Experimental Tropical Marine Ecology

March 7: Day 4 – Birthdays and Brachyurans
by -- March 7th, 2011

In which a number of trials, tribulations, and celebrations transpire…

The way through the mangroves.

The day actually began at midnight with Susan’s 20th birthday. Megan managed to find some horrendous/amazing birthday song personalized with Susan’s name online. At midnight we burst into her room sporting our headlamps in red light mode and foam killer whale & sea turtle hats while accompanied by the howling background track. Susan nearly died of laughter, before donning both the killer whale and sea turtle hats forming a fearsome sea creature helmet.

A few hours later, once we woke up properly to sunshine and singing tropical birds, the day truly began. We trekked out to one of the nearby mangrove enclaves. We began walking atop a boardwalk that descended deep into the mangroves, but soon found it was badly damaged. Determined to continue on, we strayed from the disrepaired boardwalk at times, forging our own trail within the trail.

The mangrove was not the typical muddy jungle I had schematized from nature shows. This forest was further inland, rather than bulwarking the coast. Because of its location, it depended on Panama’s tropical rains for sustenance rather than seawater. This affected the forest in two visible ways. First, the typical mangrove succession from white mangroves to red mangroves was not observed because there was not a dramatic gradient in soil salinity. Rather, the different species of mangroves were intermixed, and formed a dense tangled forest. Also, because it hadn’t rained much recently in the area, the soil was quite dry and solid, and some of the trees were noticeably parched. The forests dependence on rain water allowed it more freedom of organization, but also wounded it when rain water was not so freely available.

Although the forest suffered of thirst, it still teemed with animal life. Birds were everywhere, darting betwixt trees and calling to one another–calls that I had never heard, plumages I had never seen. Perched amongst the lower branches of a mangrove hanging over a feeble stream was a brilliant kingfisher. Deeper in the forests’ recesses was an egret–stately swaggering between the tree roots.

Back at Galeta HQ, we searched for 100 G. lateralis crabs, a small brachyuran crab that lives in the same habitat as the land hermit crabs. We wanted to see how they reacted to the same targets. Detecting these crabs proved a Herculean task that involved lifting large stones, rolling away massive logs, poking through dense brush, and burrowing into sand. By the end of the ordeal, we had about sixteen G. lateralis–not nearly enough to conduct a significant test.

Towards the end of the desperate and dissatisfying search, we found other means of gratification. Jessie and I collected aquatic snails–a task we demolished in well under fifteen minutes. These snails would later be frozen and thawed to generate a dead snail odor to draw hermit crabs searching for shells. We also scouted for a large predatory crab to make odors from, but we did not have much luck.

While searching and wandering about the beach, we spotted a man-o-war that had drifted up to the shoreline. It was bright purple & pink and inflated with fluid. The tentacles were nowhere in sight, just ripped tissue at the base of the colony where they should have been. Perhaps they had been ripped of in the rough waves out on the reef, or by some immune or ignorant animal in the water. Though this particular encounter was harmless, it reminded us that we have to be careful in the tropics. Beauty can often be deadly.

We regrouped, lamented and gnashed our teeth on the small number of G. lateralis collected, and then retreated to the research station for dinner. After dinner, Humberto brought out a cake for Susan. It was a delicious carrot cake, with a creamy icing that the lovely kitchen workers had decorated in honor of Susan’s birthday. It was a day of difficulties, yet also a day of rewards, and a day of celebrations.

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