2011 research sampler

There always seems to be a lot happening on Barro Colorado Island.  There are dozens of field workers, research assistants, and students working on Masters and Doctoral research projects.  Each project happening in the field and the lab has a small team of people working together to carry out the procedures and collect the data.  Read on to find out about some of the projects that were in full swing while we were on BCI this summer!

The ants go marching

Jesse Czekanski-Moir, Ph. D. student, and his team of students are busy feeding ants.  Not that the ants can’t find food on their own!  One of the questions they are considering is how ants share food resources and how the dispersion (the spread out) of food effects the number of different ants that come to eat.  There are many, many different species of ants on the island.  Some of them eat the same foods.  Jesse’s work is important because it can help conservation biologists understand community ecology. In other words, he wants to save the forest by helping all kinds of people understand how things live together!

The people in the lab make food for the ants several times each week. All of the food for the ants is the same.  On odd numbered days they carry the food up to the sites selected for the study.  They put the food out on little squares of papers for the ants and then come back later to see who is there. 

Although they put food out every other day, what changes is the number of different portions.  On some of the papers the food is all in one large portion.   On other papers it is cut into 4, 8, 16, 32, or 64 little portions. The only days they don’t put the food out is when it is raining very hard.

When the researchers go back, they look to see how many different species of ants are eating on each paper.  So far, they have noticed that the papers that have many small portions tend to attract more different kinds of ants than the one with one big portion, which often only has one large species of ant feeding on it.

What conclusions might they draw from this?  Could we conduct an experiment similar to this one in our own garden?  How many different ant species do you think are living near our school?

Mama monkey

Lilian, who is from Columbia, is on BCI this summer working with a team of four people that is studying female spider monkeys. They spend their days following the monkeys and recording their behaviors. They split each day into two shifts so that they everyone gets a break. Each evening they ‘put the monkeys to sleep’ and then came back to the station for dinner.  When she first said that, we thought she meant something very different! Lily had to explain to us that monkey troops sleep in different places every night and that she and her team have to find out where the monkeys settle in and go to sleep so that the team knows where to find the monkeys in the morning! 

Studying the behaviors of monkeys is a tough job!  As Lilian put it, “the monkeys are bad – they don’t stay on the trails!  So we have to chase them through the forest.”  The people who study monkeys in this way have to dress with long pants, long-sleeve shirts, boots, scarves to cover their hair and plenty of insect repellant.  Each day they select one of the 9 female monkeys they are studying to follow for 12 whole hours! Every three minutes a timer goes off and one of the pair writes down what the monkey is doing at that moment.  The other person gathers the animal waste to test it for the nutrients the monkey is taking in.

The team has gotten to see members of the only troop of spider monkeys on BCI born, die, and live together for many months.  One reason people study primates is to better understand human evolution since we are closely related.

Before coming to BCI, Lilian did some other research on some Capuchin monkeys in Columbia where the forest that the monkeys live in is very fragmented, or broken up by human development.  She was interested in figuring out how the monkeys shared the spaces and resources.  Lilian found that they had overlapping ranges in the shapes of different polygons that were separated by time.  In other words, Lilian found that each troop of monkeys had a territory of a different shape (polygon).  Some of the territories overlapped.  But, in that case the two troops were never in the overlapping space at the same time.

Lilian, like Jesse with his ants (see separate post), knows that the best way to the forest or the monkeys in the forest, is to understand how they live and interact. When scientists figure that out, they can share that information with the people who live near or in the forest so that they can do more to make sure that the monkeys don’t lose their homes.

If you were a leaf, what would you do in the face of Global Climate Change?

Sarah Neihaus is interested in nutrient cycling and how tropical forests will react to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the air.  People before her have shown that when there is more CO2 in the air, trees produce more leaf-litter (leaves that dry up and fall off the tree then collect on the ground).  She is interested in what effect more leaves on the ground might have on the cycles of the nutrients and the growth of the forest.

