Not always according to plan

As part of our curriculum for our trip to Panama, we were all asked to design and conduct a research project of our choice.  We split into groups of three and were provided some basic equipment to help us along the way.  To make thing even easier, we were literally in the jungle- where everything is fascinating and you can’t shake a stick without hitting a potential research proposal.  Easy, right?  Of course!  At least that’s what I thought when we were walking to the field to set our first pitfall traps.  Our group initially wanted to test the biodiversity of small reptiles in different types of ground cover.  We figured that after a few days of setting small pitfall traps and catching hundreds of lizards we’d be swimming in data and could rest easy for the second week.  Nope!  In three locations, we successfully caught a single beetle.  And it really wasn’t even that cool of a beetle.  So we tried again, modifying the traps to be deeper and setting our sights on insects, rather than lizards.  We had the same intentions- to test biodiversity of insects in different types of ground cover.  Insects are all over the ground and certainly wouldn’t be able to escape our precisely designed, new-and-improved traps.  I skipped to our test site with visions of correlating data and supported hypotheses dancing though my head.  I was sure that we’d have more than enough insects to develop a sophisticated project and contribute new groundbreaking knowledge to the scientific community.  So you can imagine my disappointment when we collected an ant, a dead daddylongleg, and another beetle.  Now I was starting to get nervous.  When it comes to assignments, I start to get a little frazzled if things don’t go according to the plan laid out in my head.  And things certainly weren’t going according to plan.

This non-linear, unpredictable and sometimes non-sensical process we call research is much more complex than I had realized.  And although I was initially bummed that our ideas just weren’t working out, I took away some good lessons from the experience.  You need to not take it too personally when your idea goes belly up before your eyes.  Some of the greatest discoveries, scientific and otherwise, have only been made after countless failed attempts and even years of struggling.  A failed experiment doesn’t mean you’re stupid or that you shouldn’t be doing research.  It means that what you tried simply didn’t work, and that you need to adjust and try again.  So that’s what we did.  We ended up examining whether or not there was any correlation between the height of red-eyed tree frog egg clutches (from clutch to water surface) and the number of eggs in the clutch.  We had access to 24 clutches near the place we were staying, so at least this time around we were able to collect some data.  I have loved red-eyed tree frogs since I was a kid (they’re still painted on my bedroom wall at home) so I was eager to do a project involving them.  We spent hours stomping around the pond, getting bombarded by mosquitos and taking measurements.  So after several failures, revisions, tick bites, and overhauls, would we finally get the results we were hoping for?  Eh, kindof.  Our hypothesis was not supported, and there was really no discernible correlation in our data.  But a week and a half later, my group and I had completed a project.  A small project that was put together by a bunch of science rookies, but a project nonetheless.

As my love of science grows, I look forward to conducting research of my own in the future.  And when I do, I will look back to my maiden voyage of research here in Panama and remember what I learned.  In addition to a proposal, coffee, and equipment, you need a lot of patience to conduct research.  You need motivation, and you should be excited (or at least interested!) to be learning more about your subject of interest.  You need to be able to roll with the changes as they arise, and from what others have told me, they most likely will.  This week I have seen incredible research projects by some of the brightest minds in science, with topics ranging from ants to bats to trees and everything in between.  They asked a question, pursued it, and after years of hard work, got an answer.  Maybe it wasn’t the answer they were expecting or wanted.  Maybe it was.  Either way, a contribution to science was made because these individuals didn’t give up when things got hard.  Wherever my career in science takes me, I will look back fondly on my first attempt in at research and what I learned from it.

10/10 would highly recommend EEOB 4420

So the trip is finally coming to a close and I have to say it was the fastest two weeks of my life. Each day was jammed packed with amazing adventures and memories were made that I will cherish forever. At the beginning of this trip I was incredible nervous to go on a trip with people I didn’t know at all and plus all the fears of the unknown. I have to say, all in all, this trip was a definite success. I think after all the hiking we did, an incline may never phase me again. Also, I’m hoping to have lost a couple of pounds from the amount of sweat I lost in the last two weeks.

