Adventures in Panama

Sweet Briar Biology students don't limit their studying to on-campus courses. In Winter 2012, Abby Dox '13 took a rainforest and canopy ecology course in Panama, through the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (ITEC).  Abby explored many tropical ecosystems, including mangrove and raffia swamps, coral reefs, and lowland and montane forests.  She participated in group research on dendrobatid frogs and tree diversity; climbed with ropes into the canopy of a fig tree; and conducted independent research comparing insect diversity in two habitats.  Here are excerpts from Abby's journal.


Dec 20. Flying into Boca.  Islands, rainforests and coral reefs can be seen from the plane, and it looked like we were going to land on the water.   After leaving town we drove through agricultural land and into a relatively dense forest.  The road was terrible and eventually we drove so close to the shoreline that the road ceased to exist at all.

The Station is beautiful.  The houses are brightly painted and right on the waterfront, with the rainforest on the other side.  There is power sometimes, and it sort of has running water.  As we were getting our stuff out of the truck a girl looked up and saw a 2-toed sloth! It was about the size of a large house cat and was completely content to ignore us and eat the leaves.







The instructor gave us the afternoon to explore, so we set off down the beach.  Along the way we met up with a local man who opened coconuts for us.  In a ripe coconut the milk was sweet and the meat tender.  A sprouted coconut had bread-like nutrients and a young coconut satisfied our thirst with its water.











After dinner the formal introduction was pretty much the instructor telling us all the dangers of Boca: lionfish, sharks, poisonous snakes, coral, ants, spiders, scorpions and sea urchins.  If its not poisonous it will probably still bite, pinch or harm you in some way.  Of course all this can happen at any time including on the tree platform 95 feet in the air.  But all the scary stuff aside, I could spend years here just learning the insects and plants and not even touch on the aquatic life or the mammals.





Dec 22.  This morning we went into a bat cave.  To get in we literally got on our stomachs and inched in.    A few more pounds and none of us would have fit.  We had to pull the instructor through by his hands.  Thousands of disturbed bats wanted to fly out as you were trying to crawl in.  We saw vampire bats, as well as bats that ate fruit, nectar, insects and fish. 






Dec 26. Today we counted the dendrobatid tree frogs in a defined area  and recorded sex, size, weight, location, and age. The frogs are only about an inch long and bright green and black. 







Dec 28. We took a 2 hour boat ride across the ocean to the mainland, to a shipping port for Chiquita bananas. They don’t keep any of the bananas for sale here; they ship them all overseas.   







We took an old bus up over the mountains to Boquete.  At the top of the mountains the wind was blowing at least 50 miles an hour.  It took an amazing amount of effort just to walk to the edge of the cliff, where we could see all of Panama and the Pacific Ocean.

 Dec 29.  We hiked in the cloud forest.  There were a ton of small waterfalls and amazing plants.  The plants are so different over the mountain; it went from the wet season to the dry season.  We hiked up to hot springs that are naturally formed by a volcano.



 Jan 1.  Last night we celebrated New Years with a family down the road.  There was salsa dancing and fireworks as well as a lot of food.  The fireworks were so intense that they set off the car alarms for a hundred meters around us and singed all of our hair.




This morning I helped do a starfish count.    







In the afternoon I got to go out snorkeling for the first time!!!  The color and the amount of new and different things I saw were crazy.  The coolest thing was a little brightly colored fish that dug a hole in the sand and kept popping back out with a mouth full of sand and depositing it around his house.  I managed to avoid all the fire coral and the spiny sea urchins. 




Jan 3. Today I collected my black light bug trap from the raffia swamp.  I got so many little biting flies I could hardly count them.  There were over 600.  Dinner was fish heads…. Yes the heads!  I guess there is some meat on those, but I think I’ll remain feeling that that meal belongs to a cat.



Jan 5. This morning we climbed a 145-foot-tall fig tree.  (We went about 100 feet up.)  What surprised me the most was that the lianas made up such a large part of the canopy; they were everywhere.  Every branch was covered with epiphytes.  I have read books and seen pictures, but they just don’t do it justice. 


A troop of howler monkeys moved into our tree as we started to climb.  Talk about motivation!!  The climb was difficult but those monkeys 50 feet above my head made me climb faster despite blisters.  When we got to the top of the rope we hung there for thirty minutes just watching the 7-10 monkeys.  One had a baby, and another had a really young monkey that roamed out on branches to feed. It was raining hard most of the time we were in the tree, and I have never seen so many mosquitoes in one place.  I have about 50 bites across my back, but it is worth all the itching.



 Jan 9. Today we gave presentations on our individual projects.  During the middle of mine the generator failed and I had to finish it without the help of PowerPoint.


Jan 10. A few of us took a water taxi over to an organic farm.   The owner plants edible plants all around his land, which he has allowed to grow into a forest. I got to see a jackfruit, which is dispersed in Africa by elephants.  It looks like a large yellow Durian fruit and it hangs on the trunk of the tree like a chocolate fruit.  I got to try a fruit which is in the same family as the pawpaw that we have in America.  We probably saw 12 different types of palm trees, breadfruit, papaya and many other really cool things.



Then it was time to rush back into town to hop on a sketchy plane to Panama City.  The planes here still have the seats with the ashtrays in them from when you could fly and smoke.  When I got to Panama City I must say I was happy for the first actually warm shower in three weeks.  I also enjoyed not having to worry about a mosquito net, but looking in the mirror I can see that I didn’t worry enough.  I am covered!  I thought my feet have been feeling tight because of all the caked on dirt, but I can now tell that it’s because of the hundreds of bites, but it was worth it!


Jan 11. Panama has been one of the most interesting challenging and mind-blowing experiences of my life.  Being thrown into the culture, as well as the sheer amount of information I have learned. is amazing, and even more amazing are the millions of things out there I didn’t get to learn.