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.



You’ve Gatun be kidding me

We’ve seen a lot during our short time in Panama including lethargic sloths, flamboyant toucans, a small caiman (allegedly), but today we got our first taste of one of Panama’s most spectacular and iconic landmarks, the Panama Canal.

Our home base in Gamboa, Panama is situated on one leg of the Canal and immense and humbling container ships occasionally trudge by, an impressive event that I’m certain very few of my classmates give its due reverence. After our kayak tour today, that would all change…

6:30 AM, crack of dawn, the birds haven’t even started chirping and we are dragging ourselves out of bed and into the dining room for a hearty breakfast of hard boiled eggs, fresh papaya, Sailor Sammy brand sugar cereal (which bears a shocking resemblance to another nautically named cereal), black coffee, and hojaldres -a crisp fried dough eaten for breakfast in Panama. After breakfast, we begin the 20 minute walk, including traversing a narrow walkway on the edge of a one lane bridge constructed over 100 years ago to meet our Kayak guide, Ian. He is enthusiastic and eager to share whatever knowledge he has whenever he can.

As he set us up in our kayaks and launched us out into Lake Gatun, there are many species of heron, countless wattled jacanas calling, and the muffled growls of distant howler monkeys. We are warned by Ian of crocodiles in the area and the possibility to spot the rare manatee, while we warn one another of our group lore; we believe that a curse and misfortune follows one who took more than they could finish at one of our group meals. I knew Ian would be taking us on a trip down the Chagres, but what I didn’t know was that Ian would be taking us on a trip back in time.

Lake Gatun was formed in 1913 when the Chagres River was dammed to form a reservoir to feed the Panama Canal; however, the Chagres was important long before that, as Ian would inform us.  The Chagres was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502 and he was awestruck at the amount of and the size of the American Crocodiles which would have been far more abundant in his day. The river would become an important route of transportation for the Spanish. It was the main constituent of the Las Cruces Trail, a transportation network colloquially referred to as the treasure trail –a major route for the export of precious metals and other goods from the Spanish colonies to the major port of Panama City for further trade.  Famous Welsh privateer, Henry Morgan (Yes the captain associated with the modern rum) would use the Chagres to raid and destroy Panama City in 1671.

Ian informed us that the Chagres also was important during the California Gold Rush as it was a crucial component of a route west that involved sailing up the Chagres, walking or taking a train to the pacific coast and sailing the remainder. The Chagres was even discovered to contain gold itself and is still panned to this day. Today, such a route is made even more convenient by the presence of the Canal.

Finally, the Chagres would become impassible to trade with its damming and creation of Lake Gatun to feed the Panama Canal. As we paddled, we passed many stumps rising from the water that stood anchored in the ground, remnants of trees that occupied the area that was flooded to create Lake Gatun.  We also paddled by a village of the indigenous Enberra people, a group that circumvented the US military ban on people living in the Canal Zone who were not employees of the Canal because they were contracted to teach jungle survival techniques to the US military . As we traveled up and down the Chagres and Lake Gatun it was truly captivating to learn the rich history of the region, and I cannot wait to learn more about this important Panamanian monument.