One of my favorite adventures we took was when we visited the village of the indigenous Embera people. We got to experience traditional singing, dancing, learn about the plants used for medicinal purposes and also eat a traditional meal prepared by the Embera people. It was definitely one of the coolest experiences here. One thing, however, did top that. Today we took a trip to the Caribbean side and got to visit a beach. A beach is much more up my alley than the hiking through a forest thing. We were able to swim to a small peninsula off the coast that was covered in small tide pools that held many creatures. We saw a variety of crabs and fish as well as an abundance of interesting crustacean known as chitons.

chiton 1

The chiton is able to blend in with the surface of its tide pool surrounding. Source: Google Images

As much as I have been to the beach in my life, I had never come across these little guys before. At first I didn’t even realize that there was a living creature underneath the shell that blended in so well with the surrounding coral. Once they were pointed out, I realized how abundant these critters were. Most chitons are typically found in tide pools similar to where we found them today but they have also been found at depths of 1000 meters or more (Topic: Chitons, n.d). Today, around 750 species have been identified (Chitons, n.d). Most feed on algae but also on other organisms that include sponges, bryozoans, and coelenterates (Topic: Chitons, n.d). It has also been found that some species of chiton have adapted and can become carnivorous and prey on other small crustations. Another adaptation of chitons are their light sense organs (Chitons, n.d). This adaptation allows them to detect the time of day or the level of tide. Typically, they are most active at night or during high tide (Topic: Chitons, n.d). While at the beach, we were able to get one off the rock after it resisted being picked up using a vacuum technique. Underneath it’s armor-like shell, it looked similar to a snail or similar mollusk organisms.

After this trip, I have a much bigger appreciation for nature and all the various species of animals, plants, fungi, and everything else that keep it up and running. During this trip, I learned an incredible amount about several tropical species that, for most, we were able to actually see out in the field. I learned about species I’d never heard of and species I thought I already knew about but learned a whole other level of information about. I am very grateful for everything this trip has allowed me to do and being able to meet the people I met and would without a doubt sign up to do it again!!



~Chitons (Polyplacophora). (n.d.). . Martina Eleveld.

~Topic: Chitons (Class Polyplacophora) | Te Papa’s Collections Online. (n.d.). .

We arrrgh sad we’re done with blogs but this one is for Barry PanaManilow

Fort San Lorenzo stairway to nowhere featuring Caroline

Fort San Lorenzo stairway to nowhere featuring Caroline

Off the northern, Caribbean coast of Panama you can find another one of the many National Parks of this tropical country: Fort San Lorenzo National Park. This consists of some different trails and the ruins of Fort San Lorenzo. The fort was built in the late 16th century because King Phillip II of Spain wanted to have a fortress overlooking the Chagres River (Fort San Lorenzo). The fort helped to ward off hunting pirates looking for booty. The only downfall to this fort was that it was originally made of wood. You see, it rains basically everyday in the tropics so I can only imagine that the wood started rotting and deteriorating. The pirate slaver, Francis Drake, lit it up and burned it down in 1596 (Fort San Lorenzo). However, he didn’t make it long because the jungle is a dangerous place and he ended up dying of tropical diseases, which was a common theme in the explorers back then.  

Fort San Lorenzo

Fort San Lorenzo

Henry Morgan was the next pirate to take over the fort; but by proxy through Joseph Bradley. After the fort was captured in 1671, Morgan came a week later to take over (Fort San Lorenzo). Captain Morgan pillaged, raped, and looted Panama until he was finally satisfied and then returned to the crumbling San Lorenzo to regroup with his men. Before he left for England he set fire to the fort meaning San Lorenzo was burning down for a second time. He later became infamous for his delicious rum. (Well at least I would like to think he did.)

Old Military Barracks

Old Military Barracks from when the US military came much much later

But have no fear, the Spaniards returned to rebuild this beautiful fort higher and with masonry, no more wooden, rookie mistakes. The fort was attacked, burned and taken over again in 1740 by the British it in 1761 it was renovated and fixed up and is still there today (Fort San Lorenzo)

It is amazing when you take one area and look at all of the history that has gone on. Fort San Lorenzo is a small fort off the coast of the Chagres and it has endured an entertaining history full of piracy, pillaging, greed, and lots of fire.

