The end of course one

For our semester in Panama, we are taking four courses, but we’re taking them one at a time. In a lot of ways this is a great schedule: at least some of our courses are very fieldwork-heavy, and this way we can spend all day (or multiple days) in the field, come back at night to do some research, lab work, and data analysis, and not have to worry about any other classes. At school there’s always multiple psets, projects, readings, reports, and exams coming up for all of my classes, so being able to focus on JUST ONE THING for a single class is fantastic.

What this means, though, is that our first course has ended. In a very short three weeks, we’ve hiked in four national parks, eaten meals with our professors, and chatted on hour-long bus rides. We even spent a couple hours on a beach—and we get to call this class. At the same time, we have had ten lectures, come up with an idea and procedure for an independent project, and carried out that project in nine days of field work, three days of lab work, and one day to write a paper. Yesterday we turned in our papers, gave our presentations, and that was it. Over. We said farewell to our professors not fully processing that we would not, in fact, see them the next morning, or possibly ever again.

It feels like this class can’t possibly be over, and yet despite its brevity, this has been one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Working on my own project in the forests has further convinced me just how much I like doing fieldwork (though I suppose that was never really a surprise, given how much I love being outside and learning about trees and rocks and bugs). I can’t wait to see what the next three classes will bring.

Walking on water

Today is St. Valentine’s Day (which apparently gets celebrated even in Panama). It’s also one of the first days of Lent. And if you combine feasting and fasting, exuberant love and contemplative love, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get something magical.

In my case,  the magic came in a very ordinary package: a medium-sized brown lizard.


He looked uninteresting. He sounded uninteresting. He was uninteresting—until he ran. And oh, how he ran.


Basilisk lizards are famous for being able to run on water. I’d heard of this before, but had never actually seen it. Until this afternoon, when I saw not one but five basilisks take off and run across a small pond. It was fantastic.

But, someone is surely saying, I don’t think you’re Catholic. And I know you hate Valentine’s Day.

True, and true. But what is also true is that I’m always happy to celebrate something truly wonderful. And holidays, if nothing else, make a great excuse. So Valentine’s Day or not, I hope you have a wonderful, magical day.


Yesterday, I stayed late in the forest finishing up fieldwork with three other students and our professor. While the last student, was finishing her project, a group of people came by. They were releasing rescued sloths!


One of the two-toed sloths had a baby with her.


We got to watch them climb up the trees, one at a time. Between us we took hundreds of pictures. And then we got to hold one of the sloths! It was such an amazing experience.


I felt so unbelievably lucky to get this experience–and we were all so glad her work took that long!

mini-lecture of the day: Inga

Inga is a genus of trees that are quite common in the neotropics. Two of the species I worked with last summer were Inga (thibaudiana and pezizifera) so I’ve gotten fairly good at identifying the genus.

I find Inga really interesting because of its extrafloral nectaries. “Extrafloral nectaries” may sound really complicated, but actually they’re fairly simple: “extra-floral” meaning not on flowers, and “nectaries” meaning something that provides nectar. With inga, the nectaries are on the leaves, and they attract ants that help protect the tree from herbivory and vines.

an ant drinking out of a nectary on an inga leaf
an ant drinking out of a nectary on an inga leaf

Another interesting thing about inga is that it has compound leaves. This means that all the parts that look like leaves are actually leaflets, and the leaves themselves are made up of four to twenty leaflets. Inga leaflets always come in pairs. Inga leaves (and leaflets) can be fairly small, or really big.

not an inga: ends with a single leaflet
not an inga: ends with a single leaflet
sometimes Inga leaves are really big! This picture has one leaf with eight leaflets
sometimes Inga leaves are really big! This picture has one leaf with eight leaflets

Lastly, some Inga can have a winged rachis. The rachis is the part of the leaf that connects all the leaflets together, and when it has a lot of leaf-tissue on it, it’s considered winged. I don’t know if this serves any biological purpose, but it makes them look really cool.

that bug is standing over the rachis, which is winged in this picture
the bug is standing over the rachis (winged in this picture)

Mini-lecture of the day: cloud forests

We went to a highland tropical forest today. When I say highland forests (that is, a forest up on a mountain) perhaps you imagine somewhere dry and cold, with packed soil and sparse vegetation.

Try again. Think wet–clouds of mist that frequently condense into rain. Think warm enough to wander around in a t-shirt. Think mud, sucking at your boots and splashing onto your clothes. And think green–trees, palms, vines, epiphytes, ferns, mosses–everywhere you look. Got it?

