No post yesterday because I was doing DNA extractions. I am spending more or less 24h in the lab. The bugs are growing and I became painfully aware of the large sample size of crab tissues we have! I think I can extract DNA out of them all and that keeps me going. During the day I meet other lab rats and during the night cockroaches the size of guinea pigs.
Today I took my first break and went out for lunch with Matthieu Leray. We had a lot to discuss. He is an excellent marine ecologist.
It looks like this trip will work out! This was only possible thanks to a lot of helpful people. I will try to mention a few: There was David Coil who joined me for this adventure. Harilaos Lessios and Jarrod Scott who helped us plan it. Jamie Blair, Jarrod’s esposa who figured out a lot of the logistics. Bill Wcislo and Jonathan Eisen who covered our backs and got us out of the swamp a couple of times. The mysterious customs broker and Paola Galgani who went to talk to the clerks at the airport and who succeeded in releasing the baggage from quarantine. Marcos Ramos, who delivered the suitcases 3min before we had to check-in for our flight to Bocas del Toro. Taisha Parris, Aristoteles Villegas, Laura Geyer, Vilma Fernandez, Urania Gonzales and Plinio Gondola, who handled all the administrative work at the different STRI stations and made me go through the lab security training THREE times. Deyvis Gonzales and Heather who navigated the STRI boats to our different known and unknown sampling locations. And Alexandra Hiller, my invaluable guide on the porcelain hunt.
At this point, I also want to mention Nino Wilkins and Tania Wyss who worked on the Spanish translations of our CVs, STRI application permit and Panamanian collection permit. And our respective spouses Isabelle Henry and Donny who took care of our families while we took off.
This is a large group of people that were involved in making this trip happen. And it is just the beginning of the project…
We collected host-associated microbes of urchins and porcelain crabs from both sides of the istmo and made them grow on different media. Now we have to evaluate our results and see if we can increase the catalogue of microbes associated with geminate species.
Today we drove from Las Lajas back to Panama City. A very contrasting experience! From nature back into civilization. Alexandra and I talked about science and the next steps of our collaboration. The drive took about 5h and I had some time to think about my personal experience of Panama. It was a very valuable experience to live in Las Lajas and spend time with the local fishermen of Remedios.
Remedios is a small village with its own port and a fish factory. Our captain told us a little bit about his life. He learned how to fish from his father who had learned it from his father. He remembers that there were lots of fish, turtles and sharks in the bay when he was a boy. But now they are all gone. He started to run a transport logistics company because he did not earn enough to support a family as a fisherman anymore. The government put many restrictions on fishing. Some species are protected, others have specific length requirements or can only be caught during a few months of the year. Fishermen don’t always understand these rules and are angry at the environmental offices. He says it is not his fault that all the fish are gone.
The men who are still making a living from fishing sell their products to international companies, such as for example Costco’s. Maria, our host who runs Casa Laguna B&B once drove to Remedios to buy fresh fish for her business. However, that day they were out of fish because the fish had been sold. Trucks pick them up in the morning and by the evening these fish are already in New York. What is an expensive fish at an American restaurant only gave a few cents to the Panamanian fisherman who caught it. This opens my eyes about my own consumerism. Especially in the Bay area of San Francisco where I live you can find high quality food from all over the world. It does not say how much the producer got for it and how many miles it had traveled. There is no information on how much oil was burnt for packaging and transport and in how much waste this resulted. I will try to think twice before I buy groceries when I return. And I will talk to my children about it. Most of the producers are just trying to survive every day. It is the rich consumers who can make the difference by making an educated choice.
Another important point to discuss with my children is our plastic waste. I have seen it every day here in Panama. Even on the remote Islas Secas there is plastic trash. My mom told me that there were no plastic bags at grocery stores when she was a child. Now they are everywhere – in just one generation. In stores, on the beach and in the ocean. This might need a strong re-thinking, too.
These field trips are not only very productive for research. They usually also give me the time and distance to reconsider life and what we are here for.
Once we arrived in the city, Alexandra dropped me off at the STRI station on the island of Naos. Here I am now. I will start the first extractions tonight. The centrifuge behind me is begging for it.