She thinks that having more carbon in the soil, which comes from having more leaf litter on the ground, will effect the nutrient cycle, but she is not yet sure how.  To find out what is happening, she is measuring carbon amounts at different places in the cycle.

She works on a large area of land that has been divided into smaller plots.  There are three different things happening in three different sections. In the first section, there are five plots of land that are untouched – just left as they are. Scientists call these control groups.  In the second section, there are five plots that have all of the leaves raked out of them every week!  These leaves are spread out as evenly as possible in the third section.  So, one section is natural, one section has the leaves raked out and the third section has extra leaves. If it sounds like a lot of work– you’re right!  They have a full-time leaf-raker just to maintain those sections.

Sarah collects her data in several different ways.  One is by collecting leaves as they fall to the ground with a square net trap held up with PVC tubes.  She dries everything that falls into the trap, grinds it up, and sends it to a lab where they identify the nutrient levels in the leaf litter.  The second way Sarah is collecting data is using a pizza pan!  She puts the pan down on the ground and then cuts around the  circumference of the pan to collect the leaf litter that is on the ground below the pan.  She cleans those samples, dries them, and sends them to a lab to find out their nutrient levels.

On these plots, she is looking at tree growth and nutrient cycling, because those two things are related to Global Climate Change.  Is this sort of study something we could do in Milwaukee? 

Highway to the canopy

Stefan Schnitzer has noticed that lianas (woody vines) are all over the place in tropical forests!  And he is not the only one.  Many ants, mammals, and birds have noticed them and are making good use of them.  Stefan has been monitoring the growth of lianas in the forest for the past few years and has been able to compare his data to observations made by other scientists. Stefan has found that the amount of lianas in tropical rain forests has increased.  You may wonder, why does this matter? (We did).
Well it might matter if lianas win the getting-to-the-sunlight competition that they have with trees. They take up space in the forest but store less carbon. Why is carbon important?  To put it simply, extra carbon in the air (instead of in plants) is leading to Global Climate Change.

One of the experiments Stefan and his research team have recently set up is to compare what happens when you cut all of the lianas in one plot and compare it to a plot that has been left alone. His team has prepared 16 60 x 60 meter plots.  They labeled, measured and plotted every tree and liana growing in the plots – there were thousands of them!  Eight of the plots have been left untouched.  This is the control plot. The other eight had the lianas cut out of them in a 80 x 80 meter area (since lianas have such a long-distance growth pattern they cut 10 extra meters on each side of the square so that they could get all of the lianas that were growing into the plot). Of course when you cut the lianas, they still have energy and life in the roots, and so they try to grow again.  Every two months someone goes through the plot and cuts the new shoots.  They also walk through the control plot so that the only difference in the two plots is that the lianas have been cut (not that someone is walking through one plot, but not the other.)

Maybe this study will show the effect lianas have on tree growth.  Other people are interested in what happens to the ecosystem when lianas are removed. For example, there is a research groups that is using Stefan’s plots to trap mammals, and photograph mammals that walk by at any time of the day or night.  These two groups want to see if animals use the forest differently if there are no lianas. Other groups are studying how changing the trees and vines that grow will affect bird communities, ant communities and invertebrate communities.

I am sure that a good deal of exciting results will come from this work – much of it will probably lead to even more questions then they started with!

Do you think that taking lianas out of the forest help save the forest or harm the forest, or something else altogether? Could it change the air we breathe?

What would you like to find out about these plots? Have you seen lianas where you live?

Meg and the bees

We met Meg Eckles last summer.  What a surprise to see her again on BCI this summer! Meg is very passionate about two things, bees and education.  She studies bees to try to explain why they have developed such complicated behaviors.  Meg has also spent a lot of time working with a high school teacher in San Diego helping students get involved in research and see the work being done in Panamá.

