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J-Term Study Abroad in Panama: A Course in Tropical Ecology

By: Morgan Fimreite

When Dr. Choudhury sent out an email to all Biology majors detailing a study abroad course that would take place over the J-Term semester, I wanted to apply, but I needed a push to do so. The course itself would be 14 days in Panama, staying at prestigious research stations, exploring different tropical ecosystems, snorkeling in the Caribbean, and participating in research. This would be the first year Dr. Draney and Dr. Choudhury offered this course after it was last available in 2017 after beginning around 2008.

After asking my parents what they thought, I  received six texts from my mom telling me to “Go!” I applied, not thinking much of it, and expecting that an upperclassman would get the spot instead of me, but a few weeks later, I was surprised to see “Congratulations!” instead of a rejection. I was speechless, feeling overwhelming sensations of excitement and nervousness at the reality that in two months, I would be traveling to a different country to do research and learn about ecosystems I would see firsthand. I immediately started making a packing list in my mind. When the time came for our first meeting as a group, everyone was so quiet that I became nervous we wouldn’t be able to get along during the trip. I got to know the two other SNC students on the trip, Josh Brown and Nick Schneider, a little better over the few months we were still at school, but we were a small band of three in a group of 10 students, the rest from UWGB. We learned about the research we would be doing: identifying freshwater fish in Gamboa, observing different levels of biodiversity while snorkeling in different environments, and brushing trees to collect Hersilia spiders. 

After my last final, I went home, celebrated the holidays with my family, then spent a few hours packing with my parents to make sure I was fully prepared. The night before our flight, we drove to Green Bay and stayed in a hotel. We were at the airport by 4:30 am for our flight to Chicago. We were in surprisingly good spirits the whole day, even though it was a very, very long one. We were not able to see the beauty of Panama City at night, but we made it to Gamboa safely, where we stayed for the night. The adrenaline was enough to give us motivation to keep us ready for our flights the next morning. We were serenaded by a man at the airport while we waited for our bags and we arrived at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Bocas del Toro, which would be our home for the next few days. We were introduced to our personal chef, Jesús, who made our days brighter by being our home away from home. For some of us, the best part of the entire trip was Jesús’s cooking. 

That first night in Bocas, we practiced snorkeling and learned of the many dangers we might come into contact with, including fire coral, which we saw off the docks. The first two days of snorkeling were back to back and we visited a total of five spots. The coolest organisms we observed were four Caribbean Reef Squids, Yellow and Southern Stingrays, Sand Divers, as well as many damselfish and large corals. We visited La Gruta Cave, a small cave system, where at some points, the ceiling was completely black, covered in bats. We saw our first (and only) sloth on a night hike around the small forest surrounding the facilities. Our last day in Bocas, we visited Isla Bastimentos, which is home to Red Frog Beach. We walked to the beach, saw a few strawberry poison dart frogs along the way, and returned to STRI to snorkel in some mangroves. We had to leave both sites quite quickly because of box jelly sightings, the second most deadly jellyfish in the world. We were still able to go snorkeling at the last spot we were going to skip, which ended up being the most beautiful and breathtaking spot we visited. There was a large dropoff and a current pushing us toward land, covered in large and sharp rocks. We saw the largest abundance of parrotfish there as well as needlefish, tangs, and damselfish. For dinner, we ventured into town and dined at El Ultimo Refugio, which was owned by a woman from Door County, a “small world” moment in another country. We had amazing food and listened to a live band play and sing enthusiastically.

On our “tourist day” in Panama City, we visited the canal and two STRI facilities where we learned about the fossil research they are currently undergoing on shark denticles to discover more about the evolution of sharks. In addition to researching the fossils held in the sand and coral on the ocean floor, the Naos lab also created an incredible opportunity for outreach: comics. These comics, intended to be read by Panamanian children, inform them about the history of the land and water of Panama and the unique species that once lived there. It was amazing to see that the researchers were able to pursue multiple passions, that they weren’t only doing research in a lab. It’s hard to imagine wanting to stay in a lab all day every day in such a beautiful place.

In Gamboa, we went on multiple hikes, one in El Valle, about three hours away and closer to the mountains, and one on Barro Colorado Island, the most secluded yet intensely studied forest in the tropics. The facilities take up a miniscule amount of space, and the majority of the island is untouched rainforest. It truly is a must-see if you ever travel near Gamboa or Panama City. It is an unbelievable opportunity to learn about both organismal research on wildlife and the climate. We also toured the STRI lab in Gamboa, which has an entire “wing” dedicated to bat research. We spent the majority of our last few days seining and working in the freshwater rivers. We caught wolf fish, catfish, and many species of small freshwater fish like Poiciliads and, Dr. Choudhury’s favorite fish, Roeboides. I highly recommend looking up a picture of Roeboides and taking a moment to appreciate its features which Dr. Choudhury attributes to its “great aerodynamics.” Our last day in Gamboa, we rose before dawn to try and watch the sunrise at the top of a tower, built above the canopy of the forest. We could hear the ominous yells of the howler monkeys as we walked in the dark, losing our way and searching quickly for a map along a dirt road. We eventually made it to the top and watched as the sky brightened. We walked down the canopy tower and ventured over to an area where we expected to see hummingbirds, but it was so much better than I ever imagined it to be. Hummingbirds were flying less than a foot in front of us, colored with bright teal and dark blue. 

We spent a lot of time in the lab, identifying the fish and coral we saw while snorkeling and the birds, monkeys, and other animals we saw around the facilities we were staying at. We did a lot of work, and our days began very early and ended very late, but we always made time to get to know each other better, take some time to dance or watch a funny video, and play card games. I began this trip thinking I was going to be the least prepared out of all the other students, but I left feeling like I was meant to be on that trip and experience everything we did together. I wrote this in my journal, and I will end by saying that on the plane ride home, I was sitting alongside nine new and amazing friends. 

Biology and Environmental Science majors (and others interested in going on the next Tropical Ecology Study Abroad): check your emails for information about the next upcoming Panama trip or talk to Dr. Choudhury for more information if you are interested in taking the course in the future!


Helpful links:

Information about the STRI facilities (listed in alphabetical order)

Aaron O’Dea, researching underwater fossils

“Shark Dandruff: Denticles”



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