Tropical rainforests are the most species-rich ecosystem on Earth and important for the global climate. While they continue to be cut down in many countries, thousands of trees are being planted by a reforestation project in Costa Rica. This new forest will contribute to a biological corridor so that plants and animals can move between larger patches of rainforest. At the same time the growing forest is absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, counteracting anthropogenic climate change.

But is it really possible to create a new rainforest? Which tree species should be selected, what are the functions of a tree? And what, after all, is a forest good for, what are its functions and ecosystem services?

In the Sparkling Science project “A new rainforest grows”, students from two schools will help with the reforestation project and measure and record growth, health and survival of the planted trees. More than one hundred different tree species can grow on a single hectare of rainforest, and so many different trees are planted to establish a diverse, natural forest. However, we know rather little about most tropical trees. The project will therefore measure and document how fast different trees grow and what affects their growth. This will help to optimize selection and care for the trees in this and future projects.

Re-growing forests is an efficient method to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. This important ecosystem service and can be used to compensate human emissions. With the data from the project we will calculate the amount of CO2 captured, which will highlight the relationship between forest protection and climate change.

The trees of a forest differ in many functions such as photosynthesis or growth rates, and also in the structure of their organs such as leaves and the stem. These differences reflect alternative ways to adapt to their environment and show that in a forest many strategies can be successful, and we will study the anatomy of wood and leaves to understand the relationship between their form and the function of different tree species.

If trees have different functions, is it important to have a functional diversity in a forest or is it sufficient to grow many different species? In one reforestation project a number of well-defined combinations of trees were planted to investigate the effect of various mixtures and the importance of functional diversity on the development and functions of the growing forest.

In addition to the field-work, other studies on the biology of these tropical trees can be carried out in the laboratories of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), supervised by project scientists. This will introduce interested students to scientific work and methods in the fields of botany and forests, which are potentially valuable skills in a country like Austria with an important forestry sector.

Not least, during the excursion to Costa Rica around Easter 2015 students will get to know fascinating tropical ecosystems. To excite an interest in nature in a young person and also to discover something new, there is hardly a better place than a tropical rainforest.