Happy May 17th to All!

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Today, May 17th, we celebrate the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. Some of you may ask why we keep bringing the subject up.

 PrideFlagsThe Rainbow Flag of the LGBTQ community flying above the Transgender  Pride Flag (Source: The Independent).

Things change of course. Many members of the LGBTQ community can now shine without fear or hiding. Xavier Dolan is about to present his latest film at the Cannes Festival. One of the foundational plays of Québec theatre, Les Feluettes by Michel-Marc Bouchard, will be brought to the stage for the first time, this Saturday, at the Opera of Montreal. It will be the first-ever homosexual love story in an opera worldwide. The National Assembly now counts a number of LGBTQ MNAs, beginning with Québec solidaire’s Manon Massé who moved the motion ordering that the rainbow flag be raised atop Parliament on this day, a motion that was unanimously approved by the Members of the National Assembly. Even I tasted this freedom as I ran in two provincial elections without my homosexuality, far from being hidden, ever being a subject of debate.

Unfortunately, much is left to tackle. Every day, children and teenagers are ostracized for being different. Suicide cases remain far too common. And no later than Sunday, during the Oliviers Gala, a comedian decided to make a good joke by outing one of his colleagues from the closet… on stage. I am not even going to discuss the situation of LGBTQ people from cultural minorities or who are members of the First Nations. The situation of elderly people isn’t pink either. And let’s mention trans people who’s legal rights to equality are far from reached. In Canada as in the world, much is left to do.

 Things change slowly, at every scale. Last week, we the student Senators of McGill University obtained that the administration review the policies allowing transgender students who’s change of name is not recognized legally to modify their first name in their email addresses, their profile, class lists, student ID card, etc. This modification will now affect employees of McGill University as well. Today, at a larger scale, the Government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will introduce a bill to modify the protections against discrimination in Canada so they apply to transgender people. Things change when we work. Whether you are a member of the LGBTQ community, or an ally, help us eradicate homophobia and transphobia.

 Happy May 17th to all.


Tropical Photography… aka Hell

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I’ve already uploaded a fair number of pictures on this blog. You might have found some pretty good. I am indeed proud of a few shots, including some of those that appear in my vertebrate list, such as the photo of two Chestnut-Mandibled Toucans. These are the rare few good ones. Most of my vertebrate list is composed of good to average pictures. Some are actually terrible like the one American Crocodile picture I have. If you want to have an idea of how many shots it takes to get one decent image, visit my flickr site. All pictures follow each other numerically. You will notice that some pictures are separated by ten, fifteen or even thirty missing numbers. Those missing picture were all terrible shots that were swiftly sent to the garbage. If I only kept pictures I’m actually proud of, they would be 200 or 300 pictures apart. Many issues face tropical photographers, some of which I find particularly troublesome. This blog post is a little introduction to my daily hell, or what can go wrong with a camera in the tropics.

Ramphastos swainsoniiSome scenes thankfully yield one good picture like with these two Chestnut-Mandibled Toucans photographed in Gamboa. Note that, at the exception of cropping, I never modify my pictures with any software (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Crocodylus acutusOther scenes are practically impossible to get right. I tried to photograph this American Crocodile, at night, on Barro Colorado Island, as it was swimming in the Panama Canal more than 20 meters away (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

The first major issue is light. After all, photography is all about registering photons on a chemically treated film, or on a digital sensor. To do that, you need to get some photons (duh!). For those of you who come down to warmer countries for vacations on a beach during the dry season, it might seem like a non-issue. Actually, you might get too much light for a point-and-shoot camera. That’s nothing an SLR camera with a good polarizer and a proper choice of aperture and shutter speed can’t fix. Yet, you will not see interesting wildlife on a tourist-crowded beach. To get some fun critters, you need to go to more natural settings. Tropical rainforests are actually quite dark. The canopy stands 40 or 50 meters above your head, and towers over multiple layers of lianas, trees and shrubs which are terribly effective at catching every ray of light. In a healthy tropical forest, it gets quite dark. It can sometimes be difficult to spot snakes on the path. Whenever a shaft of light does go through and reaches the ground, it is so bright compared to the surroundings that it is simply impossible to get a good picture involving such a bright section. You will either have one blinding white star in the middle of a well-exposed picture, or a well-exposed and well-lit section with pitch-black surroundings. I work in a relatively disturbed forest. On a sunny day, each square meter is mottled by many of these overly-lit spots counterbalanced by a very dark background. Good luck getting a good shot.

Leptotila cassiniThis is one of the best pictures I ever took under a patchy canopy. The darker parts of the image are well exposed, but where incident light was hitting this Gray-Chested Dove, all colour has turned to white due to over-exposure (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Clouds are actually a good thing for tropical photography. When it is cloudy, only diffuse light reaches the ground, and all surfaces seem to be lit the same way. Thankfully, it gets cloudy quite a lot, there’s a reason why such an ecosystem is called a tropical rainforest. A new issue emerges though. When clouds cover the sky, it gets really dark, twilight- dark when a storm is coming (which happens every single day during the rainy season). In this darkness, the only way to get a proper picture is either to augment the ISO sensitivity to the maximum and get a grainy picture (remember that crocodile?), or to reduce the shutter speed to half a second or even slower. Well guess what, most animals try to get away when they see a human being. In half a second, they can move quite a lot, which gives perfectly ridiculous pictures. Obviously, in such conditions, a tripod is an absolute necessity. A flash can help with these problems, but that only works at short distances and even with a diffuser, it is difficult to get a natural-looking picture. Also, the further you need to zoom, the less light enters your lens. So the darker it gets, the closer you need to be from an animal to get an acceptable portrait.

BLURRY BIRDLet’s just say that any attempt at identification will prove difficult. I tried to photograph this bird in Chagres National Park. With a long exposure time, you really need the subject to stay still (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Speaking of the rainy season, it seems like an obvious statement, but cameras and water do not mix. Showers here are impossible to predict, sudden, and will drench you to the bone. I need to keep all my equipment in little dry-sacks to protect it. That means every time I switch from my telephoto lens (to photograph far-away subjects like birds) to my macro lens (to get close-ups of insects), I need to open my backpack, open a dry-sack, take the lens I was using off my camera, put the new one on, protect the other one and start shooting. Most animals are gone by then. That’s if I’m lucky. If I am not, fog will have condensed on the camera’s sensor during the switch, and that means no more pictures on that day, or until I can get the camera back to an air-conditioned room and wait for that water to evaporate again.

Fog is really the worst part of it. The rainy season is now well on its way. Ambient humidity often reaches 98%. At this level of saturation, water will condense on anything. If you make the mistake of getting out of an air-conditioned vehicle with your camera in hand, it will get completely wet. When I get to the field, I simply have to let my camera acclimate in its dry-sack (which gets wet outside) for a few minutes before pulling it out. The problem with condensation in the tropics is that, since the air is already at saturation, that condensation only goes away very slowly. Wiping your lens will not help, it will only fog up again immediately. I spend an inordinate amount of time waving my camera around gently, while keeping my attention on both an animal to follow its movements and my lens to see when it is fog-free enough to hope for a good picture.

EuchromaThis Euchroma specimen was ready for a photo shoot. But in Chagres National Park, fog decided otherwise (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Basically, unequal lighting, too little light, and fog are my three banes when it comes to photography. I could not forget, and therefore, award an honourable mention to mosquitoes and ants. Yes, mosquitoes are numerous, and can be distracting when framing the perfect shot. Since good photography is also about getting the good angle, I often move around quite a lot to get the right frame. Sadly, with my little side steps, I walked straight into bullhorn acacias a few times. These plants are protected by armies of ants that have a nasty sting.

