Monday, July 9, 2018

Day 9- Tranquilo Bay and Visit to the Smithsonian Marine Field Station

After breakfast we were back in the pangas again for a 35 minute boat ride over to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's marine field station on Bocas del Toro's Isla Colon.

Unfortunately our meeting with the Director, Dr. Rachel Collins, was canceled as she was stuck in Panama City and couldn't get a flight into Boca for 2 days. There is only 1 plane that goes in and out of the airport (let's hope we get back to Panama City!). However, one of the division directors, a Panamanian oceanographer who went to school in Brazil, met us on the dock and gave us an excellent overview of the research and the facilities which was then followed by a tour and visits with the scientists.

“From deep time to real time, Bocas del Toro reveals secrets about life.” 

This state of the art, environmentally friendly field research station, Part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Station, hosts more than 300 visiting scientists per year. Scientists arrive from all over the world to ask questions such as why do corals all spawn on the same moonlit night? How does the carbon stored in tropical peat bogs affect global warming? How has the slow isolation of the Bocas islands over the last 900 years created a mini Galapagos? How do excess nutrients affect the growth and ecology of mangrove forests? Will rising temperatures put coral reefs at risk? How do sponges depend on their symbiotic algae? How have sponge communities changed over time? How many species of sponges are there? Do brighter male frogs get more mates? Why do strawberry poison dart frogs have such varied color patterns on Bocas del Toro?

The natural abundance of species here creates the perfect research platform for studies of land and sea life. Many species still remain to be discovered in this tropical ecosystem with its extraordinary biodiversity. We started off with a tour of the diving facilities.

Next we went to the outdoor wet lab. There were a wide variety of research projects taking place here. We met with scientists examining the interrelationships among species surrounding the Bocas del Toro shoreline, and one project involved investigating the effect of temperature and oxygen levels on sponges. How surprising to learn that individual sponge cells can recognize their own and aggregate with ‘likes’ but not ‘unlikes’! They were also looking at the different preferences for sponges that the "decorator crab" uses to adorn its carapace. Hypoxia studies are exploring the critical impact of sediments on organism survival, and the importance of mangrove trees as shoreline filters has been clearly established. We were particularly impressed with the number of young female scientists.

We visited another building where a scientist was studying the different types of poison dart frogs on the islands and why the colors differed from island to island. There were stacks of terror outside containing frogs. We also observed a taxonomy class, attended by doctoral students and scientists from around the world. This particular class was on the taxonomy of marine polychaetes.

In another building researchers were looking at mangroves and scraping, identifying, and counting organisms growing at different levels on the mangrove's above ground root system.
We saw the housing where some of the resident scientists live. Quite nice!    

It was an amazing day for our STEM expedition- a firsthand dose of the science of marine biodiversity and such an appreciation for the vast research conducted by the Smithsonian throughout Panama. It is easy to see now why Panama is considered the hotbed of biodiversity. We wound our way back to the Smithsonian dock and departed for "Boca Town" for lunch and to wander around this funky little bohemian island town.

We returned to the lodge for an afternoon of relaxation, hanging out in the main lodge, snorkeling, kayaking, birding, or just reading, talking, sharing experiences. Livin' the vida loca!

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