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Category: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Panama: Naturally close to you
Panama is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. Its unique ecology stems in part from its connection to the two continents that created a bridge that made it easier for animals and plants to migrate between North and South America. Scientists believe that the formation of the Isthmus of Panama is one of the most important geologic events to happen on Earth’s climate and its environment in the last 60 million years.
Birds are a primary indicator of biodiversity and Panama has more species than the United States and Canada combine: it has more than 970 different birds. Panama is also privileged to be home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), a scientific investigation center, which has been cataloging and monitoring this vast ecological heritage for nearly a century.
Panama offers to birders and nature enthusiast’s great opportunities to experience wildlife within short distances, involving diverse habitats in the different regions of the country, from tropical rainforest, marine coastal areas to the beautiful cloud forest in national parks and private reserves.
Our expert naturalist guides are passionate about tropical Panama and will make sure you have an unforgettable experience. Our team will create a special itinerary featuring wonderful locations where you are able to enjoy first class birding and other nature activities.
Come and discover Panama and the close nature of the neotropics with a passionate team. We will make sure to organize an unforgettably vacation experience. Contact us: www.ecocircuitos.com
One of the most interesting ants of the tropics are the army ants, which march through the rainforest with the sole intent of devouring small creatures within minutes, turning them into carcasses. The army is like a wolf pack, but with thousands of miniature creatures of prey merging and uniting to form one great living organism. Army ants´ jaws are so potent, Indians once used them to suture wounds. The determined insect was held over a cut and its body squeezed so that its jaws intuitively shut, clamping the flesh together. The body was then pinched off and the wound left to heal.
Another feature is that, unlike most ant species, army ants do not construct permanent nests; an army ant colony moves almost incessantly over the time it exists. All species are members of the true ant family, Formicidae, but several groups have independently evolved the same basic behavioral and ecological syndrome. This syndrome is often referred to as “legionary behavior”, and is an example of convergent evolution.
Slow-moving shallows put the heat on Bocas Coral
Snorkel-perfect coral reefs in the calm, mangrove-fringed waters of the Bocas Del Toro Archipelago are expected to be among the hardest hit by warmer temperatures that lead to coral bleaching and mortality, a new study finds. These shallows in Panama’s Caribbean are characterized by low water flow, allowing water to reach precariously high sea surface temperature (SST) when compared to areas with greater water movement.
Angang Li and Matthew Reidenbach of the University of Virginia tapped into a wealth of long-term monitoring data collected by STRI scientists around the Bocas Del Toro Research Station, including coral bleaching records. Their models were published this May in the journal Coral Reefs.
“By 2084, almost all coral reefs are susceptible to bleaching-induced mortality, except for a region of relatively lower thermal stress along the outer boundary of the archipelago,” they write. “By 2084, only corals exposed to open ocean currents are predicted to survive.”
There are some caveats. The key to heat-induced coral bleaching is not a single blast of hot water, rather long-term exposure to above-threshold temperatures. This is measured in degree heating weeks (DHW). By the end of the study period DHW >8 °C-weeks were modeled for the bay. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts widespread bleaching and significant mortality under these conditions. By comparison, DHW values during a 2010 Bocas bleaching event ranged between 2.3 °C-weeks and 9.5 °C-weeks.
Some coral species may adapt to higher temperatures. The study’s models predict that areas flushed by cooler water will have a higher chance at surviving well into the future.
Li and Reidenbach studied modern water-flow patterns, simulated heating scenarios for the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s, and quantified local thermal stress on coral reefs. While previous studies have looked at SST impact on corals at a large scale, the researchers focused on a much smaller spatial scale, which is less common. The fine scale of their work better lends itself to the creation of mitigation strategies for marine protected areas in Bocas.
“Our findings are also likely applicable to many coral reef regions worldwide, and in particular reefs that are found in shallow and partially enclosed coastal regions with long water retention times,” they conclude.
Ecocircuitos Panama: getting ready for the green season
Panama is worth seeing throughout the year! Not only the dry season is a good time to travel to the “bridge of the world”- as Panama is called by locals. Many people think that the green season is the better time to explore this country since- as the name suggests- everything is green and blossoms. An additional benefit is that hotels and tours are available much better since there are fewer tourists in the green season. Tours like hiking and kayaking can be more worth seeing when the plants and trees unfold their whole splendor. But also City-, sightseeing- and rafting tours are a good way to enjoy Panamanian “winter” since it is only a term indicating that it rains more often than on the high season. Not that it rains all day every day.
by Marius Leidig
Chemical from sea hares active against Leishmaniasis
Found worldwide in tropical and subtropical seas and oceans, Dolabrifera dolabrifera is a species of sea hare, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Aplysiidae. Researchers working at the Smithsonian in Panama discovered that the digestive gland of D. dolabrifera contains a compound active against Leishmania donovani, the parasite primarily responsible for visceral leishmaniasis, a devastating tropical disease spread by sandflies. If left untreated, this form of leishmaniasis can have a fatality rate as high as 100 percent within two years.
The sea hares were collected from Pacific ocean tide pools on Panama’s Coiba Island by STRI botanist, Alicia Ibañez, and Alicia Hermosillo from the Universidad de Guadalajara. Many soft-bodied organisms such as sponges, tunicates, octocorals and sea hares, living in tropical marine ecosystems use chemical compounds to defend themselves against predators.
