Cruzando Panamá en Carnaval

21/mazo/2014

yes, this place exists.

yes, this place exists.

Carnaval en Bocas del ToroI’ve decided to write this next post in Spanish for some of my dear mexicans. Time to practice your Spanish English speakers! Otra de las cosas que han pasado en este último mes, es que tuvimos una semana de vacaciones durante la semana de carnaval. Mathis, Will, Zelda, Dave y yo decidimos rentar un coche e irnos de road trip a través de Panamá. La semana de carnaval es una locura tanto aquí como en Brasil. Desde enero oímos hablar de que ya se acercaba la famosa fiesta. Un fin antes de carnaval estábamos en el pueblo de Pedasí para nuestra clase de geografía y tuvimos un preestreno de como es el festejo. Fue perfecto porque no pensabamos ir a lugares donde se festeja mucho el carnaval y mejor aprovechar la semana para descubrir lugares en el país al que el curso no nos lleva. El carnaval se festeja en las calles caracterizada por música de banda, gente, camiones que lanzan agua y locura. La fiesta reina principalmente en pueblos del interior como Las Tablas o Chitré.

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Primero fuimos a Santa Fe, un pueblo en las montañas del interior en la provincia de Veraguas. Un hombre en una pick-up nos recogió en el pueblo porque nuestro coche no llega hasta donde queríamos pasar la noche: La Finca de la familia de Egberto. Después de una ruta piedrosa en la montana, cruzando ríos al anochecer, por fin llegamos a la finca, la cual ya no podíamos ver debido a la falta de luz. Toda nuestra experiencia en Santa Fe fue completamente irreal. Dormimos en una cabaña preciosa al lado de un río con vista a las montanas (cosa que descubrimos hasta el amanecer con la ayuda del sol).

photo credit: Will Miller

photo credit: Will Miller

En la mañana fuimos a una caminata por unos senderos que nos llevaron a varias cascadas majestuosas. En la ultima y más en altura, nos echamos un chapuzón. Estábamos todos muy emocionados y no creíamos lo que estábamos viviendo. Después Egberto nos dio un tour de su finca, explicándonos sus prácticas agro-ecológicas. Con apenas 1 hectárea, la finca produce 80% de lo que la familia de 10 hijos consume. Todo el gran resto se vende en la cooperativa de agricultores de Santa Fe (una organización admirable en todo Panama). Nos impactó la personalidad de Egberto, su determinación, las investigaciones que lleva en su finca y sus prácticas ecológicas tan avanzadas de producción de comida. Desde cultivos intercalados de maíz y porotos, aquacultura de arroz y tilapia, asociaciones de vegetales anuales con fijadores de nitrógeno, integraciones de plantones debajo de grandes árboles para sombra, nos quedamos todos impresionados.

photo credit: Will Miller

photo credit: Will Miller

photo credit: Will Miller

photo credit: Will Miller

photo credit: Will Miller

photo credit: Will Miller

photo credit: Will Miller

photo credit: Will Miller

photo credit: Will Miller

photo credit: Will Miller

Egberto nos enseñó también como procesan el cacao, desde secarlo hasta producir una bebida fermentada, y hacer chocolate. Creo que mi favorito de los productos del cacao es la fruta en si!

Muy atentos escuchando a Egberto. photo credit: Will Miller

Muy atentos escuchando a Egberto. photo credit: Will Miller

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La misma noche teníamos que estar en Bocas del Toro, al extremo noreste del país, por lo que tristemente pero llenos de positivismo por haber visitado tal joya tuvimos que retomar la ruta dejando atrás una memoria que nos marcó a todos.

Cruzar la Panamericana y luego la cordillera de Talamanca a través de la reserva forestal fortuna fue una delicia. Los paisajes son tan diversos en Panamá, y esto se nota sobretodo la pasar del lado Pacifico seco a al bosque húmedo tropical del lado Atlántico.

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Desayunando en el ferry hacia Isla Colon

Los siguientes días la pasamos en la Isla Colon de Bocas del Toro, una destinación preferida para los turísticas de Panamá. Preciosa la isla, visitamos varias playas, unas mas calmadas como albercas y otras con tremendas olas que nunca antes había sentido tal fuerza del mar.

