Posted by: Adam Kay | January 16, 2012

A stint on Barro Colorado Island (Panama) in the dry season – by Abbie Bruning

This January, UST senior Abbie Bruning is conducting research in Panama on how diet affects social immunity in the ant, Ectatomma ruidum. Since January 3rd, she has been on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama canal zone conducting research on her own. Below is a description of her experiences:

Abbie at work in the lab on BCI

A stint on Barro Colorado Island (Panama) in the dry season – by Abbie Bruning

                Coming back to Barro Colorado Island (BCI) has been a fun and exciting experience. I was previously on the island May through July of 2011. The atmosphere of the island is much different this time of year compared to the summer months. This is not only because the number of researchers are significantly reduced but also because, starting mid December, the dry season begins. During the dry season temperatures raise slightly and the humidity drops. The significant characteristic of the dry season is the large reduction of rain fall. During the rainy season there is a 40% to 50% chance of rain everyday which makes it very difficult to stay on schedule with field work. While during the dry season you’re lucky if you get a five minute cloud break from the sun, as my Irish skin can attest. (I am still trying to figure out how I got a sun burn while working under the rainforest canopy all day.) My first few days on BCI, my professor Adam and I collected ant colonies almost every day; it would have been impossible to have done that in the rainy season. (Here is a video of Abbie walking the stairs going into the forest. Here is Abbie going into the forest. She’s not wearing field clothes – this was a quick excursion to a canopy tower)

the “Ambient Soil Lab” on Barro Colorado Island

Because of Adam’s help we were able to get the project off and running before he left to go lay on a beach somewhere in a tropical paradise (or to instruct a field research course in the rough terrain of Costa Rica… same thing). Besides the first two weeks I will be working with the colonies of the ant Ectatomma ruidum in the main lab as well as in a building we call the ambient soil lab, which is located back in the forest. Because I didn’t spend as much time in the lab this past summer I failed to notice that the spider monkeys use the lab clearing as their own person playground and that tarantulas set up camp in the cinder block steps outside the back door.

Though BCI is very quiet this time of year the traditions of the island still persist. One running tradition is the Thursday night Bambi talks. These weekly seminars were started initially for researchers beginning in the field to get their feet wet and receive fed back on their work. It is said that the name comes from the idea, like Bambi, that you need to learn to walk before you run. Researchers from Panama City and Gamboa (the nearest town on the mainland) come to the Island for the weekly seminar; the influx doubles the population of BCI. This talk became rather formal over the years so a second less formal seminar, called the Capybara, was created to take over the role that the Bambi once held.

Abbie at the “big tree” on BCI

Another running tradition is “morning walks with Bert”. Egbert Leigh (Bert) is an evolutionary biologist and a recent retiree of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). It’s hard to fully capture Bert’s presence and role on the island. Bert has lived on the island for years. His children, who are grown, lived and spent most of their childhoods on BCI. On his morning walks he takes young researchers out hiking and discusses plant species, evolution, and literally anything under the sun. Many times for me, and I assume for some others, it’s a little over my head (ok way over my head) but it is a very fun learning experience. Bert also often invites researchers and interns up to his office for a scotch after dinner. The “office” is up on hill. Inside, there are books and journal articles everywhere, and harpsichord music is often playing in the background. Bert will talk at length about ecology, conservation, academia, politics, world history, religion, you name it. It can be a surreal experience. In fact, the entire experience on BCI, from the weekly seminars to the nightly gatherings on the balcony after a long day in the field, is intellectually engaging.

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