Panama has been an amazing experience and we all realized at dinner how hard it was to pick one favorite thing we did. It was a jam-packed two weeks and we did so many cool things and I gained a new appreciation for ecology.

A huge thank you has to go to STRI, OSU, OIA, and EEOB for making this possible. Also, thank you Dr. Steve for taking us on this adventure through the jungle and putting up with our banter. Adios Panama.

Her name was Lola…..She was a show girl.



Fort San Lorenzo. Panama Living, 2005. Web. 27 May 2016.




She’s a craniac, CRANIAC on the floor

I’ve spent many hours, sharply bent to the sky, admiring the birds and how they so effortlessly raise themselves many meters above the ground. What a thrill that must be to be able to fly, and they probably take that ability for granted. I can only imagine how jealous the penguins and ostriches are, having been evolutionarily denied the hallmark characteristic of their avian brethren, but I digress. The point of all of this is that yesterday a young boy’s longtime dream of being able to fly came true.  How you may ask? Our group visited one of the most impressive research sites operated by STRI: the canopy crane at Parque Natural Metropolitano (PNM).  PNM is a 270 hectare secondary lowland deciduous forest park located immediately outside Panama City; the park was established in 1995 but the land that comprised the park has been relatively undisturbed for the past 80 years so it is a mature forest.  The canopy crane is a standard construction crane with special open-air gondolas that can carry up to 6 people; it is 42 meters tall and the boom (the horizontal arm of the crane) is 51 meters long. This gives an interested researcher access to 1 hectare of total canopy area. Every tree in this 1 ha that is bigger than 10 cm has been documented and mapped which makes this location very well suited to studying forest dynamics. Tropical forest canopies are a very interesting research system. Forests canopies can represent important reserves of biodiversity that are poorly understood as there are many insects, epiphytes, and other organisms that are only found in tropical canopies that are undoubtedly providing us currently unknown ecosystem services. I was shocked to read that almost a third of the Earth’s land photosynthesis occurs in the canopies of tropical forests, accounting for about 18 gigatons of net carbon sequestration.

Riding in the canopy crane was one of the most exhilarating parts of our trip in Panama. We donned safety harnesses and climbed into the gondola in groups of 4 for a surprisingly smooth ride around the canopy of PNM. When the gondola was moving, I truly felt like I was flying, the ground moving 30 meters beneath my feet and the wind rushing through my luscious hair. From the top we had an impressive view of the nearby Panama City skyline. Our skilled operator maneuvered us to see many very interesting aspects of the forest that we simply could not view from the ground. We got up close and personal with a three toed sloth, unique flowers on the tops of trees, liana vines flourishing, and one group of students *allegedly* saw a troop of howler monkeys and a few toucans (but they aren’t the most credible bunch on our trip). The research mission of this equipment was not lost on me as we saw many marked and numbered branches and leaves on various plants in the canopy, an obvious component of someone’s study. My favorite aspect of the forest that we viewed from the canopy was a top down view of an opening in the canopy where a large tree had recently fallen and the early successional species were already rushing to take advantage of the strong sunlight hitting the ground before the gap would eventually close off again.

There was a man patiently waiting to head up in the canopy crane for his research studying lianas where he was about to spend 7 hours in the canopy, and I think it would be difficult to think of a better way to spend a day in the field.



So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish

Today we are presenting our research projects to the rest of the class. Ordinarily, the pressure to complete a project on time for any kind of research can be stressful, but these required a heightened level of urgency. Our group focused on measuring the number of different groups of organisms we collected in various streams, pools, and other freshwater habitats. While we initially focused solely on macroinvertebrates, or those that can be seen with the naked eye, such as clams, midge larvae, or snails. This might have been a very interesting study, but we were unable to identify individuals to the species level. In addition, we were finding many tadpoles throughout the sites. Thus, we settled on sampling any potential “classes” of animals we encountered. Classes are a higher organizational level of life than species and some of the ones which we found include Amphibia (tadpoles), Insecta (water beetles, midges), Bivalvia (clams), and Gastropoda (snails).

