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.

Under Pressure

Today’s destination was unusual in more ways than one despite its close proximity to our previous adventures. We packed our day packs full of field guides, binoculars, lunches, water bottles, sunscreen, and bug spray (aplenty). Nothing new for our group. However, once we crossed the Centennial Bridge, which was opened in 2004 as a response to heavy traffic on the Bridge of the Americas, we were in new territory. The bridge was constructed across the Culebra Cut, an artificial valley that was constructed jointly by French and American developers. Although this region was not geographically distant from where we were staying (Gamboa), this was our first experience with the dryer climate of the Pacific side of Panama. As our bus reached the entrance to Altos de Campana National Park, it became immediately obvious that our day would feature beautiful vistas of lush vegetation with hills and valleys rolling across the landscape. As a pleasant surprise, the climate was particularly hospitable and reminiscent of a cool summer day in central Ohio.


Centennial Bridge as seen from the northern side.

Our guide provided us with a plethora of information regarding the plants, animals, and other organisms which make this park their home, in addition to historical facts regarding the construction of the canal and previous usages of the park. It was the first national park in Panama and played an important role as a model system for many other parks around the country. Along our hike we encountered several species of insects, including one which may have been parasitized by fungi. In addition, our guide Iaan mentioned that at higher altitudes, there may be higher numbers of epiphytes. These are plants which make their living using other plants for structural support and include lianas and vines within several plant families, as well as bromeliads and mosses. Several species of spiders, shelf fungi, and palms were encountered along the way, but the most charismatic find of the trip was an Orange-bellied Trogon. The bird perched on a tree carefully inspecting its observers. Most of us unknowingly passed under it and were rewarded with harassment from a large horsefly, but returned soon after to much delight.


Orange-bellied Trogon –

Despite the wide diversity of life forms in this area, I found the geology and landscape the most awe-inspiring. The park itself was part of igneous formations of a previously active volcano. Thus, the area has a history of geological activity, which is evident in the many peaks and red soil around the area. The andisols, which are formed from volcanic ash, are likely the reason for the red coloration. After our hike at the some of the park’s highest trails, we descended in our bus and made a final stop at an outlook. The outlook itself was merely a slab of cement with railings. Admittedly, it might provide a perfect context for a nice photo. Not so for this story.

Altos de Campana National Park - Outlook

Altos de Campana National Park – Outlook

A trail behind the outlook descended almost halfway down the slope. Following the trails with my eyes, I saw the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow: a grassy outcropping that would provide a closer look at the forest below and the Pacific Ocean to the south. A small group descended with the hopes of finding something. What we found was, like many other things real experiences provide, better than imagination alone can conjure. This area was beautiful but it resonated with some of us moreso than others. For me, I instantly recalled some of my adventures throughout the United States hiking through national parks. The lush hillsides gave way to an expanse of sea, only succumbing to the infinite sky. Despite climbing a fair distance down the hill, the hike back up did not trouble me at all. Often in these situations, exhaustion or weariness yield to curiosity and wonder. This will be a day to remember.