Agua Salud Galore!


Today, our study abroad group visited Agua Salud, which is a research initiative partnered with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) that focuses on ecosystem services or benefits gained from a natural resource in the Panama Canal watershed. There are four types of ecosystem services: supporting services, which provide for the rest of ecosystem, provisioning services, products obtained from ecosystems like natural medicines, regulating services, benefits from a regulating ecosystem such as water and air quality, and cultural services, intangible benefits people get from an ecosystem like recreational activities. Agua Salud studies a variety of these services and primarily looks at regulating and supporting services in a tropical forest as most of the area’s water supports the Panama Canal.

The Agua Salud project, which was established in 1980 and later reinitiated for research purposes in 2008, has been involved in numerous research projects throughout the years. Previous studies include: soil analyses and meteorological trends. Findings found that tropical forest soils support the sponge hypothesis as it acts like a “sponge” because they are porous and able to store large quantities of water throughout various seasons within an ecosystem.  The significance of these studies showed that forests contribute to clean watersheds and improved water quality.

This photo shows the lookout from the Agua Salud meterological research area.

This photo shows the lookout from the Agua Salud meterological research area.

Current work consists of three main study areas: hydrology, secondary forest, and timber production. Hydrology, the study of water, is used at Agua Salud to research the forest’s watershed. A watershed is a system that carries water from high elevation to low elevation, draining the water to a specific source. At Agua Salud, there are nine watersheds that drain into one stream. Scientists are able to measure how the watershed changes through time and how a watershed can change land usage.

Secondary forest research at Agua Salud is related to hydrological studies because the amount of water and other components availability can determine the growth of a forest. One of these components Agua Salud studies is carbon. Researchers look at how carbon can affect forest growth by creating 25 year chronosequences of secondary succession land plots. A chronosequence is a method used to avoid the time needed for plants to grow by arranging plots of soils based on age. By using chronosequences, Agua Salud is able to document patterns in the area’s tropical forests.

Timber production research looks at how production can be maximized. Coffee, pineapple, timber, teak, and even lemon trees are grown on plots throughout Agua Salud. While a majority of plants are successful at growing, the teak plots are not successful. Teak is a non-native species and the soils in Agua Salud contain a high concentration of Iron, which is not preferable for teak growth. Along with timber production research, some plots are also cut down to conduct a competition experiment between the varieties of tree species in Agua Salud.

Lemon Tree

Agua Salud is home to many lemon trees (pictured above) as part of timber production studies.

The research conducted at the Agua Salud project has brought global attention to the variety of services a tropical forest can provide. Current studies of hydrology, secondary forest growth, and timber production are important aspects in understanding ecosystem services.

Majority of this information can be found at:

The Natural Symphony

Not Beethoven, not Wagner, nor even Tchaikovsky could compose the symphony that emanates from the rainforest. Each organism hums, calls, or bellows a different tune, but harmony is created. Mother Nature begins conducting and the brass call of toucans start the piece. This is then followed by a battle of percussion between a troop of Howler monkeys and far-off thunder – the thunder always wins. As the day goes on, small and large fruits thump the ground and tiny hummingbird wings create an excited buzz. Sundown indicates the finale and the listener is pierced by the jarring shriek of bats and then treated to the staccato calls of red eyed tree frogs that keep beat. Amazingly, this symphony is repeated the next day and with time, the listener finds that new performers are added. The natural symphony never ceases its expansion here.

The only problem with this symphony is a soloist. This soloist creates incredible music that is new, loud, and extraordinarily complex, but it prevents other musicians from being heard. The soloist has almost forgotten that they are bound to the accompanying natural symphony and that they could be quieted by Mother Nature, the rainforest’s maestro. You and I as humans are components of the soloist and our species is overpowering the music of the rainforest in a crescendo of sound, technology, and resource use. That is apparent here in Panama, where there are large tree plantations or swathes of property used solely for cattle grazing – all on top of land that once hosted hyper-diverse forests. By no means can we get rid of plantations or farms, but one can only wonder which symphonic players have been quieted.

A concert’s recording does not do it justice and on a much grander scale, the rainforest’s music cannot be experienced through a recording. It must be felt in person. The rainforest is unlike anything heard in a lifetime, but I fear humans are drowning out too many known and unknown players. However, any symphony can rapidly change structure, so it is more than possible for humans to find their place in the performance. If so many other players can coexist and create harmony in the natural symphony, so can we.