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Nos quedamos en un camping muy curioso donde conocimos a un ciclista que casualmente nos dijo que venia desde Alaska, en BICI! Lleva 2 años y medio viajando, tomándose su tiempo en donde le dé la gana y viviendo en el planeta al ritmo de sus pedales! Su blog es este: http://nicholasgault.wordpress.com/ Como no hay ruta de Panamá a Colombia por tierra, me dijo recientemente que se moverá en kayak!

El ultimo destino de nuestra vacación fue Boquete, otro pueblo en las montañas cerca de Costa Rica conocido por sus plantaciones de café y clima ideal (creo que le gana a Cuerna de lo a gusto!). Nuestro hostal merece ser mencionado.

Zelda disfrutando del Hostal

Zelda disfrutando del Hostal

El Refugio del Río se siente como la casa de un tío que invitó a todos sus huéspedes. Tenia una cocina que nos permitía prepararnos cenas y desayunos deliciosos junto con otros viajeros amigables.Un jacuzzi al lado del riachuelo que pasa por el jardín fue tan atinado y agradable después de una larga caminata. Una LARGA CAMINATA. Así es, la principal razón por ir a Boquete fue para subir el volcán Baru, la cima mas alta de todo el país a 3500m sobre el mar. Reunidos con otros compañeros del programa y después de una pequeña siesta de 10 a 11pm, empezamos a caminar cuesta arriba a media noche. La pendiente era tremenda y solo veíamos el suelo rocoso que nuestras linternas alumbraban. Después de 6 horas de caminata a oscuras, subiendo a pie como 2000m de altura en 13km de sendero, llegamos a la cima donde el frío nos recordó a Canadá.

El amanecer y la vista hizo que todo el sufrimiento entre agotamiento, cansancio y frío valiera la pena. No logramos ver los dos océanos como a veces se puede allá arriba, pero el paisaje de mar de nubes que nos rodeaba con cimas de montañas vecinas sobresalientes fue suficientemente extraordinario.IMG_1503

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Beth, mi excelente compania

Beth, mi excelente compania

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Beth y Dave de bajada

Beth y Dave de bajada

Mi excelente compañera de bajada

Mi excelente compañera de bajada

Las 5 horas de caminata de bajada fueron también brutales para la rodillas y tobillos, pero por lo menos podíamos ver el precioso paisaje que nos había rodeado a escondidas durante toda la subida. Buena sorpresa que fue encontrarnos con tal bella vegetación.

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Qué bien la pasamos entre nosotros compartiendo tantas comidas, noches y sobre todo platicando, cantando y hasta bailando en tantas horas de coche cruzando Panamá.

Azuero Earth Project

20/march/2014

Huuu its been way too  long since the last post. We’ve been very much on the road for the past month and a half. We’re now back in the houses in Clayton for about a week. It feels nice to not be rushing again to pack and unpack and being able to fill our fridge without hesitation. On Monday my roomates Mathis, Will Marisol and I went crazy while grocery shopping. Food can be expensive in Panama, but the Mercado de abastos is the best place to find fruits and vegetables for a fair price. The market receives produce from all over the country. Chiriqui, the western province is where most produce comes from, that’s where the best soils are. We bought SO much and I got so excited about our meals to come. Remembering an expo by Peter Menzel I really like about photos of families around the world in their kitchen surrounded by everything they consume typically in a week –called What the World Eats-, I thought it would be awesome to make that our ‘family picture’. Too bad my roomates Emily and Yoveliz were missing (also we didn’t had time to arrange all the products nicely as some of us had to go somewhere).

