Why Research in Panama?
Tropical environments represent a small portion of the Earth’s surface, yet they hold the majority of the world’s biodiversity, are major drivers of climate processes, and contain a wealth of cultures and resources. Panama, for example, contains more species of birds than the United States of America and Canada combined even though it’s only about the size of North Carolina. Despite this startling diversity, however, tropical ecosystems are some of the least-known on the planet.
Scientists studying these environments focus on questions with worldwide applications. What evolutionary patterns lead to the high diversity in the tropics? How can these species improve our modern lives? How are human activities impacting ecosystems and the climate?
Panama is particularly attractive to researchers because it has been the home of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) since the early 1900s, when Smithsonian biologists were invited to survey Panama’s flora and fauna during the construction of the Panama Canal. Many of ADOPTA’s staff and volunteers are professional biologists as well, and we frequently work together with researchers from STRI to better understand key conservation targets.
Research is Vital for Conservation
Although humans have studied the natural world for centuries, we still know incredibly little about the living things sharing the planet with us. We don’t even know to the nearest million how many species there are, and best estimates show that we have not even discovered a quarter of the species on Earth! Unfortunately, the current rate of global habitat loss is causing many of these species to go extinct before we have the opportunity to learn about them.
In the Cerro Chucantí private nature reserve owned and managed by ADOPTA, for example, we have discovered over a dozen species new to science since the land was protected. Many of these species are endemic to Chucantí, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. We are lucky that these species, and likely many others that we are yet to discover, were able to be saved before their habitat was deforested and they were lost forever.
Although we are always in need of updated data, we also need to be careful not to jump to conclusions too quickly. When new threats or patterns are identified, immediate action is often prioritized over further research. If the original information was incomplete, however, rushed conservation measures are unlikely to have the intended effect.
This is why researchers also often repeat previous studies, a process scientists call replication. The results from any single study, regardless of how well the study was designed and conducted, cannot be reliably applied in other situations until they have been tested across a variety of conditions. Because ecosystems are constantly changing, even well-tested theories require replication to verify that observed patterns and processes have not changed over time.
The introduction of coyotes, Canis latrans, into Panama shows why we need continued research in the face of changing ecosystems. Coyotes historically lived only in North America, but have drastically expanded their range thanks to human land-use changes.
Camera trap studies caught the first evidence of coyotes in eastern Panama in 2013, representing the first time this species had crossed the Panama canal. Although these studies were originally intended to monitor of Panama’s big cat species, and had been ongoing for several years, this coyote sighting was a vital new discovery.
In 2019, two coyotes were caught on camera within the Darien national park, the last significant border before entering Colombia and South America. The impact that coyotes have on Panamanian ecosystems is still largely unknown, but their presence implies that these ecosystems are rapidly changing. New research projects aim to better understand what obstacles, if any, coyotes may pose to conservation and the survival of local floral and faunal species.
When we think of research, we often think of academic researchers using specialized information and equipment to answer very specific questions. Yet a growing body of data is being provided by citizen scientists–members of the general public who have a strong interest in science. Observations that are entered into online databases such as iNaturalist or eBird contribute to gigantic datasets that can be applied to much larger studies.
ADOPTA strongly supports citizen science efforts through events like the Global Big Day, where birdwatchers all over the world submit their observations to a growing dataset on global bird populations. These types of events accomplish multiple goals at once: not only do scientists gain access to a massive amount of valuable data, members of the general public are able to work hands-on in research efforts and may be further incited to support local conservation efforts.
Join more than 35,000 birdwatchers on May 9, 2020 in observing as many birds possible. Panama was ranked in the top 10 countries in 2019, let’s do even better this year!