All you need is… Chocolate!


White-faced Capuchin, Costa Rica (c) Andrew Gray

Of the four species of monkey that live in Costa Rica the White-faced Capuchin is the only one that is omnivorous, eating many things ranging from flowers to lizards. Mainly they like to eat fruits and seeds, and are particularly fond of cacao seeds, the basic material in the making of chocolate.

Fifty years ago, cacao plantations dominated the lowlands of Costa Rica. By 1984, chocolate trees still grew on more than 19,000 hectares of Costa Rican land, but around that same time the deadly monilia fungus arrived, killing off 80 percent of the country’s cacao plants. Most of the trees were uprooted and replaced with more profitable pineapple and palm oil farms. However, it seems Costa Rican cacao production is again on the rise … to meet the world’s increasing sweet taste for Chocolate.

291cc2b9acf2361d0e4776f5ee0c4088This month sees  Puerto Viejo’s Chocolate Festival 2016 come into full swing, and what better place in Costa Rica to have this event. If you are interested in wildlife, food, beach life, or just chilling and eating chocolate, this place a fabulous place to visit. We take our students to this area every year during our field course and they get to see how cacao is organically grown and chocolate is made first hand. They also get the opportunity to sample it on many occasions! One place we eat at is Bread & Chocolate, a super cafe I have been visiting for many years and can highly recommend for a fantastic breakfast or lunch.

Bread & Chocolate

Puerto Viejo Chocolate Festival

13501548_241146962935964_9121610611448663288_nIn Costa Rica or not, a big chocolate fan, or know someone that is, chocolate always goes down well on the menu!

This Costa Rican lime-drizzled chocolate and coconut cake, inspired directly by my daughter visiting Puerto Viejo on the tropical Caribbean coast with me many years ago is bound to hit the spot. For the full recipe and easy making instructions why not check out:

OMG foodie uk


Our visit to the Vivarium

On the 22nd of August, after having had contact with Andrew for over a year, we finally went to visit the Vivarium in Manchester. After dropping our stuff at the Chancellor’s Hotel, we met at the Museum. We discussed many things involving our thesis project, the Vivarium itself and the work that is currently done there. Afterwards, we went to the Vivarium and got a tour backstage, where we got to meet all the species that are currently being kept at the Vivarium. The frogs and toads look very healthy and well-taken care of.

The next day, Andrew and Adam took us to the Lake District National Park, to look for herpetofauna in the English scenery. The weather was perfect! We found quite some slow worms, adders, lizards and toads in the field! Here in the Netherlands, you can’t find this many slow worms in one area!

On our last day, we went to the Museum again, this time to view everything the Museum has to offer. What a great job they have done on involving the visitors, allowing us to really want to understand the science found there. We said our goodbyes to Adam, and received a beautiful painting of the Lemur leaf frog, which currently holds a very special place in our living room.
How fortunate we are to have met such passionate and generous people. Andrew and Adam truly want what’s best for herpetofauna and the global environment. We can’t wait to go there again soon!

An introduction of new Dutch students

Hello, we are Dick Lock and Fleur van der Sterren, Dutch Wildlife Management students at the Van Hall-Larenstein University of Applied Sciences. In September, we started our final thesis in corporation with the Vivarium. This thesis will be on a very special population of Harlequin toads in Suriname. But that is a whole other story and we will keep you updated over time as this is still in its early stages. Andrew Gray asked us to introduce ourselves and tell/show some of our experiences of our previous trip through the Balkans.

I will start of first, my name is Dick Lock, I’ve been interested in herpetofauna since I was about 12. I knew I wanted wildlife to be a part of my future job. So I decided to start the study Ecology & Wildlife. During this study I’ve been on study trips and internships around the world such as Spain, Greece, South Africa, Thailand and the most important for me: Suriname. Here, I fell in love with the country and its incredible flora and fauna. So much that I went back during my next study, Wildlife Management, to guide tours there in 2014 for two months and later in 2015 went on another 6 month internship together with Fleur.

Hi everyone, I’m Fleur! My main interest is Wildlife Disease, which covers broad health-related issues among wildlife populations around the globe. My love for herpetofauna only started in 2013, as my main focus was mammals before that. When we went on a study trip to Poland, I found my first spadefoot toad. For everyone who doesn’t know what it looks like: a small toad with eyes which seem way too big for its head. After having placed it back on the ground, it immediately started digging backwards with its hind feet, to place itself under moss, glaring at me. This was the first time I caught myself thinking of amphibians as being cute and innocent creatures. This led me to the Dutch Wildlife Health Center in Utrecht, where I combined these two interests with research on Ranavirus (a virus affecting amphibians). And after our internship in Suriname, I was completely sold. Amphibians truly are the marvels of science.


