Panama: a tropical odyssey

For an enhanced experience, read all narrations with the velvety voice of a certain British Naturalist.

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The Isthmus of Panama. Just a few million years old, the formation of this stretch of land is perhaps the most recent major geological change on our planet. Joining the North and South American continents, the rise of the isthmus separated the massive Pacific and Atlantic oceans, creating the vibrant Caribbean Sea, and the climate-defining Gulf Stream. On it, you observe a convergence of both oceans and continents that define the biological diversity observed, and creating a series of ecosystems both variable and interconnected. To study these, an international collaboration of scientist arduously travelled the isthmus, painstakingly documenting life on every single ecosystem: from the rain forest of La Fortuna, to the coral reefs of Bocas del Toro. Here presented is the realization of their effort in this magnificent tropical odyssey.

Butterflies of the genus Heliconius display some of the most marvelous examples of rapid speciation, divergence and mimicry. Their wing color patterns have been of interest to scientists for almost 200 years. Their study by 19th century naturalists is now considered fundamental for the development of modern biology and evolutionary theory. To this day, researchers travel up and down the isthmus of Panama in search of some these charismatic insects. They are commonly observed fluttering through the rainforest while feeding on passion vine nectar. Catching them, however, is not often an easy task. They might be small, but their scale-covered wings allow them to smoothly traverse through the air and effortlessly out-maneuver capture by eager researchers.   

With a queen, soldiers, foragers and even a specialized garbage crew, leaf-cutter ants (Atta cephalotes) have a highly complex society rivaling our own. These marvelous creatures can be found in colonies with members ranging in the hundreds of thousands and even millions. All leaf cutter ants are equipped with powerful serrated jaws, like a cutting knife, allowing them to easily cut leaves as if they were butter to spread on your morning toast. Of course, with that power and workforce you can defoliate a tropical tree in a matter of hours as we see in this snippet. But then, one might ask the question of what do these beings do with the leaves? Some scientists consider ants as the first farmers of this world, as they do not actually eat the leaves they so carefully collect, they use them to grow a fungus that becomes both their food and their living space. Be extra cautious when studying these remarkable critters, as they defend their colonies fiercely and will slit whatever is in their path (including unassuming researchers fingers) to protect it.

Here we see the breeding display of the Lance-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia lanceolata). Lance-tailed manakins often perform their spectacular displays in pairs consisting of an alpha and beta male on communal breeding grounds called leks. In a successful dancing team, only the alpha male mates with the female. Here we can see the alpha and beta performing a leapfrog dance to impress the visiting female. As the alpha male sticks his landing and tries to seal the deal with a finishing back and fourth display, the female assess. She does not look impressed. Better lek next time.

Next we witness the bemusing huddle behavior of the Greater Ani (Crotophaga major). Greater Anis are cooperative breeding birds that make and defend a communal nest. All of the females will lay their eggs together and every member of the group will assist in raising the young. Here we have two mated pairs and a guard doing a huddle display. Researchers believe this could be a group bonding behavior or a show of strength and cohesion to rival breeding cooperatives. However, not all is well for our extended Ani family. After the others have departed, a lone female comes back to the nest. Knowing that this first egg is not her own, she ejects it from the nest, hopeful that she can fill the nest with a higher proportion of her own eggs to be cared for by her groupmates. She looks over the edge at her devious handy work. The dirty deed completed, she retreats before detection.

Desmodus rotundus, more commonly known as the vampire bat, can be found all across the Americas, particularly in the tropics. Here, we see one of their less-known behaviors: the sharing of blood meals. Vampire bats must drink approximately half their weight in blood every night to survive, and missing meals can rapidly lead to starvation. To counter this, vampire bats successful in obtaining a meal will regurgitate part of it with unsuccessful bats, even if they are unrelated. Exactly what drives this altruism is an active area of research, with consideration being given towards the previously recognized models of altruism, or helping one’s kin, and reciprocity, or helping another with the expectation of help in the future. Though this footage observes this behavior in a captive population of bats, this activity has also been recorded in wild populations as well.

Right under the glistening surface of the ocean we dive into the mysterious world of lush seagrass meadows. One slowly submerges into a sensation of peacefulness as the grass calmly sways in tact with the ocean waves, lightly being touched by the intricate, moving patterns of light originating from the distant sun. Here, we are lucky to catch the sight of two marvellous Brachyuran crabs. They masterfully employ their enormous claws to cut loose small pieces of seagrass while also showing tremendous skill in using a variety of other appendages to hold on the substrate and feed at the very same time. Now, this peaceful scene is suddenly disturbed as both crabs lay claims on particularly promising part of the meadow. While they encircle each other we witness the magnificent display of their claws. Soon they will engage in a graceful yet violent dance in which death looms for the contenders.

The last video displays a group of Homo sapiens sapiens feeding on a specialized diet consisting of nutty paste and fruit preserve layers between a flat dough of unknown flour and water. This diet has been observed in previous primate dietary studies (Arias and McMillan 2015) and is highly specific to certain groups whose members wear strange clothing and large rubber footwear. While most Homo sapiens usually have a consistent range and social structure, this particular group exhibits an unusual fission-fusion society, where subgroups have been observed to break off and predate on spider webs in certain parts of the forest. It is yet unknown what causes this behavior, but some researchers hypothesize it to be a form of entertainment.

This documentary is a collaborative effort from the 2017 STRI Tropical Ecology Field Course Participants.

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Photo by Heather Stewart

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