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These days we’re putting ourselves back in track with our internship work. Apart from 3 courses as part of the program (biology, geography/history and agriculture), we are doing an internship in pairs with a local organization. This is an awesome component of the program where we get to engage ourselves in this country in a different way. Pauline and I are doing our internship with the Azuero Earth Project, and NGO located in Pedasi, a small town in the Pacific. Since our first visit to Pedasi ( back in January) we’ve been in love with our internship. The Azuero Earth Project was created in 2008 in order to preserve the earth’s ecosystems, protect biodiversity and promote healthy communities by helping people make informed decisions, take sustainable actions, and share knowledge. Amongst their programs encompassing conservation, education and outreach and collaboration, one of their main projects is the development of a biological corridor in the pensula de Azuero. The NGO is located particularly in the Azuero because the region has been heavily deforested. Expanding since the 1940’s cattle ranches have devastated the dry tropical forest of the region, bringing with it worrisome land degradation, an even dryer climate and biodiversity loss.

Peninzula Azuero

Dry tropical forests comprise a very threatened ecosystem in the world, and in central America they are specifically threatened due mainly to land use changes by agriculture. In Azuero however exists one of the largest remnant patch of this ecosystem. The lack of connectivity between patches of dry tropical forests jeopardizes even further the survival of this ecosystem. Hence the efforts to build a biological corridor along the Rio Oria. This would restore the riparian zone, which are especially rich ecosystems, allowing for increased connectivity necessary for species dispersal, adaptation and migration.

typical landscape of Azuero

typical landscape of Azuero

For our internship specifically, Pauline and I are studying forest gardens of the area, their structure, diversity, ecological functions, the uses and social benefits that locals have over having them as well as motives and management constraints. Forest gardens are home-scale agro-ecosystems that intentionally integrate crops, medicinal and ornamental plants, fruit trees and trees for timber, livefences or firewood. They typically produce food for subsistence while providing ecosystem services such as carbon storage, water filtration, and micro-climate regulation. Home forest gardens are very common in the tropics, but with threatening land use changes, we want to make sure locals realize the immense value of their traditional practice as an approach to conservation. For any conservation goals to be attained, they inevitably require to integrate livelihood needs and forest gardens represent a beautiful land use that benefits both the wellbeing of the environment and of its habitants.

early visit to a forest garden

early visit to a forest garden

Studying forest gardens has been really wonderful. Since we are making maps of the fincas, we get to spend A LOT of time under the fruit trees, collecting tons of data about their height, DBM, species etc. We get to talk to friendly campesinos who open their houses to us and show us their beautiful gardens. The best part is that we get to eat freshly picked fruit on our breaks. We’ve ate a variety of fruits such as starfruit, guanabana, oranges, limes, papaya and we’ve tried some we’ve never had before such as caimito or manzana de agua!

caimito fruit

caimito fruit

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data collection

data collection

Don Antonio and I

Don Antonio and I

hanging out with Don Luciano, Don Antonio and our loyal field helper Manuel

hanging out with Don Luciano, Don Antonio and our loyal field helper Manuel

field work makes us silly

field work makes us silly

One sunday we got to go horseback riding along the Rio Oria and got a  sense of what the biological corridor could look like once the fragmented forest is restored. We saw monkeys and went for a swim in the river!

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Ryan and Carlos, the protagonists of the biological corridor program

howler monkeys

howler monkeys

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After work we often go for a run to the nearby beaches, jumping in the waves feels great after the run, plus it’s sunset time so it’s simply perfect.

Panama – Kuna Yala

sunrise

sunrise

the village of Ukupseni

the village of Ukupseni

After being introduced to creeping human land changes and their consequences on ecosystem functions in Altos de Campana, we flew across the country to a place where human land changes are minimal: La Comarca de KunaYala, an indigenous autonomous territory.

38% of Panama’s territory is protected. 30% of Panama’s territory is indigenous territory.Interestingly,60% of Panama’s remaining primary forest is within Indigenous territory. We went there in order to understand what is the role of Indigenous communities in conservation and we left there with a hole new set of questions.A 20 person, tiny and noisy air plane took us there. He flew at sunrise above Panama city, across agricultural lands, into the clouds and finally above a markedly homogenous area of primary forest.

bridge connecting the island with mainland

bridge connecting the island with mainland

We landed on the coast, across the village island of Ukupseni. A bridge connects mainland where the landing strip, a school and a cemetery are, with the small island. In this tiny island, approximately 2000 Kunas live in small houses made with bamboo walls and roofs thatched with palm leaves. From all the village islands of the Comarca, Ukupseni holds a special characteristic because back in 1925, leaders and community members of Ukupseni revolted against the police in what they call “La Revolucion Kuna”.Consequently, Panama’s government recognized Kuna’s territory in 1938 to what used to be called La Comarca de San Blas.

