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Cofrin Center for Biodiversity

Archive for the ‘Travel Courses’ Category

The Panama Canal and Gamboa

    Yesterday we had the opportunity to go to the Miraflores locks on the Panama Canal. We were able to watch the huge ships enter the locks and move from the Pacific into the canal. The size of the ships was amazing and you can really see the pride the people have for the canal. The current expansion project is under way to widen the locks and create a basin system that will conserve water when filling and emptying the locks. The design is incredible and will keep the canal an integral part of shipping.
     We also had the chance to listen to an archeologist and how they are finding fossils in the rocks from the excavation zone of the canal. They are finding horse related mammals and rhinoceroses along with turtles, fish and other small mammals. I find this facinating as I work with 60mya rodent teeth and the Panama fossils are from about 20mya and are in amazing condition. They are finding evidence of animals that have been here earlier than once thought and also new species previously thought to not be in Panama. Being able to identify when an organism lived and where it lived is a fascinating subject and is hard work. I really think we should switch to measuring horse teeth compared to tiny rodents Dr. Anderson!

Walking the Streets of Gamboa

Our view of Gamboa thus far has been amazing.  The rainforest plot off of Pipeline Road is beautiful and a great spot for viewing birds as we saw this morning with the numerous people up at the break of dawn to catch a glimpse of a bird. 

The spider collecting was much more fun than I had originally expected.  The device that we used to collect the spiders is called a pooter.  Great name, I agree.  It is a set up of a hose in your mouth running to a collection container.  The spiders are sucked in with a second tube into the container and are stored in there untill the collecting is complete.  I dont have a picture of this yet (If anyone does it would be great if you could post it!)  This device made collecting the spiders a lot of fun and personally, less creepy because I didnt have to physically touch the spiders. 

This afternoon we went on a hike down to the resort to see the wild life there.  They have a resturant that overlooks the Chagres River where we spotted dozens of turtles, fish, and birds.  I could have sat there for hours just watching them.  I am looking forward to BCI tomorrow and seeing other species on the natural trails we hike there.  Its really been an enjoyable trip overall!


Opossum Sightings at Bocas

One of the objectives of the Panama travel course was to document more information on the woolly opossum (Caluromys sp.) near Bocas del Toro on Colón Island. Last year, students and faculty spotted and photographed a woolly opossum, which had previously not been known to reside on the island. The opossum was seen mingling in a banana tree. Our first approach was to set out infrared camera traps near banana trees in hope that we could capture an opossum in action. However, the opossums managed to evade the cameras during the first night. For the second night, we decided to move the camera traps to other locations, such as coconut trees, where we though opossums might also be found. While most of the crew tipped a few back, Chris and I decided to take a night hike around the STRI facility. To our surprise, we encountered an opossum in the exact same tree where we had set up the infrared cameras the night before! While the opossum was clearly somewhat nervous of our presence, it allowed us to get close and capture some great pictures. The opossum moved from the inflorescence, around the fruits, and into a branch. We were able to take all the pictures that we wanted and had a difficult time deciding when to leave.

The next day, we reinstalled a camera at the location where we had seen the opossum, but the animal didn’t return. However, we were somehow able to capture an opossum scavenging through banana peels on a different camera that we had set up to capture bats! Check out the video here. These few bits of evidence lead us to believe that this species of opossum probably relies heavily on banana trees. We are currently working to determine which species of woolly opossum we have been observing.

We are currently stationed in Gamboa, a small town in central Panama, located right on the canal. We will be continuing spider collections, hiking on Barro Colorado Island, and visiting the canopy crane.