Meg knows a lot about bees.  She is working on earning her Ph.D. and is particularly interested in how bees behave, develop their memories, and learn.  Like many doctoral candidates, she has a team of volunteers, interns, and field students who help her collect her data.  My roommate, Catalina, was on Meg’s team.  Many mornings she was up at 4:00 a.m. and preparing to go out into the field.  She returned to the labs sometime after 7 a.m.  In the field she recorded the bees’ behavior as they exited their hive.  She had to head back to the field around 5:00 each evening and record their behaviors as the bees returned to the hive.  Fortunately for them the hive doesn’t move so they always know just where they have to go each day in the field! 

The bees they are currently studying are stingless bees – they bite instead of sting!  She is trying to figure out how the bees communicate with each other.  To do this her team sets sugar water out around the forest for the bees to find.  Then they move the sugar water and watch to see how the bees act when they get back to the hive.  Observing these changes can help make assumptions about how bees ‘talk’ to each other about the location of a food they love!

Have you ever been stung by a bee? Do you think a stingless bee bite hurts more than a bee sting?
Getting stung in no fun. But bees are important. How might bees be important to our lives? 


So then, why pursue a career in science?

At the end of our stay in 2010 we gave an informal talk in the lounge on BCI.  Most students and researchers do this at some time or another.  Many explain their work and then entertain a host of questions from the crowd squeezed into the room on the couches and scattered about the floor or on empty crates.  We, on the other hand, asked questions of our crowd.  Here are some of their anonymous responses to 'why science?'.

“I always asked questions about how things worked and found the scientific answers the most convincing and intriguing as they created more questions. It is very satisfying to understand (to a certain extent) how living things function.”

“Initially, I started out desiring to be a medical doctor so I chose science subjects in high school. At the university level, I couldn’t handle the sight of blood, so I moved on to study botany, convinced that a world without plants was unimaginable with a lot to discover about the American Rainforest.”

“My science teacher taught how science works- the scientific method and how scientists find things out, rather than just the facts, which is what I got. Also, my biology education seemed oversimplified – no one ever told me that it was a lot more complicated than the simplified diagram I got so I was less likely to be interested in carrying it further because I didn’t realize how much more there was to ask and find out. Also, I thought that becoming a scientist was really hard and only old crazy intelligent nonsocial men became them. But scientists are sociable!”

“Amazement at the natural world. Inquisitive nature – I ask questions and science is the route to answering them. Fascinated by the complexity and diversity of life and living organisms. You can never be bored as a scientist and can never run out of aspects to investigate.”

“Science is very dynamic and unpredictable, these two features make it the most rewarding activity. I like science because it gives sense to my life as I try to answer one question after another.”

“I was always fascinated by dinosaurs when I was little, and that curiosity lead me to be interested in animals, especially lizards and snakes, because they are like living dinosaurs (well not really, birds are actually.) Then I wanted a microscope and one year my parents got me a magnifying glass. When I turned 12 my parents finally got me that microscope and that was it. Dinosaurs and looking at things close up. That was all I was interested in for years. Then in college I started to love plants because they were new. I have always loved discovery.”

“[I went into science] because I want to learn more about science and the environment that is all around us.”

“I decided to study ecology because it fulfills all the criteria I sought in a job. I wanted a career that was intellectually challenging, provided opportunities to travel to interesting places, and allow for me to have a positive impact on society. Ecology is definitely challenging, requiring application of many different scientific disciplines; tropical ecology requires travel to beautiful and fascinating places, and if it closely ties to biodiversity conservation.”

“[I was inspired by] a book in a school library and gardening with my father.”

“I found myself interested in EVERYTHING; filmmaking, journalism, art, psychology. . . if I had it my way I would have been able to do it all, but I decided that biology: relationships, interactions between (especially non-human) living things was the most important thing I could spend my life doing. Nothing else was crucial... or as enthralling.”