14168644000_8607c3d1c1_cThe last thing you want is to brush against a bullhorn acacia. These little ants are ruthless (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

For those of you that are not yet convinced, I’ve adapted the “Dingométhode, l’école des explorateurs”, laid by the famous French comic artist Gotlib, for tropical photography training. On the evening prior to your training, try to collect as many live mosquitoes as possible (a couple hundred will do). First off, you will need to get into your bathroom. Place a subject for your photograph such as a potted plant or a basket of fruits somewhere in there. Then, let the water flow in your bathtub or shower at its hottest, the goal is to saturate the room with water vapor. Make sure the bathroom light is turned off, your bathroom window is probably brighter than a rainforest is. In the absence of a window, a small camping light should do the trick. If you own an electric kettle, use duct tape to secure the power button so that it keeps going after reaching a boil. Fill the kettle with water, and plug it in the bathroom. Release the hungry mosquitoes and close the door. As the bathroom slowly turns into a wet sauna, move to your closet to get yourself ready. You will need heavy long pants, heavy socks (preferably woolen socks), hiking boots or rubber boots, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. Cover all of this with your favourite mosquito repellant, set aside to dry. While the repellant dries, fill a hiking bag with useless weight. You need at least the equivalent of two liters of water, field equipment, a lunch, a complete change of clothes and all your photography equipment, so plan for at least 5 kilos (that’s for half a day of field work, for more, add the weight of the extra water). Grab your mosquito-repellant clothes, walk to your kitchen and soak all these clothes and your boots with water (it will have most likely rained on you by the time you want to take a picture). Dress up with the wet garments. Make sure your heavy pants are tucked into your woolen socks and your long-sleeved shirt is tucked into your pants. In real life, you do this to keep away mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, ants, botflies, spiny plants, etc. Put on your heavy hiking bag. Take your camera and bravely walk in your bathroom closing the door behind you. Stand there for five minutes to make sure the mosquitoes notice you and to start getting sweaty (soaking your clothes should have removed most of the repellant, just like in real life). You are now ready, get as far from your subject as you can, aim your camera towards it and try to take a picture. Having trouble? You might now have a little idea of what it feels like. By the way, if any of you have vacations in June or July, you are welcome to spend them with me in Panama.

GOTLIBA special thanks to my dad, Marc Chatel, who managed to dig up a copy of the “Truc-en-vrac 2” album by Gotlib, published by Dargaud, from which this tropical photography training is inspired.

Why So Colourful?

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*This blog post was originally published in the “Sous la loupe” section of the Spring 2015 edition of Antennae, the Bulletin of the Entomological Society of Québec.

Who hasn’t felt awestruck at the sight of a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). That feeling is to be expected. As many other insects, the monarch is desperately trying to be seen: it relies on aposematism, a strategy meant to avoid being eaten. A bird will only make the mistake of eating a monarch once. This butterfly is filled with cardenolides, toxic compounds that are acquired during the larval stage as the caterpillar is feeding on milkweed (Asclepias sp.). After this disturbing experience, the disgusted bird will remember to avoid any butterfly sporting bright orange and black wings. Butterflies are not the only fans of this strategy. Aposematism can be found in other insects, such as ladybird beetles, but also among animals as different as poison dart frogs and opistobranchs (colourful marine slugs). Just like the monarch, many species acquire toxic compounds from their food. Other species produce these poisons themselves. And to advertise their toxicity to the world, colour is not the only medium! Many species advertise to predators that it is better to leave them alone through sounds or odours. Simply said, aposematism means telling predators, through a variety of signals, that an animal is well defended.

Danaus gilippus

Danaus gilippus is a close relative of the monarch that can be found in tropical areas. Darién Province, Republic of Panamá (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Aposematism is not a novel discovery. This strategy was first suggested as a mechanism born from evolution by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1866. Even if aposematism is easy to understand, many questions still arise among scientists about this strategy. For example, how did it evolve? Could a butterfly like the monarch have developed it gradually, becoming more orange with each generation? Alternatively, did it evolve through rapid mutation? A lot of research will be needed to answer these questions. Other researchers try to tease apart the role of sexual selection in aposematism. Does a colourful animal have more descendants because predators avoid it, or because sexual partners prefer colourful mates?

Eumaeus godartii

Less well-known than the monarch, Eumaeus godartii (Lycaenidae) is another good example of aposematic butterfly. Chagres National Park, Republic of Panamá (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Another interesting aspect of aposematism is the phenomenal amount of mimetic strategies that arise from it. In Québec, one can meet the viceroy (Limenitis archippus) that, just as the monarch, covers itself in orange and black. But the viceroy is not poisonous! Thanks to this deception, the colours of the monarch allow the viceroy to be avoided by birds. This type of mimetic behaviour is called “Batesian mimicry”. This form of mimicry is also common in many harmless snakes that copy the colourful patterns of extremely venomous coral snakes.

A different situation is possible. What if many toxic species all look alike? If they do, all these species increase their chance of survival if a predator has learned to avoid the shared color pattern. All that is needed is for a predator to have had one bad experience with only one of the mimetic species for all to be protected. This type of mimicry is called “Müllerian mimicry”. Butterflies of the Heliconius genus, found in Central and South America are among the best studied cases. These toxic butterflies have very variable wing patterns, even within a single species. Surprisingly, two different species captured in the same locality look more similar than they do specimens of their respective species collected from far away locations. This regional similarity creates an effective protection for all mimics in the area.


Butterflies of the Heliconius genus and other closely related genera are an excellent example of Müllerian mimicry. Metropolitan Natural Park, Republic of Panamá (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Many scientists are presently working on the mysteries still surrounding aposematism. Some use the latest genomic techniques, while others continue a long tradition of behavioural studies. After more than a century of research on this relatively simple strategy, there is still much to unravel and entomology remains a limitless field of study.

Are we there yet? No, but you can almost see Oklahoma from here (by Jim Fyles)

Remembering with emotion this Desert Ecology course. One of the best academic experiences of my life. Imagine, three weeks of camping in the desert with some of the best professors at McGill. The students of the 2015 edition will nourish this blog for the next three weeks.

McGill Desert Ecology 2015

Jim Fyles and Ian Ritchie are already on the road, heading southwest, towing a trailer full of camping and cooking gear, the field library, and the miscellaneous equipment of field science. This is a post from the road by Jim Fyles.

5:47 am.

The trip has started.

The tires make a quiet crunching sound in the gravel at the end of the dark driveway. By the time we are ready to meet the class in Phoenix, those tires will have turned over 1.5 million rotations. We hope that they are up for it.

A perky voice with an English accent pipes up from the dashboard “Keep left on I271 Expressway Lane, continue 3.4 miles then turn right onto I271 South.” Our route finding is in good hands.

The sky In the rear-view mirror comes alive in pink and gold as we thread Cornwall in a sea of trucks. Geese and…

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Of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI)

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*This blog post was also published on the McGill NEO blog and on the IGERT-NEO blog

When I tell friends that I conduct research at the Smithsonian, most think immediately of Washington. Fellow students and I are currently enrolled in a tropical biology field course at the Smithsonian… in Panamá, not on the Potomac shoreline! So let’s make things clear with a quick overview (i.e. publicity shpiel) of STRI, one of the world’s flagships of tropical research.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) is a community of researchers and scholars interested in the tropics. It is part of the Smithsonian Institution network and hosts 40 permanent scientists, 400 support staff and 1,400 visiting scientists and students. My colleagues and I, all graduate students of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Instituto de Investigaciones Científicas y Servicios de Alta Tecnología (INDICASAT) and McGill University’s NEO program, are part of this community.

