Monday, July 26, 2010

one great wild, untidy luxuriant hothouse

The land is one great wild, untidy luxuriant hothouse, made by nature for herself.   -Charles Darwin

Although our project is far from finished, the Panama adventure has ended. These first few days home, I find myself looking back and reflecting on the 31 days I spent on a narrow isthmus between two oceans, just north of the equator, on an island, in a rain forest and still find it hard to believe that I was there. 
In an attempt to keep the forest experience close, I am reading Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata. Reading this now enables me to make sense of new information, answer questions that I had or didn’t know I had and to revisit the forest, if only in my mind. 
A few quotes by Forsythe and Miyata have caught my attention.
But the tangle of diversity that characterizes life in the humid tropics can perplex and confuse on the first exposure.
The first days we spent in and around the rain forest, I was indeed, perplexed. The forest didn’t look like I expected it to.  Despite the diversity that everyone talked about, everything looked the same and everything was painted a pale shade of GREEN! It wasn’t until some days into the trip and various trips into the forest, that I started to become aware of the zillions of different types of trees and leaves and the rainbow of colors hiding amongst the subtle shades of green. 
The first visit to a tropical rain forest can be a profoundly stimulating experience for any naturalist, but it can also be a drastic shock. An endless stream of information bombards the senses from the richness of tropical nature, yet it arrives as if in a garbled foreign tongue. One is lost without a guide.
I am still being bombarded with information and suspect that I will continue to be for some time. It is now, that I am a great distance from the forest, that I remember acutely the smell of the humid air and the decaying forest. The city around me now just seems like a quiet din. Fire and police sirens, city buses, passing drunks, MSOE students playing on the field and the TV blaring are no comparison to the deep horns of the howler monkeys, the giant cicadas singing relentlessly and the constant hum of a forest decaying and rebuilding. 
And had it not been for a trustworthy guide I am most certain I would have been lost!  I was fortunate to be on this adventure with a rain forest veteran. I am deeply grateful that Sarah was there to point things out, answer questions, explain and re-explain, read maps, clear spider webs, take pictures, supply bug spray, divert attention away from possible snake sightings and share her knowledge, respect and love for the tropical rain forest. 
Until next time. . . 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Punta Galeta

As mentioned in the previous post, we were accompanied by Dr. Stanley Heckadon – Moreno Director of Communications and Public Programs at Punta Galeta Marine Biology Laboratory.

This is another Smithsonian field station. Here scientists study the mangrove forests, the seagrass beds, and the coral reefs, the three major components of costal marine biology. This is a much smaller site than BCI. They can only accommodate about 16 people whereas BCI can house about 100 scientists. Also notably different from BCI, is the emphasis put on educational outreach and environmental conservation.

One of the ways that Dr. Heckadon reaches out to the community is by recruiting volunteers from in and around Colón. He assigns them to a research and they start by assisting. Then gradually, they are given more responsibilities. Ultimately, volunteers can become guides and transition to the payroll. Our guide for the day was Gabriel Thomas.

First Gabriel showed us the open system aquariums.  They are termed open system because there is a pump that is bringing sea water directly from the ocean into each of the tanks.  They each have a pipe on the opposite side that returns water to the sea.  One of the drawbacks to not having a closed system (like a typical aquarium at home) is that one cannot regulate the temperature of the water.  This is problematic because the water they are drawing from to bring to the tanks is in relatively shallow water that varies a good deal in temperature.  Many corals cannot withstand such variability.

One of the three pools was a touching pool that had several species of conchs, starfish, and sea urchins.  The second pool had two sea urchin-eating fish (Lola and Lolita) in it that is a type of puffer fish, not to be disturbed by touching!  They share their space with a couple of barracudas and a green sea turtle who had lost one of its' front flippers when it was caught in a fishing net.  The fishermen brought it in to the station to be cared for.  The third tank was home to a pair of Hawk-beak turtles.  They also had several aquariums that were set up with some corals and fish from the reef just offshore.