“Nature has always inspired and amazed me. I decided to choose science to answer my curiosity about various aspects of nature, to learn more in the process and to participate in the cycle of questioning and answering and more questioning and answering.”

“I had a great biology teacher at school who did interesting experiments and knew loads! Also I always liked asking questions and trying to work at answers.”

“I used to eat ants and wondered why no one else did.”

So, what do you want to do with your career?  Why?


The School in Las Pavas, Panamá

Think about your school for a minute. What do you see? An office? Is there a secretary? Maybe the principal is in her office? Are there classrooms and hallways? A bathroom? A gym? A playground with a basketball court and tot lot?

What is inside your classroom? Other kids in your grade level? Desks and tables? Some computers? Cabinets? A sink? Boxes and boxes of books? Posters on the walls?

Now, think about what kinds of tools you use to learn. Do you use calculators? Rulers? Colored pencils? Computers? Is there a pencil sharpener- perhaps an electric one?

Some of the people who work on BCI have come from Las Pavas, a small community on the mainland near the island.  The guardabosques who protect BCI also help out at the school from time to time. They teach the kids about what they do and why protecting the forest is important. They also give the kids in Las Pavas a Christmas party. The guardabosques thought we might be interested in seeing the school, so they invited us to visit.

On the day of our trip, we took a 20-minute boat ride from the island through part of Gatun Lake to the mainland to a peninsula called Gigante. Andrés, the guardabosque who took us tied the boat to a dock, and then we started to hike on a path in the woods. We walked through a large teak plantation.  The owners of the plantation selectively harvest the trees and sell them to make furniture.  The vast majority of what is growing there are teak trees - all of the native plants from the tropical forest have been cut down. Then we walked by some land that is being turned into a large farm – there were very few trees to be seen there. Along the road, we saw tiny houses with yards. The houses are very far apart. We walked and walked along the dirt road.

We finally saw a building with a red roof. We had finally made it to the school! As we approached, we saw that the school was simply a long rectangular building with a porch. There were three classrooms all in a row, right next to each other. There is no main office with a secretary to greet you. There is no principal. There are no electric pencil sharpeners or computers. There are merely three classrooms.

On the day we visited, one classroom was empty. That classroom is a kindergarten classroom. We don’t know where the kids were, but we were told that a mom from the village usually comes in to work with the little kids. The other two classrooms each have one teacher. One class is for first, second and third graders. The other classroom is for fourth, fifth and sixth graders. The entire school has 49 students and two teachers.

The classrooms have desks and a chalkboard. There are few posters on the walls. There is a desk for the teacher and 2 shelves with some things on them like glue and notebooks. There is no sink. There are no big boxes of books. There is no rug to sit on. Think about it: Desks, a chalkboard, and 2 shelves. That’s it.

The students at Las Pavas go to school from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 or 1:00 p.m. They do not eat breakfast or lunch there. They do not have a gym or an art room. In addition to that, there is no school for the students in middle or high school! If they want to continue going to school past sixth grade, they have to walk for 2 hours to the next village. There are no school buses or city buses.

The biggest surprise for Ms. Sarah and me was the fact that the teachers live at the school! They each have one tiny cinderblock room. They live in that room from Sunday to Friday and then go home on the weekends to their families in other communities. There are no screens on the windows, so bugs and other small animals can get in. One teacher had been stung by a scorpion that crawled into her room! Recently, they told us, there was a snake in the yard. Yikes!

Can you see yourself going to school in Las Pavas? It is hard to imagine, isn’t it? Do you feel fortunate? I know that I do.

It’s not all about scientists and researchers!

It is true, Barro Colorado is a place where many scientists from all over the world come to explore and research. They arrive with many questions and spend months and often years making observations, collecting data and trying to answer their questions.

But the scientists are not alone here. As a matter of fact, there are many necessary people who work on the island to make all of this science happen!