Today was not much different from yesterday with the exception that I finished lab work early: at 21:30 already! We started at 6:30, spent most of the day collecting at Islas Secas and came back in the afternoon for dissecting crabs and culturing bacteria. Most of the dilutions are growing well! Even the ones in the anaerobic chambers.
Alexandra and I decided to drive back to Panama City tomorrow morning. We collected a lot. I just typed 228 samples for microbiome analysis into the google sheet, including 13 different porcelain crab species and three different tissues. At the moment there are 45 plates harboring tissue samples for bacteria and 50 bacterial cultures in glycerol. This means that I will have to finish a lot of lab work during the next couple of days. Every extra day counts. I am looking forward to enjoying the luxury that comes with a real molecular genetic laboratory at the STRI facility in Naos.
Another long day. Maybe the longest so far. We had to leave the hostel at 6:30. Our host’s mother extra got up and brewed us some strong Italian coffee. Such a lovely lady!
We hired a local fisherman to bring us out to the Archipelago de Islas Secas. The boat ride took almost 1.5h: first down a river along the mangroves and then out into the open ocean. We tried hard to spot a crocodile but they hid too well. Here at the Pacific side of the isthmus we depend on the tides. We can only find porcelain crabs during deep low tides. This gives us around 2h to find the crabs! The marine life around Islas Secas is amazing! I needed a lot of self discipline not to get distracted by the schools of fish passing by and the moray eels looking out of their holes. What a pity that David was not with us. I was accompanied by some large beauties. I worked with my full commitment, regardless of scratches and waves. For the first hour I did not find anything. However, then I figured it out and started finding them.
On the way back to the fisherman’s village we noticed some huge houses and development in the area. This place is unique with regard to its pristine nature and wilderness. People live in small villages in colorful houses. Life is simple and sufficient. Many families have chickens, a few cows and pigs. However, now it looks like they are selling their land to turn it into cash. Many buyers are rich international investors who want to develop the area, build large hotels and make money with all-inclusive resorts. Moreover, there is a law in Panama that makes it easier to get a residence permit if you buy real estate. This is not a good development for the local flora and fauna, including humans.
Like yesterday, I immediately started processing samples and culturing bacteria when we came back to the hostel. I only took a quick break for the sunset at the longest beach in Panama, 5min by (bare-) foot from the hostel.
The bugs are growing well. I hope I can isolate them successfully.
I was particularly pleased to find P. haigae today, named after Janet Haig a pioneer in porcelain crab research! As a tribute I will browse in the Reports of the Lund University Chile Expedition 1948-49 (link). In this report, Haig describes crustaceans that they found during their expedition (titles in Swedish, text in English and Spanish). I wonder how collection permits were regulated in South America during that time.
After a rich breakfast we drove to Playa Hermosa to check out some classic tide pools. Right on time, at low tide, we started searching. And we found! A lot. Two hours later we were both smiling and feeling accomplished. I guessed four different species in my little collection tank. Without a break we drove straight to the port to meet a fisherman who will bring us to las Islas Secas tomorrow morning. Google map on Alexandra’s iPhone was confused and led us for 10km on a dirt road through several cattle gates and private properties until we hit a pig transport. The driver yelled at us to turn around. With a bit of luck we finally ended up in the right village and talked to the fisherman and his buddies. Apparently it is going to be very rough tomorrow. Better no breakfast…
Back at the hostel I started making dilution streaks of our cultures, sampling them for DNA extractions and storing them for long-term in glycerol. This was followed by dissections of the new crabs and incubations of their fresh tissues. We are far from done tonight. Some species are so similar that Alexandra has to use a microscope and count the hairs on their legs to figure out who they are. This takes time!
I am going back to dissecting little porcelain crabs now…
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).
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!
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.
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.
I think pretty much everybody was woken up at 5:30 am by the pack of howler monkeys in the trees outside the station. I had taken a bunch of pictures of them yesterday but I did kind of wonder at the name since they didn’t seem to be making too much noise. Boy was I mistaken… they are LOUD! And kind of freaky sounding.
