Hello from the extremely bumpy backseat of a white pick-up truck that is barreling down a washed-out pothole-ridden trail known as Pipeline Road (left, below) in Gamboa, Panama. This is a famous road— known for its wildlife viewing capabilities and accessed by thousands of scientists around the world who come to study and work at the nearby Smithsonian facility in the tiny research town of Gamboa.
It is a wild road—the wildest I have ever been on. The forest is green and thick and heavy with moisture and heat. It is home to jaguars, pumas, vipers, anteaters, sloths and a variety of monkeys—including spider, howler, and capuchin species. Birders the-world-over come to this spot to see thousands of brightly colored species, including manakins, parrots, and toucans. Today, we are hoping that the forest is full of frogs.
Periodically, we stop to listen to their calls. My companions—Virginia Tech biological sciences Ph.D. students Angie Estrada and Daniel Medina—are pros at this. They grew up in Panama and know these forests well. Now, they work with Virginia Tech researcher Lisa Belden to study the spread of chytrid fungus among frogs, which has globally resulted in mass amphibian extinction.
There’s a lot that can be discovered in a sample from a frog’s skin. Angie is here to gather samples that she can then take back to Blacksburg to analyze. She is comparing incidence of chytrid fungus on various species throughout the seasons. Her hypothesis is that disease spread will be more prevalent in the dry season of the tropics (January-April) when frogs are drawn together in close quarters by scarcer water sources.
Yesterday, we spent most of the day at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, gathering supplies for frog swabbing—gloves, swabs, plastic bags, and sterile water. We also talked to one of Daniel and Angie’s former professors there—a researcher who has studied frogs for more than thirty years. He gave Angie tips about sites near Gamboa where we might find an abundance of our favorite amphibians.
This is primarily Angie’s research project. Daniel, a second-year Ph.D. student, also studies frogs, but has already gathered samples and is here to serve as first-year Angie’s field assistant. This project is special to Angie and Daniel: this is their home. They have worked and studied in these forests (often times, together) for more than ten years and are passionate about conserving the abundant biodiversity here.
Today is mostly an exploratory trip to scout out good frogging sites so we can come back and swab. We drive about six kilometers along the road, into Soberania National Park. We hike down to a small stream, scouring the rich soil and pebbles. It is literally hopping with frogs! Angie and Daniel locate 11 separate species along this stream alone, including a glass frog (pictured below, right) which is a unique find because it is primarily nocturnal and it is only about 10 a.m. now. Glass frogs are really cool because some species have translucent bellies, allowing us to see their hearts and other internal organs through their skin!
While wading in the river, we hear a commotion in the trees—branches break and a flurry of leaves flutter to the forest floor. At first, Daniel thinks it might be a monkey but as we get closer and climb the stream embankment, we find that it is an anteater, making his way along the canopy. While in the forest we also encounter an agouti, a native rodent about the size of a house cat who is sniffing along the forest floor. He seems interestingly unphased by us, and comes pretty close!
Angie decides that this is definitely a good field site and that we will come back later. We head back about a kilometer towards the park entrance and stop at a second site, also by a stream. This one is not as good for frogs—Angie and Daniel find only about four species here, and the deeper stream makes it harder to locate amphibians. With the sun now high in the sky, most of the animals are resting and hiding, doing whatever they can to stay cool in the intense humidity and heat.
We jump into the truck and head back to Gamboa, confident that we’ve found at least one good site and that we’ll be back soon.
Virginia Tech Ph.D. students Daniel Medina (left) and Angie Estrada, both of Panama City, Panama, search for frogs off Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park in Gamboa, Panama. The students are working with Lisa Belden, an associate professor of biological sciences, to study the spread of chytrid fungus among tropical frog species.
Continue on the journey: