Illinois IGERT in Panama

About Us

We are first-year Ph.D. students at the University of Illinois, part of the School of Integrated Biology. Thanks to an NSF IGERT program, we are spending our first spring semester learning from and doing research with scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute!
Beryl is broadly interested in social insect behavior and the mechanisms underlying social evolution in insects. In Panama, she will be studying a facultatively eusocial sweat bee, Megalopta genalis, to discover the molecular pathways involved in reproductive division of labor among these Halictine bees
Cassie is interested in the evolution of paleograsslands. In Panama, she will be training in paleopalynology (fossilized pollen) with the intent of doing future work in the tropics.
Erin is interested in infectious disease, transmission dynamics, evolution of virulence, and how parasitism influences host behavior to maximize transmission.
Kelsey is interested in human population histories, especially in using ancient DNA to answer questions about Native American migration into North America. In Panama, she will be analyzing dogs from ancient Panamanian settlements.
Lorena is interested in understanding how environmental and climate changes will affect crop growth - specifically, ozone tolerance in corn. In Panama, she is still trying to figure out her project.
Nick is interested in the genetic basis of coloration in birds. In Panama, he will be researching physiological tolerances to different climates in various bird species.
Phred is interested in local adaptations, speciation and biogeography of birds. In Panama, he will be investigating physiological plasticity in tropical birds.
Selina is generally interested in plant-ant interactions, invasion ecology, and restoration ecology. In Panama, she will be investigating the chemical mechanism behind seed choice in ants.

Lorena: Diversity of plants, animals and landscapes during IGERT course

With this post I plan to summarize my IGERT course experience in 40 images.

Double click an image to enlarge it.



1)      Among the animal diversity at BCI we could find very cute spider monkeys like the one above.


2)      As scientists we are well aware that we need distractions from our research to keep our sanity. For this reason, researchers at BCI take boat trips to the “Attitude adjustment cove”. This tree could be seen on the way to the cove. It was been dead for more than 100 yrs however many epiphytes live on the trunk which gives the impression that the tree is alive even due is submerge in the water.


3)      As part of Rachel Page’s talk we went with her and a few of her lab members to catch bat. Here a bat feeding from a sugar based solution. This is done because bats have an accelerate metabolism and keeping them without food for too long could put their lives at risk.


4)      Releasing one of the bats.


5)      Fish with blue eyes in a tank at Punta Galeta research station.


6)      Mangrove stabilizes the shoreline and protects the coasts from storm, winds and flooding. Their abundance is threatened by deforestation for industrial or commercial development. Here an image of mangrove diversity around Punta Galeta.


7)      Morning view of the decks in front of Punta Galeta research station.


8)      Returning from Punta Galeta to Gamboa we made a visit to the Achiote community. To access this community we had to cross through the Gatun locks. Here is a picture of a huge shipping boat entering the Gatun locks.


9)      After the boat entered the first lock this bridge was reopened. We could also see a set of doors from the Gatun locks.


10)  A local farmer from the Achiote community explains his growing techniques and all the problems he confronts with different pests. Although he does not have an official degree his more than 30 years of experience in agriculture is enough to master growing techniques for rice, plantain, and corn among other crops.


11)  Developing corn ear.


12)  View from Playa Baraka.


13)  Small epiphytes growing at the trunk of a tree to the side of the trail through the Coffee Museum.


14)  Coffee fruits at the Coffee Museum.


15)  Traditional method to break (smash) the dry cover from the coffee bean.


16)  Coffee bean after peeling.


17)  Gatun dam. This dam is the biggest along the Panama Canal; it contains the water from the Gatun Lake.


18)  After a hot day and trip to Achiote, a swim in “La charca” was mandatory.


19)  Klaus Winter’s experiments or “Winterland”. The different growth chambers are used to evaluate plants response under simulated future climate conditions (ex. Increase CO2).


20)  View of Panama City from Naos Research station.


21)  Low tide at Veracruz. (We would have been under a few feet of water during the high tie.)


22)  Hitting the road early in the morning. Crossing the one lane bridge on our way to Agua Salud.


23)  Talk by Jeff Hall at Agua Salud.


24)  Colorful tree trunk at Agua Salud.


25)  Praying mantis at Agua Salud.


26)  View of the forest from Agua salud.


27)  Shipping boat crossing the Panama Canal at night.


