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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!

 

 

 

Big Fish, Small Beak

A silvery light shimmered in the distance, and as I turned my head towards it, I encountered the arched neck of a slender Snowy Egret. The Snowy Egret is a medium-sized bird with an impressive wingspan, and though the morning sky at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands was shrouded in fog, one could easily make out the white-feathered frame of its magnificent body and the brilliance of its yellow feet. Sandor Havasi and I approached the bird quietly, hoping to capture the moment on film and further investigate the origin of the shimmer. Standing just twenty feet from the Snowy Egret, we watched as the light bounced off of the silver scales of a flat-bodied fish (see image below).

Snowy Egret. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Though the Snowy Egret is very similar in form to its larger cousin, the Great Egret, their hunting styles could not be more different. Great Egrets patiently perch on one foot while stalking their prey, preparing to strike with a single fluid movement. The more animated Snowy Egret, who uses its bright yellow feet to stir up surrounding waters and herd tiny aquatic animals, can be seen continuously plunging its head in the water. On this particular occasion, a few shakes of the foot secured a fish larger than our Egret friend could swallow. I observed a frustrated Egret who repeatedly tossed the fish up in the air, like a spinning coin, and strained to force the meal down the length of its narrow beak. In the end, the fish was too great a match for the Egret and the elegant bird stalked bitterly away from the rocky shoreline where his abandoned meal lay.

The Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, California are teeming with wildlife, including some of the most spectacular avian species I have ever seen.  In addition to the Snowy Egret mentioned above, we saw Great Blue Herons; who look a lot like small airplanes when their wings are fully extended, Great Egrets, and Reddish Egrets; who, along with the Snowy Egret, are relatives of the Heron,

and several Caspian Terns who allowed us to photograph them while they were hunting for food.

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Snowy Egret "fishing" with his foot. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Snowy Egret “fishing” with his foot. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Egret catching a quick snack. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Egret catching a quick snack. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Caspian Tern. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Caspian Tern. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Walking through the neatly-carved paths cut from the bluff’s dense shrubbery, I was amazed by the number of birds, lizards, and small animals that call Bolsa Chica their home. Sandor and I spent close to four hours exploring the wetlands, and as we turned to leave he asked, “How many species do you think you saw today.” My honest response was somewhere near ten, but as he recounted each bird, lizard, squirrel, and rabbit, the number quickly surmounted twenty.  The sheer knowledge that such biodiversity exists in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands has inspired me to look to the skies and the grounds and pay closer attention to what I see.  While some of you may have the chance to see Bolsa Chica in your lifetimes, many of our readers are spread across the world, and will not have the opportunity to get there. The truth is that you do not need to travel to a wetland to connect with nature, because the wild is happening all around us. The connectedness that I experienced when exploring my local watershed, can be shared by everyone, no matter their global location.  We, at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation, urge you to get outside and explore the world. Peel your eyes away from the phones, laptops, and tablets that have your attention throughout the day, and instead, open your eyes to the wildlife around you. Pull out those headphones or earbuds and listen to the sounds of the wild- it is, after all, a soundtrack that is 4.54 billion years in the making.

In the wake of accelerated environmental changes, nations around the globe are participating in movements that encourage worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment. Equipped with the knowledge that the safety and conservation of the human environment is a major issue, which affects the welfare of global inhabitants and economic growth throughout the world, the United Nations designated the 5th of June as World Environment Day. To celebrate this day, individuals were invited to get outside, connect with nature, and explore the world around them. This year’s theme for World Environment Day 2017 was “Connecting People to Nature,” and the Havasi Wilderness Foundation is proud to share this message with the world.

This year, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation spent World Environment Day exploring the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, California.

 

 

 

Monarch Tagging

Our brightly colored  “Migrating Monarchs,” are a common sight in Southern California. But the real question is how far do they actually go?

MONARCH. THE LITTLE BLACK SPOTS SHOWS THEIR GENDER

Male Monarch. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

With so much food available locally and the milkweed along the route being less frequent, it is a high possibility that Migrating Monarchs may be more Local Los Angeles or Southern California Monarchs. But they would not be the first animal to stop its migration because of the climate. Canadian Geese have been observed to remain year round instead of migrating because of the available resources and the warm weather, and certainly many people feel the same, considering the population of California!

Migrating Monarchs

What does a flash of orange and black wings in the sky, a chubby white and black and yellow lump on a leaf, a delicate light green translucent jade container with flecks of iridescent gold trim, and a microscopic light green cone on the underside of leaves have to do with one another? If you have ever seen any one of the three then, you have seen one of the unique life stages of a Monarch Butterfly, an intricate and

Monarch Butterflies taking a rest on their long migration. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

fragile California Native Insect. While the different life stages of a Monarch are fascinating, it is the endurance and incredible distances that this lightweight insect travels that is truly astonishing.

 
Monarchs are a common site in California, and if you’ve ever been outside on a bright spring day in a garden surrounded by flowers, you’ve probably seen one of these taking a sip from a flower, hovering and then gracefully floating on and over the wall aimlessly. But in reality these insects have a greater sense of direction than you would expect. Monarchs have been known to travel from Mexico to Canada! Technically it is not the same individual Monarch butterfly to make the entire trip, but each generation of Monarch picks up where the last generation left off. Talk about a family purpose and vision!
 

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Nature Journal: Ice and Elegant Eagles

This past weekend I was able to see an American icon! It wasn’t at the Superbowl or on the streets of Los Angeles, but at a frozen and snow-covered Big Bear Lake I saw the famous bald eagle.

