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.

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