Our Kuna host family (not all of them), Jehanne and I

Our Kuna host family (not all of them), Jehanne and I

We stayed in pairs with host families on the island. Our host families moved their hammocks and let us attach ours for 4 nights. Kunas live in big families: once women get married, the husband has to move to the bride’s house with the mother and father in law. The house where I stayed had uncountable children and the structure of the family is still quite confusing. Nephews, daughters, second marriage sons, cousins and neighbors gathered one of the nights we were there to watch a telenovela in one of the two rooms of the house of mud floor under the palm roof and the hanging clothes .

Alcibiades, our wonderful Kuna teacher

Alcibiades, our wonderful Kuna teacher

We got to have lectures in spanish given by Kunas themselves in the primary school of Ukupseni, right next to the water. Lectures were about Kuna’s culture, traditional knowledge, indigenous rights and indigenous relations with nature. It was an awesome opportunity although we all were pretty sleepy since we had had very active field days the previous days.

In Kuna Yala we got to contribute to a long-term monitoring study of mangroves, coral reefs and sea grass. Separated in groups, we were distributed in each of the sites and conducted the same methodology other PFSS students in previous years have done. I was lucky to be in the coral one and go snorkeling as a lab exercise! We had to count, along a transect the diversity of corals by going in and out of the water to shout what we had seen to the note taker sitting on a dugout canoe nearby. We saw mostly lettuce, brain and fire corals,sponges, coralline algae as well few anemones, and lots of macroalgae. That reef was in fact in very bad health, noticeable by a considerable dominance of macroalgae cover which grows on dead corals. Additionally the only few fish we saw contribute to the growth of macroalgae. Héctor Guzman, a marine biologist from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center here in Panama was there to help us with the exercise and told us that the Kuna have depleted the fish of the area and are now even fishing the remaining herbivorous fish, which are beneficial to the reef as they control the pressure of macroalgea’s growth thereby contributing to the coral’s recovery.

lecture time

lecture time

Since the 1970’s Kuna’s population has increased by more than 62%, the islands that they’ve occupied since the beginning of the 20th C have reached their maximum capacity. To accommodate their population expansion, the Kuna have mined the corals to build seawalls and landfill their islands. This coral mining along other mismanagement practices of the reef resources have resulted in a decline of 79% of living coral cover of the area in 30 years (I’m taking all these numbers from a conservation biology paper H. Guzman  published in 2003). However, coral reefs are protective barriers that brake the energy coming from the wave. Without this natural shield, the waves reaching and damaging the islands are even greater… and this goes without even mentioning the currently experienced sea level rise that only reinforces this problem with serious long-term consequences.

field work

field work

beach near the coral where we snorkeled to find sea urchins

On our last day in Kuna Yala, after conversations with Héctor G. and our professor Catherine, they suggested that we intervene with the hope of improving the coral’s health. So there we went on a boat from reef to reef searching for sea urchins. The idea was to remove a few sea urchins from a better off reef, and introduce them into the reef that was worse off. Sea urchins are herbivores and ideally would help control the macroalgea’s growth thereby allowing corals to recover. Additionally, eating sea urchins is not a common practice in Kuna Yala, and therefore they are not threatened by fishing – hopefully-. We only took 9 sea urchins from a reef after assessing their density, snorkeling back and forth. I took care of the floating cooler where we were putting the sea urchins.

more field work

more field work

rehearsing our 'cultural exchange performance'

rehearsing our ‘cultural exchange performance’