Together, we seek to understand the tropics, in all their complexity, and merge our diverse areas of expertise to do so. According to STRI’s Scientist Emeritus, Egbert Leigh Jr., most of STRI’s research can be grouped under 12 broad areas. First, we seek to contrast and compare two oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, and understand how they came to be so different. We try to accumulate as much data as possible on the recent past, to understand what is happening today in both the human and natural worlds. We seek to understand the distant past through archaeology, and learn how our world came to be. We try to uncover why and how individuals diverge within a species to give rise to more species. We try to unravel the mysteries of mutualism, or why some species collaborate with each other while others prefer to cheat. We study social behaviour in animals, but also in humans within the Central American context. We want to understand what natural selection favors and why some traits make it to the next generation while others do not. We study the factors regulating populations of living organisms and the inner workings of food webs. We look at how species (humans included) cope with extremes (light, shade, drought, floods, lousy soils, etc.). We try to understand how so many species can coexist in a single place (900 species of birds in Panamá and around 300 tree species in 50 hectares of forest). We are definitely interested by a lingering question… why so many tropical trees (and why is their identification such a hellish job)? Finally, we want to get a global picture of tropical systems by unravelling the interdependencies that make ecosystems go-round.

Enough about questions, we need answers! Good research is backed by good infrastructure. Luckily for us, you can’t really beat STRI. We have access to 13 research facilities across the Isthmus of Panamá and here’s a very brief description of each.

STRI PlatformA map of all STRI research facilities in Panamá (Credit: STRI, http://stri.si.edu/reu/english/why_panama.php).

1) Earl S. Tupper Research, Library and Conference Center

This set of buildings hosts most of the administrative units, a score of laboratories equipped for all kinds of research, a herbarium, an insect collection and a library comprising over 69,000 volumes centered on tropical sciences. The old and rare books section is to die for… if you like getting your hands on the drawings of 17th to 19th century explorers.

LIBRARYThe Earl S. Tupper Library holds over 69,000 volumes related to tropical sciences (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

2) Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology (CTPA)

If you dig fossils, that’s the place you want to be. Specialized in geology, geography and archaeology, scientists working here try to unravel the distant past, from giant (and thankfully extinct) snake species to the processes that explain why North and South America became one land mass three million years ago. Scientists from CTPA are currently using the Canal expansion project as a way to dig further into Panama’s past.

3) NAOS Island Laboratories

Located at the Pacific entrance of the Canal, this research facility has a state of the art molecular and genetics laboratory. It also has all you need to keep oceanic critters alive for research. People here specialise in Pacific oceanography and paleontology.

4) Galeta Point Marine Laboratory

NAOS’s counterpart, this research facility is located at the Caribbean entrance of the Canal. It is best known for research on the effects of oil spills and on mangrove systems.

BOCASA view of one of the numerous coral reefs neighboring the Bocas Del Toro Research Station (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

5) Bocas Del Toro Research Station

Located in the Bocas Del Toro Archipelago, this station hosts scientists who work on coral reefs, lagoon systems and lowland tropical forests. As it is located on the Caribbean side, in the middle of a cultural melting pot between Asia, Africa and the Americas, it is also a research hub on human sociality.

6) Rancheria Island

Located on a Pacific Island, this research station is in the middle of the Eastern Pacific Ocean’s largest concentration of coral reefs. It is the Pacific counterpart of Bocas Del Toro.

7) Punta Culebra Nature Center

Located on a Pacific Island, this center focuses on public awareness and outreach. Scientists try to test education strategies in order to better transmit knowledge to the coming generations.

FORTUNA1The Fortuna Forest Reserve lets scientists work in a unique ecosystem… cloud forest (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

8) Fortuna Field Station

Fortuna Forest Reserve is 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) up in the mountains and lets scientists study a particularly interesting tropical ecosystem… a cloud forest. I can tell you that the sun is rare out there, and it’s constantly wet. Some areas of the reserve receive 12 meters of rain a year (and have less than 30 rain-free days yearly).

FORTUNA2A clear night sky in Fortuna is a rare event, less than 30 days a year are rainless (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

9) Agua Salud

This project, located within the Panamá Canal watershed covers 300,000 hectares. Scientists involved in this long-term study try to test the best reforestation strategies and how different techniques can be used to store carbon, control devastating floods, or improve soil fertility… all without banning agriculture. People here try to get to an optimal land-use strategy for the tropics.

10) Forest Canopy Access Systems

People at STRI are all smart. But some have exceptionally smart ideas. Two construction cranes were permanently installed in the rainforest on both the Pacific and Caribbean sides so that scientists could easily access the forest canopy. Wonder how we could get this close to a mommy sloth and its baby in the posts from Scott, Librada and Flor? Yup, we were in a crane.

11) Gamboa Campus

Here we are! this is the main base our group used for the Tropical Biology Field Course 2015. Gamboa Campus is located at the dead center of the Panamá Canal, and has a suite of laboratories. Also, a lot of specialized research happens here. There is a system of “pods” to grow plants in different temperature and atmospheric conditions to unravel the effects climate change might have in the tropics. There are flight cages that bats call home and where their behaviour is finely analyzed. And there is Pipeline road, a well-known spot for anyone interested in birds (See Elise’s post on the IGERT-NEO blog).

BATAmong all our activities in Gamboa, bat trapping was certainly one of the most interesting (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

12) Barro Colorado Nature Monument (BCI)

The Crown Jewel! Barro Colorado is an island, surrounded by three peninsulas, all protected by the Panamanian government and the Smithsonian Institution. Only research can go on here. With its 5,400 hectares, it is the oldest STRI facility, first occupied in 1924. The island itself is a no-touch zone. You can measure and observe, but you can’t change anything. The peninsulas are used for experiments, as in… what happens if you kill all lianas in a forest? Do the trees grow better? Or again, what happens if you change the nutrient regimes by dumping tons of fertilisers?

BCIA view of the main buildings on BCI island (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

13) Center for Tropical Forest Science (CTFS)

Located on BCI Island and founded in 1980, this 50 hectares forest plot gave us the most precious data set ever collected in tropical biology. Every single tree stem larger than 1 cm (there are roughly 200,000 of them), is identified to species, measured, and recensused every five years. The same goes for lianas, and many groups of shrubs. We also have precise soil composition data all over the plot. We have mammal, bird and insect inventories for the area. Many mammals and birds even have radio collars; we can track their every movement in the forest. Basically, we can have lots of fun with lots of data. Not only is the 50-hectare plot an awesome dataset, it had children. CTFS plots are now all over the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. People there collect data in the same manner, using the same protocol. This way, we can compare forests through space and through time, precisely, individual by individual, all over the world. Imagine what questions you can explore with that.

So here we are! This was a small overview of what we do, and where we do it. STRI is composed of biologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, and specialists of other fields trying to answer one question. What makes the tropics tick? And if you’re jealous, well don’t be. You are welcome to join in this adventure.