Bald eagles are American Icons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Bald eagles are American Icons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

The San Bernadino Mountains were perfect that weekend. I was there for a retreat and the snow had built up perfectly. In the early mornings, you could hear the sounds of the ice cracking on the lake and as the day went on little miniature streams broke open in the ice on the lake and flocks of geese and ducks could be seen far off in the distance paddling around in the frigid water. These birds have amazing insulation and feathers which help to keep them warm and allow the water to roll right off their backs. When I stepped outside to get a closer look, I went downward up to my knees suddenly finding myself in three feet of snow! Continue Reading →

Delicate Definition-Breaking Decomposers

 The mushrooms were covering an old stump in their backyard. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

The mushrooms were covering an old stump in their backyard. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

This past week we received a call from some friends who had a nature story to share with us–they had discovered an entire stump full of mushrooms just outside their home! The mushrooms were crowded together, varying in size and stages of growth. While their tan color wasn’t particularly impressive, their sheer number and clustering was fascinating. Seemingly overnight these brown umbrellas had popped up for the world to see.

While mushrooms appear to pop up out of thin air, they actually have really unique ways of becoming a full grown mushroom. Many mushrooms start out underground and pop to the surface only after the “fleshy-fruiting body” is fully developed from the spore. That sounds like a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo, so what exactly is a mushroom and how do they work?

First we will have to break it down a bit, a mushroom is a fungus. That means a mushroom is neither a plant nor an animal–it is it’s own unique creature. Scientists commonly describe mushrooms as being composed of a “fleshy body” that spreads spores. What that essentially means is that the mushroom is capable of making more mushrooms without another mushroom (spores = baby mushrooms or mushroom “seeds” if you will). Continue Reading →

Hummingbird’s Health and Hibernation

We are back! Happy New Year everyone, we hope you have been having many nature adventures in our absence. In the past few weeks I know I certainly have had all kinds of nature adventures: being followed by a coyote, stumbling upon some skunks, being buzzed by some hummingbirds and much more. . . But the joy of nature walks and nature stories truly lies in sharing them! Please feel free to share your nature stories with us. You can submit your stories to facebook at: Havasi Wilderness Foundation.

One of our local Santa Barbara Anna's Hummingbird Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

One of our local Santa Barbara Anna’s Hummingbird Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Recently a friend of Havasi Wilderness Foundation observed that where she lived (up north in Oregon) hummingbirds are spotted all year round, much like in our California climate, however these hummingbirds stay even in the winter. Hummingbirds can be spotted even during the snowy months–buzzing about in spite of the frigid temperatures. Now we know that the postal service runs rain or shine, but apparently even certain types of hummingbirds tough it out. But how do they do it? Hummingbirds have such a high metabolism and are so small it seems impossible that they would be able to survive. They don’t have blubber, they don’t have fur, they don’t have those warm downy feathers that many other bird species use to survive winters. They couldn’t possibly hibernate like bears. . . If we see them they must be awake and active. Continue Reading →

Nature Walk: Predator and Prey at Work and at Play

western-gray

Western Gray Squirrels are able to thrive in human impacted environments. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

From the park bench, I could easily watch the two Eastern gray squirrels fake fighting and playing. These squirrels tend to be more solitary and less playful than ground squirrels but these two squirrels were bouncing around as if they could defy gravity. Eastern gray squirrels are actually quite impressive jumpers, and can easily leap up to fifteen feet horizontally and free-fall twenty feet or more. These squirrels have especially thrived in human environments where they have easy access to food (including many decorative plants) and where people feed them.

It was a pleasant little scene and I looked down to check my phone. When I looked up, the scene had changed. The bouncing squirrels had disappeared. Where did they go? I saw one motionless in the dirt and one had scurried even further away from the tree. What had changed? Had it been a territory battle? Continue Reading →

Nature Walk: Something to Hoot About

Happy Holidays! We have entered into the season of thankfulness and lots of sweet treats; which means I need to get out more. Not just because being outdoors is amazing but if I want to be able to stay healthy and enjoy the winter wildlife I need to make an effort to be outdoors. Thanksgiving was wonderful but with all the heavy and delicious food eaten I really needed to get outside and walk some of those calories off.

Owl Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Owl’s have incredible feathers. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

A good friend of mine (who also loves getting outdoors) joined me for a late night nature walk. We started out sometime after 7 pm for a night walk in the neighborhoods near the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. It was quite dark and damp–the air was misty and cold from the ocean and the oncoming winter, as we walked we kept an eye out for nocturnal animals. Most of the nocturnal creatures I’ve seen lately have been spiders but we saw none that evening as we walked. Occasionally we have seen a racoon or a coyote on this same walk, but they must have been nice and warm inside sleeping off their Thanksgiving left-overs because we didn’t see any. Not even a single rabbit was out on their front porches. . . It seemed like we were in for a quiet and uneventful nature walk.

We were chatting away when we were interrupted by a call. Four who who whoooos and then silence. We froze and looked at each other grinning. . . Had we imagined it? Just when we were beginning to think we were hearing things we heard it again! And looking up on the top of a chimney three stories up we saw a silhouette of an owl. We called back to it. “Whoo whoo whoo whooooo!”

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Moth Eaten

I don’t know about you but the fact that the sun sets so early has been confusing my internal clock. I’ve been taking longer to adjust, so several days ago when I got home from work in the dark and clicked on the light switch in the

Moths come in different shapes and sizes

Moths come in different shapes and sizes. Photo Credit: Makena Crowe

kitchen, it took me several minutes to realize something wasn’t right. There was a fluttering and a movement that I don’t normally see inside my house. . . Moths. The kitchen had moths fluttering around, walking on cabinets and sitting on the walls and fridge. I was horrified. I love animals, insects, moths. . . but I really do not like it when they are in my house. And I especially do not like to be surprised.

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