Exploring the Rainforest on Bastimentos Island. Panama’s rainforests exhibit a staggering array of plant and animals. Numbers such as these hint at the extent of the biodiversity: 940 bird species, 10,000 plant species including 1,200 species of orchids, 1,500 species of trees, and,
Exploring the Rainforest on Bastimentos Island
We started out on Isla Colon and traveled on a water taxi to Isla Bastimentos. Our destination was Old Town and “Tio-Tom’s” Hostel. Tom, a German national with ten years experience in Bocas del Toro, agreed to guide us into the island’s rainforest. Old Town, the largest settlement on Bastimentos, is on the northwest tip of the island. From Tom’s we boarded a dugout canoe powered by a five horsepower outboard motor and set out along the southwest coast of the bay.
As we neared the end of the Bay, we spotted rivers flowing through the mangroves. The exposed river bank and roots indicated that the tide was out and our journey up-river might be shorter than expected.
This muddy river was deep enough to allow us to travel through the mangrove swamp. Tom pointed out the red mangrove and later the white mangrove trees as he piloted the canoe up the twisting river. Each tree has unique adaptations to allow their roots to survive in the salt-saturated soil. The mangrove ecosystem is rich in animal life, particularly marine animals. Crabs, small fish, caimans, oysters, and egrets are a few of the species that reside in this environment. To learn more about the mangrove ecosystem follow the link to the Smithsonian Institute’s virtual tour of Mangel Cay.
One of the first animal species we spotted was a black hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus.) Perched above the river, our presence caused no change in it’s behavior. The hawk calmly watched as we passed directly beneath its point of lookout. The branch hung out over the water. From there the hawk could scan the river and banks for food. A predator of small fish, land crabs, snakes and frogs, this bird was ideally placed to find a meal.
Red mangrove seedlings emerge and grow along the river bank. The red mangrove is critically important for holding the soil in place. The black soil horizon extending down to the water line indicates the lack of oxygen. The black color is due to the accumulation of sulfur compounds in the soil.
Panama has fourteen National Parks. Our destination was Bastimentos Island National Marine Park (BINMP) which covers an area of nearly 30,000 acres of land and sea. We expected to reach an area of mature tropical rainforest. The Nature Conservancy is an active participant in the group developing the management plan for the park.
We crossed smaller streams as we climbed up and away from the river. The soil was saturated with water and in places it was like stepping into pudding. The forest had been cleared in this area approximately 30 years ago. The remnants of an abandoned cacao plantation were scattered amongst the native vegetation.
Further into the park we reached this area of secondary forest. The larger trees are 60 to 80 years old and the buttressed roots are forming. The forest still allows light to reach the forest floor stimulating the growth of tree seedlings. This part of the rainforest has yet to develop a mature canopy.
The Strawberry Poison-dart (Dendrobates pumilio) frog was high on the list of the species that we hoped to see on our hike. The color patterns in the Poison-dart frogs are different on the nearby islands. These tiny frogs have an alkaloid that is toxic to other organisms. The toxicity of the Poison-dart frogs vary. The species shown is mildly toxic and can be handled without adverse consequences.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature considers Dendrobates pumilio an endangered species. Habitat loss and collection for the pet store trade are the greatest contributors to the species’ declining populations.
We had seen sloths on several occasions previous to coming upon the one in this photo. We found this three toed sloth relaxing in a tree about fifteen feet above the ground. The sloth seemed curious and watched us as we viewed it from different angles below. We looked for it on our return but, while the sloth is deliberate in its movement, it can move up to 4 meters a minute.
While it is tempting to focus on the brightly colored, exotic plants and animals, who can deny the attractiveness of the functional utility of the millipede? As they crawl over the thin layers of leaf litter, these animals participate in the rapid recycling of nutrients.
Since I mentioned exotic, what about this “walking palm?” These palms literally move across the forest floor. As explained by Bodley and Bensen1, the movement is prompted when palm stem is bent parallel to the ground (as would occur when something falls on the palm). New roots emerge from the bent palm stem. The old roots die and the palm moves out from under the debris.
1. Bodley, J.H. ; Benson, F.C.Title: Stilt-root walking by an iriarteoid palm Socratea exorrhiza in the Peruvian Amazon. Biotropica. Mar 1980. v. 12 (1) : p 67-71
Our guide patiently interpreted the symphony of cries, croaks, chirps and the endless variety of calls that we heard during our frequent stops. He tuned our ears to the back and forth call of frogs searching for mates; described the behavior of the bird “yodeling” from tree top to tree top; and translated the low, hollow thumping coming from a distance. By now, we were mesmerized in the environment. The colors, textures, and smells conspired to exhaust the senses and it was wonderful.
Then, there was devastation! The unnatural brightness lit a scene of senseless destruction. The exuberant order of the forest was lost to the chaos of random cutting.
We picked our way through the debris attempting to make sense out of the deliberate destruction. At one point Tom said, “We are walking through a cemetery!” The two acre clearing was practically impassible. Epiphytes, ferns, and orchids were dislodged from the trees they had grown upon. They now laid drying in the sun. Felling trees inside the National Park is unlawful and uncommon according to Tom. Who? Why?... were unanswerable questions.
The thrill of experiencing a rainforest ecosystem faded. It was haunting to walk through a recently destroyed area of tropical rainforest. This area, small as it was, symbolized the relentless destruction of forests everywhere. We all felt smaller and I guess impotent to intervene in the ongoing destruction of Earth’s ecosystems.
We took pictures, speculated about the rationale for the clearing, collected a few plants and prepared to leave the rainforest. Later, we filed a report with the government environmental organization. They seemed interested but not particularly alarmed. It was rumored that the clearing was done by a local person who wanted to use the area for farming.
The loss of habitat is the number one cause of biodiversity decline. Strawberry poison-dart frogs survive only on the moist, shady forest floor. To reduce the rate of species loss, habits must be protected from disruption by humans.
One and one-half acres of rainforest are lost every second with tragic consequences for both developing and industrial countries. Visit the links to organizations involved in rainforest conservation and see what you can do to slow the rate of deforestation.