Tropical Biology and Ships: Animal Behavior Research with Background Whistles

By Ignacio Escalante


A muddy trail on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, right after the rain. (Photo by Ignacio Escalante.)

I am walking in a tropical rainforest on a small island in central Panama. The sound of my muddy boots mixes with the sounds of raindrops hitting the tree canopy, and toucans singing, and monkeys howling in the distance. That is the typical mid-afternoon symphony around here. Suddenly, those noises are interrupted by the loudest and longest ship whistle I have ever heard. On the top of the hill, through a break in the trees I see it: a big transoceanic ship approximately 3 miles away, moving slowly through the Panama Canal. On its hull I can read “MONROVIA” (the capital of Liberia in West Africa). Such daily sightings are a constant reminder of the non-stop human activity surrounding this small tropical island.

Tropical biologists expect field sites to be as pristine, protected, and isolated from human intervention as possible. Those expectations do not necessarily hold true here, in Barro Colorado Island, a 1500 hector (3706 acre) island of protected rainforest that serves as a research station and mecca for tropical biologists. There is a small caveat: this island is in the middle of the Panama Canal. Every day, 40 vessels pass by carrying oil, cars, produce and every other imaginable product. Their passage through the canal is a shortcut, a way get from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea avoiding the long trip South America. Thus, the history of Barro Colorado Island is perhaps as interesting as the organisms I study for my dissertation.


The sign welcoming researchers to Barro Colorado Island, which is administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. (Photo by Ignacio Escalante.)

Before the Panama Canal was built, the place where I am standing today was not an island, but a large forest. In the early 1900s, the Chagres River was dammed and the Gatún Lake was flooded, causing the water level to rise and creating the Barro Colorado Island. The United States established the Panama Canal Zone, increasing the need to protect forest and the watershed around it. In 1923, Barro Colorado Island was officially protected and the few inhabitants with leases were dispossessed of their land. Thus, the world’s oldest biological station was born, and most of our knowledge about tropical rainforests is derived from research conducted on this tiny island. Botanists, ecologists, geographers, taxonomists, and sociologists have come from the US, Europe, Asia, and Latin America to study this isolated patch of rainforest.

During the summer of 2016, I joined the long-standing tradition of tropical biology research at Barro Colorado Island. I am a short-term fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), conducting evolutionary biology and animal behavior research for my dissertation. With funding from STRI, a Tinker Grant from the Center of Latin American Studies, and the Pre-dissertation Grant from the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley, I am able to spend part of my summer on this Panamanian island. I am conducting an in-depth field survey of arachnids (spiders and daddy long-legs), working to understand how evolution has shaped these animals to respond to pressures from predators, parasites and food scarcity.


The study organisms, daddy long-legs and spiders, respectively. (Photo by Ignacio Escalante.)

My days start and end the same way. I eat breakfast in a cafeteria with Panamanian, Latin American, European and American researchers, professors, students and interns. Broken English and broken Spanish (and occasionally some Portuñol – the improvised mixture of Portuguese and Spanish) are frequently heard at the table, and I proudly become part of these engaging multi-language conversations. My breakfast companions come from a myriad of backgrounds, with research interests and career paths that contribute to yet another level of diversity on this island. After breakfast, I hike into the forest with a tripod on my shoulder and a camera in my backpack, ready to film short high-speed videos of spiders shaking their webs. I also search for daddy long-legs located under rocks, inside rotting logs, and deep in the leaf litter. By recording the defensive behavior of these arachnids in these field experiments, and noting when they are found in particular microhabitats, I will contribute to our understanding of the variety of defensive strategies animals have.

Meal times punctuate every day, and my morning arachnid search is interrupted by lunch. I head back into the forest for a few more hours before dinner and I run experiments in the pitch-black forest every night. The rhythm of each day is accompanied by the sounds of ships’ horns, which are such a constant part of the forest in this part of the world that they may no longer startle the animals, though they still startle the newly minted. Consequently, the sound of ships moving through the canal are an ever-present reminder that I am not far from civilization.


A typical view from the BCI laboratory: The Panama Canal and a big ship crossing it. (Photo by Ignacio Escalante.)

Research on Barro Colorado Island has an interesting irony. This island is a field station where the forest is protected from direct human intervention. However, the forest was protected thanks to the early 19th century trade industry, mostly led by developed countries. The result is a dialectic relationship between protecting the watershed to operate the canal and, in the process, establishing a mecca of knowledge on tropical ecology, all while developing a heavy trade route through the heart of Panama.

Barro Colorado Island’s situation begs the question: can development and environmental protection coexist? I ponder this question and its implications while hiking on these muddy trails. With this in mind I continue my search for arachnids, feeling lucky that this place exists and motivated to work to unravel nature’s complex processes, one video at the time.

2016Summer-Escalante-GatheringSpecimens-750pIGNACIO ESCALANTE is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at University of California, Berkeley, specializing in behavioral ecology, phenotipic plasticity, tropical biology, animal communication and cognition, and spiders. Ignacio received a 2016 Tinker Summer Research Grant, awarded by the Center for Latin American Studies. 



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