“This is one of more than 45 compounds with potential pharmaceutical activity that we’ve reported from Coiba National Park and World Heritage Site so far,” said Todd Capson, who played an instrumental role in the protection of the park, is one of the founders of the Panama International Cooperative Biodiversity Group, and a participant in the Neotropical Environment Graduate Option (NEO), a collaborative effort between STRI and McGill University. “NEO and the ICBG promote multidisciplinary efforts like this one that brought together ecologists, experts in tropical disease drug discovery, natural product chemists, and students from McGill University as a team.”
Their publication is the first reported isolation of a compound from Dolabrifera dolabrifera with potential as a treatment for any disease. The chemical, an epidioxysterol, has been isolated from other marine organisms. The authors suggest that chemists should base new approaches to synthesizing a compound for the treatment of Leishmaniasis on the activity of this group of chemical compounds.
Kathryn Clark, first author of the paper announcing the discovery, was supported by a Canadian graduate scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and a Levinson Fellowship from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute-McGill Neotropical Environmental Option.
Clark, K.E., Capper, A., Della Togna, G., Paul, V.J., Romero, L.I., Johns, T., Cubilla-Rios, L, and Capson, T.L. 2013. Ecology-and bioassay-guided drug discovery for treatments of tropical parasitic disease: 5a,8a– epidioxycholest-6-en-3ß–ol isolated from the mollusk Dolabrifera dolabrifera shows significant activity against Leishmania donovani. Natural Products Communications 8 (11), 1537 – 1540
Mercenary ants defend agricultural society
Often superior to citizen soldiers, mercenaries have played an important role in human conflicts since ancient times. A research team working at STRI discovered that a species of agriculturalist ants, Sericomyrmex amabilis, hosts a species of better-armed mercenary ants, Megalomyrmex symmetochus, who come to their rescue when their fungal gardens are invaded.
“Newly mated queens of the parasitic mercenary ants stealthily enter and establish their colonies in the gardens of the fungus-growing host ants,” said Rachelle Adams from Jacobus Boomsma’s lab at the University of Copenhagen. Adams is lead-author of the report published last week in PNAS.
With co-authors from Copenhagen and from the Department of Chemistry at the Virginia Military Institute, she found that the parasitic mercenary ants use their potent chemicals called alkaloids to defend host colonies against the raiding predatory ants, Gnamptogenys hartmani. The raiders can take over Sericomyrmex fungal gardens and nests.
During an attack, the mercenaries proved to be much more efficient than the host ants at killing the raiding predators. Even a moderate number of parasitic guest ants can provide protection against predatory attacks, effectively reducing host ant mortality.
However, the host ants pay a high price for the help. The mercenaries hamper host colony growth by feeding on the brood–the eggs and larvae–and by clipping the wings of host virgin queens, possibly to retain them as an additional work-force rather than let them disperse.
In addition, the authors show that raider ant scouts prefer to recruit to the colonies of the fungus-farming ants whose odor indicated that no mercenary ants were inside.
The inspiration for this project was a direct outcome of the University of Copenhagen and STRI supported graduate course, Tropical Behavioral Ecology and Evolution, offered in 2011, 2013 and planned for 2015. Two Copenhagen students from the 2011 course are junior authors on the study.
Adams, R.M.M., Liberti, J., Illum, A.A., Jones, T.H., Nash, D.R. and Boomsma, J.J. 2013. Chemically armed mercenary ants protect fungus-farming societies PNAS http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1311654110
Smithsonian Discovers New Coral Species in Panama
On the first submersible exploration of Hannibal Bank in Panama’s Coiba National Park and World Heritage Site, Smithsonian staff scientist Hector Guzman found and collected a previously undescribed coral species. He named it Eugorgia siedenburgae for Joan S. Siedenburg, explorer and longstanding friend of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
“Joan’s encouragement and passion for learning inspires many Smithsonian scientific colleagues in Panama,” said Guzman. “This new species name recognizes Siedenburg’s special interest in deep-sea exploration and her appreciation for marine life.”
During a STRI expedition in March, 2012, sponsored, in part, by Siedenburg, he collected a large specimen 63 meters (207 feet) under the ocean’s surface from the submersible DeepSee using a mechanical arm.
Eugorgia siedenburgae forms bright pink, bushy colonies with light-colored branch-tips. The soft-coral grows on rocks, debris, coarse sand or muddy sediments. This seventh species of the genus Eugorgia reported from Costa Rica and Panama brings the total number of species of this eastern Pacific genus to 13.
Guzman described the coral with Odalisca Breedy from the University of Costa Rica. “Nearly all of the surveys of soft coral diversity in the Eastern Pacific region have focused on shallow environments. Only recently have we begun to explore deeper into the ocean’s mesophotic zone,” said Breedy.
In twelve dives they collected 15 soft coral species, including sea pens, gorgonians and sea whips, three species of black corals and four species of hydrocorals including the lace corals Stylaster and Distichopora. In addition to Siedenburg, Guzman’s team included a fisheries biologist from the University of Panama as well as microbiologists and chemists from Panama’s government laboratory, INDICASAT, who joined the expedition. The microbiologists isolated bacteria from 104 tissue samples to look for chemical compounds to test against cancer and several tropical diseases.
Guzman hopes to return to Hannibal Bank to conduct a more extensive survey. In the meantime, he has presented information about the scarcity of commercial fish on this zone to the media and to policy makers.
Funding for the expedition and species identification were provided by the International Community Foundation; Panama’s Instituto de Investigaciones Cientificas y Servicios de Alta Tecnologia, INDICASAT, Mission Blue’s Sylvia Earle Alliance and the Universidad de Costa Rica.