Typically, ecologists will use measures of diversity to compare communities. These allow for comparisons that may hint at the presence (or absence) of processes that are driving these patterns. For our project, we focused on richness, evenness, and the Shannon diversity index. While these are typically used for the species level, they have also been used for higher levels of organization. Richness is simply the number of different types of organisms in a given area. It does not account for the number of those organisms relative to each other, e.g. community A with four iguanas and two toucans has a species richness of 2, while community B with five iguanas and two toucans still has a richness of 2. Evenness describes the relative numbers of each type relative to another type. If community A has five iguanas and five toucans, it is more “even” than a community with seven iguanas and five toucans, but both are equally “rich.” The Shannon diversity index accounts for both richness and evenness and allows for a broader comparison. This index accounts for rare species better than other indices.

The tropical setting made for particularly interesting adventures while we were in the field collecting data. Several times our group would head out under a sunny sky only to be met with a downpour minutes later. This, along with our inability to sample during the morning, made it challenging to collect a lot of data. However, it certainly added to the experience. During one of our outings, we were sampling vernal pools late at night and stumbled across a tiger-heron. These large, beautiful birds have distinctive patterning and long necks. We saw it standing as a silhouette in the tall grass, either stalking potential prey or ensuring we wouldn’t see it. Off in the distance, we heard howler monkeys and thunder clashing in battle (they aren’t particularly fond of loud noises). However, lightning would occasionally illuminate this bird for us to see it in all its glory.

During another outing, we encountered two aquatic turtles, several species of frogs, and glimpsed a juvenile caiman. While these were not our focal species, the ability to interact at such a fine scale brought to light many of the large scale concepts of ecology that are taken for granted. Some research focuses on ‘model’ organisms or organisms which are of particular importance for testing an idea. However, what is lost is the bigger picture: the ecosystem is more than the sum of its parts. There may be some systems which are too complex for us to truly depict, but we can still use science to get a glimpse into how they operate. Indeed, all models are wrong but some are useful. Despite the limitations of empirical research, it is the best method we have for examining reality. We often take for granted what is ‘known,’ but what is currently known was not always so. The sheer amount of work required for even the smallest of projects always amazes me and makes me appreciate the endeavors of scientists worldwide all the more.

When life gives you lemons…(Ask Ericka)

The last blog post I wrote we were two full days into our study abroad here in Panama. Now, we’re two days out from leaving this beautiful country. The experience has been incredible, rewarding, educational, exhausting and full of new friendships. I think the thing that’s set this study abroad apart from others, and why most of us chose it in the first place, is because here it’s truly all about nature. For almost two weeks we’ve hiked through a variety of terrain- from rainforest to mountain tops. We’ve not just seen incredible plants and animals directly in their wild homes, but we’ve been learning about them along the way. We’ve tested our research skills as well as our patience. We’ve fought off swarms of vicious ants. We’ve hung in the canopy 120 feet above the ground and been no more than 12 feet from a slow-climbing, seemingly smiling three-toed sloth. We visited an indigenous village of the Embera people and ate a delicious meal in bowls we made out of leaves. We climbed a mountain and took it down (we didn’t take it down, I just couldn’t resist a Dixie Chicks/Stevie Nicks reference).


So basically, this experience has been more than we could ever ask for.

As I sit on a balcony overlooking Barro Colorado Island, my classmates are in the background collaborating on the final details of our group research projects. Remember how I told you how great the mango trees are here? Well my group ended up doing our research on them…and it wasn’t just an experiment to see which mango tree tasted the best (even though that would have been wonderful). But instead of getting into the gnitty gritty of our research, let’s step into the clearing so I can tell you a bit about something that’s NOT about nature. Woah, unprecedented, I know. But I can’t avoid the fact that yesterday we visited Panama City. A few nights ago the group ate dinner at a wonderful little restaurant called Las Tinajas. It was fantastic, but we didn’t really get to see the city because our dinner excursion took place mostly while it was dark. Yesterday, however, we were in the city in the afternoon and got to experience the difference of the city lifestyle when compared to our everyday rainforest lifestyle.