It was quite fun to be swimming fast across the reef to wherever the others were calling me when they had an urchin in hand to pick it up. We did this with two Kuna locals. Catherine was very insisting and clear at explaining to them the situation and the point of this conservation experiment so that they could understand what was going on and why it was important. I believe that it is conservation biologists’ duty to seek solutions, it is up to them to trust their knowledge and propose solutions and even though it may seem like a patronizing action to do it in a place where we don’t belong, I think that as ecologists, we are the ones with the power to put the facts and solutions on the table and then its up to the locals to take care of the situation with an understanding of problems and possible ways to deal with them. Conservation biologists have an understanding of systems and how the removal of components affects the rest, and they have to share this knowledge with non-scientists to make it useful. This is what makes conservation biology a social and scientific enterprise. Being culturally sensitive when explaining conservation projects to the locals is a long term process. Cultural lenses–cognitive frameworks shared by members of a social group that help them make sense of the world- are obviously different across cultures, and cross cultural misunderstandings can greatly lead to failures of conservation projects. We learned that considerations of local customs and values are super important when developing/designing conservation projects because projects have to be locally inspired and relevant for their objectives to be achieved. And for that it is key to be reflective, which is to have the ability to analyze the assumptions embedded within ones’ own cultural lenses when doing conservation efforts. One should not assume superiority of the scientific method in generating knowledge. Two-way cross cultural understandings are very valuable in any collaborative project… We  have so  much to learn from the Kuna’s protection of the forest for example, and we (PFSS students), as we’ve been monitoring the state of their mangroves, corals and have observed from the data a clear decline in their health, we can warn them about this situation and propose them solutions. It is tricky because the resources they are depleting is to fill their needs…

Anyway I could go on and on since we learned so much in Kuna Yala but its getting too long… But in general we discussed quite a lot the contrasting states of the sea and the forest as a consequence of Kuna’s cosmology and culture. The answer was multifactorial and had to do with the formation of Kuna’s cosmology that took place when they lived back in mainland in the tropical forests of Panama and Colombia (they’ve only moved to the coast and inhabited the islands since the mid nineteenth century). The Kuna have a sacred respect for the  forest but perhaps their relatively recent relation with the sea is not so much part of their cosmology. Interestingly, they bury their deceased on mainland, on top of hills. We actually had a walk to the cemetery of Ukupseni. It was the most beautiful and peculiar cemetery I have ever seen. The deceased are buried with all their personal belongings in their hammocks hanging in holes on the ground. To protect the graves from the rain, they build palm roofs on top, just like the roofs of their own houses. Every morning, family members, especially women,leave the island, cross the bridge, walk up the hill and spend time with the dead, cooking and chatting with each other under these palm roofs. The view from the graves to the coast from above was astonishing…

toilets of my host family

toilets of my host family

We also discussed how Kuna’s traditional knowledge is inevitably being eroded leading to practices that are not as sustainable as they used to, mainly in response to population growth and overture to other cultures only to mention a few factors. This happens to all cultures however: cultures cannot stay static over time. The rate of change is what is important, the ability for a society to adapt to those changes and their related resource management is what matters. How traditional knowledge is transferred and what are the societal structures that allow or not this to happen was another big topic. Measures that force kids to go to school or even laws that forbid ‘child labor’ for example have effects that I had never thought of before this trip: spending time away from their parents, away from their household routine working with the parents, means reducing the time parents can teach their children all their cultural practices such as fishing, cooking, sewing, hunting, working the land, dancing etc. And this affects the conservation of traditional knowledge which is mostly transferred orally for indigenous peoples… The school in Ukupseni is now making efforts at integrating traditional knowledge and Kuna language in addition to Spanish to their curriculum.

toilets of the school

toilets of the school

Another big topic touched on the concept of poverty and how poverty indices are not quite culture specific and therefore are often not applicable to different societies. For example the Kuna may appear as poor people according to western indices although when we asked directly to our host family if they considered themselves poor, the dominant answer was “no…”

Few! so much more to say, but I’m going to end it now as I am already quite delayed with this. Gladly I have another journal with more thoughts taken non the spot…

