Posted by: Adam Kay | December 31, 2011

Student research in Panama – the beginning of an adventure

Student research in Panama – the beginning of an adventure

Today UST senior Abbie Bruning and I are traveling to Barro Colorado Island (BCI) in Panama to start a research project

Abbie with friend

on social immunity in ants. Abbie is going to be on BCI through January and will write several entries about her experiences. Today we wanted to write a quick entry describing a bit about our travels, with some information about Panama and the history of BCI thrown in.

Panama has been undergoing an economic boom over the last few years and signs of modernization are everywhere. The skyline of Panama City looks like Miami – glossy new skyscrapers pressed right up against the beach. But it’s really stressful in Panama City. It’s very noisy – drivers honk constantly (what are they honking for?) – and filled with smog. Crossing a street is treacherous – you just have to go for it. Luckily, there are some cool out-of-the way hostels that give some respite. A fun place to go is Luna’s Castle in the old part of the city (Casco Viejo), which still has a lot of old french colonial architecture – some it well-maintained, some of it crumbling.

the crumbling charm of casco viejo

We were able  to bypass Panama City on this trip, as we left St. Paul early and are able to make it all the way to BCI in one day. From the airport, we took a 1-hour taxi ride to the town of Gamboa, which is in the Panama Canal Zone. In Gamboa, we sit on the docks for an hour or so watching huge tankers travel through the canal (a video of Abbie’s description of the trip is here). We then take a 45 minute ride up the canal in a “water taxi” (video).

Barro Colorado Island was formed in about 1913 after the damming of the Chagres River. The damming of the river was a key step in creating the Panama Canal. The original attempt to create a canal in Panama was led by the indefatigable Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had also overseen the successful completion of the Suez Canal. De Lesseps, with the backing of the French government, insisted on building a canal at sea level. A main impediment to the construction was that the rainy season would turn the Chagres into an unstoppable force that would wipe out much of the progress made during the dry season. The French effort was abandoned in 1890 after numerous setbacks, deaths due to diseases such as yellow fever and malaria, and financial mismanagement. The United States picked up the effort in 1904 and began building a lock-style canal. The Gatun Dam of the Chagres was built between 1907 and 1913. It created the Gatun Lake at 85-ft above sea level. Locks lift ships up to the level of Gatun Lake, and then much of the transit across the Panama isthmus occurs across the lake instead of a traditional canal. A great history of the Panama canal is “The Path Between the Seas” by David McCullough. BCI is a 1500 hectare former hilltop that is now in the center of the canal zone.

BCI was set aside as a nature preserve in 1923. The only permanent structures that have been on the island since its formation are buildings associated with a field station run by the Smithsonian. The station is probably the most famous field station in the New World – much of what we know about the biology of the new world tropics is because of research that has been done at this site. This station is where Abbie is going to stay for the next month. (see the cool video of us arriving at BCI here). Almost all of the island is made up of pristine forest, filled with white-faced and howler monkeys, ocelots, and three-toed sloths. Abbie will be able to spend her days walking through the hilly terrain listening to the sounds of the forest (while thinking about ants). There are very few people here at this time of year, so Abbie will be spending much of her time alone. Luckily there is a staff that will provide her with three buffet-style meals each day. These comforts allow her to focus on the work and the experience of life in a tropical rainforest. Let’s hope she comes back and doesn’t end up like Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

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