Tourism and Conservation in Panama

Panama’s wildlife is just stunning – 10’444 different types of plant species, 678 fern species, 1’500 varieties of trees, as well as 255 species of mammals and 972 indigenous bird species. There is a history behind this rich biodiversity, let’s start from the very beginning: Everything started 65 million years ago; the two continents, North and South America were joined by a land bridge, as we know it from today. Then, around 50 million years ago, the continents split apart, and for millions of years they kept separate from one another. This allowed mother nature to create unique and fascinating landscapes in both continents. The land of South America soon gave rise to a numerous species, such as bird families, neo-tropical rodents, iguanas, frogs and more. In North America, animals such as horses, deer, raccoons, squirrels and mice flourished, as the continent repeatedly collided with Eurasia.

Three million years ago happened the world change!   The natural history for both continents: The land bridge of Panama arose. Migration started and species from North America went south and from South America north, where they found their homes in the lush forest and wetlands along the isthmus. The great variety of plant species created the perfect conditions for nourishing wildlife including the Jaguar.

‘Yaguará’ is a Panamanian Foundation that works towards the conservation of  wild cats. They are studying the Jaguar’s behavior through placing cameras and GPS Collars, in order to develop conservation in the jaguar habitats. They also directly work with the local communities, which has proved to be very important and successful to immediately apply conservation of this beautiful mammals.

Ricardo Moreno who has been nominated by National Geographic as an emergent explorer, is a Panamanian biologist and one of the the leader of  Fundación Yaguara. He fights for the conservation of the Jaguar and the Puma in Panama, and says that “the situation is critical, and there is no time to wait. It is important to create a pacific cohabitation between mankind and the felines.”

The conflicts between Felines and humans arose because their natural prey was scarce, due to human activities such as hunting and habitat occupation, threrefore the cats attacked livestock’s. Unfortunately, people used to “solve” the situation by just sacrificing the felines, and this caused a serious fall in jaguar’s populations in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and Panama. Several studies showed that if the cats had enough natural prey, they wouldn’t attack livestock.

“Yaguará” started a program which gives a monetary compensation to the owners of domestic animals, if their animals were preyed.  They also support the local communities by educating in learning to live with the jaguars and avoid killing them.   The communities could take benefit from conserving the natural habitats and supporting the trend in the tourism industry:  Adventure and Conservation.

Academic and Educational adventures are a way to discover Panama and learn about the efforts of several scientists, guides and tour companies that promote the restoration of our natural habitats.   In conjunction with different organizations such as STRI, Fundacion Avifauna, APTSO, YAGUARA among others EcoCircuitos is promoting Tourism, Conservation and Education.

Explore with the experts in the field and discover a country full of contrasts.  You can contribute to the conservation and efforts of this organization and others by traveling responsable.

For more information contact us

The Submarine Explorer by Louie Celerier

The submarine “Explorer” is a submersible built by Julius H. Kroehl and Ariel Patterson in Brooklyn, New York for the Pacific Pearl Company in Panama. The keel was laid down in 1863, was completed in 1865 and placed in service in 1866. In 1869, the submarine was abandoned in the Pearl Islands Archipelago, where it had been working, and its hull still rests there.


The “Explorer” is 39.4 feet long, 12 feet high and has a beam of 11 feet. The bottom of the craft bottom is perfectly flat and has two hatches 4-1/2 feet wide by 6 feet long for harvesting operations. It had a displacement of 80 tons and carried a complement of 3 to 6 men. The submarine was hand powered, had a single propeller and could achieve a maximum speed of 4 knots.

The design of the craft included a large volume external high pressure air chamber (200 PSI) as well as water ballast tanks. The water ballast was used to submerge while the pressure air pressurized the crew’s compartment to the pressure of the water at working depths of up to 103 feet allowing them to open the hatches on the floor and giving them access to the oyster on the

ocean floor. This air pressure was also used to empty the ballast tanks when the vessel was ready to surface.

