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Go to environmental studies and international development

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Anna R Lee

Where To

By Alizee Carrere, 2011 graduate at McGill University

Alize Carrere kept a journal in Panama, as a Mc Gill University student in environmental studies and international development. This is an exerpt from her diary.


I had started my second course, Biologgy 553 (neotropical environments), only days before my last update. Since then we have done an incredible amount of field work, field trips, class, and travel. This course has a completely different pace and overall vibe than the history course before it, which took us on an intense two-week trip through the country. Although we have had many field trips for bio class, they tend to be within an hour or two of driving and last only a day or two.

Our first trip brought us out to Barro Colorado Island, which is a protected island for research purposes. BCI was created in the early 20th century, when the Chagres River was damned and the area flooded to create Gatun Lake and a canal. Before then, the whole area was low-lying tropical forest, and when it filled, the highest peak of the forest stuck out to form the island. It's not that big – about 15 square km – and it is difficult to get access. There are long waiting lists and only a few tour groups each month. Some biologists and researchers live out there for extended periods, but otherwise there isn't much human activity, which is exactly why it such a desirable place for research.

Luckily, the research facilities and the island itself are run by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, our partner here in Panama, so we had the opportunity to spend a day there. We had two different labs. For the first, a seed predation lab, we split up and wandered off by ourselves to set up transects and to identify seeds by type, age, and what animal or insect had eaten them.

While I was setting up my transects and collecting the seeds, a group of howler monkeys must have enjoyed my company, for about eight of them climbed on the tree right over my head. I'm not sure if you have ever heard howler monkeys, but they travel in groups, and the noise they make can be frighteningly intense. It is like a screeching wild boar or dinosaur roar, only above your head in the canopy. They’re not even big monkeys, but the first time I heard them in the distance that day, I thought an animal was being killed. They sent me flying a good 50 meters until I realized what had happened.

For our second lab, a mammal census, we took two-hour walks. We saw quite a few mammals as it approached dusk, when some become more active. I saw more howler monkeys, but I was a bit better equipped to handle their howls – although the noise still kind of frightens me.

The second week, we took an overnight field trip to Fort Sherman, once used to train U.S. soldiers for Vietnam. It's completely closed off now, except for a small canopy research station. It is wild tropical forest, with a single road going through it. It was also used as a trial area for agent orange, leaving in its wake a contrast between secondary and primary forest – part of why our professor wanted us to go there. We walked two hours into the fort until we reached camp ground, where we set up our tents, did another lab on forest profiles, and came back for a campfire. We grilled sausage, corn, plantains, and marshmallows. It was so much fun to have that kind of time with our professor, definitely outside of office hours.

The next morning we woke at 6 am to ... howler monkeys. Not one of the most soothing wake-up calls, but still really cool right as the sun came up. Needless to say, I was up in jiffy. We had breakfast, packed our tents, and then took off for one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. In groups of four, we used a kind of crane to rise above the tropical rainforest, to practically a different ecosystem. We are so used to traveling through forests on the ground, but that perspective is actually very limited. Half the time you have no idea what is above your head – what tree species you are looking at and what different habitats are up there. The temperature, humidity, wind speed, light cover, and CO2 levels are completely different up there, not to mention the life forms. As we traveled upward, it was amazing to feel the difference. When we reached the top, the crane then went out horizontally and made a 180 degree turn above the canopy. I couldn't even tell you how high we were, but it was high, and the forest looked like a giant broccoli. We could see the ocean and the mouth of the canal, and at one point we came about 3 feet from a sloth hanging upside down eating leaves. We could have practically touched him. Beautifully colored parrots, butterflies, and hummingbirds were flying around. It was truly spectacular.

This course is coming to a close soon, believe it or not. I can't believe I've already been here for a month and a half, and our last big trip for this class will be to Kuna Yala, islands on the Caribbean coast where the indigenous Kuna live. We are leaving this Friday for four days, for an environmental management and indigenous rights project. It should be really incredible.

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