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.

Baby Got Bat

Last night we went out to do something that I have heard much about, but never seen in action.  We went mist netting.  For those of you not familiar with the term, mist netting is a technique used by ornithologists and bat biologists to capture birds and bats for research.  These nets are held up by two poles, looking much like a volleyball net when all is said and done.  They have long, lengthwise pouches that aid in the capture of whatever might fly into the net.  In this case we were netting for bats.  The bat species richness in the tropics is incredible and is higher than any other vertebrate species.  My group was especially excited to meet with the bat researchers since our project is focused on bats.  We went out to watch the nets being set up by the bat researchers at 6:30 pm; bats generally come out around 6:45 pm in Gamboa.  The net set up turned out to be more difficult than I originally expected; it was prone to getting caught and tangled and we were instructed that it could not touch the ground because it tends to pick up every leaf it encounters on the forest floor.


In order to work with a mist net one must be trained and certified.  It is important to check the net often and remove the animals quickly and carefully so they are not harmed.  Going into the netting I was told not to get my hopes up because in temperate zones researchers will set up nets and wait for hours with nothing to show.  However, within the first 20 minutes we had bats!  Total about 5 or 6 bats were caught; two bats were pregnant and quickly released.  After the nets were set up we left the forest to wait, then we were taken back in smaller groups to check out the net.  Some of the bats were also brought out to our group in a small felt bag so that we could all view them.  The first bat I saw was a Jamaican fruit-eating bat (Artibeus jamaicensis), a species of leaf-nosed bat.  The name “leaf-nosed” comes from the protrusion on their nose which is thought to play a role in echolocation.  This bat was pregnant, and as soon as the bat was freed it opened its mouth preparing to bite whatever it could.  The second bat was from the genus Coleura and was much smaller than the first.  It was amazing to see the little hunters and foragers up close.  Mist netting is a big part of bat biology because until more recent technological advances it was the primary way of studying bats, and is still probably the most reliable.  However, there are some problems with netting.  It is possible that some bats are better at avoiding the net and that some bats do not fly as low as others which might skew any measures of abundance.


There were many different experiments going on in the bat research group.  One study was looking into the role of vision in foraging species of bats.  Other experiments were focused on bat memory, looking into how well a bat might remember where a food source is or what was poisonous and what was not.  Jerry, who was in charge of showing us around, was doing research on true vampire bats which eat blood of other mammals, usually larger mammals such as horses or cows.  Vampire bats are very interesting in the ecological community because they share meals with each other.  If one bat goes out and finds food and another does not the bat that did not find any food will generally be fed by one of its roast mates.  This does not technically make sense, because according to most animal behavior theories animals should be selfish in order to survive.  Altruism has been documented in primate species and favoring of kin in some other lesser species.  However, the mechanisms behind the evolution of altruism are still very much debated.  Jerry was looking at the importance of kinship vs. previous encounters/ongoing roast mate relationships in these sharing interactions and hearing him discuss his research was very intriguing.


Seeing the bats, and the mist netting, and hearing about some of the research being done was all fascinating, but my favorite moment of the night was when we were able to use the class echolocation detector, or echo meter, with Jerry.  The data my group is collecting is on bats as I mentioned previously.  We have been going out every night with a wildlife acoustics echo meter, in hopes of studying species diversity and abundance in the grassy fields outside of the tree line versus that within the rainforest.  None of us are bat experts so although the device was Iding many species, we were not entirely sure that it was IDing the bats correctly.  We were also a bit confused about how to interpret the visual readings.  Jerry was able to walk us through some of the different features of the echo meter as well as show us what a searching call looks like and what it looks like when the bat finds the insect he was hunting.  The longer lower sounds are the searching calls, while the sharp drops on the screen indicate that the bat has located its prey.  Overall it was a very exciting and informative night and we got some reassurance that our data collection is not for nothing.  I am so excited about all of the exotic plants and animals we are seeing on this trip and all that we are learning from the guides and experts accompanying us.  I hope to learn more about the bats in the tropics as we get further along in our data collection and research so that I might be able to share with others what I have been so fortunate to learn from this experience.