Mmmmm, what’s cookin’?
First and perhaps most importantly, there are cooks. Your brain can’t think right if your body isn’t fed right! The cooks spend long days in the kitchen. The cooks spend from about 5:00 in the morning until 8:30 at night preparing food. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast starts being served at 6:30 in the morning. Lunch is ready at noon and dinner is always at 6:30. They make all kinds of things for the people on the island. For breakfast you might find eggs, pancakes, fry bread, French toast, fritters, oatmeal. There is always fruit, yogurt, milk and cereal. For lunch and dinner you can find soup, salad, beans and rice, pizza, macaroni and cheese, chicken, fish, hamburgers, French fries, mashed potatoes, lots of vegetables such as carrots, broccoli and zuccini. They also keep coffee and tea, water and juice available all day. For scientists and their assistants who can’t make it back in time for lunch or dinner, the cooks make up a plate and have it ready for them when they get in from the field.

On the trails
Another group of super important people are the guardabosques. As their title suggests, they guard the forest. The land on Barro Colorado as well as land near the island on the mainland is considered protected forestland. That means that the government won’t allow the trees to be cut down or the animals to be hunted. But there are people who will try to hunt animals on the land, so it is the guardabosques’ job to look for and catch poachers. They patrol the perimeter of the island and mainland by boat and they walk the trails watching for signs that people are in the area without permission. They work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Wait! There is more! The guardabosques also are there in case a boat breaks down. They will tow it back to land. They find lost scientists and bring them back to the field station. If someone gets hurt, they take care of them and take them to the mainland so that they can see the doctor. They use big, sharp machetes out to clear the trails. They move plants and trees that fall over or grow on the trails. The guardabosques know a lot about the forest and the plants and animals that live there.  They have backgrounds in education, biology, tourism, or have even been police officers.

Life jackets please.
How do you suppose all of the people who work on the island get there? You are right! By boat! So of course there are boat drivers. They drive different boats back and forth all day with all sorts of cargo. Sometimes they just take people back and forth. Sometimes they have to go to the mainland to get all the food and supplies needed on the island and then they have to take the garbage and other things off the island.

There are people here who have to know who is coming and when and for how long. They have to make sure that there is a room with a bed for them. They have to make sure that people get keys when they arrive and turn them back in when they leave. They have to make sure people pay for their rooms and meals. Yes, it is sort of like a hotel. And just like in a hotel, there are people who keep the buildings and rooms clean, fix things that are broken and make sure everything is in its place and working correctly.

Volunteers and field assistants
Some people on the island are hired to help the scientists. Professors from colleges and universities send their students here to do some of the work. But many people have been hired to work on the projects day to day. There are people who help collect leaves or insects, plant trees, put tags on plants or animals, tie tags used to identify different information etc. They come in the morning and leave in the afternoon.  Some times their jobs last a long time, other times, they work for a few months until a project is done. Depending on the work, some people get hired to work on new projects. So you don’t have to be a scientist to do science work. These people are invaluable to the scientists because they do much of the slow and tedious work so that things can be studied and observed. Many times one study is way too much for just one person, so they have to work with teams.

Welcoming people.
Right now, there is an extra crew here that is building a new visitor’s center. There are tour guides that also work here. They bring tourists to the island so that they can hike the trails, see some of the wildlife and find out just a little about what goes on here on the island. The visitor’s center is a great place to take visitors!
Would you like to work on BCI? What kind of job might you find interesting? There are many to choose from!


Baby Howler Monkey Found

One morning while we were hiking on the island, we came upon one of the doctoral students, Jesse.  Jesse and the members of his lab are studying ants and their feeding behaviors.  He was walking out of the forest from his study site toward the lab buildings, not with his crew, but with a baby monkey! That morning while they were out distributing the food that they had prepared for the ants, they found a baby Howler monkey that had fallen out of a tree and was injured on the ground, alone.  Jesse and his lab-mates made the decision to carefully put the monkey into a piece of material that they had and carry him to the lab.  They hoped to find the people who study monkeys and get some help for the little guy.

