Monday, May 30, 2016

Journey to the End of Central America – An Ichthyological Exploration of the Darién Gap


Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darién. 
- from “On First Looking into Chapman's Homer” by John Keats

At the entrance of the Darién National Park
            From May 12-24th postdoctoral fellow Dr. Fernando Alda, graduate student A.J. Turner and I journeyed south to Panama to collect fishes. Specifically, we were targeting the fishes from the Darién Gap – a region I have hoped to visit since I was a graduate student over 10 years ago doing my PhD on the biogeography of Central American fishes.
            The Darién is one of the most forested areas in Central America, with the majority of forested area in the Darién National Park in the so-called “Darién Gap” – named so because it is the gap in the Pan-American Highway between the North and South American continents. The Darién Gap encompasses the borders between Colombia and Panama and is frequented by drug smugglers and illegal migrants – for that reason it is heavily protected by the armed military and it is difficult to get permits or even help to collect in the area. Fortunately Fernando is patient, hardworking and resourceful. With some difficulty he organized an entire trip for us working with the local Emberá people who are endemic to the region and who have been on this land for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Fernando also handled all the permits with STRI (the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) and the Panamanian government. He did an amazing job arranging this trip. My lab has previously attempted to get into the Darién Gap and failed.
            Before we got into the Darién, we set up at STRI headquarters located in Panama City where we got our official Smithsonian badges and credentials. Our STRI-IDs (or “STRIdees” as we took to calling them) worked wonders around Panama. We were able to get big discounts on museums and entrance into the Panama Canal because of those IDs. We had some time to kill before we got out into the field as we waited for all our permits, so we did some educational sight-seeing. The Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal, and the newly opened Biomuseo were highlights. I read a book about the making of the canal, “I Took Panama: The Story of Philippe Bunau-Varilla” while we were in Panama and I recommend others to learn about the insane political events surrounding the creation of this engineering marvel – which also led to the creation of the country itself. A new set of expanded locks, which will make the canal almost twice its current size, was also visible in the distance.
            In those first few days we also visited the local fish market in Panama City – the Mercado de Marisco. We were able to get nearly 40 species of marine fishes from this market; these included several species of snook, parrotfishes and croakers. Unfortunately, we saw hundreds of shark bodies with their heads and fins cut off. They were all juveniles and according to A.J. he thought they were all taken from some nursery grounds – it was a sad sight. By sheer coincidence we met up with researchers from Conservation International working on the fisheries of this region while at a restaurant; they said they are working on this shark issue: I hope they get to it quickly.
We ran into lots of non-Panamanians in Panama City, which is unlike any other Central American city; it has a skyline that makes it look more like Dubai, and with a port and mangroves near it, it reminded me of it too. Many people spoke English, and we noted the strong American and European presence almost everywhere.
Although the city was interesting we wanted to get in the water. As we drove the five hours East to the Darién (there isn’t much of a North and South in Panama) we noted how different the rest of Panama is from Panama City. There are many rural communities strung together and lots of farmland. However, over 25% of Panama is protected forest. There are also many areas belonging to autonomous indigenous communities living independent of most Panamanian authority.
Fernando talking to the Embera about our fish.
We entered the town of Yaviza in the Darién province on the 17th of May and spent the day heading up and sampling along the Río Chico in our long wooden boat (called a “piragua”). At our first field site we unrolled our brand new cast nets and I hurriedly made my first toss – I wanted to catch the first fish – and I got a nice little cichlid. Cichlids are my favorite group of fishes and the focus of much of my research. There have been some trips to Central American where we don’t get cichlids for a few days, and here was one – right off the bat. After that I took to doing my regular job, taking notes, GPS coordinates etc. We collected plenty at this first site on the Chico and it was a good omen for the rest of the trip. We learned pretty quickly, that as usual, despite being professional ichthyologists, the locals are always the best fishermen. Throughout the trip we really enjoyed working with and interacting with the local people. I always love reading about historical explorers interacting with locals and how they treated each other, there were the kind ones like James Cook (kind to most native people, killed by natives on Hawaii), and awful ones like Hernán Cortés (killed lots of native people, died peacefully back in Spain of old age). Side note – “Cortez” as mentioned by John Keats in the poem above, should actually be “Balboa.” Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the one to establish the Darién, and the first European to see the Pacific from the Americas.