Howler Overture in D Major

Foreign Species Takeover

Invasive species are never to be taken lightly. While some are accidentally released, others may be introduced as floral design or food stock- even as pets. If you really wanted to get technical about it, humans could also be classified as an invasive species.

The entire world, since exploration started, has entered a sort of pandemic around the influence of invasive species. While this isn’t really a headline for most people, since global warming and deforestation like to take the center stage, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. Entire communities are rearranged as a new species enters, and sometimes this can lead to the extirpation, or local extinction, of a species. Even others in the ecosystem can be indirectly affected by this change.

In the San Juan River, tilapia and peacock bass are the two species who really impacted this river. While they’re still a good source of food for animals and people alike, the biodiversity of other fish species which would historically fill that niche have been extirpated. Small minnows and larger prey fish have been replaced with the African tilapia and South American peacock bass- which is a common story across Central America.

The Embera people still use these fish for their survival, as do the fishing birds and mammals around the San Juan River, so at least this story doesn’t have to end in complete tragedy. That being said, a lot of fruit in their diet is also non-native. Mangos from Southern Asia, as well as watermelon and cantaloupe from Central Africa, are all fruits grown by the Embera people along the Panamanian river. Of course, they aren’t the only humans to introduce non-native species and use them as a source of food or profit. This behavior seems innate in humans themselves, bringing what species they know to a new place, regardless of what could be found their already. This only hurts the native fauna, however, as they have to compete with new species who may not have any predators or pathogens to keep them in check. Native pollinators may not be able to get the right fuel from the new flowers, or don’t have the hardware to do so. New fruits could be toxic to the native animals, or not nearly as nutritious as the ones which they have been evolving alongside of for millions of years.

Really, this is a problem which cannot be fixed entirely. Some species are here to stay, no matter how damaging and invasive. The priority now is to understand how we can try to keep these in check, and to make sure that no new species can begin to pervade the wilderness. This is a hard law to keep, but knowing that a culture removed from the modern era such as the Embera have accepted non-native species into their way of life just serves as a reminder that nowhere is really safe from the invaders.

Monkeys, Agoutis and Sloths, oh my

view from the dining hall

view from the dining hall

Today we toured a portion Barro Colorado Island, a global icon for biodiversity and rainforest ecosystem research. The island and surrounding lands are owned by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and we intermittently passed historical study sites along with researchers and their ongoing projects (like lianas’ function as lightning rods). Early on the path parallelled a huge colony of leaf-cutter ants, which initially wasn’t very engaging as we’d seen them almost everywhere. However, a few of the workers were observed carrying from the mound a dead or dying virgin queen. Without going into detail on their eusocial dynamic, this doesn’t seem like a common phenomenon at all, and I wasted a lot of brainpower puzzling over what factors could have led to her dying in the pampered confines of the nest.

general worker activity, sans princess

My favorite moment was when the group stopped to rest and we were passed overhead by a troop of howler monkeys; hearing the howls every day prior built up a lot of anticipation. The troop consisted of 4-5 adults– it’s hard to tell when they’re not all in view simultaneously– and one baby a fraction of the others’ size swinging in their wake. At least one of the adults were male, and the baby was estimated at 9-12 months old by Alex, citing maturation into black fur and behavioral cues (hovering near the mother but swinging independently). All of them were foraging and lazily popping leaves into their mouths, but two of the larger adults descended a few feet further to the ground, lay stomach-down on thick branches, and stared intensely back at us. Given that we weren’t howled at and they took their sweet time leaving, we were seen as more of a curiosity than a threat, but years of researcher activity have definitely familiarized them to the conspicuously colored ground apes. It was also shared among the group that the howler monkeys were of the Golden Mantled variety, and they have prehensile tails exclusive to New World monkeys AND unique prints on those tails and their fingers.


I regret not being able to get pictures [but Logan and Catherine did, badger them!], so here’s a shutterstock image representing the general view we had.

Since there are only so many hours in the day, we’ll wrap up with some miscellaneous fun facts, the first two relayed by our guide Iann:

Fractured habitats not only affect migration, but create opportunities for increased variety and effectiveness of pathogens.

Bufotoxins (from native toads) can act as powerful muscle relaxers, and selective injections have shown temporary effectiveness in treating arrhythmia, stuttering, and strabismus.

According to WebMD, with the amount of while DEET we’ve ingested, we thankfully shouldn’t discover organ damage until after getting home 🙂

Research on… Research?