Back in Panamá, the blog lives again

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After a prolonged period of hibernation, this blog lives again. Why was I not contributing? Well simply because I had way too much on my plate. August ended in a blur while I was trying to finish everything in Panamá. The fall was no less crazy. I had my research of course. I also took a teaching assistant position for the first time. I’m happy to say that my first batch of students were… awesome. We had the fun of our lives exploring global issues such as climate change. As usual, I was also involved in too many committees and organizations. But now that I’m back in Panamá, I will happily drown you with ridiculously long blog posts.

 Aube sur le CanalThe sun rises over the Panamá Canal as we embark for Barro Colorado Island, a Smithsonian-managed natural reserve (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

 For the past week, I have participated in a tropical biology field course with fellow graduate students. We study at the University of Illinois, at the Instituto de investigaciones científicas y servicios de alta tecnología (INDICASAT) and at McGill University. Throughout January, we will be travelling across Panamá to explore tropical environments. I’ll keep you posted. And of course, a bit more on my research will come out after the course. I will also update my vertebrate sighting list eventually as many new animals crossed my path.

The World’s Best Fuel: COFFEE!!!

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I know, I went overboard, this blog post is way too long. But if you drink coffee, you are going to enjoy it very much. I’m going to cover all the steps necessary to provide you with a tasty cup, and give you some background on caffeine. So poor yourself a cup and let’s start.

Coffee is of major importance culturally, economically and historically. Arabs were the first to bring coffee to a commercial scale after its introduction in the Arabian city of Moka. They still make some of the best coffee in my opinion. In Europe, many historians have argued that the age of enlightenment and the scientific, social and political revolutions that followed were in part due to the arrival of coffee. You won’t really plan a revolution and dream of democracy when you’re imbibing yourself with beer, wine or hard liquor. Generally, you just want to hit your neighbor or laugh at terrible jokes. A group of people talking around a cup of coffee have way better chances of coming up with the Theory of Evolution, or of proposing that governments should receive their mandate from the people. Today, coffee is a major part of a student’s and of a scientist’s lives (or anyone that does anything productive). There is no way you can pull an all-nighter and sit through a lecture the next morning without caffeine. Coffee is AWESOME! Ok, tea is awesome too and is also consumed by a ridiculous proportion of Earth’s inhabitants. Well, I’m in Panamá and Panamanians grow coffee. Therefore, coffee is today’s subject.

Let’s start with a few numbers. Which country produces the most coffee? Brazil does, 1.55 billion kilos of it every year. Vietnam and Colombia follow. Who drinks the most coffee? You’re probably thinking Italians. No! That would be people from Finland (12.0 kg per person per year), Norway (9.9), Iceland (9.0), Denmark (8.7), the Netherlands (8.4), Sweden (8.2), Switzerland (7.9), Belgium (6.8) and Canada (6.5). Have you noticed? Most of these countries are freezing cold! Panamá is the 37th producer in the world with only 6 million kilos annually. Even if the production is small, Panamanian coffee is considered one of the very best. Panamanians are not big coffee drinkers, as each Panamanian only consumes 1.2 kg per year. If you are American, multiply all those numbers by 2.2 and you shall have pounds.


Map of Panamá showing the location of Barú Volcano. The village of Volcán is located on the Western slope while Boquete is on the Eastern side (Copyright: 2014, Google).

Last weekend, I travelled with a few friends to the province of Chiriquí, in Western Panamá. This province is home to Panamá’s only active volcano, Volcán Barú, and to virtually all of the country’s coffee producers. Barú’s last major eruption dates back to 500 AD and a minor eruption occurred in 1550 AD. Thanks to the volcanic deposits, the valleys surrounding the volcano are extremely fertile. These valleys are also quite high in elevation. The volcano itself reaches 3,475 meters (highest point in Panamá, you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean from its summit on a clear day) and the surrounding towns of Volcán and Boquete are located at respectively 1,400 and 1,200 meters above sea level. The climate in these two villages is quite comfortable year-round with afternoon temperatures reaching 26°C, and nighttime temperatures averaging 15°C. Considering that the rest of Panamá is suffocating, no wonder lots of rich Panamanians and ex-pats have their vacation houses there. Even if the coffee tree is a tropical shrub, the plant actually likes colder climates and really rich soils. Therefore, Chiriquí is perfect for coffee production.


At the foot of the highest point in Panamá, Barú Volcano (3,475 meters). This picture was shot from the village of Volcán. The hike takes a full day, so we did not try. I’m leaving it for next time (Photo: Geneva Nam).


Barú Volcano hiding behind the clouds. At the forefront, you can see the roofs of the charming village of Boquete (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

To understand how coffee is made, we visited the plantations and facilities of the Casa Ruiz, a business owned by the Ruiz family since 1920. Recognized as one of the finest coffee producers of Panamá, many of its coffees (they have 11 plantations around Boquete and they don’t mix the harvests) have won international prizes and can be found in high-end coffee stores of Europe, Asia and North America. They don’t sell coffee to these countries, they auction coffee. That’s how good they are. I’ve tasted a few of theirs, and trust me, their coffees are REALLY, REALLY GOOD! The vast majority of coffee producing countries pool their coffees into one big corporation or cooperative. It is the case in Colombia and in Costa Rica. In Panamá, each grower, however small, markets its coffee independently. So really, it’s just like French wine. Every estate will produce a distinct flavour and some of these estates are little marvels. Panamá doesn’t produce better coffee than everyone else for some biological or geographical reason. The coffee is just marketed differently, and when you happen to fall on a really good estate in Panamá, it’s grains don’t get mixed with those of a crappy estate.


The headquarters of Casa Ruiz, a family business since 1920 (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Coffee comes from Ethiopia. It grows mostly on two species of tropical shrubs Coffea arabica (usually referred to as Arabica) and Coffea canephora (the one you know as Robusta). Some other Coffea spp. species are also cultivated, but we are really talking low production here. Robusta is called “robust” because the plant is more resistant to heat, diseases, and overall harsher conditions, it does not make stronger or better coffee. Actually, it’s with Robusta that instant coffee is made. Arabica produces the best quality coffee, but the plant is more fragile and more tricky to grow. In Panamá, people grow exclusively Arabica because the soils and climate of Chiriquí are just perfect for it. Once they reach five years old, shrubs bear pretty white flowers that, after insect pollinators do their job, turn into little red berries. A coffee tree will keep producing for over a century and coffee quality tends to improve with time. Remember, Ruiz was founded in 1920. Each berry contains two seeds, although sometimes there is only one seed which will appear more round than a normal coffee grain. Each seed is at the source of caffeinated goodness. You can always eat the berry directly. I did, the most similar thing I could find is a mix between a raisin and a cranberry, quite good actually. Each plantation will have different soil acidity and fertility, the rainfall and temperature will change with elevation, soil humidity will vary depending on slope and soil type, shade will vary tremendously if a slope faces East or South. The 11 plantations managed by Ruiz around Boquete, are all located at different altitudes, have different microclimates and are planted with different Arabica cultivars. Each estate of the Ruiz company produces radically different coffee. For that reason, at the exception of some house blends, most coffee berries are never mixed and coffees are marketed by estate, cultivar, processing method and roasting. So let’s explore the latter two, processing and roasting.


