An Interview with Smithsonian Entomologist: Yves Basset

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama is dedicated to understanding and studying the unique biodiversity of the tropics. STRI’s history  began with the construction of the Panama Canal and the  interest in surveying the flora and fauna of the area for the purpose of controlling insect diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. After the Canal began operating, entomologists and biologists involved in these studies establish a permanent biological reserve on Barro Colorado Island which is located in the Gatun Lake.  Today, STRI is one of the leading research institutions in the world. Every year over 900 scientist from academic and research institutions  from all over the world visit the STRI facilities to conduct scientific research and studies.

Today we had the opportunity to interview one of the prominent entomologist in the world who has his base in Panama City.  Doctor Yves Basset talk to EcoCircuitos Panama team about his work with the tropical ecosystems and the importance of tourism and conservation to protect the tropical environment.  Learn more about his work on this very interesting EcoVideo.

EcoCircuitos promotes conservation and education through the tourism industry.   For more information about our academic adventures, contact us at info@ecocircuitos.com

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10 Best things to do in Panama City

There are a lot of reasons to visit Panama. You have probably already thought of the Panama Canal, which is one of the world’s most famous accomplishments of modern engineering. Maybe you have considered a tropical island or beach, or just the climate, which is warm all year round. But there is a lot more to Panama: read here some of our staff picks to do in Panama City.

1.  Visit Seafood market and walk or bike Cinta Costera towards the Casco Antiguo neighborhood while eating a fresh seafood ceviche.
2.  Take a tour at the Biodiversity Museum and hire of our naturalist guides for an introductory rainforest tour in the Metropolitan Park

3.  Bar hopping in Casco Viejo at night and don´t miss the Jazz Bar in the American Trade Hotel

4.  Historical City Tour– walking Panama la Antigua and learn about the Pirates and Conquistadors and the Canal zone era

5.  Kayaking the Panama Canal in the Gatun Lake and a visit to a local Wounaan community for handcrafts shopping

6.  Visit the Contemporary Art Museum and take a Art Cultural Tour with a local panamanian artist

7.  Hike, bike or wildlife observation at one of the many trails of the Soberania National Park

8.  Go on a historical trekking the old 8-mile Camino de Cruces Trail takes you through primarily tropical forest

9.  Ride the Transcontinental train towards the Atlantic side in one day: The Pirate trail and Panama Canal

10.  Enjoy the local gastronomy (tasajo empanada, carimañola, tortilla, yuca frita, and the seafood of Panama).

Can secondary forests capture carbon faster?

Joseph Wright
Joseph Wright

From:  STRI.org

There are an estimated five million square kilometers of abandoned farmland and logged forests in the tropics. This area, which is more than half the size of the United States, could become an important carbon sink if reclaimed by forests. Within 25 years a secondary forest can absorb as much as 80 percent of the CO2 that is held in a mature forest. Joseph Wright, a STRI forest ecologist doesn’t think that’s enough carbon, given how quickly humans are pumping it to the atmosphere. “I think we can do better,” he says.

The reason is that quickly removing a large amount of carbon from the atmosphere and locking it away for centuries is not something most tree species do well. Many grow too slowly, are too small, die too young or are not dense enough to rise to the task. Doubling the amount of carbon held in a forest might be as straightforward as slightly increasing the number of fast-growing, long-lived, high density, massive individuals in it.

This might not only be possible, it might also be profitable, says Wright, who is testing the thesis with a new reforestation experiment in western Panama. The experiment draws on 30 years of data he has collected on the life cycles of Panama’s hundreds of trees, the discount equations economists apply to carbon pricing and the latest prices for carbon offsets in Australia, Europe and British Columbia.

“We’ve been studying these trees for 30 years and hopefully we’ve learned some things about them that are useful,” says Wright.

Useful things include knowing what trees meet the desired criteria to manage a forest with higher-than average carbon storage: rapid growth, large mature size, and high wood density, all of which increase the amount of carbon stored by the tree. The Dipteryx and Terminalia trees Wright selected for the experiment also grow tall in full sunlight, as opposed to branching early in absence of neighboring trees. These potentially 40- to 50-meter-tall canopy giants usually rise to the canopy top late in secondary succession through gaps created by fallen trees. In mature forests, they account for a much greater percentage of stored carbon relative to their population size. In this experiment, Wright hopes to give them a low-investment head start, increasing the future mature forest’s population density of these trees as shade-tolerant trees gradually fill the understory and restore the area’s former biodiversity.

“I think we can skip an intermediate step of succession dominated by smaller, trees and go straight to the 30-40-meter tall forest,” says Wright. In 2010, Wright and his team planted hundreds of Dipteryx panamensis and Terminalia amazonia trees in quarter-hectare plot pairs across 50 hectares of former grazing pasture in Veraguas province in Western Panama.”If we end up with just ten of those surviving (per quarter hectare), we will have a forest that will have twice the biomass of an unmanaged forest in Panama,” says Wright. Even if survival is only ten per hectare, the forest will hold about 40 percent more carbon than it would otherwise, says Wright, who hopes to try a similar experiment with six species with complementary resource requirements to increase the likelihood of establishing a still denser forest.