Had a long boat day today, 8-2 on the water. We were heading 40 minutes to Loma Partida which is described on one website as “the best snorkeling in Bocas”. However, when we arrived we didn’t even get in the water since there were no rocks… and the crabs hide under rocks. So after much debate we headed to another spot which was more promising,
and indeed had rocks. Got a few crabs there and then headed for a little rocky island on a reef. Turns out this tiny island used to have a bar (the drinking kind, not the sand kind) and so there was a fair bit of underwater structure. Definitely the most amazing snorkeling we’ve seen… and an abundance of the porcelain crabs. I even got in a bit of fishing and caught a couple of small barracuda. The haul for the day was 25 crabs which is a record so far.
Another afternoon of lab work, extracting DNA from many of the isolates, dissections, plating, etc. Due to a complicated intersection of factors (shortage of some items, redistribution of some items to Laetitia, fluid logistics)… I’m done with lab work in Panama. I leave tomorrow back to the Gamboa station for a couple of days, and then stay in STRI housing in Panama city for a couple of days after that. Meanwhile Laetitia and Alexandra will be leaving on a road trip for the SW of Panama, back on the Pacific side. I won’t be blogging after today because I’ll be done with project work. Laetitia will take over… but probably won’t have internet access for some days to come.
Today was interesting insofar as when I woke up, I didn’t have the faintest idea what the plan was. This is a good time to mention that working down here requires… flexibility. “Let’s meet in an hour” could be hours later. Between “Panamanian time”, miscommunications, translations issue, and bureaucracy let’s just say it can get complicated. But… that all fades away when the boat heads out into the ocean.
So I joined Alexandra and Laetitia today to provide logistical support go fishing and take pictures. Fishing was basically a bust, as were most of the underwater pictures. But they had some great success with crabs today. They found 4 different species, including a couple that represent geminate pairs with the Pacific. So we’re up to 3 geminate pairs for the urchins as well as the crabs. One particular hard-to-find species was hiding in a rock so Alexandra brought the entire rock back and then attacked it with a hammer at the station to extract the crab. Another particularly challenging one resulted in Laetitia learning how to throw up in a snorkel mask while catching the crab.
After I did dilution-streaking of all the aerobic Caribbean urchin plates, Laetitia and I headed into town for an ATM and some souvenirs. I bought a Panama hat even though I know they actually originate from Ecuador (they were very clear on this point when I visited Ecuador).
Had a visit at our dorm of a troop of about 20 howler monkeys which was pretty amazing to see and hear!
Another action packed evening of media prep, crab dissections, and some anaerobic culturing. Tossed in a quick pasta dinner for myself and I think Laetitita had cereal for dinner.
A week in Panama today! Sometimes it feels like a month. Today we split up… Laetitia and Alexandra went to Boca del Drago to look for crabs. They searched and searched without success but did find the missing Eucidaris tribuloides! So now we have all the Caribbean urchin species that we’re looking for. Meanwhile Jarrod, Jamie, and I went to scout out new sampling sites check out an organic coffee/chocolate plantation on Isla Bastimentos nearby. Fascinating water taxi ride, it was us and a bunch of surfers and the boat took the surfers out (though some scary high waves!) to the break between islands where they would surf. So they all paid the driver and jumped out, meanwhile a couple others paddled over and hopped in and went with us to Isla Bastimentos. Cool. The organic/funky/hippie plantation was amazing, we learned about the natural microbial fermentation of cacao which is pretty awesome.
When Laetitia and Alexandra got back, they jumped in the water near the Bocas Station and found a bunch of the crabs they need.
After lunch was a lot of lab work. I made new media, dissected/plated the Eucidaris, and made glycerol stocks/did DNA extraction on all the isolates from the Pacific. Meanwhile Laetitia began dissections/plating on all the crabs they collected today. Once I was done with lab work I jumped in the ocean to check out the amazing things growing in and around the docks. This area is covered with mangroves and they are really awesome. They’re not that exciting above water but underneath the are completely covered in the most amazing diversity of critters… including the crabs.
After dinner a group of us from the station took a water taxi to Isla Carenero to a restaurant called the “Cosmic Crab”. Among other cool things, the lady that runs this restaurant is trying to create more demand for lionfish which is an invasive species spreading in many countries to the detriment of local fish. There’s an international campaign (and push by NOAA) to create consumer demand for this fish, ever since I heard about the campaign I’d wanted to do my part for conservation and try the fish! Anyway, I can verify that they are worth eating from both a conservation and culinary perspective.