One of Casa Ruiz’s plantations in Boquete (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

We begin the path the coffee grain takes to go from the shrub, to your stomach, with the berry. Coffee berries are always hand-picked, because each berry of a single shrub ripens at a different time, a machine is therefore useless (ok, they do it in Brazil, but it produces a lot of waste). In Panamá, most of the work is done by the Ngöbe-Buglé natives that leave their reserve for the harvest season to work on plantations (December to March). Don’t worry, at Casa Ruiz, they are paid, housed in proper accommodations with their families and the company covers healthcare for workers and their families. The minimum age to work in a plantation is 15. I really doubt that every producer is that responsible, but Ruiz coffee sells so expensive that they can do it. Casa Ruiz even built a grocery and convenience store for their workers with regular Panamanian prices (because everything else in Boquete is now really expensive because there are so many rich people). Back to berries, they were picked, they now have to be “floated” in water. Unripe, bad or empty berries will float, good ones sink. Good berries are squeezed to extract the seeds. Seeds are then fermented for a day or two, which reduces the sugar content and brings in new flavours. What’s left of the pulp is then washed off from the seed along with one additional membrane surrounding the seed. Coffee beans then get pre-dried and dried.



All coffee berries ripen at a different time. We know they are ready when they are completely red (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).


Each coffee berry contains two seeds, each with the potential of growing into a new coffee tree (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).


Carlos tells us all there is to know about coffee drying (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

That was what is called a wet process. A few other processes exist. One of them is natural drying or dry process. The fruits are picked and left to dry in the sun without any fermentation. This “natural” coffee will be a lot sweeter and is considered of better quality. But, that also comes with a risk, these beans will have to spend a few weeks outside, and if it rains, the harvest is lost. Therefore, “natural” coffee tends to be more expensive. Coffee can also be produced through a hybrid semi-dry process which makes sweeter coffee than the dry process, but not as sweet as the natural process. At Ruiz, the three kinds of processes are used to produce different coffees (obviously sold at different prices).


Coffee processed using a semi-dry process (referred to as “Honey”) keeps part of its pulp until the final wash. Geneva finds the smell delicious (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).


Natural coffee (referred to as “Cherry”)remains in the berry for most of the process (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).


From left to right, three coffee grains of the geisha cultivar, treated by the natural, semi-dry and wet process (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Well, we have coffee beans, but there is still some work to do. Not an obligatory step, but dried coffee beans can be aged for some time. Although coffee aging never takes more than a few months, aged coffee tends to be better coffee (at Casa Ruiz, aging takes 4 months). After aging, the third and last protective layer is removed. The bean can also be polished at this stage. Beans then get sorted by colour, size, density and shape. The later three are crucial steps, because if you try roasting two coffee beans of unequal size, one of them will burn, and your cup of coffee will taste awful. Beans with a different shape, size and density are all used, but it’s important that in a given bag, all beans are as similar as possible. Beans are all packaged and shipped around the globe. At Ruiz, some beans are roasted on site for the local market, but most are exported as green coffee. Once the beans arrive in their country of destination, beans are roasted (they can be decaffeinated just before, but I personally consider that a crime).


Even if grains are sorted by size and density using machines, shape and colour are still judged by eye (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).




A view of one of the warehouses of Casa Ruiz, one of these boxes is headed for Taiwan, the other is off to Japan (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Roasting is important. A light roast coffee (195-205°C) will keep a green, fruity taste while having little bitterness. A medium roast coffee (210-220°C) is more balanced, that’s what most Panamanians and half of North Americans drink. A dark roast coffee (225-230°C) is almost burnt, it becomes more smoky and bitter, that’s the other half of the coffee drank in North America and by a good proportion of French citizens. Finally, you get French roast (240°C), Italian roast (245°C) and Spanish roast (250°C): that coffee is just burnt. If you like bitterness and smoke, it’s bitter and smoky, but there really isn’t much of a taste left, and not much of the producing region’s particular flavours. By the way, if you want stronger coffee, but not bitter coffee, DO NOT buy a darker roast. Simply put more coffee grains in the same amount of water. Also, the darker the roast, the more degraded the caffeine and the less it will wake you up. So if you think buying French roast will make you more alert, you are completely wrong.

That’s it, you got a coffee grain ready for use. You can buy it in grains and grind it at home. How fine to grind it will depend on the type of machine you are using (percolator, drip, expresso, French press, etc.). You can also buy your coffee already ground but… a lot of companies will mix in pulp from the berry, leaves and even branches of the coffee shrub. Sometimes they even add totally unrelated plants. Cheap coffee is not weak due to a lack of roasting, it’s weak because they don’t put a lot of powder and it’s not all coffee. Even a proud house like Casa Ruiz does market the twigs. They sell them to other coffee brands that mix it in their ground coffee. Basically, if you want to drink coffee from coffee beans you should really contemplate the idea of buying a coffee grinder and grinding your beans yourself. Furthermore ground coffee loses its flavor fast when exposed to air, so you should only grind the quantity you are going to use on that day. Alternatively, you can put your ground coffee in the freezer, it will slow down the degradation process. Don’t bother if you’re drinking Nabob, or Maxwell House or Folgers, or worst. Most of it is not coffee anyway. A good coffee should be prepared with water around 95°C.

So that’s it, you got a lovely, heart-warming, cup of coffee. You feel ready to pull an all-nighter. But, why exactly do you feel less tired? That would be caffeine. Why do the coffee tree, the tea shrub and other plants produce caffeine? To start with, it paralyzes and kills a wide array of insects if they try feeding on the plant. Interestingly, small quantities of caffeine can be found in the flower nectar of these plants. It has been shown that the caffeine in those flowers increases the memory of bees and helps them remember the location of the plant so they can tell the rest of their colony (by dancing, yes bees are awesome) how to get to the plant in order to pollinate the other flowers. So caffeine is actually quite useful for plants.


The molecular structure of caffeine (Image: Wikipedia Commons).

Unless you’ve got something to tell me, you are a human being. Caffeine will not affect you as it does an insect. Caffeine, a crystalline xanthine alkaloid, will stimulate your central nervous system by blocking adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that inhibits neuron activity. So basically, caffeine’s main effect is to disconnect the break system of your brain. On top of this, it also affects many neurotransmitters and hormones such as dopamine (reward feeling, alertness), acetylcholine (muscle action), serotonin (happiness), norepinephrine (vigilance), epinephrine (fight or flight response), glutamate (memory), and cortisol (stress). For a more detailed example, high doses of caffeine reduce the GABA (γ-Aminobutyric acid), which leads to anxiety, insomnia, rapid heart rate and rapid breathing. If you like chemistry, caffeine is great stuff!

More generally, drinking coffee will make you more alert and more vigilant. You will be more focused and will have better muscle coordination. If you are sleep-deprived, it will increase your performance. Moderate doses will improve your athletic abilities in many sports. It can be used to alleviate headaches and is actually used as a drug to treat migraines. It also reduces the risk of developing certain cancers, cardiovascular diseases and type-2 diabetes. Some studies have also shown that caffeine consumption improves long-term memory, but that remains controversial among scientists. Of course, you should not drink too much. Just as its cousin cocaine, caffeine is toxic at high dosage. If you tried to inhale a line of caffeine powder, you would get really, really sick. By the way, in the Andes, people chew Coca leaves or drink Coca tea. In such quantities, cocaine has very similar effects to caffeine and is certainly not dangerous. In humans, the lethal dose of caffeine is estimated at 150 to 200 mg per kg of body weight (cocaine’s lethal dose is a tenth of that). Don’t worry coffee drinkers, that’s about 80 to 100 cups of coffee in one shot. But if you like taking caffeine pills, then it becomes a possibility (tablets tend to be around 400-500mg). The more common side effect of caffeine abuse is addiction. Along with it, you may feel restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, headaches and heart palpitations. The take-home message is: enjoy your caffeine, but don’t go overboard with it.