Silky Anteater

Adam and I decided against the social hour during one of our final nights at Bocas del Toro, instead venturing off into the dark trails.  Neither of us had much in mind for what we were looking for, though I was keeping a keen eye out for insects in the adjacent trees and bushes.  Though we saw some neat hoppers and other such bugs, one of two highlights of our hike was a Silky Anteater.  I spotted it on a tree just off the trail at eye level.  Supposedly this is an extremely rare situation as they typically reside high up in the canopy.  Though not rare in numbers, their boreal and nocturnal habits make it a rare find.   The Silky Anteater gets it name from the Silk Cotton Tree that it frequents and it is noted that the sheen of its coat matches the silky cotton released from these trees.  The female bears one young per season and it is cared for by both parents, but not much else information is available on these small animals.  I was able to touch its coat which felt rather wooly and upon first contact it mounted the tree with its back legs and prehensile tail and put its front paws up to its face.  This is a previously described defensive position that can follow with an attack with its sharp primary claw hooks.  Indeed, these hooks were gnarly and looked similar to that of a sloth.  The animal soon relaxed and I was able to run my hands through its fur again.  It seemed to be a slow moving organism, though when we returned 10-15 minutes later, it was nowhere to be found.  A truly unique experience and a spectacular find!  No STRI resident has ever found one on the property.

Having a blast down here overall!  It’s been a great trip so far.


Next Stop Fortuna

We have had a great time in Bocas del Toro.  We found a rare anteater and did a lot of surveys of marine invertebrates. We also recorded several species of bats. And in our spare time were able to do a lot of snorkeling. I’m sure someone willpost photos and more info on the anteater and the other things we saw. Thanks to Gabriel and the staff at the Bocas del Toro lab for their help and to our great boat drivers Sebastian and Eric.  Also thanks to Ray Gabriel for his great talk on tarantulas and night time hike.  And a huge hug and special thanks to Maurice Thomas, our collaborator on the bat project. We had a great time getting to see the bats up close and to help to create a library of their echo-location calls. There will be a future post about why these recordings are impoprtant. Unfortunately no fishing bats were caught this year, so that will be up to the next year’s class.

We are off to visit the cloud forest at Fortuna in the west central highlands and won’t be able to post for a few days. Mike Draney will be collecting spiders and John Katers will show us the hydro-electric facility.  We are told there are no poisonous snakes in the cloud forest, so that is good. Last time we visited we had 10 inches of rain in 1 day.  We’ll let you know if the dry season has arrived yet.


Beautiful Bocas

Bocas del Toro where Red Mangroves are an integral part of the ecosystem



Hospital Point home of Dendrobates and tent making bats

The time in Bocas del Toro has been spectacular, I was just thinking of how many questions we have asked that we never could have thought of in a classroom lecture. Seeing everything first hand is incredible. The underwater invertebrate study in the glass bottom boat was really neat. We were able to examine the diversity and richness of species in many different locations. The interesting observation was how quickly the substrate makeup could change. Doing a five minute transect could go from sand to grass to a few coral to dense coral all within meters of each other, and the invertebrates that we were observing also corresponded with the substrate. Starfish and Sea Cucumbers were abundant with urchin less prevalent. It was also interesting to see the similarities and differences of the transects that were run farther off shore, and those done near the mangroves and shore. Of course we saw differences in species in the developed areas where sea stars were more prevalent and coral less dominant. This study was great with the glass bottom boat and also gave us the opportunity to see jellyfish, and other small and large fish species.
The visit to Hospital Point was also great. It got that name when it was the site of the hospital for the yellow fever patients and a grave site is also present for those whose families did not claim the bodies. The tent making bats are on this island and they use the palm trees to make little tents that they hang under during the day. This island was also home to the Dendrobates or poison arrow frogs that are famous for their striking colors.
So watching dolphins, snorkeling, seeing the town and watching a howler monkey in a tree have all been great along with all of the new bats that we were able to see and learn about.

Snorkeling in Bocas del Toro

The past two days we have been snorkeling in the Caribbean. The water is very warm and clear, and the ocean floor is covered with colorful corals, grasses, shells and wildlife. We have noted that most of the developed reefs occur near structured areas, such as the docks or other concrete structures. So far we have seen dozens of corals, including fire coral and brain coral. We have also seen fish, such as barracudas, gars, puffer fish, anchovies, parrot fish and other small colorful varieties. We have been using an underwater camera to document many of these places. Another interesting aspect to snorkeling is to see the difference between mangrove and open ocean developments. The open ocean tends to have a large amount of sea grass beds and shorter wider varieties of plant life.  The mangroves have a lot less sunlight reaching the ocean floor, therefore the plants extend a lot higher and are much skinner. Those plants also tend to wind around the aerial roots of the trees. I hope to post photos at a later date.