Whether enough trees will survive is a question that will take many years to answer. In the higher-than-normal species density situation that Wright has created, pests might be a problem in the short-term. After two years, the plantations are doing well with the young trees up to 10 m tall and no signs of pest outbreaks.

Carbon offset prices currently mandated in California, British Colombia and Australia make the enterprise profitable on otherwise abandoned lands and there are two million square kilometers of such lands in the tropics. The international community, however, lacks a mechanism to recompense governments for augmented carbon sequestration in secondary forests. Wright believes that as atmospheric CO2 concentrations and global temperatures continue to climb, this mechanism will appear.

FAREWELL, BCI’S BIG TREE

From Stri.orgImage

On June 1, Karla Aparicio hosted a group of Panamanians on Barro Colorado Island. As she guided them down the trail toward the BCI’s Big Tree, she noticed a rather unusual amount of light up ahead. BCI’s tree was no longer standing. “When we entered the new gap and realized what had happened, it was so impressive. The whole crown of the tree was on the ground and there were tons of bees and ants milling around looking lost!”

Home to epiphytic orchids and cacti, bromeliads and Spanish moss as well as to sloths, monkeys, bats, and birds, the late Big Tree, a kapok (Ceiba pentandra) definitely qualified as an island icon. It was probably the backdrop for more group photos than any other location on the island.

STRI’s staff scientist Joe Wright, who plans to take a core from the main stem to estimate the age of the tree, asked Robert Van Pelt, an adjunct professor at the Institute for Redwood Ecology at Humboldt State University and big tree enthusiast, to comment on BCI’s emblematic tree stature, which held the world record for largest crown:

“The very large base was 13m in one direction, tapering to a 2m cylindrical trunk above the buttressing; ending in a wide crown whose highest leaf reached 47m. What was most remarkable about the BCI tree was the crown spread, which based on 8 crown radii, averaged 60m in diameter. This was by far the largest crown known on the planet for a tree with a single stem. There are several banyans in India and elsewhere larger than this, but none with a single stem. For a self-supporting crown with no cables or other human impacts, I have only ever measured two species to exceed 50m in diameter – Ceiba and Albitzia saman.”

The trunk of the tree is still standing in the center of a huge clearing, a scene of total destruction where no other whole trees are left and the ground is covered in foliage and vines. “This black stuff looks like ash, but it’s rotten wood and termite nest material,” explained Javier Ballesteros as he examined the area of the crown that broke off from the trunk. He and the Fungal Dimensions project team were at the site this week using their Picus Sonic Tomograph to see if individual branches of the tree were rotten as well.

Good-bye Big Tree. You will be missed.

The Journey between the Seas: Panama Exploration Cruise

Discover some of Panama’s greatest wonders on this unique marine adventure. The journey on the Discovery will take you from cosmopolitan Panama City to the remote jungles of the Darien, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. During seven days you will get to experience the true spirit of our amazing country, the secrets of the tropics, the rich and different forms of life these coasts harbor.

The Journey on the Discovery is the perfect way to explore this diversity: Passenger numbers are limited to just 24, ensuring everyone can enjoy serenity and privacy together with the excitement and closeness of a true exploration cruise.

The purpose-built catamaran is comfortably appointed with fully equipped cabins, an all-glass restaurant and lounge, as well as a barbecue and sun deck on the topmost observation area.

To get even closer up to this amazing country and its natural wonders, the Discovery carries a number of Kayaks, and is equipped with a special platform for easy boarding of those.

Suggested Itinerary

Day 1 – Arrival to Panama – Today at the appropriate time an EcoCircuitos representative will meet you at the Tocumen International Airport to assist and transfer you to your hotel located in Panama City. At this time you will also receive an EcoCircuitos information kit that will provide you with all the details for your stay in Panama. Once you arrive to your hotel, please check-in. MARRIOTT EXECUTIVE. Welcome dinner at the hotel. Other hotel options includes American Trade Hotel in Casco Viejo for a supplement.