So that’s it, you just got way too much information on coffee production worldwide and in Panamá, as well as on caffeine. I’d like to thank Carlos who gave us a three and a half hour tour of Ruiz plantations and facilities, followed by a coffee tasting of various Casa Ruiz coffees, all this while being informative and funny. If you get a chance to come to Boquete, it is totally worth it.

What Scientists Do

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My next post will be on the most awesome fuel in the world: COFFEE!!! But before I jump into the cultivation of the brown goodness, I should tell you why coffee and all related tricks to remain focused (yoga, tea, a good night’s sleep, whatever else floats your boat) are essential to scientists. A big part of our work is boring.

If you are not (or not yet) a scientist, than you may think most of our time is spent in the field collecting samples. Or, you may believe we have fun conducting experiments in a lab. While data collection in the field is a crucial (and a really fun) part of science, it really only represents a few weeks of our year. I may be in Panamá, but I still spend most of my time in a lab or a library. As for lab experiments, loading samples into a machine takes time, but once your HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography) is running, there really isn’t much to do for a few hours. Similarly, it only takes so much time to change the feed of my caterpillars, as I’m not watching over every bite they take. Actually, most of a scientist’s time is spent reading scientific papers, or writing them, or fighting with statistical software, or begging for money (i.e. writing grants, fellowships and scholarships). Let’s not forget all the conferences and seminars we have to attend and where we listen to people present their research, where we present posters (they need to be written at some point) or where we present our own data orally. Those oral presentation need to be perfect. That means we already presented them to our supervisor (and got bitched at, and improved it), and to our lab mates (and got bitched at, and improved it), and to our supervision committee (guess what happens then).

Now, I’m going to crush some of your dreams about science. Reading the “Materials and Methods” section of a paper is not what I would call fun. It actually tends to make for a boring read. However, it is crucial that we pay undivided attention to that section. It is that section that tells us if the paper’s conclusions are valid. And, quite often, we’re trying to replicate whatever the authors did, so we actually have to understand what we’re reading. Then, if you think reading a “Materials and Methods” section is boring, try writing one. Good luck! And again, undivided attention is crucial, because that’s one of the things that will get your paper published… or rejected. Science is a cruel world with a cruel rule: “Publish or Perish”! No papers = No job. As for statistics, writing code in R can be a pain. There will always be a mistake in your code, and it is sometimes a challenge to find the one curly bracket ({) that should have been a square bracket ([). And yes, sometimes you spend 2 or 3 days just to figure out how to calculate one number. If you’ve ever looked at scientific equipment prices, you know that the stuff does not come cheap. To do research, one needs a ridiculous amount of money. On top of it, a scientist needs to eat and needs a roof (this is shocking news, I know). To go into research, you need money, and that means writing a lot of grant proposals and scholarship forms. And yes, that also takes all your brain cells. Finally, there’s those seminars and conferences to attend. The first talk is always easy and really interesting. But, after 4 or 5 hours of data and graphs on totally different subjects (thankfully, we get breaks), any normal person would start to fall asleep. There’s just so much p-values that one can take.

Now you must wonder, if science has all those nasty parts to it, why the hell are we doing it? Are we masochistic? No, we’re doing it because it’s totally worth it. How do you know you’re cut for science? Well if you’re one of those people that asks “Why?” all the time, and if you really go nuts when you don’t get an answer, you’re made for this. Science can also be exhilarating! There is nothing like discovering something new and knowing you’re the only one person in the world that knows it. You will be the only one to know until you publish your discovery. Then, 3 people will know because scientific papers are on average read by only 3 people. Thankfully those three people are rarely family members. Finally, there’s those moments when you are collecting data or simply observing nature. If you read the blogs or tweeter feeds of university professors, you will certainly fall on very excited comments form a Prof that finally got 15 minutes alone with his microscope (cheers to Prof. Terry A. Wheeler who maintains the Lyman’s blog). Or, you will read a comment about how awesome it is to finally spend two weeks in the Arctic (sounds like Prof. Christopher M. Buddle, you can read his blog too).

We are in science because the pains and boredoms of the work are worth it. We love the world, and we want to understand it. That’s worth a few sleepless nights of data analysis. Now sleepless (and productive) nights can’t happen without help. For more on the subject, read my next post on the Chiriquí coffee plantations.

Panamá’s Pot of Gold: The Canal

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Today, I’m giving you a bit of history/economics. When one travels to Panamá, after feeling the heat, the first obvious thing you can tell just by looking at the capital city is that… there’s money here. I’m not saying it’s well distributed. I don’t deny the existence of poverty in Panamá (30% of the population lives in poverty). I’m not praising the social security network of Panamá either. But, seeing all those brand new buildings, some of which are actually real architectural marvels, and all those busy construction sites tells you that something is happening. Once you travel the city and country, you realise that… main roads are fantastic and city buses are modern and air-conditioned. There is even an air-conditioned metro which opened this spring and where trains pass every 3-5 minutes at any time of the day (shame to Montreal on that one). When you realise the number of cops around the country (literally one at every corner, and even in the smallest villages), you also wonder who pays their salary. Search no further… it’s coming from the Canal.



Panamá City definitely looks like a modern capital, and it is. The city has been a hub of international commerce from the times when the gold of Peru and Ecuador stopped here before reaching Spain, until recent years when the Panamá Canal became one of the obligate passageways for our globalized economy (Photos: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

The first mention we have of anyone hoping to build a canal crossing the Isthmus of Panamá is from 1534, thanks to Charles V, King of Spain and Ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. The Scots also tried to build a land road joining the Atlantic and Pacific in 1698. Scotland almost went bankrupt with this failed attempt, and ended up joining the United Kingdom that promised to erase the national debt in exchange. Yup, the independence referendum that will be held soon in Scotland is the newest chapter of a story which began as a failed colonial attempt in Panamá. It’s a small, small world. In 1882, the French had successfully built the Suez Canal joining the Red Sea to the Mediterranean in Egypt. Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, went on to found the Compagnie universelle du canal interocéanique de Panama to repeat the feat and join the Atlantic to the Pacific. And, lo, yellow fever and the floods of the Chagres River came. Gustave Eiffel (yes, the guy that built the Eiffel Tower) tried to save the project. Yet, in 1889, the company went bankrupt and the unfinished canal was abandoned.



To recognize the efforts of the French government in building the canal and in honour of the friendship between the French Republic and the Republic of Panamá, the Panamanian government built this majestic monument in front of the French Embassy, on Plaza de Francia. The lower picture shows the main building of the French Embassy (Photos: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

In 1903, the Columbian government (Panamá was a Columbian province at the time) and the United States government came to an agreement on a new canal project, but the Columbian Senate refused to ratify it. Because he really wanted the canal, U.S. President Roosevelt sent warships to help the effort of Panamanian revolutionaries against Columbia and, on November 3 1903, Panamá declared its independence. It will not be the last time the U.S. puts its nose in Panamanian politics. Upon securing its independence, Panamá gave to the United States of America the Panama Canal Zone. The Canal Zone was an unincorporated organized U.S. territory (just like Puerto Rico and The U.S. Virgin Islands are today) extending 5 miles (8 km) on each side of the canal and protected by the U.S. military. Under U.S. jurisdiction, the Canal finally opened on August 15 1914, almost exactly 100 years ago.