Triglav National Park view

Well, now our experience in the Balkans! We teamed up with Martijn, also a Wildlife Manager, but specialized in birds. And Jos, a Forestry student specialized mainly in dragonflies and butterflies. The four of us decided to figure out a route that would bring us to many great spots and National Parks. However we did not only wanted to make this a typical holiday but also some sort of a study trip so we contacted some researchers in the hope of joining them and learning from them.

In the picture below you can see a part of our route. We started out at Fleur’s family in Germany and headed of for the following locations: Triglav National Park (Slovenia), Velebit National Park (Croatia), Sutjeska National Park  (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Durmitor National Park (Montenegro), Uvac Special Nature Reserve (Serbia), Prokletije National Park (Kosovo), Valbona valley (Albania), Skadar lake (Montenegro), Hutovo Blato National Park (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Trebinje (Bosnia and Herzegovina).


In Valbona Valley, Albania, Catherine Bohne was awaiting us. We’ve helped her with making a list of rare insect species in the great mountainous area with huge potential. She needed a list like this because the Albanian government is planning to blow up a part of the mountain range in order to make room for a hydropower installation. She is trying to contact as many specialists as possible to create a list of protected species and present it to the government in order to stop devastating projects like this. Unfortunately, the bad weather conditions in combination with food poisoning, did not favour us. Eventually, we were able to successfully gather DNA material from bear scats, which will be analyzed in Slovenia, to indicate the density of the bear population in Valbona Valley.

In Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, we were in the company of Brian Lewarne. He guided us through the area and taught us many things about the hidden underground karst ecosystem in this area. He showed us some of the entrances to this ecosystem inhabiting the rare Proteus! This salamander can grow up to 33cm in this area (in some areas even up to 50cm), it has no pigment, no eyes, external gills, internal lungs, can age up to 120 years and can go without food for at least 15 years! This is practically all that is known about this animal, all of them being extraordinary! Brian is trying his best to gather more information about the secret life of these animals, and also to battle illegal trade and habitat pollution! We have helped him measuring water qualities at different sites and doing a biometric essay on a Proteus.


Biometric essay of Proteus (Proteus anguinus)

The summer is a great time for insects, so we encountered many beautiful and rare species. However for birds and herpetofauna the summer is not such a good time. Nevertheless we managed to keep up our goal of 1 snake every day of the 23 day roadtrip. These were some of the herpetological highlights:

Thank you for reading our story, we hoped you enjoyed it and its photos! We will keep you updated on the work performed during our thesis and stay at the Vivarium!

Dick and Fleur

Harlequin Toad Update

Atelopus 7Regular readers of our blog may remember that earlier in the year we acquired a group of Harlequin toads, Atelopus sp., which have since been housed within our public viewing area opposite our Lemur Leaf Frogs. It has been a while since our post about how the new arrivals were settling in, and we thought we would post a short update about how they have been doing.

After a long period of providing the toads with a simulated dry season, the time has now come to begin the wet season cycle, which may (if we are lucky!) lead to a successful spawning.


HarlequAtelopus 3in toads are some of the most endangered amphibians on the planet, they occur from Costa Rica in Central America and down throughout the Amazon region of South America where they live along the banks of streams, and when the time is right they deposit strings of eggs within the streams flowing water.

During this time, male toads become very territorial and spend a large portion of their day calling to defend their chosen area. In order to accommodate the habits of these small toads, we have constructed a large breeding enclosure in The Vivarium containing a flowing stream, and plenty of space for the males to set up their territories and compete for the attention of our female.

We have selected some of our most dominant male toads which have now been introduced into this breeding enclosure, we can keep track of individuals as they are all uniquely patterned and also vary in colour, as can be seen in the images, which has allowed us to give each toad an ID number and closely monitor the progress of each individual. Shortly, the female will be introduced to the males and time will tell if we achieve a successful spawning!

Atelopus breeding tank

A large stream enclosure for breeding attempts of Atelopus Harlequin toads (c) Adam Bland.

                        Harlequin Heaven                  The Toad That Broke The Mould

Talking English.. with animals

IMG_4654Whereas over the past month I have been brushing up on my Spanish, since arriving back from Costa Rica to work this week and facing a busy teaching schedule, it seems I’m now losing my voice, in whichever language is spoken!

Both Adam and I have had an incredibly busy but highly productive week, and its been a great pleasure for us both to engage with the various groups, from toddlers in our baby explorers and pupils from various schools in our Habitat Explorers, to groups of adults from our local community.

One such session that Adam delivered this week, Talk English, supported a project to help people to learn to speak English.  Up to 200 different languages are spoken in Manchester, which has a population of just under 500,000. Some people cannot not speak English well or even at all, so this project being led by our City Council aims to support them especially.

We got some fabulous feedback on Adam’s superb presentation:  “Your calm, informative explanation helped us to understand the animals better and placate any fears that we had, particularly regarding the snake. We finished the tour in the Vivarium and all but one of the learners remained behind saying they wanted to have more time to look at the animals and stated they would be bringing their children to visit in the summer holidays. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and passion for the animals! “Best wishes, Mazamil.