It's hard to believe, but they were making a mistake.  On Barro Colorado Island, many people work very carefully to minimize the role humans play in the ecological processes.  Just like in Wisconsin, you may hear,  "take only pictures, leave only footprints."  That means, it is our responsibility to let nature take care of itself. If researchers want to take anything -plant or animal- from the forest on BCI they have to go get special permission.  There is even a large part of the island where no one is allowed to go, just to preserve it from any human impact.  Although they were trying to help the baby monkey, they interfered in the natural processes of the life cycle of the monkey. It is very possible that the momma was 
looking for her baby and that she would do what 
she could to care for him.

The scientific coordinator on BCI let them care for the monkey overnight, but they were under strict orders to take the baby back to the forest where he had been found the following morning.  Because humans had touched the monkey, they were unsure whether the mother or the troop would take him back to care for him. 
We hope that the baby monkey made it back to his family, but we won't ever know for sure.

Punta Culebra

Punta Culebra is located on the Amador Causeway in Panama City.  It has beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean, the mountains, the Panama Canal and the city itself.  The causeway was originally just three small islands.  During the construction of the Canal 100 years ago, some of the soil and rocks (spoils) that the workers dug up were moved by train and then by boat to build a strip of land that connects the three islands to the mainland.  From an airplane, the Causeway looks like a skinny finger sticking out into the sea.

The Smithsonian runs a small research station and student visitor center out of Punta Culebra.  It reminds us a little of the Urban Ecology Center, except that is for learning about life in the oceans.  More than 25,000 public school children visit Culebra every year.  They come to learn about marine ecosystems.  Inside of the center there are exhibits that teach about relative size of fish, some questions scientists are studying, and there are also samples of corals and shells. 

Outside there are several pools that house animals.  One has some Hawk billed sea turtles and another has some fish.  There are also a few touching pools.  People can hold or just touch the starfish and the sea cucumbers.  At each of the pools there are volunteers to tell you about the animals.  It is both interesting and beautiful.

A Train Ride and the Fight to Save the Rainforest

There has been a railroad going from Panama City on the Pacific Ocean across the isthmus to Colón on the Atlantic Ocean for over 150 years.  It is such a great way to cross the country. Can you believe it only takes and hour!? The train station is just at the edge of Panama City.  When it leaves from there at 7:15, the train starts to climb up through the mountains toward Paraiso. At one point you even go through a tunnel!  After you pass the small town of Paraiso, the landscape changes to mostly tropical rainforest.  Some cars on the train have windows so you can see the trees as you ride through the forest.  Best of all, we were lucky to spend that hour with Dr. Stanley Morreno-Heckadon. He has been working with the Smithsonian for many years and has many stories to share.

We were most impressed with his story about how he and a few others saved a part of the rainforest. There is a large area of land located in the former Canal Zone. This is land that was occupied by the United States so that they could be in charge of the canal. When the U.S. gave the canal and all of the land back to the Panamanians, some developers wanted to build big businesses and factories on that land.  Dr. Stanley wanted to save that forest land.
So how do you save a tropical rainforest?

The birth of ecotourism

Dr. Stanley is a very smart man. He has written many books and knows lots of people.  He cares deeply about the people and the land of Panamá.  He talks with communities and their members all over the country,  he visits villages and cities to meet their leaders, he works with scientists from around the world, and he has to meet with the politicians who make decisions about how the country should run.
Years ago when the U.S. began the process of turning the Canal Zone back over to the Panamanian people, there were many decisions to make.  The majority of land on both sides of the Canal Zone was still heavily forested but had a few towns that housed some of the people who worked for the Canal and the two big port cities, Panama City and Colón. 