For those interested in history, the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá maintains a rather interesting history museum in Casco Viejo, the Museo del Canal. It covers the history of the country and of the canal from the first expedition across the Isthmus by Vasco Nuñez de Balboa in 1513 to the present (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

I will spare you the long list of treaties, political conflicts and demonstrations that followed the opening of the Canal. You need only know that until 1979, the Canal Zone was a U.S. territory, where residents were U.S. citizens, courts applied U.S. laws, and all retail stores and houses belonged to the Panama Canal Zone that functioned as an all-powerful company who’s president was also the Governor of the Canal Zone. Fun fact, John McCain who ran against Obama in 2008 was born in 1936 as a U.S. citizen in… the Panama Canal Zone. Because you need to be born in the U.S. to become president, people brought it to court, and McCain was ruled by the U.S. Senate as a “Naturally Born U.S. Citizen”. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) where I work, as well as my apartment, are both located in Ancón, a former township of the Canal Zone which was U.S. territory at the time of STRI’s creation. In 1979, the Torrijos-Carter Treaty came in effect. The Canal Zone progressively became Panamanian soil for the first time (remember, it was Columbian soil before being American). It is interesting to note that General Omar Torrijos came to power in Panamá through a military coup. Even after the treaty, the Canal was still managed by a joint commission, and the United States maintained the right to defend the canal militarily if anything impaired the neutral crossing of ships from around the world. In December 1989, U.S. President George H. W. Bush used the option, and the United States military invaded Panamá during “Operation Just Cause”. They deposed the dictator of the time, General Manuel Noriega, and retreated from Panamá only after Guillermo Endara (the elected President) was sworn into office in January 1990. Panamá has been a democracy ever since (although the press is still somewhat restricted). Considering the amount of dictators of Panamá that came from the military, it was decided in 1994 to abolish the Army of Panamá. That’s why one will see some policemen walking around in military attire with what is definitely military weapons. The police fills the role of the army. So don’t mess with cops in Panamá. To finish the story-line, on January 1st 2000, the Panamá Canal Commission relinquished all powers over the canal to the Panamanian government. For the first time, and a good way to welcome the new millennium, the flag of the Republic of Panamá could fly proudly in front of the old Canal Zone Administration Building. It is now administered by the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá and defended by the Policia Nacional, two fully Panamanian public administrations.


The headquarters of the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (formerly the headquarters of the Canal Zone Administration) on the slopes of Ancón hill. Before 2000, the flag of the United States of America was flown atop the mast (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).


A view of the Miraflores Locks, the first locks to be crossed when coming from the Pacific and the last in the opposite direction (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Miraflores 2

The Miraflores Locks are a popular tourist attraction. There’s a museum and higher decks allow tourists to watch the operations of the canal and observe ships in transit (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

To cross the Canal, boats have to pay a fee that is calculated based on the size of the ship and on the cargo it transports. Leisure boats are welcome to use the canal as well. The fee is than calculated based on boat size and the number of passengers it can carry. The lowest toll ever paid to cross the canal was 36 cents when Richard Halliburton swam the Canal in 1928. Yes, even humans in swimsuits have to pay the toll. The most expensive toll was $375,600 for the passage of the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl. For obvious reasons, ships registered in Panamá pay lower fees. Because of this, many companies from abroad register their ships in Panamá. It’s called a flag of convenience. So if you ever see a boat stopping by the Port of Montreal with a Panamanian flag on it, it probably doesn’t belong to a Panamanian company. If you pass by the port this weekend, the MSC Sandra, a Panamanian  ship that is actually British, is currently stationed in Montreal until Sunday morning (July 27th).


When I visited the Miraflores Locks, the Metis Leader, a car transport ship with a capacity of 7,000 vehicles and belonging to NYK Line, was crossing towards the Pacific on its way back to Japan. Although this ship is actually Japanese, it is registered in Panamá and sports a Panamanian flag of convenience. Note the electric mules on both sides (the small locomotives) that pull the ship in the locks to avoid it touching the walls. Less than 60 cm separate each side of the lock from the ship. That’s what I call precision (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Most of the Panamá Canal is actually one gigantic artificial lake, Gatun Lake. At the center of the lake lies Barro Colorado Island, a STRI-owned island home to one of the greatest scientific experiments on Earth, the CTFS plot (Center for Tropical Forest Science). Imagine a 50 ha forest plot where every single tree, shrub or liana over 1 cm in diameter has been identified to species, measured, located geographically and re-measured every 5 years for nearly 100 years (since 1923). Add to that a century of meteorological data, flower production data, fruit production data, and many other measurements. If you don’t know what 50 ha means, think 80 football fields (yeah Germany!). This is the ultimate dataset to understand forest dynamics in the tropics. I’ll talk more about STRI and all its awesome facilities and research sites in another post. Bringing it back to Gatun Lake, boats travel on the lake 26 meters above sea level. On the Atlantic side, the Gatun Locks rise boats from sea level to 26 meters. On the Pacific side, Pedro Miguel Locks bring boats down to Miraflores Lake, and from there, the Miraflores Locks permit boats to reach the Pacific Ocean. Running all those locks and maintaining the level of Gatun Lake requires huge quantities of fresh water. Most of it comes from the Chagres River and Alajuela Lake. Both are supplied in water by one of Panamá’s biggest natural areas, the Chagres National Park. My butterflies live on the shores of Alajuela Lake, and weirdly enough, their habitat is protected to ensure the smooth operation of the Canal. This is one of those few cases when economic imperatives can actually help protect an area that would be long gone otherwise. Cut down the forest, and not enough water will make it to the watershed, and the Canal will be in trouble. In addition to Chagres Park, most of the Eastern shore of the Canal is a series of interconnected National and Natural Parks. It’s a great place to study biology.


A map of the Panama Canal (Map credit: The Canal “Panama Canal Map EN” by Thoroe – Own workMap created using:Generic Mapping Tools (GMT) with SRTM3 V2 dataOpenStreetMap dataFile:CanalZone.gifFile:Panama Canal Rough Diagram.pngProposal for the expansion of the Panama CanalPanama Canal Profile Map. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panama_Canal_Map_EN.png#mediaviewer/File:Panama_Canal_Map_EN.png).

The Panamá Canal is now a vital part of Panamá’s economy. It is a major sector of employment in the country. All revenues from the Canal are directly given to the Panamá government, hence the new $1.0 billion metro system in Panamá Ciudad. In future years, the Canal will become even more profitable as new wider locks are being built on both sides of Gatun Lake to accommodate even larger ships. That’s only if environmental issues such as climate change and deforestation don’t affect the water reserves that make all this possible. The Republic should really improve its environmental policies if it wants to conserve its good old pot of gold.


The Bridge of the Americas marks the entrance of the Panamá Canal on the Pacific side (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).



To end this, why not go for more birds. The Canal is home to many seabirds. The most impressive and common of them is no doubt the Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens). One of the largest birds in Panamá, its body measures 1 meter long and its wingspan reaches 2.15 meters. The bottom one is a male while the female is on top (Photos: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).




Critters of Panamá Part I: The Birds

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If you like animals, this blog series is for you. After 43 days in Panamá, it’s time to go over some of the fauna that I’ve had the chance to encounter. I begin today with birds, just for you feather-lovers. More animal groups will follow. Expect reading and lots of pictures. If you want to check out more pictures, well that’s why I have a flickr account. Go nuts with it. Most of the birds covered here were spotted at the Chagres National Park, the Metropolitan Natural Park and at the heart of Panamá City. Of course, these are only those that I managed to photograph and for which the photos are decent enough to be published. You just try to photograph birds when your camera gets all fogged up every 5 minutes.