This was much more of an experiential learning trip, so think about following along with our group. There’s twenty one of us, including our professor and two TA’s, and we’re all ready with our hiking boots and backpacks. The trail is our version of fun: steep climbs up, steep drops/slides down, with lots of cool things to look at along the way. At one point a green railing has been added to the slide of the trail to make the steps easier, but much of it has fallen sideways or slid with the mud, so we’re holding onto it as we go, and occasionally swinging under or climbing over it. There’s lots of laughter, and a few slips, and mud all over the place, and it’s fantastic.

We can’t help commenting to each other: “we could be sitting in a lecture hall right now!”

At the same time, we did learn a fair bit. We saw flowers, commonly called “hot lips” because of their shape and bright red color, which are in the Rubiacaea family (so is coffee). We saw thick, woody lianas and thin green vines. And now, when we hear about how cloud forests are areas where mist condenses into clean water that trickles down to other areas of the forest, or about the extremely high biodiversity in the cloud forests, we know what that actually means. We’ve seen it, we’ve smelt it, we’ve touched it. Cloud forests have a meaning to us, one that leaps off the page, and across our path.

Mini-lecture of the day: Antlions

I would like to share some little snippets of what I’m learning with you. While I won’t have internet access every day, on the days that I do, I’m going to post a short note about some topic I find interesting. It could be an animal, a plant, or a theoretical topic in ecology.

We took an orientation walk in the forest today, guided by Smithsonian researcher Hector Barrios and our course instructor, Yves Basset. Dr. Barrios taught us interesting information about common plants and herbivores as we observed the vibrance life surrounding us. At one point, he had us stop to look at some small circles in a sandy area of the trail, and asked if we could guess what they were.

“Antlions?” I asked, rather hesitantly. Yves heard me and nodded, and I said it again more confidently. Thank you, YSI animal curators.

An antlion is an insect that in its adult form looks rather like a skinny dragonfly. More interesting is the antlion larvae, which are carnivorous. They dig small pits in sandy soil, and wait for other small insects to walk by. Insects will frequently slip on the edges of the pits, and fall down toward the antlion, which quickly strikes and grabs its prey with its mandibles. There were ten to fifteen of these small traps, and we spent a few minutes poking them gently with twigs, getting the antlions to shift and snap. Yves dug up one of the antlions for us to see more closely: it was brown, with a hard, segmented shell, and scurried around quickly until it was dropped back into the sand.

antlion nest
antlion nest


Antlion larva
Antlion larva


Semester in Panama

I’m spending my spring semester studying in Panama. I’ll be doing fieldwork and small research projects in various places in the country, mostly around the Canal Zone.




My first three-week course will take me to Pipeline Road in Gamboa (1), Parque Natural Metropolitan0 (2), Ft. Sherman in San Lorenzo (3), and a single-day visit to Altos de Campana (4). We’ll also spend some time on the weekends in Panama City.



I’m really excited to explore take pictures in all of these wonderful places–and that’s just the first three weeks! Check out my photos here.

leafcutter ants carrying flower petals

Agoutis are like squirrels, only cuter

I taught summer camp for many years at a park with lots of birds, beetles, lizards, and deer. And ground squirrels. Enough ground squirrels that it felt like at least one was always in sight, and on any given patch of grass there would be two or three or twenty. They dug around in the grass, chased each other up trees, and chattered obnoxiously. These squirrels were unafraid of people, and consequently constant pests: we had to keep the kids’ lunches closed up in boxes at all times so they wouldn’t steal any of them, and I chased squirrels away from our group at every meal time.

To me, they were drab, dull, and annoying. But to the kids, these squirrels were AWESOME. Every squirrel we passed on a trail was a new discovery, to be exclaimed over and talked about. Furthermore, a squirrel approaching the group wasn’t a pest, it was funny. So, so funny, as it skittered around, shuffled forward, or dodged away. We saw a lot of other interesting wildlife, but those squirrels were always in favor.

I just couldn’t understand the appeal.

Yesterday, a couple of us went on a walk around Gamboa. I saw well-preserved old houses, a few leafcutter ants, beautiful views of the tropical treetops, a couple vultures, and many smaller birds. It was hot and sunny and really pretty. As we headed back, we saw a medium-sized rodent, called an agouti, standing on someone’s grass. It dug around in the grass, and ate something it found there. And it was so cool! We stood there for a couple minutes, entranced by the way it looked, the way it moved, and just how calm it was around us.

That evening I realized that if I had grown up with agoutis all over the place, this one would have been just an ordinary rodent, looking for food. I think this is one of my favorite things about traveling to new places: the little differences that open our eyes to all of the amazing things we take for granted, and the chance to drop any jaded reaction and look at our surroundings like kids, excited by everything we see.