At that time many of the politicians and rich business owners wanted to cut down most of the forest along the canal in the name of progress. Dr. Stanley explained that for them, progress would be businesses and jobs. They thought that factories and warehouses along the canal would be a better use of the land and that they could make lots of money. But he also explained that progress for the people who lived on that land meant losing their homes and having to find another place to live. For the animals progress meant that their habitat would be destroyed. The animals would lose everything. All of the plants and trees would also be torn down. Dr. Stanley wanted to save that land. Fortunately, he was asked to participate in the conversation and be a part of that decision.

Knowing that they wanted to cut down the forests, he knew he had to change their minds, but how?!  He knew that they would want to hear how the land could make money. But he wasn't sure himself. 
One day, he mentioned this problem to a scientist who studied crickets in Panamá. The cricket scientist, who wanted to save the forest because it is home to many crickets, was also concerned.  After thinking about it for some time, he asked Dr. Stanley, “do you know how many Japanese tourists come to look at birds here in Panamá every year?”

Dr. Stanley thought that was interesting.

The next time they saw each other the cricket scientist asked, “do you have any idea how many Americans come here each year and buy tee shirts with butterflies printed on them?”

It was clear. The forest didn't have to be cut down to make money. The forest could be used to make money!

The next time they saw each other they continued to talk about many of the animals and plants that were found in Central American Rainforests. They talked about how many people from all over the world would spend money in Panamá just to see the amazing plants and animals.  Dr. Stanley knew that he had to get the cricket scientist to meet with the Panamanian politician who wanted to cut down the forests for ‘progress’.  He knew the cricket scientist would be able to convince them to leave the forest be.

Dr. Stanley found his chance.  He knew the person who made appointments for the politician. He had her schedule a meeting with the cricket scientist and the politician on a helicopter so that everyone could see the land and the forest and no one could walk away.  We don’t know exactly what was said during the flight over the Canal Zone,  but when they got off of the helicopter, the decision had been made to protect the forest!  Soberania National Park was established in 1980 along much of the eastern side of the canal.

And that is how you save a rainforest! Okay, it surely isn't the only way, but it was certainly a good one! How would you save the rainforest?


The Three Tortugas of Galeta

Galeta is a Smithsonian field station in Panama on the Atlantic Coast where scientists study marine biology, students study the ocean and the habitats around the ocean and families can go to learn about the plants and animals that live in their own community.  The three main habitats that are studied in Galeta are Mangrove forests, sea grass beds, and coral reefs.  Many different animals depend on these habitats to survive.  Many thanks to Dr. Heckadon and Gabriel for teaching us about Galeta.

In Galeta we met three lovely turtles named Denise, Anita and Molly. They each came to Galeta in very different ways and each of them is named after the people who brought them to Galeta. Molly is a Hawk Billed turtle that was found by a fisherman in the coast between the rocks. When the fisherman found Molly, she had fishing line wrapped around her neck and one of her fins. When she would move a fin, the fishing line would tighten around her neck. The fisherman cut the line so Molly could move and breath. He took her home, but wasn't sure how to take care of her. After two whole weeks of caring for the turtle at their house, the fisherman's son was reading the old notes he took on a field trip to Galeta. He realized knew exactly what to do with the turtle! The boy and his father took the turtle to Galeta where she is today.

Anita is a Green Sea turtle. She almost became someone's lunch! Many people eat turtles but there aren't very many left, so people are trying to save them. A young woman saw that a man in her village wanted to eat Anita, but after learning how important Green Sea turtles are to the ecosystem, she asked the man not to eat Anita for lunch. He told her that she would have to pay him $70.00! The young woman went to the people in her village to tell them what happened. They helped her collect the money. She gave the man the money and took Anita to Galeta. She is happy living in the tank and will probably be released back into the sea.