Day 2 – Panama City – Flamenco Marina – Pick up around 2:00 p.m. at the hotel for transfer to Flamenco marina where you embark the boat. Sail the tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean towards Contadora, where the M/V Discovery will stay the first night before navigating to the Darien Jungle. Take this opportunity to meet your expedition leaders, the crew and your fellow travelers while you savor our tempting native cuisine. (D)

Day 3-  Darien Jungle – Step aboard a time machine and travel back more than 600 years to a place that not many have had the privilege of experiencing. More than an excursion, this is a journey into the lives of the Embera Indians. A proud people who have been able to maintain their traditions and lifestyle as they were before the Spaniards colonized the region. These natives are also master crafters of cocobolo wood carvings and basketry. After motoring up river you will see the village emerging from the jungle, as if by magic. Keep your eyes open along the way as the region offers abundant wildlife that is particularly active along the river’s edge. (B,L,D)

Day 4 – Pearl Islands – San Telmo & Mogo Mogo – Snorkel and swim in the waters of the Pearl Islands. The archipelago owes its name to the abundance of pearl oysters which supported a substantial fishery in the early 1900’s. On the outer portion of the archipelago, the islands of San Telmo and Mogo Mogo are home to some pristine beaches and fertile fishing grounds. View the remains of the submarine Explorer built in 1865 during the Civil War and which sunk off the coast of San Telmo during the oyster fishery of the late 1800´s. (B,L,D)

Day 5 – Panama Canal Transit – Gatun Lake – Wake up at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal and join the morning’s ship convoy for our northbound canal passage traversing Miraflores Locks and Pedro Miguel Locks. The Discovery will be raised 85 feet above sea level to Gatun Lake. You will have a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience up close the history and operation of this engineering marvel. Navigate the Gaillard Cut, the narrowest section of the Panama Canal, bisecting the Continental Divide. This section of the canal is full of history and geological value and you will be able to appreciate the continuous maintenance that this area requires, because it is very susceptible to landslides. Spend the night in Gatun Lake on Panama Canal waters. (B,L,D)

Day 6 – Panama Canal – Barro Colorado – Prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, the vast jungle area that is now the Gatun Lake was teeming with an overwhelming abundance of wildlife. As the region was flooded to create the lake, animals took refuge in the mountain peaks, which are now the many islands that dot the renowned lake. Explore Barro Colorado Island where the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Center is located. Your expedition leader will take you on board small crafts past lush rainforests to secluded areas of the lake to witness first-hand the splendor and excitement of the jungle. Exotic birds, monkeys, sloths, iguanas, and crocodiles are just a few of the animals that you could see in  their native surroundings. The sights, sounds and scents that make up this beautiful, tropical jungle will engulf you. Cameras are a must as this is considered the world’s premier location for viewing monkeys and other animals in the wild. The Discovery will exit the Panama Canal in the afternoon on its way to the mouth of the Chagres River. (B,L,D)

Day 7 – Chagres River – Fort San Lorenzo – Experience the magnificent Chagres River which was used by the conquistadors to move their gold across the Isthmus of Panama en-route from Peru to Spain and by the gold prospectors who attempted a “short cut” from the US East coast to the gold fields of California. The river was the center piece of the colonial inter-oceanic route and is now the lifeline of the Panama Canal full of wildlife and tropical jungle. Explore Fort San Lorenzo which is located on a cliff at the mouth of the Chagres on the Atlantic side where your leader will offer details of the immense amount of history found on this area. The fort was built by the Spaniards in the 16th century to defend their well known gold trail. Later that evening, the Discovery will reposition to Colon, where it will spend the night before disembarking the next day. (B,L,D)

 Day 8 – Portobelo – Caribbean – Wake up to a farewell breakfast before you disembark the Discovery. Travel by motor coach to Portobelo and enjoy this town located on Caribbean waters which was founded by Christopher Columbus on his fourth voyage to the new continent in 1597. This quaint town is rich in history as it was the site of many sea and land battles between the Spanish colonials and the pirates and corsairs raiding the Spanish Main. Explore the fortifications built by the Spaniards to protect their treasures and visit the Church of San Felipe, the sanctuary of the Black Christ. Later in the afternoon, board the Panama Canal Railway train back to Panama City. This one hour railroad trip will allow you to traverse the picturesque trans-isthmian route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The line flanks the Panama Canal passing through lush rainforests, cruising alongside the Canal’s locks, through the historic Gaillard Cut and gliding over slender causeways in Gatun Lake. Arrive to Panama City with the train around 6:15 p.m. and be transferred to your hotel in the City. (B,L)

Day 9 – Depart Panama – At the appropriate time you will be transferred to the Tocumen International Airport for your outbound flight. They will arrive to the airport approximately 3 hours before their departure time. End of services. (B)

 **NOTE: THE SOUTHBOUND JOURNEY FOLLOWS THE SAME EXPLORATION ROUTE IN REVERSE

Contact us for complete itinerary, schedule and prices at info@ecocircuitos.com

 

