Sunday, 13 January 2013

Just Another Day in Gamboa

Although at first glance Gamboa, a small town in the middle of the canal zone with little in the way of entertainment, you don’t need to go far to find some uniquely stunning sights.

I can’t think of a better way to greet the morning than at the top of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort’s Observation Tower: 

The Tower

Getting there is half the fun. As you ascend the hill towards the tower, looking down isn’t a good idea – you may find yourself thinking of the stairs of Cirith Ungol.

Stairs leading to the tower

But it’s worth it. From the top of the tower all of Gamboa is at your fingertips, as Panamax and other  ships sail by on their 8-hour transit from the Pacific to Atlantic through one of the world’s greatest feats of engineering.

A ship passing Gamboa on the Panama Canal

And since Gamboa is located at the mouth of the Chagres River you can also gaze up the river and watch as the people of an indigenous Embera village go about their day. However, my favorite part of the tower is the opportunity to see some amazing wildlife:

 The Chagres River at sunrise (Credit: Erin Welsh, U of I)

Red-lored parrot (Amazona autumnalis) (Credit: Erin Welsh)

Keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) (Credit: Erin Welsh)

As we continue through our course, not only are we meeting STRI staff scientists, but we are getting to know many influential STRI associates with an increasingly diverse range of topics. We started our academic day with talks from Jeff Brawn, a professor at the University of Illinois (one of the universities participating in the course), who has been studying the bird populations on Pipeline Road, an internationally recognized birding location, for over 25 years. His long-term study of the birds has established an incredible study site – where so much of the avian community dynamics have been studied within a structured grid network that we can begin to answer complex questions that would be impossible in a less understood community. So naturally we took the opportunity to take the class to the field, where we encountered a suite of animals including birds, mammals and insects in the evening hours.

3-toed sloth

 Semiplumbeous hawk (Leucopternis semiplumbeus)

White-faced capuchin (Cebus capucinus)

An enthusiastic talk by Stefan Schnitzer, from the University of Wisconsin, finished off an exciting day of exploration. Through his work at STRI Stefan has completely altered the way we see forests – simply by studying the woody vines, or lianas, found in every tropical rainforest.

Lianas climbing through the understory (Credit: Selina Ruzi, U of I)

On average, lianas represent 25% of the stems and 35% of the species in the forest; and even though they make up only 3% of the ground level area they have a huge effect, by reducing tree species richness, shade-tolerant tree recruitment and overall forest biomass. Lianas are peculiar in the forest, as they show some opposite trends from other woody plants. Due to their clonal reproduction they tend to be positively density dependent (they grow better close together); and their growth decreases as rainfall increases. While lianas seem to be rapidly taking over the forests, it’s not all doom-and-gloom. Lianas provide crucial connectivity between trees and perching area for just about every animal in the forest – from ants to ocelots.

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