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

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Not always best to be the brightest

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One of the greatest puzzles of evolutionary biology is the color variation of the strawberry poison-dart frog on the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Generally a shiny reddish-orange throughout its mainland Central American territory, Dendrobates pumiliocomes in as many as 30 color combinations on the Panamanian Caribbean island chain. Rising seas separated the archipelago from the mainland less than 9,000 years ago – a blip in evolutionary terms. How did such an array arise so quickly?

Given that environmental conditions do not seem to vary greatly between population locations, natural selection might play second fiddle to sexual selection in the D. pumilio riddle. To test that theory, Ph.D. student and STRI fellow Laura Crothers is studying how the frogs – males and females – respond to brightness and color variation.

More fiercely territorial than their size would suggest, the diminutive males regularly pick fights. Yet instead of taking on dimmer competitors – which, in theory, should be easier targets – they appear to attack the more brightly colored ones.

Energy spent calling to or wrestling with other males is energy not spent reproducing. So if dimmer and different-colored males fought less once isolated from the mainland, this could help explain the early in the divergence of color in these populations. For example, if most of the frogs in a population are orange, other males could ignore an unusual blue individual. “That would allow those really rare blue ones to increase slowly in that population because they are not getting beat up all the time,” says Laura. “They can focus all of their time on courting females.

 

Source: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Bocas del Toro Panama, Western Caribbean slope