Archive | July, 2017

Panama Adventures Part 2: Going Bananas!

From Europe and Asia to the American and African continents, consumers are united by their love of bananas. On a global scale, bananas are the world’s most consumed fruit and the fifth-most traded agricultural product. What’s not to love? Bananas are portable, versatile, and in developing nations they provide much of the nutrition needed to sustain life.  In my home, bananas are a staple. My partner’s mother practices a morning ritual that includes splitting a banana in half, consuming her portion and sharing half with our banana-loving dog, Margot. The mere mention of Margot’s favorite word, “banana”, causes her ears to stand at full attention as she waits for someone to throw a slice or two in her direction.

Recently, I had the pleasure of touring the La Loma cacao farm on Panama’s Isla Bastiemientos. Going in, I expected to learn primarily about the chocolate-making process but was surprised to walk away with a deeper understanding of contemporary bananas and their significance in the formation of the Panamanian cacao trade.

It is important to note that wild bananas look nothing like the bananas found in grocery stores today. With thick skins, gooey flesh, and bodies filled with seeds, a wild banana seems anything but appetizing when compared to its breeded counterpart. Though seeded bananas make for easy reproduction in nature, banana farmers discovered that consumers prefer bananas without seeds, and began using the genetic material in plantains to breed a seedless banana variety. On contemporary plantations, bananas propagate (grow) vegetatively and are sterile clones of the previous generation. Like succulents and other vegetative plants, next generation banana growth extends from existing plants through shoots called suckers. As soon as the fruit is harvested from the primary growth, the plant must be pruned back so that the new growth can collect the nutrients and water stored inside of the base of the plant. People often use the word “tree” to describe the structure that bananas grow on, but the plant is actually an herb that produces berry-like fruit– the banana!

Banana Stem. Photo Credit: Lola West

Banana Stem. Photo Credit: Lola West

Prior to the 1950’s, much of the agricultural land in Panama was reserved for growing America’s favorite tropical fruit. Humidity, high temperatures, and a cooling off-shore breeze provide an ideal growing environment for bananas, which thrive in such settings. By 1940, bananas were one of Latin America’s main exports and large-scale banana operations supported the Panamanian islands collectively known as Bocas Del Toro, where I toured the cacao farm. Though the majority of land today is under cacao production, a history rooted in banana growth can be seen peaking out from beneath a canopy of cacao leaves.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Gros Michel variety was the primary banana available on the market. Smaller and sweeter than today’s Cavedish bananas, Gros Michel bananas were the victims of a deadly strain of fungal pathogen known as Fusarium Wilt, or more commonly as the Panama disease. The disease, which produces a fungus that affects the vascular system of host plants, wiped out nearly all banana plantations in Central and South America. Other vulnerable crops include tomatoes, legumes, tobacco, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes. When fusarium wilt infects crops that reproduce by seed, the disease is easier to manage. However, when it attacks a crop that is a clone of its parent plant, an entire generation can be destroyed and suffer extinction. As such, Panama’s Gros Michel plantations were barren by the 1960’s. For an economy dependent on the export of its bananas, the Panama disease was a devastating blow. New generations of resistant fruit were developed to replace the diseased Gros Michel crops. However, the still seedless Cavedish banana suffer from the same problem– lack of genetic diversity. Presently, a new strain of fusarium wilt is plaguing banana plantations across the globe and threatening the banana industry once again. As humans use selective breeding to produce more favorable qualities such as large size and ease of growth, offspring have less genetic diversity and thus an increased susceptibility to natural selection.

Banana fruit. Photo Credit: Lola West

Banana fruit. Photo Credit: Lola West

Following the first wave of fusarium wilt, the Panamanian government offered banana growers the opportunity to keep their land in production by cultivating a new crop. Hundreds of free cacao plants were offered to any grower willing to farm them. In the 60’s, Hershey’s Chocolate was king and global tastes favored milk chocolate over the dark, bitter treat that pure cacao helps produce. As artisanal chocolates increase in popularity, international cacao production is in high demand and the Islands of Bocas Del Toro are back on the map!

Roasted Cacao Seeds. Photo Credit: Lola West

Roasted Cacao Seeds. Photo Credit: Lola West

Tune in next week to find out more about the intricacies of cacao production and how pirates used Breadfruit trees to locate buried treasure!

Explore the wonders of your world!

Panama Stories Part 1: Feeling Antsy

With its ever-changing landscape and an expanse of tropical rainforests, the Central American country of Panama offers visitors and residents the opportunity to travel from a cityscape teaming with wildlife to the crystal blue waters of a Caribbean paradise in little to no time at all. Millions of years before the formation of Panama, North and South America were two distinct landmasses separated by vast ocean waters.  A shift in tectonic plates and the eruption of several underwater volcanoes aided in the construction of a slender land bridge called an isthmus, which joined together the two American continents. This change took place over the course of millions of years, and at its constitution, the isthmus rerouted the global ocean currents that once flowed freely between continents. As a result, the world experienced a transformation in marine habitats and oceanic species were divided between the Pacific and the Atlantic sides.