All the photos were taken by Will Miller since we considered it was not very respectful, from our position of foreign students, to be all taking pictures of our times in Ukupseni. All pictures taken with Kuna people were actually sent back to the community. Sadly we recently learned that last week 43 houses in Ukupseni burned down affecting more than 250 people who lost everything (each house hosts many Kunas!). Today, along with the printed pictures we got organized and sent them food, clothes, soap, utensils and a letter…

walk to the cemetery on mainland

walk to the cemetery on mainland

landing strip with multiple purposes

landing strip with multiple purposes

Panama-Altos de Campana

The biology course ended finally at the end of January. It was kind of a sad and relief situation because the last few days were very intense as we had to submit several documents, but at the same time we realized that this amazing course had become part of the past. Out of relief, accomplishment and maybe some nostalgia we celebrated and threw a party at the houses in Clayton where we danced, laughed and played games.

The last two modules of the biology course integrated the human component to the biophysical reality of neotropical environments.

surrounding pasture lands

surrounding pasture lands

We visited Altos de Campana,a national park isolated, surrounded by creeping pasturelands completely peeled of vegetation, -also very beautiful actually-. The park is on a mountain top and protects a cloud forest. It isa beautiful forest, a heaven for epiphytes, lichens and mosses, different lifeforms not found so commonly in the dryer forests we have visited. We hiked within the fog and kept saying how amazed we were. It is crazy to think that the surrounding pasture hills at some point in history also looked like that mountain forest.  Suddenly when we were hiking it started to smell like citrus fruit: we had arrived to what used to be an orange orchard that had been engulfed by the boundaries of the protected area and was now starting to look more like a forest. It made me think of how long would it take for land changes by human to look like a primary forest again. And how shorter it takes for humans to change that forest into pasture or urban settlements…

photo cred. Will Miller

photo cred. Will Miller

In Altos de Campana we had a lab exercise about assessing the diversity of amphibians and insects to understand food webs. In groups we designed methods and collected, counted and identified insects and closely looked for amphibians along a transect on a small stream. Amphibians are very important as they represent an energetic link between aquatic and terrestrial systems. After developing in freshwater habitats they transfer nutrients to terrestrial food webs and eventually return to aquatic systems to depose their eggs. Their population represents practically the entire consumer group of stream ecosystems, and therefore greatly influences ecosystem processes such as reducing algal biomass. However, stream ecosystems are where pollutants often accumulate.

Unfortunately, due to the permeable characteristic of their skin, they are very delicate and especially vulnerable to changes in their habitat quality. It is no news that amphibian declines are recorded around the world and their loss may have catastrophic ecological consequences that are yet to be understood… We learned that the amphibian center nearby which conducts great research and educates the public about amphibians conservation importance is now partially funded by a mining company. I wonder to what extent can conservation efforts find resources, simply to exist, that are not sourced from the root of the very problems they are trying to resolve.

photo cred. Will Miller

photo cred. Will Miller

insect collection

Insect collection

forest profile drawing

forest profile drawing

Panama- Parque Soberania, Barro Colorado and Fort Sherman

It’s been almost 20 days already since 26 McGill students arrived to Panama city. We escaped the extreme colds in Montreal to feel the tropical heat of the Panamanian summer.

The pacific half of the country is entering its dry season as the tradewinds from the north bring precipitation from the Caribbean but not all the way passed the cordillera de Talamanca that splits the country along its west/east axis having a great effect on theprecipitation, type of vegetation and human development. 70% of Panama’s land is on the Pacific slopes. That side is dryer, where most deforestation has occurred and where land changes by human, whether for agriculture or urbanization are the most prevalent. The dry season of the southern half that goes from about January to June is called ‘verano’ here. While on the Caribbean side, the wet season remains all year. That’s where the rain forests are, while on the Pacific side, forests vary between dry seasonal  and wet tropical forests.

These changes in precipitation, changes in altitude, different exposures to trade winds amongst numerous other factors make of Panama a country with highly diverse habitats that give room to a high biodiversity. Plus, the diverse habitats are at a relatively small distance, which allows us to travel for not too long and see many different places, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, from dry seasonal, wet tropical forests to montane and cloud forests.

