#LoaGlobal: LoaTree Goes to Panama

Setting the Scene with STRI

IMG_7659I have recently embarked on a journey to Panama City where I have been accepted into a research program with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. STRI is a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution based outside of the United States – dedicated to understanding biological diversity. It was established in 1923 and works with nearly 40 permanent staff scientists who study everything from the decline of coral reefs to the social behavior of wasps.

Smithsonian first became involved in Panama in the early 1900s around the time the Panama Canal was created in an effort to understand local plant and animal life as well as study and protect against major diseases propagated by insects such as yellow fever and malaria. Interest in the region’s biodiversity quickly grew and the original survey area grew from focusing solely on the canal-zone to encompass all of Panama (STRI now boasts seven research stations across Panama). It wasn’t until the research station on Barro Colorado Island (BCI) was established as a reserve, however, that scientists began to flock to the region to deeply study and describe the flora and fauna. Notably, BCI is one of the first such reserves in the Americas.

toucanPanama’s unique geography provides scientists with the opportunity to document how the advent of the Isthmus has divided marine species from the Caribbean and Pacific, as well as how it’s allowed plants and animals of North and South American to co-mingle.  STRI is a veritable cultural and intellectual melting pot that attracts students and experts from around the world and gives them the chance to not only learn about different cultures, but exchange thoughts and ideas as well.

In addition to facilitating the research of countless residents and visiting scientists, STRI boasts an impressive array of academic programs that range from short-term internships to graduate field-courses to long-term fellowships that span diverse areas of interest such as archeology and anthropology, behavior, conservation, ecology, and evolution. Regardless of the duration or focus of a given project, STRI’s goal is to educate up-and-coming scientists and change-makers on the origins, maintenance and preservation of biodiversity here in the tropics.

Learning Panama

IMG_7596For the next six months I will be working alongside Dr. Aaron O’Dea and various other lab members to quantify the effects of trophic cascades from overfishing.  Our hope is that this information will be used to construct accurate ecological baselines  of what past ecosystems looked like, so that future conservation efforts can be better managed.

Tune in next time for “The Scientists and the Case of the Disappearing Pristine Ecosystem” to learn more about what we do in Aaron O’Dea’s Paleobiology Lab!

While my series of upcoming blogs will be centered more on my internship with STRI as opposed to my personal travels and experiences around Central America (you can check those ramblings on my blog here), I thought I would offer some of my initial thoughts after being here for nearly one month, just to give anyone who hasn’t been to Panama an idea of what living here is like.


1. Getting anywhere in a taxi or bus takes at least 20 minutes.
2. Buses have no real schedule.
3. Driving here requires no lanes or signal of intent to change lanes (and it is certainly not limited to driving on the road – shoulders are fair game!).
4. Seat belts are merely decor. They serve no purpose because nobody wears them.
5. There are two prices: one for people from Panama and one for everyone else.
6. Everyone who lives here thinks it’s hot (which makes me feel better about constantly being sweaty), but people believe pants are “more practical” (and look more professional than my running shorts and old tank tops).
7. Plantains are the answer to everything.
8. Car horns are a language unto themselves, with a single honk from a cab ranging in meaning anything from “Do you want me to drive you somewhere?” to “My cab is full” to “I have no passengers, but I have no intention of stopping to give you a ride, but I wanted to let you know that I have a functioning horn.”

Stay tuned for my next update as LoaTree continues its explorations around the planet. #LoaGlobal.

All content and photos by Catherine Courtier.





Images Courtesy of: 1). Map of Panama

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