelties. They are facing some serious threats to their continued existence. One of the threats comes from introduced, invasive fish species. On a few occasions, tilapias have been introduced, most notably, in the 1990's as part of an aquaculture experiment using the Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus). This misguided, disastrous activity was conducted with the approval and participation of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment during that period. At the time, tilapia was touted by some influential individuals in Nicaragua as an economic "silver bullet" which would make investors rich and would feed poor people, as a kind of pinnacle to the Blue Revolution. The issue of environmental and health impacts of improper tilapia aquaculture methods in Nicaragua was recently featured in the New York Times. Many ripostes followed, too!

In 1991, an over-enthusiastic local fisherman added to the mix in Lake Apoyo, by bringing a bucketful of bigmouth sleepers (Gobiomorus dormitor) he had just caught from another, nearby lake, to Lake Apoyo and dumping them in. A few fish quickly became thousands and today this fish is ubiquitous. The threats this fish poses to Lake Apoyo's endemic species is magnified by their loss of sensitivity to the dramatic threat the bigmouth sleepers pose to their fry. The research team at GAIA worked with scientists from Finland and Germany to demonstrate the evolutionary naivete to fry predation by the introduced bigmouth sleepers in a 2012 publication.

We also coordinate underwater lake cleanups periodically, our third one was performed in 2011

Dive Laguna de Apoyo
After collecting data, a relaxing moment by the pier is in order! Photo by Kim Bracken.
Would you like to dive with us in Lake Apoyo? We would be happy to schedule a dive with you. You must have the equivalent of an open water certification. We can provide all the equipment and you can help us in our research on these very special fish.
Click on the "escudo" to contact us.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

To Ometepe!

Estacion Biologica volunteer Florian Schmid recently spent a week participating in a very noble project, to provide better library resources to the children in a rural school in Merida, Ometepe Island. This island consists of two volcanos, Maderas and Concepcion, in near the western shore of Lake Nicaragua, also known as Lake Cocibolca. The inhabitants of Ometepe, the largest island found in a freshwater lake on the entire planet, are distant from "civilization", and they have few resources to learn the things we city folks may take for granted. An environmental activist group from the National Agrarian University organized a series of activities to raise funds to provide books and supplies for these children. They sent a few hundred books to the school, and engaged the local children in several activities.

Giselle greets the students of Merida, Ometepe Island. Photo by Florian Schmid.
Jessi installs the books in their new shelves in the Merida school library. Photo by Florian Schmid.
The group of volunteers held guided discussions with the young people of Merida on a variety of environmental themes. Photo by Florian Schmid.
There was time for some dancing! Photo by Florian Scmid.

Physical activities were enjoyed as well as intellectual activities. Photo by Florian Schmid.
Ometepe Island
Lots of smiles! Photo by Florian Scmid.
Big-screen movies are rare in Ometepe Island, so there was a crowd for this showing! Photo by Florian Schmid. 

The cruise back to the mainland from Ometepe Island was risky, but all made it home alive, thanks to the concentrated efforts of the captain. Photo by Florian Schmid.
All children deserve a happy childhood, filled with opportunities to do and to learn, and books are an essential component. Florian and the group from UNA have made a difference in the childhood of some children in Ometepe. If you would like to support causes such as this, contact us to learn of opportunities for donations and volunteer possibilities, too. Thank you for caring about the children of Nicaragua
Click on the "escudo" to contact us.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Laguna de Apoyo t-shirt is now available

We invite you to help FUNDECI/GAIA and wear a trendy clothing item at the same time. Laguna de Apoyo t-shirts are now available at Estacion Biologica in two colors-red and blue. The t-shirts are high quality, TricoTextil fabric and stitching, and serigraphed with the Laguna de Apoyo logo on the front. 

nature conservation

Two full-sized designs adorn the back. One is of a toucan, a squirrel and a Midas cichlid-all emblematic wildlife found in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve

wildlife conservation

The other back design shows the six endemic fish species of Laguna de Apoyo. These six species, all members of the Midas cichlid species complex, are facing threats of extinction due to human activity. Our work to learn about them and their needs helps the civil society and the government of Nicaragua to determine what measures are most important to protect these species. 

wildlife conservation

The back designs are available in either color. Prices ten dollars for small or medium, eleven dollars for large or extra large. 

The designs on these t-shirts were provided generously by volunteer Silvia Machgeels. By purchasing a t-shirt, you contribute to our program in wildlife monitoring in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. 

Please come by Estacion Biologica Laguna de Apoyo to pick up your t-shirt or write us at We will gladly send you one!

Click on the "escudo" to contact us.