We’ve started our field study semester with a biology class, “Neotropical environments” taught by Catherine Potvin, the professor who founded the Panama Field Study Semester (PFSS) about 20 years ago.

I feel tremendously lucky to be part of PFSS 2014, and barely can cope with the amazement of our daily life here.

Today we went to Parque Soberania to conduct investigations of independent research projects. Students had to come up with a question of their interest, and test a hypothesis somewhat related to what we’ve been studying in the course. After a morning of building transects and counting seeds from the black palm to study their dispersal and predation by mammals and beetles, I took a swim in a natural pool created by a waterfall in a nearby river. Great refreshing break after waking in the bush up and down transects and bending tomove the leaf litter to find seeds. Kai, Jeahanne and I enjoyed the water to its fullest. On our way back to the bus, we saw a sloth really close to the trail, switching trees with a baby hanging from its belly. COOLEST ANIMAL!!! It moved so slowly and gracefully it looked like a slow motion video or as if it were doing taichi.

I haven’t found time to write as much as I would have liked to. The biocourse is intense and keeping us very busy. We’ve only been here 20 days, but we’ve travelled a lot, seen so many things and learnt so much that 20 days sounds surprisingly short. Being embedded in the environment that we are studying is such a richer experience than any other indoor class back in Montreal.

Waterfall pool at Soberania

Waterfall pool at Soberania

Our first encounter with the tropical forest was parque Soberania, after one day of having arrived to this country. Some of us hadn’t even received our lost luggage by then. Our professors took a walk with us along the trail stopping at times to talk about interesting trees species. We saw the huge Espave trees (Anacardium excelsium) which  constitute an importantbiomass of the tropical forest). We saw palms Attalea oleifera, a key stone species in the tropical forest as itis one of the few species to provide fruit in the dry season for monkeys. We saw highway-looking leaf-cutter ants paths, they are so impressive! We saw termites, armadillo burrows, cedro espinos, barrigon trees, cuipos and many more! Cuipos are the tallest trees in the forest of Panama (about 45m high).They can be spotted easily as they emerge from the canopy of the forest. Theyare the only trees where the aguila arpia -the national symbol- sets its nest thereby being of great importance. Enberà Indigenous peoples of Panama don’t cut the Cuipo trees and bath girls going into puberty with its sap. This symbolizes the transmission of strength to them. There’s a myth from thosepeoples that tells how a girl was once bathed with lots and lots of Cuipo sap to the point she became so heavyshe was buried into the ground and kept growing under the earth. The myth saysthat the Cuipo Woman maintains the earth and whenever there is a earthquake she must be stretching a leg oran arm.

Our first real trip took place in Barro Colorado Island, where a research center of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center is. The island is a protected area and it was created when the waters of the Chagres river were dammed to form the man-made Gatun Lake in the middle of the Panama canal. Asthe waters rose, the highest hill tops remained above the water level and isolated Barro Colorado. It is about 54km^2 and is one of the most studied areas of tropical forest in the world. Amongst the most important values of studies derived from BCI is the longevity of research. This has allowed to study the ecological dynamics in a permanent parcel of the tropical forest notonly at a large scale (50ha!), but in the long term as well. Protecting the area to investigate community ecosystem changes has been groundbreaking in science and since similar methodology has been adopted in plots across the world. But having an isolated protected area has also its caveats. Without connectivity in the habitat, animal populations have changed: the ecological capacity of the island was not enough for large predators like pumas which has erupted the population of mezzo predators such as monkeys therefore changing the “natural state” of the area.

Unlike our understanding of temperate forest, the tropical forest is more complex in certain ways. The age of trees for example is very tricky here.Tree trunks have no rings like in higher latitudes where rings delineate each growing season (each summer). Here a big and tall tree can have the same age asa skinny one, seemingly  younger of the same species. Both trees could be brothers of the same age, but one mighthave had more available resources benefiting its growth than the other one that stayed behind. Vertical structure of the tropical forest is also very different than a temperate one. Layers or strata are not clearly separated and are often arbitrarily delineated. That is because the tree diversity is much higher in the tropics than in higher latitudes. Each tree species differ in growth potential and in the reactions to light, humidity and other factors. Having many different lifeforms makes of the tropical forest a seemingly overwhelmingly chaos of vegetation, at least at first sight. During the biology class we’ve refined our lenses and have started to see patterns or differentiate species in this previously apparently “green mush”.