IMG_4648aWe also got some great feedback from schools visits, including Trinity & St Micheals Primary School from Croston in Lancashire. Their pupils were so inspired that several have featured the visits on their own brilliant blogs!  –  which you can find and follow below.

Adam and I would like to thank all our group visitors this week, and are thrilled to know that the sessions we are providing are being so well received.

Alex’s Blog     Charlotte’s Blog     Lily’s Blog     Isabelle’s Blog     Fashionblog732     25retrogamingblog    Speediskey17    Dancingdarkblog


The Toad that broke the mould..

Costa Rican Endemic Toad, Incilius chompipe (c) Andrew R. Gray

Endemic Costa Rican Toad, Incilius chompipe (c) Andrew R. Gray

Once in a blue moon something comes along to change our way of thinking. Currently I am still in Costa Rica – it seems apt, as a research paper about a rare amphibian here has just been published.

We all know that toads from Central America lay their eggs in strings, in water, as is a typical characteristic of the group. Well Adam and I have been working with a very unusual high altitude species of toad that lives in the volcanic mountains of Costa Rica. Researching the breeding biology of this rare species for the first time in the world, we have bred the species in captivity in The Vivarium, and as a result have been able to highlight a remarkable new reproduction mode in Central American toads….

I. chompipe within the egg (c) Andrew R. Gray

I. chompipe within the egg (c) Andrew R. Gray

Incilius chompipe toads don’t follow the rule – their tadpoles and young fully develop in single eggs laid out of water, before hatching as full formed little miniatures of the adults!

This finding represents the first confirmation of direct development within the egg for any toad throughout the whole of Mesoamerica. Its significance within the field of neotropical herpetology is far reaching and we are both very pleased to be able to share it with you..

Gray, A. R, and Bland A. W, Notes on the reproduction of the endemic Costa Rican Toad, Incilius chompipe (Anura; Bufonidae). Mesoamerican Herpetology. June 2016, Volume 3, Number 2. 

Costa Rican Inspiration..

IMG_0100As part of the field course I especially enjoy sharing the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica with the students. Here we have been near Puerto Viejo for several days and experiencing the wonderful wildlife, different culture, and fabulous Caribbean cuisine. Its 16 years since I first shared this fabulous place with some of my family, and it seems it had a big impact on my daughter in particular.

UnknownShe tells me.. “My favourite part of our Costa Rica trip was most definitely adopting Silver the sloth whilst we stayed at the sloth sanctuary. I also loved the donkey ride up the volcano, sitting in the hot pools in the place near the volcano and staying at the place on the Pacific coast with the pool bar! I remember staying in the wooden hut on the mountain where we had an earthquake (and I also tried my first ever Inca Kola!) Costa Rica was also where I did my first driving lesson, with the White Rav 4 on the dirt track! White water rafting was also amazing, when we turned the boat over and laid out a buffet for lunch before making our way to the plunge pool!”


It seems the inspiration of what she experienced is something that has never left her.. the animals, and the full flavour of Costa Rica…

Processed with MOLDIV

Costa Rican Lime-Drizzled Chocolate & Coconut Cream Cake (c) OMG Foodie UK

She is now 26, a fabulous cook, and this is her latest offering for all the family to share… A Costa Rican Lime-Drizzled Chocolate & Coconut Cream Cake! I only wish I was there to taste it and hope she saves me some! This is what she has to say about it:

“I created this recipe based on my childhood memories of visiting Costa Rica, aged 10, drinking my first coconut on the Caribbean beaches whilst searching for Sand Dollars with a Dutch girl I’d befriended! Costa Rica is well known for its rich cocoa beans so this creation really takes me back to those great times.

image5“Not many 10 year olds get to adopt a sloth, trek through the rainforest with a world-famous amphibian conservationist & ride a donkey whilst trekking up a live volcano! I was very lucky! This rich chocolate cake is soaked with lime juice, with a fluffy coconut cream butter frosting & drizzled with dark Costa Rican chocolate!” “I have always loved food from a young age and tied with my creativity, a love of cooking has developed over the past few years, which is great to be able to share with everyone!”

(c) OMG Foodie UK

(c) OMG Foodie UK


“I also enjoy the photography element, having recently invested in my first professional camera, although I’m still a novice. I hope in the coming months to develop my skills and turn my hobbies into a career within social media marketing for a food company or restaurant”

Following a successful 6 months food blogging on Instagram (@OMGFoodieUK) Lexi has also just created a Facebook page to share her passion of cooking and baking. I am so proud of her.

Follow the links below and on there you’ll find out more about how to make this incredible Costa Rican cake plus a host of mouthwatering photos of super delicious cakes, bakes, desserts & more she has created. She also shares her recipes, tips & her favourite food restaurants from not just Costa Rica but around the UK & on her travels – so you too can cook up a storm!

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