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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!

 

 

 

Sticking to the Mountains: Nature’s Tiny Actors

Hiking back, a bit breathless and winded from the crisp mountain air and altitude, my eyes were drawn to a light tan stick on our window. We had just hiked through mountain trials and there was plenty of sticks and leaf litter everywhere but there was something about this particular twig . . .

This little guy was on our window

This little guy was on our window

For one thing it was vertical on the window screen and the oddness of it made me stop to take a closer look. Quickly looking around for a source plant, I noticed that there weren’t any trees nearby that would match that type of thin light tan stick. The closest trees where more evergreen and oak-like than this reedy looking tan twig. As I drew closer, I grinned. I had fallen for the illusion–it was not a dead twig as I had originally thought. It was not even from a plant. It was a living moving and incredibly fragile stick insect!

This wild “stick bug” was almost as long as my hand and was just hanging out on our screen. We had walked through forests and trees for hours earlier and had only heard some bird calls from a distance. I had been a bit disappointed that we hadn’t seen much of anything interesting or unusual on our hike. But now here I was right back at our cabin and here was an animal I had never seen in the wild. And it had never even crossed my mind to think that stick insects were native to Running Springs, California. Did you know that stick insects can live in most of the world? They are found (in different shapes, sizes, and colors) from North America to Southeast Asia, the tropics to the subtropical regions of our world.

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SLIME: Snails Save the Day

snail

Two snails cross the road to get to the other side.

Why would anyone want to study snails? A common reaction whenever people see a snail is to cry out “Ew! Gross!” or to try to smash it immediately. But snails are not gross in fact snails are incredible and they are actually a special species that tells scientists whether or not an environment is healthy! If there are snails and slugs that means that the environment is healthy because snails are considered to be an indicator species.

An indicator species is a species that is vital to the environment, and often are the most sensitive species in a region or ecosystem! Does that mean that their feelings get hurt a lot? Or they are super emotional? Not necessarily. . . it just means that these particular animals (for example snails) respond to disease, pollution or even climate change in such a dramatic way that they are considered to be an early warning to monitoring biologists. Why does that matter? Well in order to make sure that the environment is healthy for all the wildlife (and ourselves) monitoring biologists will give these indicator species extra special attention!

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The Language of Flowers: A Valentine’s Day Tradition

Even though Valentine’s Day has recently passed us by, every year as Valentine’s Day approaches the stores are becoming increasingly stocked with large red and pink hearts, chocolates and. . . flowers! We hope everyone had a lovely Valentine’s Day with someone special with family members, good friends or a “sweet heart.”

Flowers communicate so many things

Flowers can communicate so much more than just beauty.

Valentine’s Day is a holiday we Americans celebrate with incredible gusto every year, with lavish gifts, chocolates. . . and flowers. But how do you know what kinds of flowers to get? Is it random? Do you pick their favorite flower? Do you know their favorite flower? Do flowers even matter? If you are asking yourself any of these questions, it is not too late. When stress is running at an all-time high for making a “perfect day” a very comforting and traditionally special gift is flowers. Continue Reading →

Wilderness Observation: Drought in California Chaparral

When I visited my grandparents for Thanksgiving a couple weeks ago, we took a family hike up in the chaparral region near Ojai and Lake Casitas. Growing up we visited that area incredibly frequently, but I had not been there in over 3 years! My grandparents had lived there for many years and I was very familiar with the trees and the wildlife that live there. If you have never visited, I highly recommend it. It is an incredibly beautiful example of our native California wildlife and of the incredible native plant species. While we were hiking we saw quails, migrating birds, pomegranate trees, mistletoe, California live oaks, western sycamore trees, coyote bush, and many other plants and animals.

 LAKE CASITAS BOAT RAMP FAR-FAR OUT OF THE PRESENT WATER LEVEL.

Lake Casitas boat ramp far from the water level

But as we walked, it became increasingly apparent that the California drought we have been experiencing has taken a toll on the native plants. While the open grasslands were beautiful and amber colored, the dry grasses only scratched the surface of the lack of water. The drought is evident in the withered plants, in the stressed leaves, and in the dry grasses. Then there were the trees that broke up the dry grasses. The tall oak and western sycamore trees and others broke up the dry yellowed stalks of grasses. But their green leaves were curled up or clustered in small bunches. Many trees had lost a good majority of their leaves prematurely—not due to fall. Those that were still with leaves upon closer inspection had marks of struggle, the leaves were browned or broken or insect eaten/diseased. These trees are fighting so hard to survive in an extended four year (at least) extreme drought period! Continue Reading →

The Sweet Ingredient in Allergy: poisonous plants & food allergies

Oak tree and poison oak

Oak tree and poison oak camouflage

I know one of my grandfather’s first rules of taking me hiking was teaching me to look out for potentially dangerous plants. We would go hiking quite regularly (even when I was a little kid) through the rugged areas of Southern California chaparral. One of the first California native “look don’t touch” plants that he pointed out to me was poison oak. He taught me, “Leaves of three let it be” and every time we would go out and walk he’d be sure to give me a pop quiz. The crazy thing about poison oak is that it is so potent that it can even cause a reaction if you touch something that has touched poison oak. How does poison oak work? This plant uses biologic warfare to protect itself from predators. The “poison” in poison oak is more to do with a human allergic reaction to a chemical that the plant possesses. Urushiol oil is what the poison oak leaves exude when it is damaged by contact. When it comes in contact with skin it causes an allergic reaction also known as “contact dermatitis”  in four-fifths of humans. Usually the allergic reaction it causes is itching and sometimes a rash which can last for 3-10 weeks. Continue Reading →