28)  One lane wood bridge and shipping boat crossing the Panama Canal view from the Gamboa lighthouse.


29)  Wristband for the closure event of the Panama Jazz Fest. We danced salsa-jazz by Ruben Blades.


30)  Butterfly.


31)  Drying corn ears at Finca la Magnita.


32)  Puppy! ❤ Who does not love puppies?


33)  Cacao tree at Finca la Magnita.


34)  The bananas that we eat in the US come from here. Chiquita banana plantation.


35)  Underwater diversity below the STRI dock at Bocas del Toro.


36)  Algae, corals and sponges.


37)  Algae, corals and sponges.


38)  Paradise. Boobies and tropical bird island.


39)  10 + Starfishes at “Playa de Estrellas” ( Starfish beach).


40)  Sunrise at the STRI dock.


Kelsey: The Cloud Forest

We spent three nights in what is probably the most magical landscape in Panama: the Cloud Forest at Fortuna. For me, the name just evokes fairytales and ancient kingdoms, ivy-covered towers rising into the sky. Pretty improbable for a real place, right? You would think I would be pretty much over forests at this point, after visiting BCI and walking around Gamboa.


The rolling hills should have clued me in that we were heading to a beautiful place. Fortuna is a high-elevation forest, where the mountain tops reach into the clouds and the heat and humidity of Gamboa is nothing but a memory. It was nice and cool during our stay – highs of 75, with constant cool breezes.


Our gracious host was Dr. Jim Dalling, a professor at Illinois. He spends a lot of time doing research in Fortuna as well, though. Montane forests have tons of tropical diversity, and they aren’t nearly as well-studied as lower-elevation tropical forests. We hiked around a lot of tree plots during our stay. On the first day, we were taken to three different locations:

Palo Seco,




and Honda.


Each of these sites has a different soil content, which in turn affects the tree composition of the forest. We did a lot of hiking the first day, but it was nothing compared to El Hornito the next day. What was supposed to be a 3-hour hike ended up being closer to 7…it was a long haul but the views were beautiful. We were hiking through the mist part of the way and the views were just breathtaking!






I would say of all the sites we’ve visited thusfar, Fortuna has been my favorite. And it’s easy to see why!

Finca la Magnita (Selina)

In between Fortuna and arrive at the STRI Research Station in Bocas del Toro, we stopped at Finca la Magnita, a family owned and run farm that practices subsistence and sustainable farming based on a polyculture system. There Orlando, the current owner (and with the help of Andrew who translated) told us about how his farm was run and the different sections of the land. The land there is broken up into around 5 sections: Bosque (Forest), Agroforestal System, Basic Grains, Pasture, and Risk.

1: Bosque: This section is located in the highlands and makes up about 18-22% of the finca. While it does not provide any direct income it provides indirect sources of income through ecosystem services. The only management they provide for the site is maintaining it was a forest.

2: Agroforestal Sysemt: This section while still a forest, it is harvested and maintained to directly bring in money. Located in the lowlands, it makes up about 13% of the finca and produces timer, banana, plantains, cacao, and more.

3: Basic Grains: This section is also in the lowlands but is used to grow maize, rice, bean, etc. This section is used mostly to feed the family and provide seeds for the next year. (Side note: when they switched from their own seeds to transgenic ones the crops did horribly). Any leftover production can then be sold to market.

4: Pastorile (Pasture): This is the section where they get milk, meat, etc. Most of it is also for subsistence: however, they get most of their money from it. They run this section different though from the other farms nearby in that they keep their livestock for a long time, taking the raw products like milk and transforming it into cheese that they can sell at market. The other farms nearby just move their cattle in and out, overgrazing the land and cutting down the forests, which has had drastic changes on coral communities in the Caribbean.

5: Risk: This section isn’t used for anything. It is an area located around the rivers on his property and they are areas set aside that nothing is done with so that it can provide flood control services if the rivers overflow.