The Harvesting Operation

As the submarine approached the bottom, the hatches were opened for the purpose of gathering the oysters. The water was kept out of the vessel by the pressured air contained in the chambers. As the sub rested on the bottom, the oysters were collected by the crew and stowed away. They moved around the ocean floor by means of the 3-foot diameter propeller cranked by hand.

Diving Fever

The problem of decompression was still not clearly understood in 1869 and again and again, the reports after a dive or two would report, “all the men were again down with fever.” A contemporary (August 1869) newspaper account of dives in the Pearl Islands documents 11 days of diving to 103 feet, spending 4 hours per dive, and ascending with a quick release of the pressure to ambient (sea level) pressure. Modern reconstruction of “Explorer’s” system suggests an ascension rate of 1 foot per second which would have brought the men to the surface in less than two minutes. The result was decompression sickness. Using present day U.S. Navy diving standards, a two-hour dive (half of the documented time spent by the men in “Explorer”) at a depth of 103 feet would require a surfacing schedule of one hour, 32 minutes and 40 seconds with staged stops at 30 feet, 20 feet and 10 feet. As it was, in 1869 the men were all sick from their fast ascents with the submarine operations grinding to a halt.

History Of “Explorer”

After construction, the submarine “Explorer” was partially disassembled and shipped to the Panama Pacific side of the Isthmus in December 1866. There, in the Gulf of Panama, laid the Pearl Island Archipelago with its rich pearl bearing oyster beds. Since the early days of the Spaniards, men had been diving for the treasure without the aid of any breathing apparatus. But, since the advent of a somewhat practical submarine design during the American Civil War, The Pacific Pearl Company thought the submarine was the answer to the mass harvesting of pearls.

Once in Panama City, the submarine was assembled and one of its builders, Julius Kroehl, carried out experimental dives in the Bay of Panama (not to be confused with the Gulf of Panama). These dives cost him his life as he contracted the “diving fever” and died in September 1967. The submarine languished on the beach until 1869, when a new engineer and crew took it to the Pearl Islands to harvest oyster shells and pearls. The 1869 dives to depths and profiles that would inevitably lead to decompression sickness, resulted in the entire crew succumbing to the “fever”. Because of this, the craft was laid up in a cove on the shores of the island of San Telmo in the Pearl Islands and remains there to this day.

The submarine’s rusting hull was well-known to the locals, but they had presumed it to be a remnant of World War II. In 2001 the remains of the submarine piqued the interest of archaeologist James P. Delgado of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. Since then, many studies of the wreck have been carried out and a 2007 report summarized preservation options of the vessel for the Panamanian government and recommended the recovery, preservation and public display of the raft in Panama. Metal analysis confirms the craft is in critical stage and faces irreversible deterioration and loss.


Photos and Material

1. “Sub Marine Explorer”, Wikipedia and google
2. “Misadventures of a Civil War Submarine”, by James P. Delgado, 2012.
3. The Wait Institute.
4. The Hunley Store.
5. Institute of National Archaeology.

Tourism, Education and Conservation in Panama: STRI

Panama has to be considered as one of the leading destinations for students interested in tropical biology and rainforest preservation. As a land bridge between the two continents, Panama is a meeting place of over 970 species of birds from North and South America. Its tremendous biodiversity and the accessibility of its tropical forests make Panama a paradise for nature and ecological studies. Panama itself is a flower garden with more than 1500 species of trees and more than 10,000 species of plants. With two oceans washing its shores, Panama is rich in marine life.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution (STRI) in Panama, is a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution based outside of the United States, is dedicated to understanding biological diversity.

What began in 1923 as small field station on Barro Colorado Island, in the Panama Canal Zone, has developed into one of the leading research institutions of the world. STRI’s facilities provide a unique opportunity for long-term ecological studies in the tropics, and are used extensively by some 900 visiting scientists from academic and research institutions in the United States and around the world every year. The work of our resident scientists has allowed us to better understand tropical habitats and has trained hundreds of tropical biologists.

