Saturday, March 31, 2012


     Slow updates seem to be becoming a habit.  My life continues to center around collecting butterflies and feeding larvae, with occasional bonfires, barbecues, and movie-nights to break up the monotony. 
    I’ve also spent a lot of time this past week battling bureaucracy, as I apply for a Mission International driver’s license that will allow me to continue driving in Panama beyond the three month period allowed to US citizens with valid licenses.  I’ve been to the US Consulate (nice complex on the outside, well-guarded yet still depressing DMV on the inside) to get my driver’s license notarized, the Panamanian Department of Foreign Affairs division of Authentication and Identification to have my license further examined, and to a health clinic to get some blood tests performed (I’ve rediscovered my O-positive blood type, and a blood glucose test has confirmed that I’m not diabetic!). 
    Anyway, on to the interesting stuff (also, the next science break should be posted soon):
One of the roads I collect on, covered in purple flowers.

This Giant Red-winged Grasshopper (Tropidacris cristata) landed on our window screen...

...and eventually broke in to terrify me in the kitchen.  Fortunately, my roommate had a net, and he caught it. 

Right now many of the passion vines (Passiflora)  are flowering.  This is menispermifolia, the host plant of one of the butterfly species I study.

A small snake in the forest.

Riding in the resort gondolas up to a canopy tower on top of a hill near my house.

The resort's canopy tower, offering great views of Gamboa and the canal.

The Panama Canal, as seen from the tower.  The section of canal just south of Gamboa, seen here, is the Gaillard cut, which goes through the continental divide.

The Chagres river, which feeds the Canal and Lake Gatun.

Gamboa in the foreground, canal in the background.

The dredging ship's pipeline burst a (rather large) leak.

Neat little bug on the canopy tower.

Heliconius cydno, one of our study species.  Note how the underside of the wing has an indistinct brown pattern.

Heliconius sapho, cydno's mimic.  You can tell them apart because sapho has a very distinct red pattern on the underside of the wing.

I almost walked face-first into this rather large spider.

A walking stick insect hanging out on the side of my house.

Monday, March 12, 2012


   Well, it’s been a while since my last post, but there hasn’t been a whole lot to report.  I continue to spend the majority of my days caring for caterpillars and searching for butterflies in the forest. 

    Feeding the caterpillars is a pretty simple business, though it can get rather tedious.  They eat rather a lot, and require very fresh bits of leaf, so we have to feed them every day.  We keep them in small plastic cups (as you can see below), and each day we clean out the cups, put in a small piece of water-soaked cotton (to keep things from drying out), and give the caterpillar some new leaf (different species get different plants, but all the caterpillars eat some type of Passiflora, which are a type of tropical vines that include the passion-fruit). 

A Heliconius melpomene larvae awaiting new food.

The table at the insectaries where I feed larvae.

A pretty flower in the forest (that I think might be some type of Passiflora).
    On my collecting trips in the forest, I continue to see neat wildlife.  A few days ago, for example, I saw an antbird following an ant swarm.  Various species of ants in the tropics go on foraging raids, leaving the nest in large groups to find food.  Some bird species take advantage of these raids by following along and eating the insects that the ants rustle up.

Ant swarm (though they're a bit hard to see).

The antbird, looking for food.
   The research with the butterflies is going fairly well.  Mostly we’ve been focusing on establishing strong stocks of the two species that we’re studying.  One aspect of our research involves mating the two species together and raising hybrid offspring (I’ll discuss this more in future science breaks).  A hybrid female emerged from her pupae a few days ago, and I’ve attached a picture of her below, as well as photos of the two parental species.

Heliconius melpomene.  All that white material on the proboscis is pollen.  Heliconius eat pollen, a rare behavior in butterflies.  Some scientists hypothesize that the diet of pollen helps increase longevity; Heliconius live a long time for butterflies.

I found this picture of a Heliconius cydno on the internet, as I've been here for two months and haven't remembered to take on myself yet.
A hybrid offspring, produced by mating a H. melpomene male with a H. cydno female. You can see that the color pattern is very different.

Finally, I went to a new beach this weekend.  This time I thought of you, my loyal readers, and took  some pictures.

The view from one of our rented roof-things.

