Over the last week we have left the familiarity of Gamboa and traveled to the research station at Fortuna, Chiriqui Province and then on to Colón Island in Bocas del Toro. These sites are quite different ecologically from what we have seen before.
Fortuna is a montane tropical rainforest that usually has only 40 days per year when it does not rain. It has many distinct ecosystems that can vary over small spatial scales. Colón Island is home to reef and mangrove systems and gives us our first opportunity to investigate marine ecosystems. In both places, spatial variation in ecosystems has been very apparent and has emphasized the incredible diversity of habitats and organisms that can be found in tropical environments.
Spatial variation was very apparent to me when hiking on our first full day in Fortuna. Heading up the steep trail behind our hostel, there was a noticeable lack of insect life. However, after passing over the top of the mountain, I began to see numerous insects. Although formal data has not been published, there is some evidence to suggest that this observation isn’t unfounded. There does appear to be a different and more extensive insect community on one side of the mountain compared to the other, but this hypothesis and its ecological and environmental underpinnings have yet to be completely uncovered.
Rapid ecological transitions were also apparent while snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea near Colón Island. While searching for the perfect chunk of coral rubble amid an expanse of fire coral and Diadema sea urchins, it was clear that there was a definite and sudden transition from a system dominated by coral to one dominated by sea grass. This change seemed to be associated with a change from very shallow to slightly deeper water. There also appeared to be differences within the coral system itself. Each group of three students collected chunks of rubble and extracted its faunal inhabitants later in the day. While there was overlap in the organisms found in each piece, every piece yielded some unique organisms, despite the close proximity of collection sites.
In my research in the next few months, I am hoping to identify environmental and ecological factors that may have contributed to diversification in membracid treehoppers. The extensive environmental variation over short spatial scales that we have observed over the last week has reemphasized to me the importance of obtaining detailed collection site data and has made me excited about the potential patterns my research may uncover.