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Tropical Field Biology – Panama: Barro Colorado Island


A new update from Panama. Friday and Saturday (Days 12 and 13, respectively) were reserved for the long awaited trip to Barro Colorado Island (BCI). The featured image shows our two dedicated teaching assistants – Meghan Duell and Sal Anzaldo – on the balcony of the BCI Visitor’s Center where many famous tropical biologists have stood before.

BCI is a special place with a special history – the island was “created” through the construction of the Panama Canal and the human-made Gatún Lake. In 1923 the Island was set aside for research and education under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, and 90 years later it remains one of the most storied and influential sites for New World tropical research worldwide. BCI has an extensive and heavily used infrastructure supporting tropical researchers and projects ranging from long-term ecological patterns in rainforest growth to bat behavior. Another perhaps noteworthy feature of BCI is the high density of chiggers (family Trombiculidae), a rather unpleasant companion in the rainforest that motivated us to invent a wide range of defense strategies, among them duct-taping ankles, wrists, and even the belt line. The bites are itchy and last long. But too much protection can cause other problems in the hot and humid rainforest. Either way, we came prepared.

Our STRI boat (“Morpho”) to BCI left early on Friday (7 am). The day prior (Thursday, Day 11) was a regular project day in Gamboa, and most of us went to bed early to be ready for the following morning. Around 8 am we arrived on BCI and proceeded straight to breakfast in the dining room with a view of the Lake. Soon thereafter we were introduced to our two guides for the morning – Marcos Riquelme (who specializes in endophytic fungi) and Claudio Monteza (mainly a reptile biologist but broadly versed) – two excellent field biologists who have known the Island, its projects, and people, for many years. There was a 30-minute starting lecture reviewing the Island’s history, geography, central research and outreach projects, and faunistic and floristic elements. Then we split into two groups and went on a 4 hour exploratory hike, walking the trails and learning about the diverse types of organisms and research projects underway on BCI. Among other sightings, we encountered the abundant howler monkeys, and also spider monkeys, and also white-headed capuchin.

The rains set in right on time for lunch, and gave us some time to rest and get settled into our accommodations. Due to the heavy BCI occupancy in the month of June we were put up in four different spaces but managed well. Dale and Nico possibly had the toughest lot – residing in the space that was previously the gift shop! Nevertheless we were grateful for having an opportunity to experience BCI at night.

Around 3:30 pm we started another group exploration, this time unguided, to the Big Tree. This massive individual of the species Ceiba pentandra (fatally) lost its crown just one year ago, however the enormous stem still stands and the surroundings demonstrate the impact of such a tree fall on the dynamics of the forest.

After pizza for dinner, we again hiked out in groups to pursue either entomological or herpetological interests. Several snakes were seen, and poision dart frogs (Dendrobates auratus), as well as many insects associated with the abundant rotting wood. Afterwards most of us were thoroughly exhausted and “retired” soon enough. Breakfast on BCI starts at 6:30 am.

Saturday included one additional, lengthy hike to the 50 hectare plot, another important site on BCI where long-term ecological rainforest dynamics research is undertaken. Starting in 1980, every tree with a diameter over 1 cm a chest height has been individually identified and has had its life trajectory documented. More than 350,000 trees have so far been followed that way. Perhaps somewhat on purpose, the 50 hectare plot is not so easy to locate in the maze of trails. It took us a while and 1-2 involuntary detours to arrive. The return to the lab area went more swiftly, and in time for lunch. After that there was free time to wind down from the Island explorations.

We left the Island in two separate boat rides and returned to Gamboa around 4 pm. On the way there we passed some of the impressive boats and infrastructure of the Panama Canal Authority who are in the process of making the the Canal suitable for even larger boats. The night offered either a return to our projects, or a taste of Gamboa’s STRI culture – the annual Coffee House event that brings together BCI and Gamboa researchers and families for an entertaining talent show.

Collected photos are here.

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