07 September 2011

Neotropical Rainforest of Panama

Thanks to Annette – Richard’s sister – Richard and I got a unique view of the Canal and the rainforest of Panama. Annette’s current research with Princeton University and the Smithsonian Tropical ResearchInstitute (STRI) has brought her to the Central American rainforest multiple times. This time, she spent her summer studying nitrogen fixation on small, remotely accessible islands, in Lago Gatun – a manmade lake created during the Canal construction to cut down on length and dredging needs. All the islands in Lago Gatun have only been there for a hundred years, but STRI scientists have made them the most intensively studied areas in the neotropics, says my Lonely Planet guidebook.

 Isla Barro Colorado (BCI), which houses STRI’s world-renowned research facility, is where we took a ferry early on our second morning in Panama.

From there, Annette donned her captain’s hat, and piloted us from BCI to another island where her field plots are growing. To be on a small, private boat in the Panama Canal alongside huge oil tankers and cargo ships was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. The sun was bright and warm, the breeze cool and swift. The half-hour boat ride could have lasted forever, as long as I was concerned.

At Annette’s sites we helped her distribute nutrients and then explored the island. There were lots of other sites speckled around the island, put there by other STRI graduate students, all looking at different, yet very specific, slices of the neotropic rainforest.

“It always surprises me that the rainforest isn’t that lush,” said Annette as we wandered along a muddy trail. On a dry, sunny day the forest floor looks not unlike most temperate forests I’ve visited, just with different flora. The rain can change that. But so can a trip to the canopy. Since we didn’t get rained on until the end of our trip, my opinion of the lush-factor changed the next day when we visited the Rainforest DiscoveryCenter in the Canal Zone. We climbed their 30-meter tower to be at canopy level. Up there, lush was the only word to describe it.

Fog sat quietly in patches on the dawn horizon with brightly colored flashes of feathers weaving expertly through the treetops, resting on occasion for a brief respite from the morning’s activities.

Three-toed sloths hung languidly in the sun. A howler monkey mother let her newborn climb all over her with its boundless energy.

The whole ecosystem was overflowing with life, from the birds in the trees to the epiphytes growing on their host plants to the millions of ants, cutting and harvesting leaves to march proudly home.

But this lively place was not free from human impaction. The most prevalent type of trash we found was shoes – in pieces or whole. They were floating in the Canal, scattered along roads, and covered in mud in parking lots. Like most countries in the last 100 years, Panama had not yet figured out waste management. This country’s economy has grown rapidly over the last few years, and with growth comes waste. According to the Latin Business Chronicle, Panama has the fastest growing, and best managed, economy in Central America.

 Boating in the Canal.
 Annette at work in the rainforest.
 Epiphyte in the canopy.
 Toucan in flight.
 Butterfly on Birds of Paradise plant.
 Tree defense strategy.
Leaf cutter ants.

As my first taste of the tropics, I was very happy with my visit to Panama.

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