First, apparently nobody in Panama City gets up before noon. We arrived in the city around 10am, hungry and ready to explore. In that order. But the city was empty and so were its restaurants. Most don’t open until after noon. As it got hotter and we got hungrier, we realized why nobody comes out until later. THE HEAT. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hot and muggy in the rainforest, but the city is a different kind of climate. Finally, we found a nice little pizza place that opened early for us and served us delicious slices and coca cola served in bottles. The owner played us Enrique Iglesias music videos, pumped up the air conditioning, and raved about his home country of Venezuela. It was wonderful.


We then left our new friend to go explore the city and the incredible architecture. We did some shopping at local side stops, found an incredibly old and beautiful Spanish inspired church, and gazed out at the ocean and the large ships making their way to the canal.



Interior of Church


The rainforest follows us everywhere though, as we did all of this in the pouring rain. I’m proud to say that rain doesn’t really phase us anymore. I think we must’ve really become one with nature! (I know I said this part isn’t about nature but I mean really, what isn’t?)

Simon Bolivar

Simon Bolivar

This trip will stay with me for a lifetime and maybe the next time I visit I’ll know a little more Spanish than just “Hola” or “donde es el baño”…

Adios y tienes un buen dia! (Ashlee helped me with that one..)



A PhiloSLOTHical Discussion

After all of the fun in Panama City last night with dinner and dancing and Irish pubs we were all pretty worn out this morning, but it turned out to be one of my favorite days so far on the trip.  Although I find myself saying this nearly every day, today was truly the day my dreams came true.  Of all the things I was hoping to see and do here in Panama the one thing I wanted to see most was a sloth.  Before the trip each of us students was required to write a species/group specific paper on a plant or animal we might encounter.  I wrote my paper on the three-toed sloth species of Panama, Bradypus variegatus and Bradypus pygmaeus, which ultimately led to multiple uninvited sloth remarks and shared sloth videos in my home that my roommate, a strategic communications major, kindly tolerated.  B. pygmaeus, also known as the pygmy sloth, is endemic to the Island Escudos de Veraguas on the Caribbean side so we had no chance of seeing it, but the more common brown-throated three-toed sloth is apparently everywhere, just very difficult to see.  I have been unsuccessfully searching for sloths in the tree tops since I arrived.  I was beginning to accept that I might not see a sloth on this trip, but little did I know today was the day that I would see not one, not two, but four sloths.


Our day started with a canopy crane tour which was amazing.  The cranes fit about 6 people and this particular crane was 35 m high, or 120 ft into the air.  These cranes are used by researchers studying things like canopy complexity, forest gaps, and canopy insects.  The ascent into the canopy was a bit unnerving, but as we rose above the treetops and the breathtaking Panama City skyline came into view all of my fear melted away.  The view alone was incredible, but what the guide said next is what really got me.  Out of her mouth came the words “Oh, a sloth!” I thought I was going to cry actual tears of joy, and as the crane operator moved us closer to the sloth, 35 m up on the tree, its face came into view.  The sloth was a brown-throated three-toed sloth and we could see that it was a male from the odd yellowish patch pattern on its back.  As we all stood there in awe he slowly turned his head toward us, watching us watch him.  It was the moment I had been waiting for and it was just as wonderful as I hoped it would be.  The crane operator let us watch the sloth for a few minutes before moving on.  My group did see other interesting species during 20 minutes we were up in the tree tops; there were some beautiful little blue birds, a woodpecker with its bright red head, a couple of flowering lianas, huge tree top ants nests, and enormous gaps of young forests.  These gaps were created when a large tree had fallen bringing down others with it resulting in a jungle of new growth plants competing for space and light.  Some other groups were able to see toucans and howler monkeys from above the tree tops, but I was more than content with my sloth.