We spent the next few days penetrating the Darién National Park. This required us (and sometimes a small horse) to carry our gear and food through the forest trails. This was fun, but exhausting given the heat and mosquitoes. We hiked to most of our sites when we couldn’t boat. The canopy was thick making the forest shaded all manner of green from top to bottom except for the forest floor, which was matted down with damp brown leaves. It was very beautiful. We walked with our guides like leaf-cutter ants in formation, one behind the other, carrying our packs like so many bits of foliage. Living in Baton Rouge you tend to forget about topology. The ups and downs of the hike are something we aren’t accustomed to in this flat town of ours; the humidity and following someone carrying a machete might be a bit more familiar.
This was A.J. Turner’s first field trip, and I had to remind myself of that sometimes. It couldn’t have been easy for him to start his career as a tropical biologists hiking through the Darién Gap, but he did well, and I have no concerns that he will do many of these trips well into the future.
There were some scary moments in the field. At one site near a banana plantation I kept hearing the sounds of tree branches falling. We were sampling in very muddy water so I was barefoot in the mud when one of our guides whistled to me to stop, I saw two men come out of the jungle holding machetes. One walked towards me without looking up and then, thankfully, walked past to cut down some plantains. When they talked to our guides – in the Emberá language, not Spanish – they seemed to be giving a warning. Our guides shuffled us out pretty quickly, which was fine with us. The Emberá are friendly but there is still a lingering wariness of outsiders.
We stayed part of our time in the village of Pijibasal and we sampled with the locals in the Río Perresénico and even had an amazingly fun soccer match with dozens of local kids. They also loved seeing our fish specimens. One of our guides even taught us how to fish for some of the armored catfishes with our hands. By feeling around the rocks you could grab them as they were chewing off the algae. I was unable to do this successfully but the rest of the team all caught fish bare handed.
One of my favorite spots was on the Río Pirre. For some reason the rocks were all tinted a deep green, and others were so brittle they broke apart under your feet despite looking otherwise like ordinary stones. At this site Fernando caught one of the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen, a big bull earth-eater cichlid, Geophagus crassilabris. This fish had giant fleshy red lips and had lost some of his scales – probably old war wounds from fights with other males for territory. He was a beauty.
I was still thinking about the green rocks when we headed to the Cascades near another one of our campsites – Rancho Frío, home of the giant Harpy Eagle. The river was cool, which was a much-wanted relief given how hot and humid it was. We went up to the base of the falls and although the fish weren’t as interesting as down river it was still an adventure. The guides and Fernando, the most dexterous of us, climbed along a steep (and very wet) rock cliff and got on a shelf above the lowest set of falls. They sampled in the pools above – but I wondered how they would get down. I found out when they slid down through the falls! It looked like fun and it was probably one of those things I would have done before I had kids.
On one night our guide Hayro Cunampio went out with my snorkel, diving flashlight and a spear. We watched while he shot spikey armored catfishes (Ancistrus) and big characins that we hadn’t seen earlier in the day. When we turned off our headlamps and watched him floating in the stream with his bright torch against the darkness it looked like he was floating in space. When he came up he mentioned seeing a striped “macana” – which is the local name for electricfishes. We hadn’t seen any of these yet so I asked Fernando which one he means – “Gymnotus” he said. “We better go get it” I replied. My colleague at University of Louisiana Lafayette mentioned that he hoped we get a Gymnotus – something I thought was a weird request because I didn’t think these were in Panama. It turns out that Fernando was the one that discovered they were there with the first record of its discovery in 2012 [http://www.biotaxa.org/cl/article/view/9.3.655/0]. Fernando rushed out and A.J. and I followed to help. Using a cheap portable amplifier with cut wires we were able to translate these electric fish signals into sound. We stuck the cables under root mats and listened for their calls – Fernando understood their language – and could recognize their species by listening to the pattern – by the volume he could even determine their size. I was with him when he heard what he thought was a big Gymnotus deep in the roots, we missed a couple times with the dipnet, and then on one attempt we saw the characteristic striped patterns of Gymnotus. I’ve never seen anyone so happy to get a fish. Fernando leapt and danced across the stream as if Real Madrid had just one the Superbowl – or whatever Fernando’s favorite soccer club wins championships in. I was glad to see such passion for natural history. The fish was gorgeous too, a long dark-green headed relative of the electric eel; it was a fantastic fish and only the second record of the genus in Panama.
After a few more collecting days, we were back in Panama City – we were a disgusting mosquito bitten, unshaved, smelly lot – but happy. The edge of Central America was everything I had hoped for and more. Plus, I got to see my two newest lab members in the field and I couldn’t be happier to have Fernando and A.J. out there with me and back here at LSU.






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