But before I put up an overload of pictures, an introduction might be useful. Birds are extremely abundant in Panamá. Of all the vertebrates, they are clearly those the average tourist will see the most. Panamá is the natural land bridge between North and South America. Some of Panamanian resident birds are therefore natives of the Amazon rainforest, and Panamá just happens to be the northernmost part of their distribution. Alternatively, many North American birds will live yearlong as south as Panamá, without crossing into Colombia. So Panamá has representatives of both Northern birds and Southern birds. Its diversity is also explained by the diversity of habitats in the country. Although Panamá is a small country, the Atlantic and Pacific coasts have radically different climates. The Pacific side has a very pronounced dry season, and a pronounced wet season. On this side, a good number of the trees actually shed their leaves in the dry season to prevent desiccation. The Caribbean side is different. There is a dry season, but it is nowhere as dry as that of the South side, and few trees shed their leaves at any time of the year. Both types of forests are classified as tropical rainforests (more precisely moist semi-evergreen seasonal forests). In the middle, there are mountains, with habitats changing as you climb in altitude and generally covered by mountain rain forests and cloud forests. Of course, one should not forget that the country is bordered by two oceans. It has freshwater marshes and swamps, mangroves, coral reefs, etc. Basically, the country is small, but it still has a good diversity of habitats. That’s for resident birds. Most of you know that a lot of birds migrate to avoid winter. Well when we freeze to death in Montreal, many of our birds migrate south. The lazy ones stop in Mexico, but many species come as far as Panamá. One might ask, when it’s winter in Argentina and Chile (which happens to be the case right now), what happens then? You guessed right, those birds also end up in Panamá. As a result, bird diversity is ridiculously high in this country. Panamá is just about the size of New Brunswick (or South Carolina for you Americans, or between Ireland and Austria for you Europeans). Yet, as of 2010, 978 species had been recorded. That’s more than in all of Canada and the United States combined! That’s indeed astounding diversity.

But enough with the theory, let’s start.

Panamá having a lot of water, a lot of birds are adapted for it. There is a high diversity of ibises, egrets, herons, sandpipers, boobies and other shore-oriented birds. For now, most of those I saw were around the fish market (why go fishing when you can empty the garbage).


A Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) cleans its feathers by the fish market in the old part of Panamá City, Casco Viejo (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).


Neotropic Cormorants (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) just finished drying their feathers in Casco Viejo (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Another group that is ubiquitous in the city itself is… vultures. All those garbage landfills certainly attract a lot of them. There’s a continuous cloud of vultures over Panamá City, often accompanied by some birds of prey. Of course other birds of prey are far more difficult to see. Among them is the Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja), the emblem of Panamá. It does live in Chagres National Park, but knowing it’s there, and actually seeing it are two very different things.


In the early morning, hoards of vultures soar off from the Metropolitan Park or from Ancón Hill. This Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) left from the Metropolitan Park. The identity of the accompanying raptor is less clear. My best guess is the pale morph of the Short-Tailed Hawk (Buteo brachyurus). If you have a better idea, feel free to correct me (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).


The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is one of the birds that can live in Québec just as well as in Panamá. This one was hanging out in Chagres National Park (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Have you ever heard of cuckoos? Yes, those birds that lay eggs in the nest of other species and who’s baby will kick out foster siblings in order to get all the attention of its foster parents. Well they are fairly diverse in Panamá.


My best guess for that one is the Squirrel Cuckoo (Piaya cayana), but I could be mistaken (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Of all the birds of Panamá, hummingbirds form one of the most iconic and diverse groups. They are all gorgeous. But they are tiny and they move really fast. So sadly, I have no pictures for you. Eventually, I’ll insert one of the 59 species that can be found in Panamá into another blog post.


I know! Having no hummingbird-related picture would not do. So here’s a nest in the Darién province. How do I know it’s a hummingbird’s nest? Well if a standard shooter glass would not fit in the nest, it’s from a hummingbird (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Trogons are another iconic group, or at least, one species is. Everyone has heard of the famous Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). If you haven’t, google it. Sadly, quetzals are extremely rare in Panamá, Costa Rica wins that one. But the group is still very diverse South of the border. Trogons feed off fruits and insects and are often described as… lethargic. Apart from having beauty sleeps, they don’t do much.


This beautiful female Slaty-Tailed Trogon (Trogon massena) was not moving much, which is great for photography. To give you an idea of size, this species measures just over 30 cm (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

One bird group every tourist in their right mind wants to see is… parrots. Well, sorry to break your heart, but if you lie down on the beach all day, you won’t. Parrots and parakeets all live in trees. Trees have green leaves. In Panamá, parrots are mostly… green. On top of it, they don’t do much during the day, and most of them only sing when they are flying. Therefore, there are only two ways of seeing parrots. Get out there at dawn (yup, 6:30 is already late), or at dusk (yup, mosquitoes galore). At these times, parrots are flying around. Of course, this means you don’t have enough light to take pictures. And if you augment the exposure time, well the birds are airborne, so you will get a lovely picture of a blurry green line. The second option is to stand under a mango tree. It works. But of course, that will be when your camera decides to fog up (humidity is over 85% every single day). All this was meant to justify why I have seen tons of parrots, but only have one picture to prove it.


The Red-Lored Parrot (Amazona autumnalis) is ubiquitous in Panamá. If you are outside at dawn or dusk, you will see or hear one virtually every day. This specimen was flying at 6:40 am in the middle of Panamá City (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

In real life, most birds are not parrots. Most birds are actually rather small; they eat a variety of things including insects. For real birders, they are still quite interesting to watch. Here’s a small selection.


Meet a male Golden-Collared Manakin (Manacus vitellinus) from Chagres National Park. Manakins live in the understory of tropical forests and feed on fruits. They are mostly discreet. However, there is no way you can miss that one during mating season. The male courts the female by singing hysterically while snapping its wings together! That snapping noise is almost identical to that of a line of firecrackers. It can make you jump when you’re not ready for it, trust me (Photo Nicolas Chatel-Launay).


Tanagers are extremely diverse and common here. They eat insects and fruits. This one is a Crimson-Backed Tanager (Ramphocelus dimidiatus) from the Metropolitan Park (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).


Another common tanager is the Blue-Gray Tanager (Thraupis episcopus) caught just behind my apartment (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).


The Great-Tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) is probably the biggest bird (apart from vultures) than can be observed readily everywhere and at any time of the day (Photo: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

Don’t worry, I left the best for last. Everyone loves toucans. Toucans are fruit lovers, although they will eat an insect or a lizard if they get the chance. These birds are huge (some species reach 50 cm), beautiful, and very playful. In the early morning, they really move around a lot while pecking at wood, singing, playing with each other. They are just adorable. Guess what, five of them live behind the apartment!




A group of five Keel-Billed Toucans (Ramphastos sulfuratus) live behind the apartment in Panamá City. They measure just over 45 cm. One must go outside before 7:00 am to see them, but it is totally worth it (Photos: Nicolas Chatel-Launay).

I would like to conclude by giving special thanks to Dr. George R. Angehr (I actually met him yesterday at the Smithsonian) and Robert Dean for having published “The Birds of Panama, A Field Guide”. Let’s just say that I rarely fall on a bird guide that I can use reliably.