A Fantastic Journey: Part 5

Barro Colorado Island

By Louie Celerier

Tuesday was another early starting day, 6:00 am to be exact, in order to get to Gamboa in time for the launch to Barro Colorado, the wildlife island refuge operated by the Smithsonian Institute in the middle of Gatun Lake. EcoCircuitos was, as always, right on time.
Barro Colorado is not for the casual tourist. This is a place for the study of insect, plant and animal life. Nevertheless, I wanted to go there and satisfy my curiosity about the place. I was fully rewarded, but the trip taxed my stamina. I had expected mild climbing and mostly even ground. This was not so. Much climbing and going steeply down was involved.
Arriving at the island around 8:30 am, we faced the first climb immediately. The dock was at the bottom of a very steep hill and the main building was quite a way up this hill. The steps I climbed rivaled anything in San Francisco, or so it seemed to me. Reaching the building with my lungs about to burst, I was faced with another set of stairs inside the building to go to the top floor. There, we were given complimentary coffee and, because they felt sorry for me, they let me have two delicious carimañolas left over from the staff breakfast, at no charge. After a short break, we were ushered to a conference room for a short lecture about what we were about to do and see. Some of it was above my comprehension, but several in the group were there to study and they really understood it all and could hardly wait to get started.
We left the building and immediately we were faced with a very steep climb into the forest. After climbing for a short, but difficult, time, we stopped because a group of howler monkeys had been spotted. They started howling when they saw us, but I don’t know who was making more noise, they with their howling, or I with my wheezing. The next series of climbs were more gradual and, because the naturalists in the group were involved in bird watching and plant admiration, I was able to rest a bit. Then, I broke from the group and climbed ahead until I came to a clearing with some crude benches. I picked the best of the lot and laid down to wait for the group. Thanks to this, I was fully refreshed when they caught up with me and I had no more trouble keeping up with the group from there on. Well, I lie a bit. The climbs were not as steep from there on and, after a while, we started to come down. Two and a half hours after starting our trek, we reached the main building again.
This time we were fed an excellent Panamanian lunch. After a short rest, we were again ushered into the conference room for a bit more information and to answer any questions we may have had. By then, our main subject of conversation were the many ticks and chiggers we had picked up during our hike. It  became a game to see who could spot ticks quicker running up our clothes. By 3:30 pm it was time to catch the staff boat taking workers getting off work back to the mainland at Gamboa.
EcoCircuitos met us at the dock and took us to the big and beautiful Gamboa resort for refreshments before heading back to our hotel. We ran into some classmates there and, as much as I try, I cannot remember who they were. Please forgive me and make allowances for old age. If you read this, please remind me who you were as the suspense is killing me.
While at the resort, we had a good, but short rain shower. Something they tell me is not uncommon for Gamboa, even in dry season as it was then. We left the resort driving a bit through what is left of the town of Gamboa and photographing a beautiful Guayacan tree in full yellow bloom. I kept thinking back how interesting it might have been to grow up in Gamboa, isolated from the rest of the world and with all that bountiful nature around. Not for the weak at heart, I bet. Kids that grew up there must have wonderful memories and tales to tell.
The remaining houses in Gamboa have been refurbished and look very good, as the photos will show. I guess the folks living there are still working for the dredging division, as I believe was the case in the past. Correct me if I am wrong. The place looked very clean and neat.
Finally, we headed for our hotel in the city under a misty rain, which cleared after leaving the Gamboa area. That night I dreamed about climbing stairs and mountains.

Every Monday we publish part of Louis Celerier’s mesmerizing tale of how he rediscovered the country of his childhood. Subscribe to this blog or follow us on Facebook to make sure not to miss anything! If you also have a story you would like to share with us, or if you are interested in taking a Fantastic Journey yourself, let us know in the comments or by email at marketing@ecocircuitos.com

Smithsonian Barro Colorado reforestation: great success!

As part of the HSBC Climate Partnership, the Smithsonian and HSBC Panama have teamed together for a second reforestation in one year. On Saturday August 14, Kelly Walsh, from STRI´s Public Information Office and Climate Champions Adelvis Ortiz and Roberto Delgado, led a lively team of 30 HSBC volunteers to a plot in Parque Soberanía, near the Panama Canal Watershed experiment.

Barro Colorado, Panama

HSBC and the Smithsonian devised a plan to divide the tasks of opening the holes, adding organic fertilizer and planting the seedling, into small groups. This organization was practical, as there was constant movement, allowing HSBC to plant 300 seedlings in three hours.

After hearing a trivial complaint in midst of planting seedlings, someone turned around and said, “The reason we are here planting trees is so that you understand how easy it is to cut trees down and how hard it is for just one to grow back.”

At the Smithsonian in Panama, we study the past, present and future of tropical biodiversity The current climate change phenomena, a worldwide issue, is among our top priorities. Our association with the HSBC Climate Partnership gives us the opportunity to put this research into action, helping to re-establish the forest cover responsible for the environmental services needed for the operation of one of the world´s most important economic waterways.

Information: Kelly Walsh, STRI
Picture: MGuerra/Smithsonian

For tours to Barro Colorado island, contact EcoCircuitos at info@ecocircuitos.com