Denise is a very lucky Hawk Billed turtle. She was captured by an indigenous group called the Kunas, who were planning to eat her in spite of her small size. Hawk billed turtles are endangered, so if someone is caught with one of them, the person would be in trouble. A neighbor of the Kunas saw that Denise was a hawk billed turtle and called ANAM (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente, national authority of the environment) immediately, so that ANAM could persuade the Kunas to let Denise live. ANAM went as fast as they could to save Denise and brought Denise to Galeta hoping that Galeta would receive her. Thanks to the neighbor who really cared about Denise, Denise is now living in Galeta together with Molly and Anita.

Colors of the rainforest

Last summer when we arrived on BCI, Ms. Thome told me that everything looked green.  It was only after climbing a tower up above the canopy that the different layers and colors of the rainforest started to become clearer.  She discovered that there are many different shades of green, all sorts of shapes and sizes of leaves, and even some of the animals are green! Sloths move so slowly that green moss grows on their white fur. But the more time we spent in the forest, the more colors we began to see.  Although many plants and animals are green, some camouflage to protect themselves, others are bright reds, blues, yellows and orange. They really stand out against the trees, leaves, and sky.

The forest floor is mostly covered in brown. It is covered by dead plants, much like the forest you have seen at the Urban Ecology Center.  However, on the forest floor you will also notice lots of brightly colored fungi.  They come in shades of white, brown, red, yellow and green, and many colors in between. Fungi are decomposers – an essential part of any forest.  They get their energy from dead organic matter (dead plants) and break down that matter into soil that is full of nutrients that feed the living plants in the forest.  If you see a fungi growing on a tree, you can be sure that tree is dying or is already dead.

Flowers of all colors bloom throughout the year in the Panama rainforest.  Right now many Virola trees that have purple flowers are in bloom across the island.  The purple flowers attract many insects and produce a fruit that is commonly called Wild Nutmeg.  Monkeys are also attracted to the trees to eat the fruit on the outside of the seed.  As you walk through the forest, you will notice patches on the forest floor covered in pretty purple and pink flowers and petals, red seed coverings and seeds scattered about.  

Another eye-catching plant is the heliconia. It has bright red bracts (specialized leaves to draw attention to the flowers) and little yellow flowers where the bracts meet. If you look closely, you'll notice little blue colored fruits in the flowers.

Animals and insects can be very difficult to see or they can surprise you with their bright colors. Lots of animals are able to camouflage so that they look exactly the same color the plant they are visiting, like the green anole. Some insects look just like plants.  Can you guess what a Walking Stick looks like? If you see an animal or insect with red or blue, that is your warning not to touch!  They may look beautiful, but they can be dangerous!

Green is certainly the most typical color in the rain forest, but when you stop and take the time to observe, you will see that the rain forest is full of amazing colors that fill you with wonder and awe.


Our return

Well, we are back in Panamá for a few weeks this summer.  This time we knew what to pack and what should stay home!  The trip here was pretty easy.  We drove to Chicago, flew to Panama City, took a taxi to Gamboa and finally got on a boat to Barro Colorado Island (BCI).  In all we traveled for about 17 hours.

Gamboa, the Chagres meeting the canal
Panama City, the Panamá Canal, and Amador causeway

For those who don't know yet, BCI is an island that was created when the Panama Canal was built nearly 100 years ago.  It used to be a hill top, but when they flooded the area, the lower surrounding land was covered with water.  At that time, the Smithsonian recognized that the new island formed had unique qualities, one of which was relatively undisturbed rainforest.  As you can imagine, because it was a hill top, everywhere you walk on the island is either uphill or downhill!

Many researchers and scientists live here for anywhere from a few days to months or even years at a time.  There are very nice rooms, laboratories, a dining hall, and even a basketball court!  The station is on a very small area of the island.  The vast majority of it is forest with a few trails going through it.  Parts of the island are some of the most heavily researched areas in the world!

For teachers and students, BCI is a very exciting and curious place to be.  You can meet people from all over the world at lunch time and it is not unusual to hear a variety of languages (although Spanish and English are the most common).

Enjoy the future posts as we add to our report!