We walked into the Mangroves on a boardwalk.  Mangroves are a costal tree that grow on stilted roots and depend on saltwater.  The habitat they grace is being destroyed at a staggering rate, and the coast near Colón is no exception.  Mangroves provide an important barrier for rainwater runoff, preventing excess silt and topsoil from running into the sea.  They also slow the tidal action as the water comes running in, which cuts down on erosion and actually allows more sediments to settle in the area around the mangroves.  The stilted roots also provide priceless protection to many species of fish for laying eggs and rearing young.  Large areas of Mangroves are being destroyed every year to make way for large 'bodegas' - gigantic warehouses that house shipping containers awaiting export in the 'Free Trade Zone'.

It is a beautiful place to visit, bustling with friendly locals, students, volunteers, and scientists.  Although it is a modestly sized facility, there are many reasons to return!  For example, April 2010 marks the fourth year that the folks at Galeta are offering a two-week course in tropical marine ecology, science content and methods for Panamanian teachers.

To learn more about what Galeta has to offer, visit Galeta
And see more photos...

Galeta STRI


The history of this port city is remarkable in that it has seen a series of booms and busts ever since it was built in the 1850s.

Although the isthmus had been used to transport merchandise for hundreds of years, a canal was still not a consideration and a railway was just an idea. It was the California Gold Rush that fueled the construction of the railway. People hungry for gold wanted an easier way to get to California and William Apsinwall decided to make it happen.

The city grew until 1885 when it was burned down in the Colombian Civil War and then burned again in 1915. In the late 1940s Colón was established as a Free Trade Zone and flourished for the next 25 years. There were political riots in the 1960s and since then, the city has since been in a steady state of decline, first begun by the riots then accelerated by the dictatorships of Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega which lasted from 1968 to 1985. The withdrawal of the U.S. military has further contributed to the city’s decline. Unemployment is about 50%. Poverty rates are even higher.

Panamanians are deeply troubled and frustrated by government refusal to acknowledge or support the city. We had an interesting conversation with a man who grew up in Colón. He is noticeably angry at what he sees as the government’s unwillingness to do anything to aid the city. He said, “they just don’t care.” When asked why, he said he didn’t know but it is clear that, “the government just doesn’t care.”

Because of the pervasive poverty, crime rates have risen.  We were warned various times by Panamanians, tour guides and others who know Panama, that Colón is just too dangerous for tourists. One man said he wouldn’t even go there with a bullet proof vest!

The other troubling situation is the rapid destruction of the mangrove forests. Although the city is suffering, large companies are rapidly removing the mangroves, filling in the remaining swamps and constructing enormous storage facilities (bodegas) for all of the containers coming in on ships. Imagine miles of just Sam’s Club sized buildings.Although billions of dollars are coming and going through the port and its operations, none of it is reaching the people. They companies are not contributing to the city’s infrastructure, maintenance or renewal. They are not landscaping or building sidewalks so people can walk to work. The road to the bodegas barely has two lanes and no shoulder. There are frequent traffic jams. There is no consideration for the importance of the mangroves. There are no environmental groups rallying to preserve the mangroves and no political party is taking up the issue. They insist the container storage is economic recovery enough. Truly, it’s horrifying.

Considering the crime and poverty we were not to go to Colón unless we were escorted! We were able to contact with Dr. Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, the Director of Communications and Public Programs at Punta Galeta Marine Laboratory. He takes the train from Panama City to Colón every Friday.He provided an incredible narrative on his work in Galeta, the history of the Canal and offered some insights on the state of things in Colón. We got in and out of the city safe and sound. We didn’t get into the city at all. A Smithsonian employee picked us up at the train station and took us directly to Punta Galeta. We didn’t take any photos of the little that we saw.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

“Brad Pitt has visited the Biomuseo. What are you waiting for?”