After the canopy tour we went into the old part of the city, Casco Viejo, to grab lunch and walk around a bit.  The architecture of the old buildings was incredible.  Even this part of the city was chaotic with the narrow streets, constant honking of cars, and intense humidity.  As we walked around we stopped in small shops, talked to a couple of the locals, and eventually found a taco joint with air conditioning and a pool table where we spent the rest of the afternoon.  There were a couple of mishaps due to the curse, but the pool table was a much appreciated surprise and we had a wonderful Colombian waiter who had moved to Panama to begin his studies.  After lunch we were off to the new Biodiversity Museum, Biomuseo.  The museum was designed by Frank Gehry and took ten years to construct, finally opening its doors in 2014.  The wait was well worth it.  I would say that it was one of the most interactive, and exciting museums I have ever been through, nearly, if not totally, on par with COSI for those familiar with the science exploratory center in Columbus, OH.  The most exciting room for me was a room with life size sculptures of the extinct animals of Panama.  The size of the terror birds and the ground sloths were almost unbelievable and some of us were having a great time taking selfies with the sculptures.  For anybody traveling to Panama, the Biomuseo is an absolute must.


After the museum we got to do something that was not originally on the itinerary, but that was suggested to us by our friendly local bat guy, Jerry, after I informed him of my new found obsession with three-toed sloths.  We went to Punta Culebra, a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) Marine Exhibition Center.  It was on open air museum located right on the coast and we were able to see sea turtles, nurse sharks, lionfish, an iguana, and you guessed in, more sloths.  The sloths were outdoors wandering around the trees in the grounds of the center.  A wet three-toed sloth (it was raining) saw obscurely in a lower branch resembling a wet mop head while the two-toed sloths were very active and moving much more quickly than the three-toed sloth we had encountered in the crane.  I saw 2 two-toed sloths and 2 three-toed sloths all in one day so my mind is officially blown.  I don’t know how this trip could get any better, seeing as I seem to have filled my sloth quota in only a day, but I know that it will because the diversity of the tropics is absurd.  Every day I am amazed at the amount of new fauna I see and I cannot wait for tomorrow.

I-guana go back already


The Biomuseo in Panama boasts a colorful, angled exterior design that incorporates open-air space, walls of windows, and indoor and outdoor exhibition areas. Architect Frank Gehry is responsible for the Biomuseo’s structure, and the museum is his only work in Latin America and in the tropics. Branching off from the atrium of the museum are the surrounding eight galleries, currently in various stages of completion. The vibrant colors and metallic sheets reference Panamanian cultural elements; the composition of the building’s structural elements is reminiscent of some of Gehry’s other notable works. The intersections are complex and recapitulate the idea of emergent properties of ecosystems.



Panama: The Bridge of Life is the Biomuseo’s permanent exhibition, featuring a variety of installation techniques for illustrating the origin of the Panamanian Isthmus and its impact on biodiversity and the history of the earth. The introductory stretch of hallway into this gallery (guided by an audio recording, complete with passages from E. O. Wilson) fleshed out the significance of diverse organismal life. For us the rhetoric is familiar, and there’s some amount of comfort in seeing a community-oriented place embracing the mission of environmental stewardship and ecological awareness. Along the way are photographs, an installation of wood panels etched with organism images, and display cases highlighting some of the research currently being done on species of the region. One display in particular contained a note on International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups and bioprospecting. The hallway also included placards for tropical species with their status (endangered, threatened, extinct, etc.) noted in text and indicated by color.

The Worlds Collide portion of the exhibition is filled with white, fiberglass-epoxy animals carefully and attentively detailed by hand. The markmaking on the surfaces of the animals– feathers, fur, wrinkled skin, scales, and more– has all been done manually to these aesthetically-appealing renditions of extinct and extant (i.e., still alive today) of species.




According to our tour guide, we should “come back in two years.” The Biomuseum is currently awaiting the construction of another sculptural exhibit that visualizes the importance of plants and photosynthetic life in the environment, as well as the marine aquariums displaying life from both coasts of Panama.