One of the cool things we did in BCI was to walk in the forest in pairs and survey the mammals we saw. We did this twice, at dusk and dawn the next day as part of our lab. We saw many monkeys and agoutis. One group was lucky enough to see an anteater!

After dinner we went again to the forest to experience it during night time.  We started by looking for frogs and tarantulas. We also stayed quiet on the path, paying attention to the energy and noises of the dark forest. It was so cool to be “forced” to feel theforest without the sense of sight we often focus too much on.

Waking up in the dorms of BCI was pretty unique: the roar of a howler monkey outside our window woke me up. It was good timing to start doing our mammalwalk at 5:30am.

For this class we wake up very early because often we need to travel andget to places with enough time in advance to make the most of our days and to avoid traffic jams.

The next trip we did after BCI was Fort Sherman in Parque San Lorenzo, on the Caribbean coast, near the second most important city in Panama, Colon.There we walked 7km into our campsite. We took advantage of the walk in the forest path to have a lab exercise. We had to distinguish heliconias species and spot butterflies for our diaries. That way we trained further our sense of observation much needed to be a ecologist/biologist. Recognizing and distinguishing species is hard, you have to remember patterns to then be able to compare it with the next plant you see. Its harder when there is no clear comparison or defining characteristic. For the heliconias, we distinguished them based on the flowers, but without flowers, I still couldn’t tell the difference. For the butterflies is another story, since they are not static, you are left with impressions from their quick flight to recognize them, vaguely based on main colors and size.

Lunch stop near Fort Sherman

Lunch stop near Fort Sherman

Near the campsite there is a crane to explore the vertical profile of the forest and its aerial view. We slept in tents after having a great campfire where we cooked corn cobs and plantains for dinner. The next day we went up the crane. It was amazing to be lifted in a tinny cage and observe the rainforest from angles I had never seen except for planet earth documentaries. From above the canopies we could see the different architectures/morphologies of the canopies of the trees, their new leaves, their flowers, the clear blue sky, the mouth of the Chagres river and the Caribbean sea on the horizon. We spotted a sloth from above as well! Right beneath the canopy, where the light gets scarcer and the density of leaves decreases, epiphytes grow on the branchesusing the leaching nutrients from the foliage of the trees without harming them. Some epiphytes are dependent on the nutrients of the tree on their early stage but eventually, after growing hanging roots that reach the ground, they become independent and use nutrients from the soil. The vines and lianas interconnect the branches of the complex strata of the tropical forest and one can’t tell if they grow from the ground up or down-up (they grow from the ground up actually and require trees or shrubs for mechanical support).

During our time in fort Sherman we also studied forest gaps dynamics (gaps in the forest are typically formed when a large tree falls and therebylets more light in). Scientists debate between the niche theory or the neutral theory to explain tree diversity in forest gaps. We’ve learned that a combination of both chance and niche-determined communities in some variable proportion is a better bet.

In addition to studying gap dynamics and the vertical profile of theforest, we captured insects in different areas (forest, near road and pasture) to study their diversity. Sweeping the net jumping in the pasture next to thePanama canal was so cool and who did it more effectively soon became a competition. We later had to identify insect species and count their diversityin many different ways using different indexes and analyses to compare them between collection sites.

We finished our day of waking up in tents, going up a crane, finding gaps in the forest and catching insects with a lovely afternoon swimming in the sea. A small bay next to the ruins of the Fort San Lorenzo received us in its warm and murky waters. Everyone was so happy and stayed in the water for hours,Tahitian dance and acroyoga took place by the emergent reef and where a tinyriver met the sea. Luckily, the crocodiles and sharks of the area did not bother us that day!

Up the canopy crane

Up the canopy crane