Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Barro Colorado Island

by Alex Tran

Shy lizard or lizard humping a leaf.

What's up NEO! Little side note before I start. For those who haven't met me yet, my name is Alex Tran, I'm one of the new students in the program, just starting my M.Sc. I'm currently taking the new NEO courses with my fellow new-generation NEO students Andrew, David and Divya. We'll all be putting posts up, so hopefully everyone will be able to enjoy the course vicariously through us. To make this interesting for non-NEO people reading this as well, I may talk about things you already know so forgive me. Finally, I also have a separate photography blog where I cross-posted this, so feel free to check it out to see this post with bigger pictures.

300 years old and counting, a Ceiba tree.

3-toed sloth.

Nephila clavipes female in front, male in the back.


So our course started off with a bang. Within the first hour of the first day, we were on the Panama Canal, setting off on a water taxi ride to Barro Colorado Island, the famous biologist dream playground. Although I'd been here 2 years ago, it felt like seeing Panama for the first time. As any biologist would, I was enjoying the magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) elegantly soaring over our heads, an experience much more enjoyable than trying to dodge the pigeons of Montreal whose life goal is to shit on you. In the distance the forests displayed fifty shades of green with its numerous trees peaking through the canopy, all competing for access to light. Behind us a sunset was included. 

And while I was appreciating the wonders of nature I also witnessed one of the biggest triumphs of human ingenuity as we went past the giant dredging goliaths expanding the canal. Being amazed by the canal is of course justified, but the lush forests surrounding it should be an important reminder of the biodiversity we may lose due to our hubris of relentless expansion and development. 

We climbed this wobbly canopy tower.

Now, here is a little prelude to BCI. During the construction of the canal, the artificial Gatún Lake was formed. As the waters rose, they submerged the then-present rainforests, and the hilltop remained uncovered, becoming Barro Colorado Island. Now, managed by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, with its essential facilities (labs, dormitories, dining hall and lecture hall) and its stunning biodiversity (without even mentioning animals, the island has a diverse forest holding as many plant species as all northern temperate forests combined), the island appropriately is visited by hundreds of scientist from across the world every year.

Awesome crypsis. Can you spot the praying mantis?

Wasp doing waspy things.

As we landed on the island, I immediately tucked my pants in my socks. I know it exponentially increases how dorky I look but I remembered my friend Dana two years ago coming out of the island with 50ish ticks on her body and she didn't recommend it. So tucked pants it is. 

We set out for our forest hike. Through the mosaic of twisting lianas, strangler figs suffocating their victims and palms threatening you with their menacing sharp spines, we caught glimpses of trogons, ñeques, poison-dart frogs, tinamous and anoles. Biologist porn.

Here we are on our way to our final lecture on Barro Colorado Island. We told Owen we were tired of the lecture hall. Allen was tired of the lecture hall and proposed this lecture hall instead.

Most peaceful classroom you'll ever find.

Butterfly expert Owen McMillan giving us a lecture on evolutionary biology. 

I could talk more in detail about what we did and learned but both the hammock and our unlimited cases of cold beer are inviting me over on the balcony overlooking the canal.

I hope you enjoy the pictures!


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