Islands, Beaches, and Lots of Animals!

As the ASU tropical biology field course continues, we have explored several different parts of Panama and been able to see many more awesome things. Our adventures include an older tropical rainforest, a mangrove forest/coastal area, and a zoo (where we saw captive and many wild animals!).

First, the older tropical rainforest, which is on an island named Barrow Colorado Island (BCI) in Lake Gatun. Both BCI and Lake Gatun were created when the canal was flooded by damming the Chagres River. BCI contains the one of the oldest tropical field stations in the world, which was home to the original Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute headquarters. While the headquarters have since moved to Panama City, BCI continues to be a very important field station for tropical biology. BCI is also a heavily protected preserve, where humans have little impact on the forest, which allows scientists to observe some very interesting animals and phenomena. Because of all of this, we took our field biology course to BCI to stay overnight. We did several hikes, including an overnight hike. On BCI, we were able to see three species of monkey: mantled howler monkey, Geoffroy’s spider monkey, and white-faced capuchin monkeys. We also saw a coati, and many different birds, spiders, ants, and other animals. Here are some of the things we saw:


An example of the dense older-growth forests on BCI.

Slaty-tailed Trogon

A male slaty-tailed trogon watching me through the undergrowth.


A curious howler monkey peering down from the trees.

Capuchin monkey

A white-faced capuchin monkey tasting a vine.


Another capuchin monkey.


A female violet-bellied hummingbird hiding from the rain.


A giant tinamou, which has a hauntingly beautiful song that can be heard far in the forest.


A hard to find collared forest-falcon, which was a real treat to find!


A coati, which is a relative to a raccoon. You can find them in southern Arizona as well.


This little beetle was very interesting, because when you touch it, it will jump away like a grasshopper.




Plants growing on the leaves of other plants!

Our next adventure after BCI was at the Summit Zoo, which is a beautiful park containing many of the tropical birds and mammals found in the rainforests of Panama that can be very difficult to observe. For example, we saw a very pregnant jaguar, several other cat species, a tapir, and a harpy eagle – all rarely seen in the wild. We also saw several wild animals including a Geoffroy’s tamarin hanging out by the Geoffroy’s tamarin exhibit, tent-making bats, and several cool birds.


A nice close-up of a wild tamarin hanging out by the tamarin exhibit.


This wild tamarin was carefully guarding the do not enter sign.


A captive tyra from the zoo. Tyras are related to weasels and minks, and this is an animal I have actually seen in the wild!


A wild collared aracari.


Wild tent-making bats, which is a species of bats that likes to manipulate and roost under palm fronds like this one.


A nest entrance to one of the stingless bee species that Meghan studies. This species is Scaptotrigona panamensis.


This is a wild piratic flycatcher, which is named because they steal hanging nests from other birds like caciques or oropendolas.


The first time I have been able to photograph a wild chestnut-headed oropendola.


A wild female flame-rumped tanager.


A wild whooping motmot, a very odd and interesting tropical bird, which does these clock-like tail wags that are thought to be signals to predators “saying” the motmot sees them and they should not try to chase them.


A wild keel-billed toucan


A wild blue-grey tanager.


A close-up of a wild grey-headed chachalaca, which might be my favorite bird name to say.


A captive ocelot, one of the six species of cat in Panama, which most people will never see.


The very pregnant jaguar I mentioned above – she was feeding on some leaves.


A captive harpy eagle, one of the largest predatory birds in the world, and the national bird of Panama.

Finally, our most recent adventure took us to the Caribbean coastline and a well preserved mangrove forest there, managed and studied by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. At this site, we saw many different species of crab, and got to swim with several different fish and marine invertebrates. Here are some of the things we saw there:


A white sea urchin, which was ok to hold and very interesting to watch move.


A “beautiful” sea cucumber.


An orchid that we found growing in the canopy of a mangrove forest.


A yellow-headed caracara.


A left-handed fiddler crab on the beach.


A right-handed fiddler crab of the same species (I think), which raises some very interesting questions about handedness in crabs.


An oncoming storm towards where we were.


Several black sea urchins, which you should not touch because they hurt a lot!

At this point, we only have two adventures left in the course, because our students are busy working on their independent research projects on various plants and animals, which all are progressing well! The other instructors and I are definitely being kept busy helping everyone with their experimental design, working out methods, and finding supplies, but all of the projects are interesting, and we are excited to see how they turn out!


This is a really interesting and beautiful spider we have found all around town and in the forest, and one of our students is actually conducting a project on their webs.


This is another female of the above spider species (we believe), showing some interesting variation in color.

I still have a week left in Panama and plenty of animals (especially birds) to see, so I better get back to it!



Hello from Panama!

For the past several days I have been exploring the tropical rainforests of Panama as part of an Arizona State University study abroad course. My summer teaching position this year is to help out with a tropical biology field course, which involves a small number of students traveling to Panama, exploring the tropics, and conducting their own research project. For this post, I will provide a quick overview of what we have done and seen so far, and in the next few weeks I will dive more into some of the special aspects of the tropics.


Pipeline road – a classic gateway into the tropical rainforests of Panama

Currently, we are here during the rainy or wet season in Panama, which means there is a heavy downpour once a day – typically in the afternoon. Despite the rain (which is great to see coming from my arid fieldwork), we have been having a great time and have seen so much!


The ASU study abroad Tropical Biology course crew

We have mostly been hiking in tropical rainforests along the Panama Canal. Specifically, we have been hiking down a famous road called Pipeline road. Here are a few things we have seen so far:


A mantled howler monkey – the grey spots around its upper chest or throat are bot fly sores.


A cocoa woodcreeper climbing up a tree


A three-toed sloth slowly moving across the canopy.


A social flycatcher – one of the common arial flycatchers in the town of Gamoba (where I am living currently)


A grey-headed chachalaca – a bird with an awesome name!


I had to include a hummingbird picture (or two!) so here is a molting violet-crowned woodnymph


This is a rufous-tailed hummingbird – a common species in central Panama


This is a really neat looking orb-weaver, and our class came up with several hypotheses to explain its web pattern (e.g. prey attraction or predator avoidance).


A white-whiskered puffbird hiding among the branches


A black-throated trogon – these birds do this really interesting rump display to potential predators as a pursuit-deterent signal (meaning the predator has been spotted so it should give up the chase)


A black and green poison dart frog.

We also hiked a cloud forest, which is a high elevation rainforest, and saw several different plants and animals from what we found along Pipeline road. Cloud forests are some of my favorite places, so I will definitely have a blog post specifically on them later! Here are some pictures of what we saw there.


In the cloud forests, there are many many epiphytes – plants and mosses growing on the side of trees.


A view of the cloud forest understory


A really interestingly shaped fungus


The backside of a green honeycreeper – this bird is really gorgeous and unfortunately this photo does not do him justice


A hepatic tanager – which can also be found in Arizona – overlooking the forest


A fairly well hidden bay-headed tanager – look for his rufous head.


A plain ant vireo singing her heart out


A really neat shaped flower that we found


A view of the forest and mountain peak we hiked.

So far, I have already seen a ton of amazing things, and I have only been here a week. I still have a little more than two left to go, and I am every excited to continue to explore this amazing place. It feels great to be back!