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.

“Those are ALL spiders?” Exploring the Neotropics at Night

Alarms here at the Gamboa Schoolhouse sound far earlier than any alarm I have set for an early class. But with only 12 days in the neotropics to hike, kayak, eat, meet natives, and attempt to understand the functions of this place’s  natural beauty, our days must be stretched as much as possible – 5am breakfasts are welcomed with enthusiasm (more so when pancakes are involved), when we’re likely the most positive and high-functioning OSU undergraduates on Earth. Here the early hiker gets the bird, and Panama has rewarded us with 40+ different bird species, multiple monkey encounters, and long views of not-quite-yet blistering hot roadside (and riverside) culture. Getting out and under the cover of the forest canopy before midday is rewarding in itself – multiple 6+ mile hikes have left us drenched in sweat before lunch, but 90 degrees and 90% humidity seems to be more than bearable when searching for howlers amid massive palms and webs of lianas. Needless to say, after we fill our starved stomachs with Senora Francis’ home cooked dinners, we’re lucky to make it past 9pm without coffee. But Thursday night, we decided to chug the dark stuff and and skip the afternoon heat in a different way – by heading outside after dark.

After finally determining how to not blind the person we’re attempting to talk with – headlamps are not to be trusted with caffeinated undergraduates – we made our way through Gamboa, suddenly much more foreign that it had seemed. The sheer volume of sounds still coming from the surrounding rain forest was almost unmistakable from our morning hikes, with just as many insects, frogs, birds and chirpy geckos contributing to the eerie chorus. A true appreciation of how many individual life forms were present around us, even while still in the village, didn’t come into view until someone shined a beam of light onto the overgrown futbol field, pointed and said “spider eyes”. Thousands of tiny green lights reflected back at us. We walked a little more carefully.


Keeping a slowly-adjusted eye at our feet for venomous snakes and tarantulas, we made our way to a small creek running along Gamboa’s perimeter. Amphibians were the catch-of-the-day here. At least 5 different species of new toads and frogs popped into view after short searches; this was their time, they weren’t trying to hide. More than any others, the seemingly abrupt appearance of dozens of bright Red-Eyed Tree Frogs in the low hanging tree branches blew us away.


These frogs live almost exclusively in jungle trees – hunting insects, breeding, and laying their eggs on the large leaves. Many researchers think the shocking red eyes and yellow-and-blue stomach developed to make predators to at least take an extra minute to consider them before chomping down, and ironically enough they seem to have the same effect on us humans. These colors also make them popular pets, and while their populations here in Panama are still running strong in the forest evenings, their numbers are dropping. They are known as an indicator species; frogs and salamanders, while growing up into adults in water, are extremely sensitive to changes in water quality, like pollution and added sediments. Human waste and changes to the soil structure from spreading agriculture, when applied to these fragile jungle ecosystems, quickly wipe out frogs before most other types of animals, indicating that the jungles are beginning to suffer. We were overjoyed to see them so close to humanized areas, but we also wondered how much longer they would be able to occupy that particular stream.

Nocturnal wasps, mayflies and two small frog-eating snakes also graced us with their presence, but the quick and unsure sightings are what got our blood-pumping. Caimans, a smaller and shier cousin to the crocodile, may have darted away as soon as our headlamps announced our presence, heading into the darker deeper waters of the creek. On top of it all through, staring down at us from the ridges above the creek before slinking away to find his dinner of other mammals – an ocelot, or perhaps a puma.


Incredibly rare to encounter because of their nocturnal habits, these big cats roam large territories throughout Central America, acting as top predators in jungle food webs. Cats like these can often act as keystone species – animals that, if removed from an ecosystem, would have massive effects on the food web beneath them. Without them to control prey mammals and other vertebrates, these populations would spike, creating more herbivores and in turn dropping rare plant number throughout these systems. All of these species-of-the-night play an essential role in most species that are active throughout the day. We, as a species, need more night hikes.