Wilderness Journal: International Journey to Braunschweig, Germany

Germany

Amazing fall trees in Germany

I just spent the past week recuperating from jet lag but I wanted to share some of my international nature observations! I spent about a week in a relatively urban/suburban German town and really was able to see so many animals and plants thriving in an urban setting. Everywhere I looked there were cobbled streets with grasses and dandelions or other green things sprouting up. And then there were the trees! Germany is so much greener and full of trees than California. There were big tough trunks and large deciduous trees that were beginning to shake off their leaves. I was in heaven, it was finally fall! Not just the time of the year for fall, but the fall weather was in full swing. It took my breath away, both literally and figuratively. The dry cold wind blowing was enough to make you gasp for breath, but added to the fall beauty. The crisp breezes caught and tugged at the clinging yellow and orange leaves, tossing them into the gray sky and onto the gray road. It was a refreshing break from the excessively hot and humid fall we have had in California this year, which has felt more like summer than fall.

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The Value of Acorns and Oak Trees

Acorns

Coast Live Oak acorns

When I was growing up in Southern California, some of my favorite hiking trails were through the oak groves of Ojai. As we would hike through the shade, my grandfather would teach me about the plants and the animals in the ecosystem around us. I remember collecting the acorns that had fallen and wondering why an oak tree wasn’t called an acorn tree.
Not only do these amazingly gnarled old oak trees provide shade for hiking trails, but these trees have an ancient past and are incredibly valuable. Oak trees play an important role in the environment, human history and economics. In California these amazing oaks have a history that goes back to the Ice Age, tens of thousands of years ago! Pieces of these trees have been preserved in the Ice Age La Brea tar pits, where these oak trees were ancient food sources and shade for animals like the saber-toothed cats and giant ground sloths. Many years later, people migrated to the Americas and began to use these oak trees even more intentionally. Oaks, specifically acorns, were an important part of Chumash cultural festivities and trade. They would eat meals from crushed acorns, but the Chumash were not the only people to discover the value of oak trees.

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Golf Course Geese

Do you like golfing? Do you like nice open green spaces? Did you know that you have that in common with Canada geese? Well not the golfing part, that’s would be silly, but recently Canada geese have been making golf courses their homes and enjoying green spaces outside where they’ve lived historically. This once threatened migratory species from Canada is now becoming a common sight across the United States year round. These birds were intentionally introduced by people to places they had not lived before to help them survive and they have thrived!

Canada Geese

Canada Geese can digest green grasses

These amazing birds historically nested in northern and southern Canada grasslands. Every winter these birds would make a trip (or migrate) down to the USA, much like how we like to visit places with nice weather during super-hot or cold seasons. They avoid the colder and harsher northern winters and get lots of food and sun in the south.
But why do Canada geese love our golf courses so much? The Canada geese can live in many habitats near water or grassy fields and they can digest grass (eat grass for food). Our golf courses tend to be large grassy places with water features perfect for feasting and resting. Another reason why geese love golf courses is because of safety. When they are looking for places to nest and find food, golf courses and lawns give them a clear view of predators. Canada geese behavior also affects their migration locations. Geese return to nest where they first learned to fly, which means if they breed on the golf course they will return “home.” Not all Canada geese have stopped migrating, they do migrate but they prefer to live where life is easier. Continue Reading →

Wilderness Journal: Bolsa Chica Observations

Hello everyone! Today I wanted to share with you all my latest wilderness experience. I am hoping to make this wilderness observation journal a more regular posting on the blog, and I hope you will enjoy the different wilderness explorations as much as I do!

Just this morning, on Columbus Day October 12th at 9:03 am, I embarked on a wilderness exploration in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. I wanted to make sure to go in the morning because it has been so incredibly hot lately here, and because most animals are active in the morning. As I walked from my house to the wetlands I walked along a suburban road of houses, blacktop, and manicured yards. Even in the suburban housing tract which backs up to the Bolsa Chica Wetlands I could hear the trilling and calling of different unidentified bird species.Black Phoebe Over the hum of a lawnmower and the far off roar of a large jet, these birds chattered and went about their lives arguing and singing—not all that different from the lives going on in the human houses along the same road.
When I came to the place where the sidewalk ends and the gravel wilderness paths through the wetlands began, I took a deep breath. The smell of the salt water was crisp in the already warm air around me. Another scorching day was ahead for us in Huntington Beach. But it was only the beginning of the nature observations ahead of me. The gravel path crunched under my feet and I could still hear the sssssing sound of a sprinkler in a backyard nearby. It’s amazing how close our lives come to such an incredible suburban (or perhaps even a little urban) wetland. A dragonfly flitted lazily across my path and off in the distance birds lined the little shorelines created by pools of saltwater in the estuary. A phoebe flicked her tail at me before bobbing away into the blue sky. Continue Reading →