Another view, with an island in the distance.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

2/14/12-2/23/12, and Science Break 1

    Well, my weekdays haven’t been too interesting (more feeding larvae and collecting butterflies), but I had a really nice weekend (Feb 18-19).  On Saturday I woke up early, clambered into a van with 11 other researchers, and went to a beach about two hours away.  It was quite idyllic: black sand, thatched cabanas, waves perfectly-sized for body surfing, and not a shark, jellyfish, or sharp rock in sight.  I spent most of the day shredding the gnar, but also did my fair share of lounging around, eating junk food.  It was, in a word, fantastic.
    As you probably know, I’m posting this right around the start of Lent, which means that the past week or so in Panama has been Carnival (perhaps most famously celebrated in Brazil).  We here at STRI celebrated Carnival last Sunday.  Gamboa is a rather small place, and our celebration was also rather small.  We divided Gamboa in half, and each “neighborhood” made a parade float out of a truck and nominated a queen to dance on the float.  We had a very short, very small “culeco” around Gamboa, which is a parade with music and water fighting.  The parade quickly dissolved into just a water fight, which lasted for a few hours,  Then we dried off, fired up some grills, and had a massive barbecue, which evolved into a party that went late into the night. 
    Unfortunately for my readers, I was too busy enjoying myself to catalog these experiences with photos, so I don’t have any to post.  Instead, I have something just as enthralling as pictures: science!

Science Break 1- Species

    The easy way to explain what I do here in Panama is to say “I use butterflies to study evolution.”  I thought I might try to expand on that with some posts that actually explain the science I’m doing. My hope is that I’ll be able to explain everything in simple enough terms that my even my readers whose high school biology classes were decades ago will be able to understand.  Feel free to post questions in the comments and I can try to clarify things.
    I’ll start by looking at a word that we all know and use, but don’t often think deeply about: “species.”  We all know that, say, tigers and mosquitoes are different species, but hardly ever think about why that is.  In evolutionary biology, “species” can be defined in a number of ways, but perhaps the most common definition is the biological species concept, which says that species are defined by whether or not populations (groups of organisms) can mate with each other and produce viable offspring.  Populations that can’t interbreed are separate species.  Populations that can interbreed are the same species.  When populations can’t mate with each other, we also say they are “reproductively isolated.”  Reproductive isolation is simply a measure of populations’ inability to mate with each other.  We can apply these definitions to a real world example.  Tigers and mosquitoes can’t mate with each other and produce tigsquitoes, thus they are reproductively isolated and are separate species. 
    Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as the tigsquito example.  Take horses and donkeys, for instance. We consider them different species, yet they can mate and produce a hybrid, mules. Are donkeys and horses part of the same species? The answer, unsurprisingly, is no. Mules are sterile, which means they aren’t “viable offspring”, and thus horses and donkeys really are separate species. 
    Looking at these two examples, we see that there are different levels of reproductive isolation, even between things that are definitely species.  Tigers and mosquitoes are (in comparison to each other) slightly more reproductively isolated than horses and donkeys:  the former can’t mate at all, while the latter can, but produce sterile offspring.  Reproductive isolation, then, exists along a continuum.  One pole is zero reproductive isolation: the organisms within population(s) can mate with each other and produce offspring with no problem. At the other pole, we have total reproductive isolation: the populations can't mate with each other at all.  In between, things can get pretty tricky, but I won’t discuss that until my next entry, which will be on speciation: they process of creating new species. 

Monday, February 13, 2012


    I’ve been mostly on my own for the last week, as my boss has been taking a course in a new molecular genetics technique at Naos, the STRI laboratory facilities.  As such, my week hasn’t been too exciting, filled mostly with collecting butterflies and feeding caterpillars. Here are some highlights.

    I had Feb. 4 off, so I slept in, made a nice breakfast, and then went into Panama City with another researcher for the afternoon.  We got a ride to the main terminal, then took a taxi to casco viejo, the older and more touristically desirable part of the city.  Taxi rides in Panama City can be interesting.  Most taxis are meterless and privately operated: fares are determined by negotiation before the ride begins.  My obvious gringo-ness and woeful Spanish skills make me an easy target, so I’ve been quickly learning what fair prices are for various trips around the city so that I don’t get ripped off.  On this day we found an agreeable cab driver who immediately put in a “Musica en Ingles” CD (included "Total Eclipse of the Heart") once we got in the cab, told us about the differences between male and female cops, and spoke appreciatively of the muchachas in Panama.
    After our arrival in casco we got some fancy gelato, then wandered around and took in the views.  Casco viejo (and I suppose Panama City in general) is an interesting mix of the developed and undeveloped.  One block might be developed, with nice restaurants and clubs, and the next street over will be full of semi-collapsed houses and trash.
    On Thursday the 9th I went to Barro Colorado Island (BCI), an island in Lake Gatun/the Panama Canal.  Once a hilltop in the forest, BCI became an island upon the flooding of the forest when the canal was constructed, and the Smithsonian has maintained a base there for almost 100 years.  I went  to see a talk there on Thursday night, and then stayed until Friday morning.  It was a great place to visit: the forest is more pristine than the area around Gamboa, and the trails are far less invasive.  I saw an anteater, howler monkeys, and capuchins.  The ride to and from the island was also noteworthy.  Our small boat shared the waterway with the massive Panamax cargo ships that are constantly traversing the canal.  It was incredible to see them (fairly) up close. 

