24 Dec 2015

A Land of Natural Abundance… (II)

By: Jorge Ventocilla


Butterflies. At least 18,000 butterfly species have been identified worldwide, and more than 10% of them can be found in Panama. At schools, kids are taught that the name of this country means “abundance of butterflies”. I think Stanley Heckadon said it best: “the meaning of ‘panama’ should be just abundance”, plain and simple.  

Different varieties of morpho (genus name) butterflies can be found here, and they are well-known because of their size and color. They wander about rainforests, flying by trails, creeks, and roads across the woods. During the rainy season, they can be found at the roads close to Summit and Gamboa. I have seen a lot of them there.  There are five species of the morpho genus in Panama, but the most common is the  M. peleides.

texaseagle / CC BY-NC 2.0

When I asked Smithsonian butterfly specialist in Panama, Annette Aiello, she warned me: “You must make it clear that the blue color on this butterfly is the result of the structural arrangement of the scales…it is not a pigment”. In other words, the blue color that can be observed is not actually a color, but the result of a filter effect caused by the interference of the scales covering the wings.

Just like other butterflies, the wings of the morpho variety are covered by overlying microscopic scales. The ventral side of the wings has a different coloration as a form of mimicry: brown tones, and three or four “eyespots” on each wing. However, on the dorsal side of the wings, the scales are transparent: the entire light spectrum passes through them, except for the blue. Thus, blue is what we are able to see. 

In conclusion, natural beauty found in Panama can be seen and touched. However, there is also beauty on things we cannot see, as in the case of the colors on morpho butterflies.  Beauty sometimes is just a mere reflection… 

A similar thought might have crossed the mind of Panamanian poet Rogelio Sinán, when he wrote the following (from his “Onda” collection of poems): 


You were

Not the rose

But its reflection

On the river

(Suggested translation from the original in Spanish)


Monkeys in Panama. There are eight species of monkeys in Panama, and most of them are very dependent on jungle habitats, although some are able to adapt better to other environments, like the “tití” variety. 

Sergey Pisarevskiy / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


One monkey species, however, presents a rather unusual distribution in Panama: the squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstedii). It can be found only West of Chiriquí. It is thought that these monkeys might have been brought from the Amazon rainforest (their alleged place of origin) as pets by natives indigenous peoples in the pre-Columbian era. 

The “jujuná” or Panamanian night monkey (Aotus zonalis), the only night monkey in the American continent,  can also be found in Panama. In fact, these monkeys can be seen around, right here in the city: there are some groups in Ancon Hill.

A subject of countless studies. Undoubtedly, Panama has been the subject of natural history studies in many occasions, perhaps more than any other country in the American continent. I would venture to say that probably even in the whole world. How much of this is part of the wealth of knowledge of Panamanians? There is still a lot of work to do for increasing the knowledge of natural history in the country. And I am not only talking about the individuals or organizations in charge of transmitting this knowledge, but also about the individuals who receive it and are meant to spread it. 

For a long time now, efforts have been made towards strengthening a “national environmental culture”. However, these efforts now face the challenge of hyper-consumerism, a characteristic of post-modern day societies, especially in urban areas. This situation, in addition to a vision of life predominantly leaning to economism, is slowly disconnecting us from each other, and from the very rich natural environment still available to us.

It is very common to hear the phrase “nature is wise”. And, of course, it is! It teaches some lessons. We only need to pay attention. Organisms which consume in excess of what they need for thriving are destined to perish. A battle between species and natural selection? Of course! Predation? Sure! However, under unaltered conditions, nature takes its course and beauty and balance are restored.

Truth being told, this abundance is slowly ceasing to be. Some species and ecosystems are currently under serious threats. In fact, the percentage of primeval jungle in the country is decreasing. We also have to consider those areas which have been compromised, even if their “shell” remains intact. For example, sometimes forest areas are still standing, but there are no mammals or birds around due to excessive hunting. We will not discuss here, however, the negative impact of those large, thoughtless, and ill-advised projects for the extraction of natural resources.

There is something else that needs to be mentioned about Panama: the exceptional natural beauty in Panama City and the surrounding forests. Pay attention to that, there are very few cities with this privilege in most tropical regions.

Einstein is one of the few that, without being an actor or a sportsperson, is quoted on billboards along freeways and highways in Panama City. He once said that “we shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”

We must always remember that Panama is a small, sparsely populated country with natural abundance. We must cherish and protect this abundance. This is a challenge, but it also says a lot about the greatness of the country and presents a myriad of opportunities.