Our last big trip was to the Bocas del Toro field station on the Caribbean Sea. Bocas is an absolutely beautiful place and a vacation destination, along with an amazing area of biodiversity and high tech science. This was definitely my personal favorite part of the trip. The first day we went snorkeling to several of the reefs just outside the field station with marine biologist Nancy Knowlton and post doctoral student Matthieu Leray. Along with seeing some amazing corals and fish, we got to extract one of the devices that they use to monitor biodiversity worldwide, referred to as an ARMS device. This device is made of PVC plates bound together in a way that allows marine organisms to attach and grow inside the device. We got a chance to take it apart and found a huge diversity of animals inside. 
A Brittle Sea Star
Shrimp! It's hard to tell from the picture but they were surprisingly large
The ARMS extraction process by IGERT 2014 (minus Blogmaster P)

--- Patrick
 
 
On Friday morning we made the very long bus ride up to the Fortuna Forest Preserve in the mountains in Western Panama, where several cloud forest researchers and projects are located. We have learned about bryophytes from Noris Salazar Allen and her graduate students, and gone on several great hikes with University of Illinois P.I. Jim Dahling. On today's hike we went up a very steep peak to see a great view of the southern mountains and the Pacific Ocean, swung on vines on a huge tree and got to go swimming in the river off the trail, ending with the insane wind in the Devil's Chin. Definitely the best hike of the trip so far!
La piscina! Super cold water, but amazing after our long day of hiking

Happy Trails!
--- Patrick
 
 
On Tuesday, Jan. 14 we spent the morning listening to two talks at Naos Island Laboratories, which is near Panama City next to the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. We heard Michael Boyle talk about comparative development and life history in marine invertebrates and Laura Geyer talk about speciation and reinforcement in sea urchins. After the morning talks, we got lunch Karimar, which was an outdoor restaurant on the beach of the Pacific Ocean in Vera Cruz. We then took a quick trip to Punta Culebra where we saw 3 sloths, including a really cute baby one. We then headed over to Tupper, the main laboratory/office building for STRI scientists. We saw a “Tupper Talk” by Loren McClenachan on using historical ecology in marine conservation.
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View of Panama City from Naos Island in the Pacific Ocean

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Sleeping baby two toed sloth a few feet above our heads

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- Rachel

 
 
On Monday, Jan. 13 we visited Agua Salud. Research at Agua Salud is focused on understanding the role of tropical forests effect the water quality of the Panama Canal water shed. Jeff Hall, Agua Salud project leader, showed us around the site. Some of the main questions researchers are trying to answer at Agua Salud include: 1) To what extent to seasonal tropical forests regulate water flow; 2) what is the most efficient way to restore degraded land; and 3) How will global change impact the ecosystem services of tropical forests?
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Jeff Hall pointing out differences in tree growth due to soil quality

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Jorge, a field assistant at Agua Salud, showing us the meteorological station with eddy flux tower

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Truck ride to the teak plots

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Jorge explaining how they measure water flow through the weirs (little dams)

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Where we ate our lunch










- Rachel

 
 
This week's seminar at the Smithsonian Tupper Center in Panama City was presented by Dr. Loren McClenachan from Colby College in Maine on the use of historical ecology in marine conservation.
 I found the talk particularly interesting because of the use of unconventional, cultural data - such as collecting information about the size of fish from historic photographs of fisherman and their daily catch from the early 1900s and the food available on restaurant menus in Hawaii, where most seafood would be locally caught. This method of data collection provides a fascinating insight into the effects of overfishing by humans on the size and biodiversity of the fish in our oceans. As you can see in the picture to the left (from one of Dr. McClenachan's talks), the size of the "prize catch of the day" has decreased significantly over time. Dr. McClenachan continued on to discuss the importance of all historical data for assessment of species conservation methods. If you just look at the short conservation history of an animal, such as sea turtles, a population increase can look extremely significant and perhaps result in the decrease of conservation methods. However, if you look at long term data, such as that gathered from this project, these small population increases can be dwarfed by the multi-decade decreases as a result of human development. Definitely a very interesting talk!




--- Patrick
 
 
Javier Ballesteros took us out on BCI to screen trees for pathogens. He is doing a project on fungal tree pathogens. He uses sonar to check for holes or less solid tissue in the tree and then uses a machine to measure electrical connectivity. Here are some pictures to illustrate. 

The tree is measured at 1 meter, and then 12 tacks are added to the tree 
This tool sends a message to the computer about how far apart each tack is. 
The computer then makes this image of the perimeter of the tree. 
These nodes are put on the tacks in order to measure the waves from the sonar.
We tapped each node, one at a time. 
After that the computer creates a color map of the dense and less dense parts of the tree. Then we measured the electrical connectivity, which is a measure of water uptake. It is important to measure both sonar and electrical connectivity because sometimes dense wood can be dead. 
- Jennifer
 
 
One of my favorite talks so far on the trip was by Christine Riehl, who studies an amazing species of birds called the Greater Ani. These birds are particularly interesting because they exhibit communal nesting - meaning that multiple females share one nest, which is quite different from most bird species.
Picture by Dominic Sherony (Wikipedia)
This leads to some pretty peculiar social behavior by these birds, but it also gives them a huge advantage because there are multiple individuals who can guard the nest, fight for the safest nesting spot and feed the chicks. There is also fierce competition among the females sharing a nest. Depending on when a female lays an egg, the other females will push it out and break it to help give their own eggs an advantage. The first egg laid is always destroyed because the other females who have not laid an egg are positive that it cannot be their own. After the second egg is laid, the birds cannot differentiate their own and are less like to push eggs out of the nest. This nest competition is balanced with the huge advantage that communal nesting gives to these birds.
-- Patrick
 
 
Yesterday, while the other half of the group looked for birds, a group of four of us went to the 50 acre plots led by Dr. Egbert Giles Leigh. This BCI plot was the first 50 hectare tropical forest plot created. The plot was created in 1980. After the first census which took 3 years, all trees more than 1 cm in diameter have been identified every 5 years. For more information see Center for Tropical Forest Science website.

Here are some of the things we saw along the trail.
The above picture is of Luehea seemannii. This picture shows the characteristic caverns in the trunk of the tree. 
This is the tallest tree on BCI, and it’s found in the 50 hectare plots. This is a Dipteryx tree that is 57 meters tall. 
- Jennifer
 
 
This morning we split up on our hikes, one group going to the 50 hectare tree plot and one group going birdwatching! I was in the bird group. On our 5 hour hike, we got to see several Motmots, Tinamous, Manakins, Red-lord Parrots, Oropendolas and several species of obligate ant followers. We also found several Poison Dart Frogs, an amazing leafcutter ant colony, Morpho butterflies and a totally cleaned Coati skeleton on the forest floor. Great trip!!!!
--- Patrick
 
 
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Today we took the slow boat ride to Barro Colorado Island after two lectures on frogs following up last night's hike

After arriving on the island, several of us took a hike on one of the trails (and didn't get lost!) and managed to see several species of monkeys and agoutis, along with some cool spiders and wasps


--- Patrick
 

    Authors

    We are a group of graduate students from University of Illinois, Arizona State University and McGill University spending a semester in Panama at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute as a part of the NSF IGERT program. See details about each of us under the "About Us" tab!


    Where we are now