When most people think of research, it typically conjures up images of men and women dressed in stark white lab coats, swirling bottles of strange chemicals and staring at computer results before suddenly finding the cure to an ailment. Of course, this really isn’t how most research is done- not the part about being in a lab, but usually the work is much more rigorous, with rewards we may or may not have anticipated. Ecological studies really aren’t much different from that. A null hypothesis is formed, the methods aligned and soon the researcher is on their way to finding out if their thinking is supported in the data. But how does one figure out which methods to use?

In our group project, my teammates and I were faced with such a dilemma. We are interested in the species richness across the town of Gamboa, especially when concerned with small lizards and salamanders. Although two very different animals, they both fill an ecological niche as small predators and prey for larger carnivores. How to catch these guys, however, was a problem. How to catch a lizard which lives to climb? The typical pitfall trap seemed to be our answer but supplies weren’t as handy as we would have liked. Usually, large buckets aroun six to eight inches deep, with steep, slippery walls are used. Flush with the ground, any animal small enough to fit into the mouth typically falls in without even knowing what happened. In our case, we have plastic cereal bowls.

Yup, that is are what we’re going to have to use to catch our quick-footed reptilian friends. Even slower moving salamanders could eventually climb out of this two inch deep dish. So, of course, we had to improvise.

Rather than getting to work right away on our actual research project, our group had to do a little research on the methods we were going to use. How could we make these bowls more effective in catching our target species?

The first suggestion was to actually use plastic bottles, rather than bowls. Dug straight down into the ground, the bottles are small and slender, working as a nice funnel straight to the ground. This is basically how regular pitfall traps work as well, just on a smaller scale.

The second suggestion was just digging straight into the ground and setting the bowl into the large hole. This would also mimic the larger bucket method, as the bowl has more surface area, but our main concern here was dirt. These lizards and salamanders live with dirt their whole lives, so why would a little hole be that big of a deal? Bring in- the garbage bag! Dug out in the same way as the regular bucket, but with a garbage bag taped to the sides, this method was made to hopefully keep the slope more slippery. With less to grab hold of, lizards and salamanders wouldn’t be able to escape our pitfall trap, and we can continue with our projects.

Even though this isn’t as rigorous as an actual researched setting, we still kept out methods as close to similar as possible. All methods were tested on the same stretch of the same building, so our species count shouldn’t vary too much. While we couldn’t control every variable, such as the weather or time of day, we still wanted each container to be in the same sort of location. This way, we can tell which seems to work the best out of all of them.

“Studies” like this help to improve on already known methods of collecting samples and data, and while our endeavor isn’t really to further the scientific community as a whole, it’s still beneficial to realize that you really can do research on anything, even methods of research!

Hummingbirds of Panama

During our second full day in Panama, the group traveled to Discovery Center and Pipeline Road, locations known for immense biological diversity. Among this biological diversity, many hummingbird species native to Panama can also be found. Today, our group saw multiple hummingbird species including the Long-billed Hermit, White Necked Jacobin, and White Vented Plumeleteer filling up at hanging nectar feeders along the trail.

White-necked Jacobin

The White-necked Jacobin can be seen feeding and these birds average 11.4 cm in lenght.


White-necked Jacobin

The White-necked Jacobin can be seen approaching the feeder. These hummingbirds can be identified by their blue heads, iridescent feathers, and white bellies.

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The Long-billed Hermit can be seen flying towards the nectar feeder. This species can be identified by its abnormally long beak, which is used to consume nectar.

The Long-billed Hermit, White Necked Jacobin, and White Vented Plumeleteer are only a few of the 320 different species of hummingbirds found throughout the Americas (“Hummingbird,” n.d.). The Neotropics are considered a “hotspot” for hummingbirds as approximately 60 species are found in Panama alone. Hummingbirds are known for their fast wing beats and have the ability to beat their wings up to 80 beats per second. This is done to help the hummingbird hover and move from flower to flower, collecting nectar with ease (“Why do,” n.d.). Additionally, these birds do not have a lot of strength in their lower bodies, so their wings act as a support structure (“Why do,” n.d.). The wing structure also allows the hummingbird to travel at a speed more than 15 m/s (“Hummingbird,” n.d.). While hummingbirds can travel at a fast speed, their wind speed takes a substantial amount of energy and in order to conserve energy, most hummingbirds spend their day sitting along branches to rest. At night, some species can even lower their internal body temperature and metabolic rate in an effort to conserve energy.

In addition to having a fast wind speed, hummingbirds have a fast breathing rate, elevated heartbeat, and relatively high internal body temperature, which requires them to eat frequently and in large quantities (“Basic Facts,” 2012). The diet of many hummingbirds includes: nectar from flowers, insects for some species, pollen, and even tree sap (“Basic Facts,” 2012). As hummingbirds must eat often, they can become very territorial over food sources and have been known to chase other hummingbird species or larger predatory birds such as hawks away from their food source.

