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Twenty-Two Reptiles, Toucans, and a Thousand Plants: Biodiversity in Panama

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Isla Barro Colorad
How many names of plants do you know? How about names of animals? You probably came up with at least ten or twenty of each, maybe a few dozen more if you really know your stuff. Now try this one on for size: on Isla Barro Colorado, a little island in Panama, biologists have recorded 1,316 plant species, 381 bird species, and 102 mammal species. That's just on one island in a middle of a small country with over 1600 islands. Now that's biodiversity!!

Justin, who we met at the hostel in Panama City, told me about Isla Barro Colorado. This island rests in the middle of Lago Gatun, the artificial lake created between the Atlantic and Pacific locks of the Panama Canal. On the island are, according to Justin, "toucans and ocelots, and hundreds of different kinds of plants." His girlfriend, Melanie, is working there through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (you'll remember that the Smithsonian has a collection of museums in Washington, D.C.) as part of the "new frontier of biology." According to Justin, "Shock waves are going to be rippling through the scientific world in the next ten years, and Melanie will be on the crest of those waves." Right now she's been living on the Isla for nine and a half months, studying insects.

In 1923 this island became one of the first biological preserves in the area. Its founders were entomologists and botanists conducting scientific surveys of the flora and fauna in the region, hoping to control the prevalence of yellow fever, malaria, and other diseases spread by insects. Scientists who live there also allow a few visitors to go around the extensive network of trails, but it's tough to get in (you must book a year in advance - but if you're in Panama, call to see if there are any last-minute cancellations to see this biological treasure trove).
Mikel showing me the Panama Canal last week

Mikel Andrade, who took me to visit the Canal, told me that his country, Panama, is host to a huge variety of flora and fauna. "Biodiversity" is the key word here: there are 125 animal species found in Panama that can't find anywhere else in the world, including 56 types of freshwater fish, 22 amphibian species, and 22 different kinds of reptiles.

Panama has also taken great care to protect its biodiversity. I read in our Lonely Planet guidebook that Panama has "no fewer than five protected areas large enough to sustain jaguar and cougar populations." Some animals, like those big cats, need lots of land that is continuous, instead of just a small preserve here and another one there. The Darién Park, for example, is huge. "You can hike in one direction for more than a week and never cross a road." Another guest in our hostel said she was there last week and met with indigenous Embera Indian guides who had last seen tourists in the Darién a year and a half ago. Imagine living in a place where you don't see other people for that long!

We are off to pick up the boat and head out, but before our next dispatches, why don't you take some time to research the biodiversity in your own neighborhood or state? Our theme in Peru is, "The Environment and Development," and as we move into South America and especially as Shawn and Kavitha visit the Amazon River Basin, why don't you let us know what the state of biodiversity is in YOUR region? Send us an e-mail, or participate in a discussion on our Trek Connect page.


Abeja - The Darién Gap: Blow-darts, Guerrillas, and a Mother's Worst Nightmare
Team - HELP! Does Anyone Know How To Get Out Of Panama?!?
Shawn - Panama: The Fifty-first State
Kavitha - American Involvement in Panama: A Just Cause but an Unjust Result
Kevin - A Traveler's Paradise: Yummy Food, Hot Showers, and NO COCKROACHES!!!

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