Bocas Del Toro

We have an exciting trip planned.  We are currently in Bocas del Toro on Isla colon at the STRI marine station.  Yesterday we visited a cave called La Gruta that is known for its bats.  Dr. Maurice Thomas led the tour and then set up mist nets to trap bats in the evening near the station. Maurice also gave a talk about his bat research in the islands and showed some spectacular photos of bats pollinating flowers. We caught several bats in mist nets and recorded their calls. We also set up cameras to try to capture video of wooly opossums.

Today we did a comparison of the sea floor in areas of high disturbance and in relatively pristine areas.  We used the glass-bottomed boat to view and identify several kinds of invertebrates.  This afternoon we will see if we have any film of the wooly opossums. Tonight we hope to capture fishing bats.

In our spare time we have been snorkeling and watching caimans and frogs. We watched the dolphins in Dolphin Bay.

Tomorrow we will do more comparisons of invertebrates using the glass-bottom boat, try to catch some more bat to record their calls  and in the evening we will hear a talk from Ray Gabriel about his tarantula research and maybe go tarantula hunting. We also hope to visit Hospital Point to see some tent-making bats and poison dart frogs.

Updates with photos are coming soon!  Everyone is fine, except that 3 of us are without our luggage and have been wearing the same clothes since we got to Panama!


Panama in January 2010


We are hard at work getting ready for the trip.  We have 8 students from UW Green bay and 2 students from St. Norbert College.  The instructors for this year include UWGB faculty Mike Draney, John Katers, and myself. Dr. Anindo Choudhury from St. Norbert College will be joining us for the end of the trip in Gamboa. Of course we have lots of help from others especially at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. I especially want to thank the phenomenal administrative staff at STRI including Nilka Tiejeras, Orelis Arosemenas, and director of education Nelida Gomez, to set the itinerary and file the permits we need for our 2010 visit.

We didn’t get quite as many posts as we wanted last year, so this year I’m making posting to the blog mandatory!  So expect to see at least one post from everyone during the trip. I will try to post interesting notes and information up until we leave so those that aren’t going also get to meet the people and see some of the places we are going as well. So check back soon.

For more information about the course and its history please visit our website:

Panama City and Bocas del Toro

The trip down to Panama went smoothly  and we spent the first day in Panama City, where we visited the Tupper Center, which is the main administrative and research facility of the Smithsonian. The photo below shows students at the cafeteria.

After spending the night in Panama City, everyone boarded a chartered flight to Isla Colon, an island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama. STRI has a wonderful marine station located just north of of the main town on the island. The station’s lab is covered by a large solar roof, and features excellent lab space. The lab is surrounded by a lagoon that is home to much wildlife, including caimans like this one.  At night their eyes glow red in spotlights and are easily distinguished from the thousands of green eyed spiders.

We will be conducting research there on bats with scientist Maurice Thomas. We are using ANABAT recorders that record and translate the high frequency sounds bats used to echo-locate into sounds we can here.   Dr. Thomas catches individual bats in mist nets and then records the sex, weight and other information about the bat.  The bats are then released and the students record the high frequency sounds the bats make as they fly away. Each species of bat has a unique sound signature, and we are using the recorders to build a library of these signatures, so that we can identify when and where different species of bats are foraging. This bulldog bat is being held by bat researcher Maurice Thomas.  It was trapped at Bocas on Tuesday night, data was collected and the bat was released.

Our other research project at Bocas is to compare the invertebrate fauna of developed and pristine underwater habitats.  Like many coastal areas Bocas is being rapidly developed.  As areas are cleared more sediment is being washed into the surrounding coaral and sea grass habitats.  Many marine invertebrates like the tubeworm shown below are sessile filter feeders that can be impacted by increasing siltation of their habitats.  We are conducting underwater surveys of invertebrates using STRI’s glasss bottommed boat to determine whether there are any differences in the types and numbers of common marine invertebrates found in different locations around the islands.

Photos by UWGB botanis Gary Fewless.

More photos coming soon!