This video shows two species of humming birds fighting over a nectar food source as hummingbirds can be territorial:

Territorial Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are amazing species and need our help! Many of these birds are either endangered or threatened due to habitat loss and destruction since they are typically adapted to a unique habitat, meaning they can only live within this habitat. Additional threats of climate change are also affecting the species and causing hummingbirds to migrate to different locations they are not normally found in or adapted to live in (“Hummingbird,” n.d.).



Basic Facts About Hummingbirds. (2012). Retrieved May 18, 2016, from

Hummingbird. (n.d.). Retrieved May 18, 2016, from

Why do hummingbirds flap their wings so quickly? (n.d.). Retrieved May 18, 2016, from hums fighting

A Howling Good Time

It’s only our second day here in Gamboa, Panama, and I think everyone is awe of the amazing biodiversity surrounding us! It seems like as soon as we step outside of our schoolhouse here at STRI, there’s a beautiful array of tropical fauna- ranging from tall palms and gracefully draping lianas (a type of woody vine), to incredibly vibrant flowers and a plentiful number of mangos. Yesterday, we all took turns taking a bite out of an almost-ripe mango and learned one thing: when mangos aren’t quite ripe, they’re very fibrous and you WILL have mango stuck in your teeth all day (like I did)…so be forewarned.

Here’s a taste of the beauty that is Panama:

Yes, these are bananas!


Just part of a mango tree, we’ve seen some pretty big ones!

As beautiful (and tasty) as all of this plant life has been, I can’t help but favor our experiences with the animals of Gamboa. This morning, we left the schoolhouse at the prime hour of 5:30am for some quality bird watching at the Discovery Center. Here, we hiked back to a canopy tower and made the climb to the very top. When we reached the top of the canopy, everything we had been looking up at with amazement was now below us and so dense that we couldn’t even see the forest floor. In the distance were rolling, green hills topped with misty clouds, it was honestly breathtaking being up there. We saw what had to be over 30 species of birds, all unique in their own ways. Some were vibrant colors, others had really cool pattern variation throughout their body and wings. Our guide and her wonderful eyesight even spotted a sloth! YES A SLOTH!! From a distance it looked like a lump in a tree. Through the scope it still looked like a lump in a tree. But we were able to see the face as it moved ever so slowly and the black fur around it’s eyes let us know that this was a three-toed sloth (aka the cutest thing I’ve ever seen).

Here’s some of the canopy that we could see from up in the tower:


Pretty incredible, right?!

We were up in the canopy tower for about an hour and what honestly stuck with me the most was the sounds of howler monkeys off in the distance. The noises they make are actually pretty terrifying. To put it into perspective, our TA, Alex,  informed us that howler monkey calls were used in part for those scary dinosaur sounds in the newest Jurassic Park. As you can imagine, it was pretty chilling and it really made me wonder why (and how) in the world could a monkey make such a crazy noise. So I looked it up, and thanks to Montclair State University (see here), I got some answers. To give you some background, howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) are a species of primate whose habitat ranges from Central America through Colombia. These tropical noise-makers have reddish hair and live a vegetarian lifestyle, feeding mostly on fruits, flowers, and leaves.

We never saw them, but google images was kind enough to provide me with some reference:

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It turns out, those eery roars we heard so early this morning, is called the howler monkeys’ “dawn chorus”. Professor Katherine Milton of Montclair explains that male howler monkeys make these calls in the early morning to let other howlers know where they are. I thought it was interesting that they also make these calls just before a heavy rainstorm, because we got a heck of a downpour today and I noticed the loud howls of these monkeys again right around that time! Apparently, howlers are able to make this noise by drawing air into an enlarged hyoid bone in it’s throat (a horseshoe shaped bone that anchors the tongue).

My attempt at capturing their call:

Here’s what they actually sound like:

Although howler monkeys aren’t carnivores, based on their sound alone I don’t believe that I would like to come in contact with one here in Panama. However, they would be pretty cool to see from a distance! Based on how much we heard them today it makes me wonder if locals think of howlers calling like we think of dogs barking back at home. I guess I’ll just have to become a local to find out!

Here’s some more of my favorite photos from the past two days!


An Agouti!

A tamarin (cute monkey)

A Tamarin!

The group hiking up 24 (yes 24) flights of stairs. All in the name of nature.