STRI is the perfect partner for Academic and Educational Tours in the Tropics:

Panama’s remarkable biodiversity and the accessibility of its tropical forests make it a paradise for nature and ecological studies. Our trip will expose participants to the natural wonders of lowland tropical forest, cloud forest and coral reef ecosystems. Culturally, students will have the opportunity to interact with and learn about our local communities and to experience city life in the developing world.

Por primera vez se logra criar en cautiverio a una rana venenosa de dardo recientemente descrita

rana-dorada2Comunicado de Prensa:

Científicos del Instituto de Biología de la Conservación del Smithsonian (SCBI por sus siglas en inglés) y el Instituto Smithsonian de Investigaciones Tropicales (STRI), que trabajan en el Proyecto de Rescate y Conservación de Anfibios de Panamá (PARC) lograron criar la primera Andinobates geminisae nacida en cautiverio. Ésta es una diminuta especie de rana venenosa de dardo que sólo crece 14 milímetros, por primera vez colectada en una pequeña zona en Panamá Central y descrita el año pasado. Colaboradores científicos colectaron y nos entregaron dos adultos con el propósito de evaluar el potencial para el mantenimiento de esta especie en cautiverio como una población de aseguranza.

“Hay un verdadero arte en aprender acerca de la historia natural de un animal y encontrar el conjunto adecuado de señales ambientales para estimular la cría en cautiverio exitosa”, comentó Brian Gratwicke, biólogo de la conservación de anfibios en SCBI y director del Proyecto de Rescate y Conservación de Anfibios de Panamá, PARC. “No todos los anfibios son fáciles de criar en cautiverio, así que cuando logramos criar una especie por primera vez, es un verdadero hito para nuestro proyecto y un motivo de celebración.”

Los científicos simularon las condiciones para la reproducción de las ranas adultas en un pequeño tanque. Las ranas pusieron un huevo en una hoja de bromelia, que luego se transfirió a un plato Petri húmedo. Después de 14 días, el renacuajo eclosionó. Los científicos creen que las ranas adultas de A. geminisae pueden proporcionar cuidados paternos a sus huevos y renacuajos, cosa que no es rara en las ranas de dardo, pero no han sido capaces de determinar si ese es el caso. En la naturaleza, uno de los padres transporta al renacuajo en su espalda hacia un pequeño charco de agua, por lo general dentro de un árbol o entre las hojas de una bromelia.

Después de que el renacuajo eclosionó, los científicos lo trasladaron del plato Petri a una pequeña taza de agua, imitando los pequeños charcos naturales. Con una dieta de comida para peces, después de 75 días el renacuajo se transformó exitosamente en una rana joven y ahora es del tamaño de un adulto maduro.

Los científicos del Proyecto de Rescate y Conservación de Anfibios de Panamá no están seguros si la A. geminisae es susceptible al hongo quitridio que está matando a anfibios. Sin embargo, ya que esta especie sólo se encuentra en un área pequeña de Panamá y depende de bosques tropicales primarios, que están bajo la presión por la conversión agrícola, la han identificado como una especie de conservación prioritaria.

“Más aún, esta especie parece tener una distribución muy agrupada dentro de la pequeña área donde se le encontró,” comentó Roberto Ibáñez, cientifico del Smithsonian en Panamá y director nacional del PARC. “Aparentemente, sus poblaciones están asociadas a ciertos filos a lo largo de los valles formados por quebradas, lo cual puede complicar su conservación al requerirse que varios de estos sitios estén dentro de áreas protegidas.”

El Proyecto de Rescate y Conservación de Anfibios de Panamá cría especies de ranas en peligro de extinción en Gamboa, Panamá y El Valle de Antón, Panamá. Este proyecto es una asociación entre el Zoológico de Houston, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, el Zoológico de Nueva Inglaterra, SCBI y STRI. Este estudio contó con el apoyo de Minera Panamá y Biodiversity Consultant Group.