    Overall, the last few days have been going well: the weather has been extremely nice, I’ve become quite confident driving around Gamboa in a manual transmission truck, and I even saw two common basilisks (perhaps better known as the Jesus Christ lizard) run across water.

Hazy day, but a view of fishing boats, with Panama City in the background.

The Titan floating crane, one of the largest in the world.  The only surviving model of three such cranes built by Nazi Germany, it was captured by the US and used in California before going to Panama in 1999.

When we catch butterflies, we store them in glassine envelopes until we get them back to the insectaries.

One of our study species: Heliconius melpomene rosina. Notice how the yellow band on the lower wing doesn’t extend all the way to the edge of the wing.

A Jesus Christ Lizard, not currently running miraculously.
Heliconius erato, a mimic of our study species.  It has very few visible differences, the major one being that the yellow band on the lower wing extends all the way to the wing edge.

A crane (or possibly an egret).

BCI research base.

A cargo ship on the canal.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


    The last few days have seen me settle into something of a routine:  in the morning I go out (sometimes alone, sometimes with others) to collect butterflies, in the afternoons I do various work in the insectaries, mostly taking care of larvae.  Some other happenings of note:
    On the 29th I had a glorious day off, spent doing nothing more than reading in a hammock all day.
    On the 31st we took a trip into Panama city to take care of some administrative stuff and get my STRI driver’s license at the main STRI campus.  Afterwards, we went to a different, incredibly fancy mall (think Cartier, Tiffany’s, and Hermes) to buy a few supplies and go see a movie at the “VIP Theater,” which has leather recliners for seats, waiters who deliver food, and costs about what you’d pay for a normal movie in the US.
    The 1st commenced with manual transmission driving lessons, as I’d managed to make it this far without ever learning to drive stick, and all the STRI trucks are manual.  Fortunately, I knew how to drive stick in theory, and the trucks here, with clutches flogged by hundreds of first-timers like me, are very forgiving.  However, we did get stranded outside of Gamboa for a few hours when a Canal Authority truck (carrying liquid dynamite for dredging) crashed on the one-lane bridge into Gamboa and had to be lifted off with a crane. 

    Up until this point, I didn’t have internet at my apartment, so uploading pictures and movies wasn’t easy.  I now have internet, so I’ll be able to post those more often.

A lake in the forest, at the end of a trail we collect on.

A howler monkey

A family of howlers.

Small waterfall in the forest.

A capuchin monkey in the distance.

Neat buttress-type roots on a giant tree.

Scary spider

Driving along a path in the forest.

Friday, January 27, 2012



25th-    Finally, we caught one of the butterflies we need.  After about 4 hours of collecting, we hadn’t seen any and were ready to head back, but one fluttered by, I caught it, and now we at least know that there are a few of the around this time of year.  Also, we saw a massive iguana crossing the road.  The rest of the day was spent working on various small projects in the insectaries.

26th-  We got off to an early start again, and were unsuccessful all morning looking for the proper butterflies.  Two other researchers had come with us, and we all stopped for lunch at a cafe 15 minutes outside of Gamboa, called Pan y Canela (Bread and Cinnamon).  We consoled ourselves with coffee, pastries, and batidos - fruit juice mixed with milk.  I had mine with lulo juice, which was excellent.  Lulo is a tropical fruit I’d never heard of before, more info here:  After lunch we stopped at another site along the road, and were rewarded with three of the butterflies we need.  Unfortunately, they were all males (we need some of each), but we were happy to have made some more progress.  After we got back to Gamboa I fed some butterfly larvae (a.k.a. caterpillars), then went for a run (very humid, but the heat isn’t terrible if you wait til sunset) and had dinner.

27th- We had another long morning of searching for butterflies, and unfortunately we came up empty handed, though we did find one butterfly egg, which seems to be from the right species and hopefully will grow into a happy, healthy adult.  We also saw a family of howler monkeys.  I think I got a decent video of them and their howling, and once I get better internet access I’ll try to upload it and some other pictures.  For lunch we ate at the fondo, which is basically a food truck in town.  There are three or four of these about, and the one we picked today was serving a big portion of rice, lentils, and macaroni, plus a sweet juice drink with a name I can’t remember, for $2.  It was a nice, cheap, and easy break from the PB&Js I’d been eating for lunch for the past week.  After lunch I fed larvae, ant-proofed some tables (which consists of putting a band of petroleum grease on all the legs), then came to the computer labs to upload this blog entry.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Tuesday the 24th started with another early morning of butterfly collecting, and unfortunately the results were the same:  after 3.5 hours of hiking, we hadn’t caught any of the necessary butterflies, but we saw some neat wildlife.  This time, it was a family of howler monkeys in the trees, including a mother carrying a baby.