But this is not all that the finca does. With their raw products they process and transform them, integrating all the steps in one location which raises the value of the products. Orlando mentioned that for 1 lb of raw coco he will get only 60 cents, but processed he can get $3.50 for the same amount. The finca also holds many educational programs (like the one we were on), where they take groups of people around the finca, showing them how they grow the different products and teaching people how farming in polyculture can increase yield while still being safe for the environment. This is particularly true for the cacao part of the finca, where they cultivate together many different varieties and ages of cacao plants that have different properties (flavors, aromas, smoothness, and seed sizes). By running his farm this way he is able to get a yield much higher than other cacao plantations (I believe 2,000 lbs? compared to something in the 10s place but I don’t remember the exact numbers).Image





More Gamboa Canopy Tower! (Cassie)


Kelsey, Selina, and I walked from the Gamboa Schoolhouse to the top of Gamboa Canopy Tower yesterday. In the excitement to see this place that everyone had already traveled to, I temporarily forgot about my fear of heights–until I got to the top of the tower! Once I was atop the tower, I froze up at the sight of the vast landscape surrounding us on all sides. However, after some encouragement, I managed to put aside my fear and really enjoy the view (and the wind!)atop the tower.


The Canopy Tower!

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The climb to and from the tower was also quite epic–it took a lot of endurance (and courage!) to get up the steep inclines on crumbling stone steps. Here’s a view of just the beginning of the journey:


Along the way to the top of the tower we saw a very busy line of leaf-cutter ants, diligently trekking along with a myriad of leaves and flowers. Since each ant carried only a unique piece of a flower or leaf, it looked as if a line of puzzle pieces were marching along the ground. I also stopped to look at some brilliant flowers:

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We’re leaving for Fortuna and Bocas del Toro tomorrow so we’ll have lots of posts in the upcoming weeks–stay tuned! 🙂

Fauna around the basketball court in Gamboa (Selina)

Just a quick post of some of the birds and an armadillo I saw when I went with two of the McGill students to the basketball court today.


Social Flycatcher


Collared Aracari


Blue-grey Tanager



Clay Colored Thrush


Nine banded armadillo


Red-crowned Woodpecker



Black Crowned Tityra


Lorena: Gamboa schoolhouse

The majority of the IGERT course takes place at the Gamboa schoolhouse, Gamboa.
Gamboa is a small city by the Panama Canal; it was originally built to house the canal’s workers. Its ~40 mins from Panama City by car and ~50 mins away by boat from BCI.

The only way to get into Gamboa by car is by crossing a one lane wood bridge which I find it very unique. This wood bridge also has rails from the train. The bridge was built ~1930s and its still in used both by car and the train.
I always wonder why they haven’t expanded ( to two lanes) but I guess they want to preserve a tradition which as I mentioned is very unique, intriguing and scary ( specially when the train comes) a the same time.

FUN (annoying) fact: The bridge closes from 9-11am every Wednesday for maintenance reason so we better plan our day around that.


“Entrance: This stop light controls the traffic through the one lane bridge.”


“View of the one lane bridge from a car. The Panama Canal is on the left side.”

The city of Gamboa can be seen at 1:09 in this timelapse video of a boat crossing through the canal.

At the schoolhouse we have a classroom, 4 bedrooms, kitchen, dining area, shared areas and laundry facilities.

“Main classroom where we take our indoor seminars.”

20130107_160930“Dining area.”

20130110_082703” Relaxation area …

20130110_132005 or technology center. “

Since everything cant be studying… we used this shared area as a technology center, to play cards, read books and to drink.


” Here is our beer tally with our preferred beer. “

Kelsey: Agua Salud


Yesterday, we spent our morning and early afternoon at Agua Salud. This is a large plot of land owned by the Smithsonian, and is dedicated to hydrology – the study of the water cycle. The main idea is that the forest is a sponge – it soaks up excess water during the rainy season to prevent flooding, and then the water is slowly released over the dry season to keep things from getting too parched. This is actually a really controversial issue. Do forests *really* act like sponges? How about cow pastures or farmland? How about secondary forests, which are “new” forests that are taking over abandoned farmland? Dr. Jeff Hall is testing all of these environments and more on Agua Salud, studying the amount of water retained and released in various habitats.


Panama has its years of flooding, and those can be highly damaging. It’s important to understand how land use affects flooding to be able to anticipate disasters. In 2010, apparently the flooding was so high that the dams were at full capacity – any higher and the dams would have broken.


We got to see most of Agua Salud. We were first taken to the teak plantation – teak is a popular wood to be grown in Panama, not because it is well-suited to the soil (it isn’t), but because it’s such a highly profitable venture. People can make a lot of money selling teak wood they grow, so teak plantations are an important environment to study.