# # #

El Instituto Smithsonian de Investigaciones Tropicales en Panamá, es una unidad de la Institución Smithsonian. El Instituto promueve la comprensión de la naturaleza tropical y su importancia para el bienestar de la humanidad; capacita estudiantes para llevar a cabo investigaciones en los trópicos; y fomenta la conservación mediante la concienciación pública sobre la belleza e importancia de los ecosistemas tropicales. Sitio web:

Contacto de prensa: Beth King, o
Sonia Tejada,

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.

Tropical forests mitigate extreme weather events



Tropical forests reduce peak runoff during storms and release stored water during droughts, according to researchers working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Their results lend credence to a controversial phenomenon known as the sponge effect, which is at the center of a debate about how to minimize flood damage and maximize water availability in the tropics.

During nearly 450 tropical storms, a team of visiting scientists from the University of Wyoming measured the amount of runoff from pastureland, abandoned pastureland and forested land as part of a large-scale land-use experiment in the Panama Canal watershed initiated by STRI.

Data collected by STRI staff and analyzed by University of Wyoming students indicate that land-use history has complex, long-term effects. “We measured large differences in hydrologic response between watersheds with different land-use histories and land cover,” said Fred Ogden, STRI Senior Research Associate and Civil Engineering Professor at the University of Wyoming. “Our ultimate objective is to better understand these effects and include this improved understanding in a high-resolution hydrological model that we are developing to predict land-use effects in tropical watersheds.”

“The result for storm peaks is spectacular,” said Robert Stallard, hydrologist at STRI and the United States Geological Survey who developed the statistics for data analysis. “Storm-water runoff from grazed land is much higher than from forested land. The results are clearest after big storms.” On the other hand, forests released more water than grasslands and mixed-use landscapes during the late dry season, pointing to the importance of forests in regulating water flow throughout the year in seasonal climates.

Evidence to support the sponge effect was lacking for tropical forests, leading some to question its validity. “One of reasons why there isn’t more scientific evidence for the sponge effect is that you have to take what nature dishes out,” said Stallard, a staunch proponent of the sponge effect, who is often seen wearing Sponge Bob socks. “It requires a long-term institutional commitment to get good results. The USGS, STRI, University of Wyoming and the Panama Canal Authority have the resources to do that.”

Severe drought forced Panama Canal authorities to impose draft restrictions on transiting ships in 1997. In 2010, a major December storm system, examined in this study, halted shipping in the canal for 17 hours. Land use in the watershed not only affects world commerce but also water availability for Panama’s major urban areas. The study is particularly relevant to land use decisions throughout the tropics where more than 50 percent of forests are now “secondary” forests that have grown back after logging or on abandoned pastureland.

The 700-hectare Panama watershed experiment, also known as Agua Salud, will run for 20 to 30 years, making it the largest ongoing study of land use in the tropics.

“Our project aims to clearly quantify environmental services such as water flow, carbon storage and biodiversity conservation that decision makers will consider as they evaluate projects from forest restoration to watershed management,” said Jefferson Hall, Smithsonian staff scientist and project director.

This research was supported by the Smithsonian Institution Forest Global Earth Observatory, ForestGEO; the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. National Science Foundation; the Panama Canal Authority; the National Environmental Authority of Panama, ANAM; the HSBC Climate Partnership; the Hoch family; Frank Levinson; the Fundación Alberto Motta and Roy and Caryl Cline.

Ogden, F.L., Crouch, T.D., Stallard, R.F., Hall, J.S. 2013. Effect of land cover and use on dry season river runoff, runoff efficiency and peak storm runoff in the seasonal tropics of central Panama. Water Resources Research. Online. doi:10.1002/2013WR013956

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