    We broke off a bit early for an afternoon seminar.  Every Tuesday, the main administrative campus in Panama city hosts a talk with drinks and snacks afterwards.   They’re called “Tupper talks” because the campus in Panama City is the Tupper center, named after none other than Earl Tupper of Tupperware fame, who made a sizable donation to the Smithsonian.  The talks are fairly popular, as STRI provides a free shuttle from Gamboa, so it’s an easy way to escape from Gamboa for a bit.
      The Tupper talks are also popular in Gamboa because the return shuttle stops and picks people up from El Rey, the grocery store.  So, after the talk, fifteen or so of us went and got dinner near El Rey, bought supplies, and then went back to Gamboa.


I wrote this entry on the 23rd, my third full day in Panama, but couldn’t post it immediately.  Whenever you’re reading this, here’s a (in the end not very) brief summary of my first days in Panama.

    My flight got in around 10 pm (Panama is in eastern time) on Friday the 20th, and I had little trouble getting through security, clearing customs, and meeting up with Richard, the post-doc from Cambridge who is my boss on the project. On our way to Gamboa we stopped at El Rey, a grocery store that is open late and has a surprising amount of American brands and products (Shasta soda, Milwaukee’s Best beer, and, thank God, Jiff Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter).  I picked up enough food to last a few days, then settled into my new apartment in Gamboa, which I’ll write more about later.

    Saturday morning I woke up at 7:30, ate breakfast (I found Malt-o-Meal bagged frosted flakes at El Rey!), and went into the rainforest with Richard to try and catch some butterflies, as our research stocks had been depleted and we needed more.  We hiked ~6-7 miles, and though we found many butterflies, we didn’t see any of the species we study.  We did, however, see agoutis, two toucans, and heard some howler monkeys. 

    When I got back to the apartment I had pizza with my flatmate and a couple other research assistants who live in the building.  That night a large contingent of Gamboites rode the bus into Panama City for a free concert.  The stage was at one end of the Plaza Cattedral in casco viejo, the old part of the city, and the main event was, I’m pretty sure, Tito Puente Jr, though I couldn’t really understand his banter with the crowd. The music was fun, especially the obligatory rendition of “Oye como va.”  After the concert there was a massive gathering of Smithsonian researchers at an apartment in the city, and I had some delicious tequenos from a grubby little restaurant nearby before catching a ride back to Gamboa.

    Sunday brought another early start, more hiking, and more unsuccessful attempts at catching butterflies (although I did make my first captures, they weren’t the right species).  Once again, the wildlife made the hiking worth it, as we saw some interesting vultures and a rather large caiman.  That afternoon I took a very long nap, made dinner, and then watched a movie with a few other researchers.

    That brings us to today.  In the morning I learned how to feed the caterpillars, then Richard and I headed to the main administration campus of the Smithsonian in Panama City.  The goal was to get registered and get my ID card, but the bureaucracy at STRI is legendary and we were foiled by secretarial apathy and an extensive lunch break.  Instead, we went to a mall to buy various supplies.  I’m sure I’ll write more about the mall later, as it’s adjacent to the bus terminal and I’ll be spending a lot of time there. For now, I’ll just say that it is the largest mall I’ve ever been to in my life, and it has a Cinnabon but no Auntie Anne’s.

    We rode the bus back to Gamboa, and I went back to my apartment to cook some dinner, as it was already late afternoon and I was starving.  After eating, I walked back into my kitchen and there on the floor was a cockroach so gigantic that at first I thought it was a small mouse.  He escaped, but I’ll be ready next time. 

    Tomorrow I’ll be waking up very early so we can drive to some new collection spots before it gets too hot.  Fortunately, I bought coffee-making supplies at the mall, so I no longer have to go through mornings un-caffeinated.  Hopefully we’ll have good luck with the butterflies.

    On a brief blog administration note:  I’m not sure how often I’ll be updating things, and I doubt that I’ll always have the time or energy to go to this post’s level of detail, but I hope you enjoy the blog.  Leaving comments might make me more likely to update.  And, if you have questions about certain things, ask me in the comments and I can try to answer. 


    For everyone who hasn’t yet heard about my new job in Panama, here’s the pertinent information, grade-school-reporter style.

    If you don’t know, leave my blog, stranger.

    Research assistant at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

    Gamboa, Panama, about an hour outside of Panama City.

    To study speciation in butterflies.

How (long)?
    I’ll be in Panama for about a year, until next December 2012 or January 2013.