We also visited the weirs, small dams that allow people to measure how much water is being released from each environment. Streams have little catchments where water flow is measured, and if flooding occurs the instruments can tell you how much water was added and how long it took for the stream to get back to normal.


We were also taken to the secondary forest to look at how new forests grow. Trees have a variety of different growth rates, and there are trade-offs between growing rapidly (and dying young) and growing slowly (and living a long time). How young forests get and maintain diversity is not well-studied, so there are a few forest plots at different ages used in Dr. Hall’s projects. All of the paint markings indicate the growth rate of the trees.

Our last stop was looking at smaller ecosystems – clusters of only a few types of trees. Every tree has its own carbon footprint and ability to hold and use water, and seeing how specific trees interact with one another can help improve farmlands! It can make the land more efficient at containing excess floodwaters and keep the other plants healthier, if used in the right combinations. It’s pretty interesting how planting a single tree can make a difference!


Agua Salud was beautiful. The views were just spectacular – rolling hills covered in red earth and brilliant green trees, extending for miles. It was pretty hot and we had a lot of climbing to do, but it was a pretty interesting day!

Soberania National Park (Erin)

A few of our excursions have been to Soberania National Park. The park is frequently used by researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and it will serve as a study site for several of the IGERT students this semester. The park is home to many diverse bird species, as Nick and Phred can attest. Below are some pictures featuring some of the plants and animals we have seen in the park and along Pipeline Road in the park so far.


Jeff Brawn from the University of Illinois made the trip down to Panama to speak with our class and take us bird-watching.

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While bird-watching, we also managed to spot some other wildlife, such as this white-faced capuchin monkey


 Blue-capped manakin


Leaf from a cecropia tree


Leaf-cutter ants


Slaty-tailed trogon


Exploring Pipeline Road


Common basilisk

View of Nature (Cassie)

Hi everyone,

I just wanted to share some photographs of nature that I took while out and about on our various tropical biology field trips and seminars. This course has been really wonderful in the sense that we can learn in the classroom from a seminar, but then apply that knowledge in the field. Each field trip has resulted in not only advanced knowledge on such topics as what controls tree diversity, but also on the overall wonder of everything around us—from the grasshopper on the forest floor to the sloth on top of a tree.










For the night is dark and full of bats (Nick)

One of my favorite field components of the course so far has been a demonstration of the variety of field work conducted by Rachel Page’s lab on bats around Gamboa (see Dr. Page’s website here:

After talks by Dr. Page and her postdocs, we started our field demo by touring Gamboa in the daytime to see the bat lab facilities. This included simply walking around town looking for roosting Tent-making Bats (Uroderma bilobatum). These bats roost communally under leaves that they have modified by cutting and folding the sides to make a little shelter.


Postdoc Teague O’Mara explained how he tracks the feeding movements of these bats around town using RFID tags. These tiny, passive tags are implanted in captured bats. When a tag reader is passed near the bat, it automatically reads the unique tag ID and records that individual bat’s presence. One way Teague uses this is by setting up bat feeding stations, where bats land to feed on fruits he places out at night, allowing a reader under the station to record which individual bats are feeding:


Another use of this technology is to document which individuals use which roost. Here, a bat roost is equipped with an RFID tag reader in the entrance, along with scales, to document who leaves the roost when, and how much food they bring back to the roost when they return:



Postdoc Thomas Sattler studies bat bioacoustics. Most bat emit echolocation clicks at a much higher frequency than can be heard by humans. These clicks are also species-specific, and recording them allows Thomas to document which species are feeding in an area. After dark, he demonstrated field recorders that not only record the calls, but also plays them back at a frequency humans can hear, allowing us to listen to the bats feeding above us in real time.



The final part of the bat research demonstration was actually catching bats! Using mist-nets deployed in and around the forest edge, we captured a variety of species.

Removing bats from mist nets:


I forgot the name of this little one:


Mimon crenulatum:



Carollia perspicillata:


Artibeus jamaicensis:


Artibeus phaeotis (or watsoni):



Giving this little guy some sugar water for an energy boost:


“Alright, you can take off now”


Phyllostomus hastatus:




Pteronotus parnelli:

P1030328 - Pteronotus parnelli

The bat researchers didn’t seem to be phased by all the paparrazi