Experimental Tropical Marine Ecology

Day 8: Be free, hermit crabs!
by -- October 15th, 2010

The class took the hermit crabs back to Red Frog Beach where we found them. Around lunch, we created our presentations to present to the class the data we’ve collected this past week.
Day 8: Be free, hermit crabs!

This is a real sign.

Today is our last day in Bocas del Toro. I’m going to miss hearing birds and other wildlife chattering in the trees during meals, since our dining table is in a screened-in room. I’ll miss the camaraderie, and logistical issues, of sharing a room and bathroom with five other girls. I’ll miss going into town and chatting with the locals, who have a sense of hospitality that I sense is special to tropical countries such as this one.

But, all things must end, and it seems appropriate that we end somewhere near we started: Red Frog Beach. The hermit crabs we collected earlier in the week had to go back home today, so the class set off on a trip to set them free. The frogs around Bocas del Toro are all of the genus Dendrobates, though it is said that each island around here has a different color frog or ones with distinct markings from the other islands.

After walking to where we found the crabs (who don’t live on the beach, like semiterrestrial crabs do, but live completely on land in the forest), everyone came back to start working on final presentations. Each group compiled the data and made a powerpoint to present to the class. Here is an example of one of our results:

This graph is from one of our orientation experiments with a 20-degree target and white light. We placed the target to take up about a fourth of the quarter of the circular arena, or 20-degrees. The blue dots correspond to where the crabs went. When crabs were placed in the middle of the circle, as you can see, most went directly to the target, which symbolizes a large shell. Another group found that the crabs who showed no response (the ones who didn’t go to the target, shown in the graph as the singular dots placed around the circle) to the 20- and 10-degree targets had a shell:crab volume and weight ratio that was more closely correlated, suggesting that they weren’t looking for a new shell at all.

One of my professors asked me what I had learned, besides the research we did, during the week we were in Bocas del Toro. Panama is very different; I felt fortunate to know Spanish and thus be able to communicate with the locals, who are extremely nice and outgoing. For example, the other night, a few of us were at a bar, and during some of the songs one of the bartenders would come teach us how to dance the right way (apparently, we didn’t know how – typical americanos). Also, seeing as how Bocas is a relatively small town, I’ve seen some people multiple times (especially street vendors and the people who work at a certain bakery that we may have gone to >3 times) – they’re always happy to see us, ask how we are doing, etc – even when we’re just passing through. People in Latin America in general are relaxed; they don’t rush everywhere like we do. Even one of my professors, who is from Venezuela, noticed that I was rushing through cleaning this morning – deadlines are embedded into our minds now; we always have something that needs to be done in x amount of time. Maybe it’s an American thing; I suspect it is.

I think it’s important, whenever visiting a foreign country, to assimilate as much as possible to the cultural norms of that country – to stop being strictly American for a few days. I’m certainly guilty of wanting to hear American music rather than Reggaeton when we’ve been at bars, but it can be as simple as trying new food (like special hot sauce, of which I am not usually a fan, yet found myself eating with rice several times; or plantains, which you can flatten and fry to make something like potato pancakes, or make into juice, or eat with a syrup for a sweet dessert; or oat juice, which tastes very similar to eggnog). Here at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, residents are asked not to flush toilet paper down the toilet, and instead to throw it in the trash can due to the nature of the septic tanks in these more rural areas. The t.p. here doesn’t dissolve very easily in the Smithsonian’s tanks, so to get around this problem, STRI (and other areas) “basket” paper waste. Not flushing t.p. increases the lifespan of the tanks and makes the liquid that eventually flows to the ocean have less of an environmental impact. I’ve heard of people deliberately ignoring this rule – and, yes, it’s definitely not what we’re used to and can seem bizarre at first – but the oceans are very vulnerable to the effects of humans. We all saw the coral bleaching this week, not that that has anything to do with toilet paper, but it is this general disregard that saddens me somewhat. One person’s trash may not mean much, but if everyone thinks that – well, we all know the result.

Tomorrow, we leave for Panama City to tour the Canal, visit the old (and older) parts of the city, and have dinner. I don’t know if I’ll have a chance to blog, except maybe at the hotel briefly. If not, I want to say thank you to all the readers and people who commented as I chronicled the class’s journey this week. Thank you to Martin’s parents who said they liked my writing style, and to Uncle Charles for the humorous comments about sea cucumbers – my professor said I should bring one back for you, so you can try it out on a salad.

Pictures from today:

View off the boat dock

Our view every morning off the boat dock (with varying amounts of clouds each day). Sometimes the ocean, mountains, clouds, and sky blend together to create a breathtaking blue-grey gradient.

For some reason, it was no longer in service.

Some of the class poses with the sign.

Alix sets some of ze crabs free. They are now very happy. (I set 2 free tonight by our mangrove forest, and they happily scuttled away – it was very nice after all the trauma they were put through… having to live in plastic cups all week.)


Hannah watches on as Kia traverses a tree branch. Does he make it? Does he fall? I wasn’t there, so I have no clue.

A bird Dr. Forward saw known as Montezuma oropendola.

That’s all, folks!


  1. Nader Fathi
    Oct 16, 2010

    Thank you so much for daily blogs. We read them daily and glad to see you all had a safe, great trip & learned so much.
    Have a super time in Panama City & a Great Trip back to DML.
    -Nader Fathi (Kia’s dad)

  2. debbie boddiford
    Oct 16, 2010

    Thank you for your commentaries on all of your expeditions.We have enjoyed being able to “stay connected” with Laurie…and—-the photos were wonderful!!!! I’ll be in Morehead later in October. Maybe we can host a reunion.

  3. Ruth
    Oct 17, 2010

    Thank you for your blog and wonderful descriptions of the Panama adventures. Becca’s family has been reading your blog every day, and we are all amazed at what a great experience you have had. Have a safe trip home.

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