Friday, July 17, 2009

Our First Panama Pelagic

Last night we took our first pelagic in Panama. It barely qualified as such, but we were on a boat that sped across the water to an island, so we're counting it. Also, since we will miss all the pelagics we usually take in California during the late summer season, it was good to get out on the water at least once.

Our hostess Sharon told us about a series of informal seminars given by visiting scientists and others on Barro Colorado Island (BCI.) The speaker last night was Bas Haring, a Dutch philosopher and writer of popular science and children's literature (see "Cheese and the Theory of Evolution".) The subject of his talk was how journalists can make science palatable/understandable to the lay reader.

For $6 each, we got a ride in the water taxi from the STRI (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) dock in Gamboa, dinner at the cafeteria on Barro Colorado Island, the seminar, and a ride back on the water taxi. The only "wet" bird I saw was a single Brown Pelican, so we will eventually have to get more serious about this pelagic business. But it was a start.

Since we arrived on the island about 30 minutes before dinner was served, we took a short walk on Sendero Fausto (Fausto Trail.) It was dusk, and we found no birds, but we saw a couple of Agoutis and our first poison dart frog of the trip. It was a beautiful little black one with bright green markings. A researcher at our dinner table (she was from Stanford, studying how mammal species affect plant diversity, but knew a few herps) told us it was indeed a poison dart frog, Dendrobates auratus. We also sat next to a fellow from Germany who was on his third 3-month tour on BCI studying fruit bats. He told us about a carnivorous bat (he's never seen one, but it has a wingspan of 1.5 meters!) that eats other bats, amphibians, small mammals and birds. So it was a really fascinating evening even before the seminar.

The seminar was interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking. Bas is a young, energetic fellow who speaks in plain, non-academic language about academic subjects. We can see why he would be a big hit with children - the short discussion about evolution that he had last night with a few members of the audience was fun and energizing. We were both still talking about the seminar tonight at dinner.
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On the ride back to the dock we got to talking about Panama with an STRI scientist John Christy, who provided interesting insights during the seminar into sexual selection in fiddler crabs. About Panama, John advised great caution when entering into any negotiations. The country has a long history of deceptions and outright swindles. It's something we have heard before, but his were sobering words for those new to the country looking to make plans for a permanent residency.

Next week we will go back to BCI for a day-long excursion - and not just because we will get another pelagic out of it.

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