We wish you a merry Isthmus

One thing that has sparked the curiosity of many- why is there such an incredible diversity of plants and animals in Panama? Today we toured the Museo de la Biodiversidad to investigate further. Turns out, the Isthmus of Panama has not always been in existence- in fact, it was formed out of volcanos just over 20 million years ago. That may seem like a long time ago, but compared to the entire history of the earth, Panama’s existence is a mere blip on the radar. Heck, Panama didn’t even get to experience the Cretaceous period. Yet, Panama’s formation is a key to explaining the biodiversity we see today.
Without Panama, there is no physical land bridge between North and South America. Upon the joining of the Americas, many species now had the capability to migrate that they hadn’t had before. For instance, marsupials had never appeared on North America until the formation of Panama. So now we have two continents’ worth of species interacting with each other for the first time. Second, the Isthmus also acts as a barrier for migration between the Pacific and the Caribbean. So, we now also have marine organisms that were once united being forced to separate into two environments. In turn, we have two species sets becoming more and more different from each other. Combine these factors with the fact that Panama is in a very unvaried environment temperature-wise, and we get the immense biodiversity we see today.
Not were these past couple days a learning experience biology-wise, but also a learning experience culture-wise. Yesterday, we got the chance to explore the city and catch some authentic dancing at the Las Tinajas restaurant. Today, we got to explore the Casca Viejo neighborhood. If you ever find yourself there, I’d recommend checking out the Santa Rita restaurant- but don’t expect the food to be cheap there. Also, if you do go to Panama, bring a poncho. Always. We found that out the hard way after lunch.

Stuck Between a Lock and a Hard Place

Visiting the Mira Flores locks of the Panama Canal today was truly a different experience from how the first 8 days of our tour through the neotropics have been. Instead of spending the day trekking through a humid, shady jungle, we watched as a massive feat of human engineering managed to move hundreds of tons of cargo through a waterway never originally meant to carry ships from one bordering ocean to the next. The canal is deeply ingrained in much of Panama’s identity. Because of our host country’s placement on the thinnest part of the isthmus between North and South America, it has been used as a Pacific-to-Atlantic crossing of sorts for traders and conquistadors since the early days of Spanish exploration in the 17th century, when the new world explorers needed a more efficient way of transporting gold from places like Peru back home to Spain. Originally beginning as a land route, the Panama railway was built along a similar route to today’s canal, and eventually plans were drawn up by the French to dredge a complete waterway across the landscape. Yellow Fever and rain forest climate conditions bankrupted several of these huge attempts, but eventually the U.S. would assist Panama with their liberation from Colombia in the early 1900s and redesign and complete the Panama Canal in 1914.


The Miraflores Locks


Today, close to 5% of all world shipping passes through the canal every year. Its hard to not only be in sheer awe of the huge mechanical locks, however a part of me knew that the canal had to have negative impacts somewhere, and unfortunately one of those areas is the subject of our course – Tropical Field Ecology. But before jumping to conclusions and shouting at canal workers about water waste and deforestation, One must consider both sides of this story. The canal has cost this region thousands of acres of pristine old-growth rain forests, entire valley stream ecosystems and perhaps billions of gallons of fresh water produced by the watershed flowing into the locks and out in the salty ocean. This canal is also responsible for the well-being of countless Panamanian citizens, and for even greater numbers of people benefiting from trade through the locks. It seems the human-well-being element and the conservation elements of especially large scale projects like the Panama Canal are almost always at odds with each other.


From: Carving New History, the Panama Canal Expansion by E.H. Evans.

From: Carving New History, the Panama Canal Expansion by E.H. Evans.

Recently (really recently. This year actually), Panama completed a huge expansion project, widening the canal by adding parts of a completely new channel adjacent to the original canal path and
building new lock systems to allow larger, heavier ships laden with more goods. This means more forest clearing, more dredging the bottom of native rivers to make room for boats with lower bottoms, and generally more usage of the locks. However, this is also anticipated to mean massive economic growth in Panama, helping to alleviate massive issues with poverty experienced here. Putting ourselves in a poor Panamanian’s shoes helps give a broader perspective on these view – what would you rather have in your home country, Ocelots or job opportunities so you’re able to feed your family at night? The field of Conservation Biology helps to looks at both of these ideals and create a conservation plan for a threatened species. Uneducated “save the one individual animal” hippie stances are not enough and will not stand up to those in our way of achieving our goal of ecological conservation, but neither will standing by without prodding for changes. The Panama Canal authority has designed the newer locks to recycle fresh water instead of allowing it to fall out to sea, and the expansion projects working into the forests are much more specific and studied about what part of the landscape they’re taking down. Things get done correctly in a healthy way when you consider the both sides.


Check out this Nat. Geographic article on this dichotomy, before the project was finished.