The land barrier known today as the country of Panama has provided the backdrop for one of the most biologically diverse spaces in the world.  Join me over the next few weeks as we journey together through the rainforests, jungles, and cities of Panama to explore their wildlife and learn more about a diverse ecosystem that could one day provide a cure for some of humanities most serious illnesses.

Jungle Photo on Isla Solarte. Photo Credit: Lola West

Jungle Photo on Isla Solarte. Photo Credit: Lola West

 

It had only taken seven minutes for my shirt to begin show clear signs of saturation after stepping off of the plane. Thrust into clouds of night and a thick layer of concentrated humidity, it felt as though every pore on my body was precipitously aware of itself in a new place. We landed in the middle of Panama City, an urban atmosphere where skyscrapers tower over neighboring one-story homes and stand in stark contrast to the surrounding wooded forests. Though it was nearly midnight, the air outside of Tocumen International Airport was alive with the buzzing and chirping symphonies of winged insects, frogs, and cicadas that harmonized somewhere in the distance.

While Panama City offers an impressive index of tropical wildlife, my travel companion and I knew we wanted to position ourselves deep in the rainforests and explore some of the country’s more rural wilderness. A 10-hour ride on the night bus landed us in the middle of Bocas Del Toro, a series of tropical islands solidly shrouded in towering trees and green vegetation.  Once settled into our lodgings (aptly named ‘Jungle House’), we strapped on our boots and set out to uncover the secrets of the forest around us.  Our first hike was led by three clever dogs who spent most of their days trudging through murky waters and up slippery slopes like truly wild beings. Polo, a large, yellow Labrador Retriever presented himself as the leader of the pack, guiding us through tangled branches and rough terrain.  Hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare bird, our gazes were locked on the skies when suddenly, Polo called our attention to the floor beneath us. Refusing to immediately believe what I had seen, I rubbed my eyes ferociously, finally allowing them to focus on what appeared to be a moving surface.  I watched open-mouthed as hundreds of tiny leaves traveled around the forest floor, carried on the backs of astonishingly strong little ants.

Looking to the trees. Photo Credit: Jeannette Ban

Looking to the trees. Photo Credit: Jeannette Ban

The leafcutter ant (Atta cephalotes) is one of the many species found in the rainforests of Panama. As their name suggests, these invertebrates have the instinctive ability to cut through dense greenery with their powerful jaws and to transport the heavy trimmings back to their nests. This is no easy feat as larger leaves can weigh up to 50 times their body weight! Once they have returned to their nest, these farmers of the insect world turn gathered leaves into a paste by chewing them, and then use them as a food source for their cultivated fungus gardens. As soon as the fungus has had its fill of the proteins and sugars produced by the broken down leaves, it is harvested it is used to feed a colony of millions.

Each colony of leafcutter ants encourages a complex social system that separates the aunts by class, or castes. Within the caste system, individuals are distinguished as workers, soldiers, or reproducers. Aside from the reproducers, all other ants in the colony are female and none of them are fertile. Mediae workers, who are responsible for cutting and transporting the leaves, are stronger and more larger-bodied than the minims, workers who use their small bodies to labor inside of the fungus garden. Soldier ants, or majors, are also grand in size and use the bulk of their bodies to protect the nest and all of its residents. The ant that requires the highest level of security is the queen, who is responsible for birthing an entire colony. Entomologists have estimated that a single colony can contain anywhere from one million to eight million ants! Interestingly enough, male ants are only born when the colony needs to reproduce. Like the young queen, male ants have wings to allow for easy travel and more widespread mating opportunities.  Prior to leaving her parental nest, a virgin queen will carry bits of the fungus in her mouth so that she is able to start a fungus garden of her own. The queen relies heavily on this mouth-packed fungus to help build her budding colony’s food supply. For young queens, the stakes are high. Should her packed fungus fail to produce more fungi, her entire colony of young ants will starve.

Hitchiking leafcutter ant, courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Researchers have determined that next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal cultures on Earth. They suggest that leafcutter ants consume nearly ten percent of all tropic greenery, making them the single most destructive pest in the world tropics. However, many tropical plants have evolved with defense mechanisms that prevent total defoliation and instead encourage a pruning by the ants which helps to stimulate plant growth. These incredible ant colonies have populations that parallel or extend beyond human populations, and their role in the Panamanian ecosystem should not be overlooked.

As we walked away from a conga line of leafcutter ants working diligently to dissect the forest, I thought about what it would look like to pick up something 50 times my own weight.  picturing myself pinned beneath the wrinkled hind quarters of an enormous elephant,  I realized what unbelievable achievements these ants make every day.

Follow us closely to hear more about our incredible wildlife adventures in Panama, and stay turned for next week’s blog about the Panama Virus that swept through massive banana plantations and led to the emergence of the cacao movement.

As always, don’t forget to get outside and explore the world around you!