All posts by Laetitia Wilkins

Urchin/Crab Panama Expedition 2018: Day 11

Crossing the isthmus.

Today was a successful journey. It all started waiting in line for the ferry at 7:30. We were the first in line. However, when the ferry arrived they let other trucks embark first. I had to witness Alexandra using the full spectrum of the Spanish language before they would let us on the ferry. We would embark but then they would send us back and forth until they decided where we could finally stay for the passage. It was chaos and I was happy to travel with somebody who knows how to communicate. The ride went smoothly. On the other side we hurried to get up to the cloudy mountains. Although we experienced heavy rain and thick fog, everything went very well. Most of the ride was like a dream for me – I fell asleep several times. Sorry for not being a good co-pilot, Alexandra! I was simply too exhausted after everything we experienced during the first ten days here. This speaks for your driving skills. I absolutely trusted you. When I finally woke up we were already in the David area.

After driving for hours through the fog, rainforest, a surreal 3 months young highway (new Panamerican highway), and the touristy but quiet area of Las Lajas we made it to the hostel. We got a flat tire. Of course! So we exchanged tires in the heat being watched by 8 year old Eric, a knowledgeable local. His grandma offered her onion cutting board as a base for the gato (vehicle lifting tool). After this task was completed we drove back towards David looking for a gas station to fix the broken tire. We found a super helpful mechanic who sent us to the store (el chino – the politically incorrect way of calling supermarkets mostly run by Chinese here) to get a new tire and fixed it for us right away. The local people here are super friendly!

Right before it got dark we made it to the hostel [Casa Laguna Bed & Breakfast ]. A wonderful place! It is one of the only places in the area that meets all of our research requirements (space, fridge and freezer!). The hostel is run by an Italian couple. At the moment, her mother is visiting from Italy. When we mentioned that we were very hungry, the mother offered to cook us pasta for dinner, freshly imported from Italy with red wine and Turkish side dishes from the neighbor. It was fantastic. This is definitely not the rule for field biologists! I had been starving since the first night at Bocas del Toro… Alexandra and I enjoyed the meal on the porch talking about family and politics. The aftermath of a super blue blood snow moon eclipse was our only but wonderful light out there.

(no photos today because I am writing this post on my cell phone with Panamanian SIM card – I will add the photos later).  (Note from David:  Laetitia texted me some pictures and I added them, as well as a couple from my not-working-today below).

Jungle boat tour
Feeding wildlife. I’m convinced this is a bad idea but they are cute.

Urchin/Crab Panama Expedition 2018: Day 10

David cashed in his chips, now girl power rules!

The howler monkeys slept in this morning and only woke us up at 6:30. David took off to do some touristy stuff at Gamboa and Panama City. He got picked up by Jarrod who kindly offered to bring him to the airport and discuss science on the way. David (the person) will definitely be missed. He is a great travel companion. Meanwhile, Alexandra and I were getting anxious about our last chance to find porcelain crabs on this side of the isthmus. We were packed and ready at 8am but we forgot about Panamanian time… The boat (the same one that we had taken the last three days) apparently needed an inspection and a stamp first! Finally, at 9:30 we took off with Deyvis – my favorite captain. He is not only an excellent boat driver, he also knows everything about the laboratories at the STRI station, and he has shown that he is very good at finding porcelain crabs. We would love to take him on our trip to David (the location) tomorrow!

Despite the heavy rain, the cold water and the halos between the rainwater and the saltwater columns, we found many crabs. Back in the lab we realized that these were all replicates of the species we had already collected. Never mind, replicates are always good to have. Now we have the same species from different locations/habitats. We are ending up with five porcelain crab species and four urchin species from the Caribbean waters around Bocas del Toro, including an undescribed species among the crabs! Alexandra told me that she is working on describing this new species genetically and morphologically. To sum up: So far we collected all the urchins we wanted from both sides of the isthmus: Diadema mexicanum vs. antillarum, Echinometra vanbrunti vs. lucunter & viridis, and Eucidaris thouarsii vs tribuloides  (always Pacific vs. Caribbean).

You can find a few videos about the urchins of our study that were collected in August 2017 at Galeta (Caribbean side) on my personal blog: here!

Pachycheles tuerkayi
Pachycheles susanae
Petrolisthes bolivarensis
Petrolisthes armatus

Today, we spent the afternoon doing dissections of the crabs, plating more crab tissues on different bacterial growth media, and packing for our road trip to David (location) tomorrow.

Cheliped bacteria from P. tuerkayi

I have several colonies from crab guts growing in a special chitin medium from Jarrod! Literally, during my last hours here in Bocas del Toro, I had to prepare new chitin plates in order to be able to grow these interesting bugs on our road trip.


We are going to queue early in the morning to get a spot on the ferry that leaves Isla Colon at 10am. Usually, these ferries are filled with gas trucks so we will have to fight for a space on the ferry. I am very curious to see the roads across the isthmus. Alexandra warned me how dangerous they are. I am more worried about finding crabs and keeping my bugs on the plate alive while Alexandra is taking care of us and worrying about real problems in life. She definitely has seen a lot. I am very glad that we have crossed ways and are going to find these crabs together the next couple of days.

I do not think that there is internet over there. I will keep you posted whenever I am online again.