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On the Road in Panama

On the Road in Panama
College Advisory Council members trekked to Panama to visit researchers like Mike Ryan and explore the tropical environments around Panama City.
Bob Durkee and Ellie Schneider (foreground) enjoying a boat ride in the Panama Canal to Barro Colordao Island with their fellow "Expedition: Panama" travelers.
Advisory Council in Panama

From June 20th to 25th, the College of Natural Sciences Advisory Council traveled to Panama, where they explored the rainforest and visited Panama City and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

STRI is the only Smithsonian-run institution outside of the United States, and it is one of the premiere places to study tropical ecosystems. Top researchers from universities all over the world, including The University of Texas at Austin, go to STRI to study the unique biodiversity of Panama. In fact, STRI hosts over 1,000 visiting scientists and researchers every year.  Some of them stay for only a few days, and some of them, like UT biologist Mike Ryan, stay for several weeks and return again and again for years.

The draw of STRI is not only the incredible beauty of the rainforest and the creatures that inhabit it, but also the biodiversity and the scientific questions that arise from this overabundance of life. STRI’s academic dean Owen McMillan explained that in temperate regions like North America, organisms must compete with their environment. In the winter there is no food, and in the summer there is too much. In places like Panama, there is food year round and the temperature remains basically the same. The struggle there is against other organisms—parasites, competitors for resources and predators. This is part of what contributes to the startling level of diversity, as organisms have evolved in response to those pressures.

In Panama there are over 950 species of birds, and over 230 species of mammals. To put this in perspective, in the entirety of North America, from Canada to Mexico, there are only 914 species of birds. Panama, a country the size of South Carolina, has a greater variety of birds than North America.

Panama has also played a large part in world history because of its geology.  The rise of the isthmus of Panama caused worldwide changes in ocean currents, most notably the creation of the Gulf Stream. This current brings warm water and warm air to Northern Europe, affecting the climate of the high northern latitudes. If not for Panama, Europe would be considerably colder. Some scientists even believe that the rise of Panama caused enough disturbances in the world’s climate to cause the African forests to become savannas, forcing Homo sapiens out of the trees and onto their feet.

While the Advisory Council was on this trip, they learned about all these things and further investigated how UT Austin takes advantage of the amazing resources that STRI offers researchers. They also had great time. They saw monkeys, sloths and toucans in their natural habitat, viewed the canopy from the top of a construction crane, took strenuous but beautiful hikes in the rainforest, and also found time to just relax by the pool in the beautiful resort.

Check out the Expedition: Panama blog for daily reports on the Advisory Council trip.
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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

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