With that kind of tease, how could we not visit where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have visited, walk where they have walked, seen what they have seen? We were in!
The Biomuseo was designed by Frank Gehry.  You are probably familiar with his other designs such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California. Why build in Panama? Well, Gehry married a Panamanian woman, and so far, that is all the answer we have.
Although construction is far from being complete, tours are being offered every Friday. Before entering the construction site, we were given an overview of what the final product will be. Of the seven future galleries, we think the two most interesting will be “Océanos Divididos”  and “Panamarama.” “Océanos Divididos” a place to compare the marine life of the Caribbean Sea and the other will showcase the marine life of the Pacific Ocean. They are constructing two floor to ceiling aquariums nearly side by side. Believe it or not, although only about 40 miles of land separate the two bodies of water, the aquatic ecosystems are quite different in each.  The “Panamarama” gallery will be a display of Panama from the depths of the ocean to the cloud forest. Visitors will be transported through the exhibit virtually as a series of different species.
We got to put on hard hats and orange vests and tour the work in progress. We are looking forward to coming back and seeing the completed project. Although it will be too bad that most of these geometrically intriguing structures will, by then be walls!
If you’d like to see more diagrams and pictures or to read more, go to Biomuseo
Some pages on the website can be found in English.

Here are more of our photos: 
Biomuseo - Frank Gehry

Sunday, July 11, 2010

You could happen upon...

an enormous variety of wildlife here on BCI.  Some have referred to Panama as being "hyperdiverse" because flora (plants) and fauna (animals) from both North America and South America meet here on the isthmus.  There are more species of birds here in Panama than in the US and Canada combined, and more species of plants just in the Canal Zone than all of Europe.  For the first few days, it just looks green, and then as your eye becomes more trained and less overloaded by the newness of it all you begin to notice the incredible differences at every turn in the forest.

While working here on BCI we have planned a few paths to accomplish our goals.  We started an interview project to get to know the scientists who are working and studying here.  Our line of questioning has to do with what got them interested in science to begin with, what their research is about and how it fits into the big ecology picture, and how they conduct their research.  Another project we are working on is to walk a particular trail that has a guide book written for it, re-photograph each of the points of interest and then work to caption each photo with a summary from the guide that is more easily digestible for teachers and students.  We are hoping that will help give people an idea of the diversity here and and a little taste for what it is like to walk through the tropical rainforest here in Panama.  A third vein we are exploring is along the lines of the historical, political, and cultural aspects of the country, which impacts the environment and the people's appreciation for their natural resources.  The fourth aspect we are keeping busy with is visiting some other STRI sites (other than BCI) to get a handle  on how they do public outreach and education.  (see entry on Culebra).  Dana and I hope that our work here will facilitate teaching our students back at Fratney, offering professional development to our immediate colleagues, and opens the doors to some continuing work...

So with that, living on the island offers opportunities to 'come across' some interesting things like iguanas outside of your room, rhinoceros beetles on patio outside of the lab, basilisk lizards (JC lizards) running away from us as we scramble for the camera, frogs calling to each other from the moats built around the greenhouses to keep out the ants, golden orb weaver spiders hoping to capture something tasty in their amazingly strong (and beautiful when they are not stuck to your face and arms) webs, and enormous trees that remind you of perspective.  Check out more in the album below...

some big, some small

Panama Viejo

Panamá Viejo (or Panamá la vieja) was the first Spanish settlement in Panamá. It was founded in 1519 by a Spanish conquistador named Pedro Arias de Ávila who is more commonly referred to just as Pedrarias. Before the Spanish arrived, this was a village inhabited by the cueva people. Historians seem to agree that PANAMÁ is a cueva word for abundance. What they don’t agree on is what may have been abundant- Butterflies? Flora? Fauna?

Little is known about why Pedrarias chose this site to build a city. The land was swampy and there wasn’t a good source of clean drinking water nearby. However, there is a sweeping view of the Bahía de Panamá and oysters were plentiful. It is also thought that the native cueva speaking people provided a good source of labor for the Spanish. It only took 40 years for the cueva people to be wiped out.

In 1671, an Welsh pirate named Henry Morgan burned the city to the ground before stealing any riches he could find. After this, the Spanish moved the city to what is known today as Casco Viejo. You’ll notice that there are few remains of the city. This is because much of the construction was not only stone, but wood and when the city was moved, many of the stones were moved and reused at the new city site.

Restoration of Panamá Viejo only began recently. It was left in a state of disrepair for over 200 years!

You can see the steel structures put in place to support old walls. The bell tower of the original cathedral has been replaced with a modern structure that cannot be seen from the outside of the building.

You can explore more at Panamá Viejo
and check out more pics...

Panamá Viejo