24 Nov 2015

A Land of Natural Abundance…

By: Jorge Ventocilla

Fernando Sucre asked me to write about “Panamanian nature”, and I readily accepted. Fortunately, the amount of pages required (4 pages, with spacing at 1.5) was an easy task to tackle. To his invitation, I replied by briefly writing about some animals and plants found on this beloved land that is host to an abundance of life, or biodiversity, which can be found only in few other places with similar characteristics.

To begin with, how is it that Panama, as we know it today, came to be? Some volcanic islands and two tectonic plates were involved. These tectonic plates collided over time, event that caused the “Caribbean Plate” to force the “Pacific Place” to slowly slide under it. There was also the movement of emerged land masses: the huge Azuero peninsula was drifting from far away until it encountered the isthmus. 

The “building” of this natural bridge which is Panama was completed 3 million years ago. From up above in the sky, Panama has a shape similar to an “S”. The emergence of the Isthmus of Panama allowed wildlife to move from North to South and all the way back.  It also caused sea currents to change, thus changing the global climate and, eventually giving way to the development of the human species, far from here, in Africa.

There are thousands of animal species in the country. From bats and whales to blue-gray tanagers, anteaters, harpy eagles, and hummingbirds. Different species of fish in both oceans and more than 500 rivers. We can only imagine the variety of invertebrates there must be. There are also trees, ferns, vines, and many other types of vegetation. In just one hectare of tropical rainforest in this country there could be more species of trees and butterflies than in the whole European continent. 

And all of this in this tiny country…

Allow me to begin with the National Tree I would like to suggest that, as part of the basic education of kids, parents should teach them to recognize this tree, and not just by pictures, but by the actual Panamá Tree (Sterculia apetala). It is easy to find one of these trees in the city: it is an ornamental species. Many people have planted it because of its national significance. Recently I noticed that someone planted one at the summit of Ancon Hill.

frutosatrativoscerrado / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It can grow from 20-35 meters tall, with a diameter of 50-100 centimeters. The top of the tree is wide, the trunk is straight and cylindrical, sometimes with large buttress roots. It grows where elevation is low, and more frequently on the Pacific side. It is less common to find it on the rainforest in the Caribbean. Its natural habitat ranges from Mexico through Central America, down to Peru and Brazil. It has been cultivated and naturalized in Jamaica and Trinidad, and it has been planted on South Florida,  Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Regarding other continents, it has been taken to other tropical regions due to its virtues as a shade tree, for its edible seeds, or as a melliferous species (bees collect nectar from its flowers). 

It has several names, besides “Panamá”. In Puerto Rico, it is called “chicha” or “anacaguita”; in Mexico, “bellota”, “castaño” or “tepetaca”; “zunzún” in Venezuela, and “camajuru” in Colombia. 

Cabinet Decree No. 371, from November 26, 1969, declared this species as the National Tree of Panama.

Birds from the land of abundance. I will talk about birds that are found in this country by including one of the most important species: the one we call “gallinazo”. I know, I have said it before: these  vultures are not as attractive as canaries or crimson-backed tanagers, but they should not be disregarded either…although their behavior may not help. However, I think they should be rewarded by the authorities for their efforts in cleaning the city. They surely deserve to have their photo printed on stamps!

texaseagle / CC BY-NC 2.0

There are two species of vultures commonly found here, and they look pretty much alike. However, they have some specific features to help us differentiate them.  Black vultures (Coragyps atratus or “gallote”, as their friends call them) have a white patch on the underside of each wing.  Turkey vultures or “nonecas” (Cathartes aura) have a two-toned wing, the upper part is black, and the lower part is white.  The black vulture is found in larger numbers than the turkey vulture. The former frequently flaps its wings when it flies. The latter soars and glides very artistically.

The keen sense of smell of the turkey vultures gives them an advantage for detecting carrion.  The black vultures do not have this ability, and usually depend on the turkey vulture for food. They would usually follow turkey vultures, and wait until they find food.  When this happens, black vultures would scare away turkey vultures, which would leave the scene since it is not an aggressive species.  When they are not robbing from turkey vultures, black vultures use their excellent vision for finding food.

I remember that, in the early 80’s, Carlos Ayarza (who was then a student at Universidad de Panamá) studied the dynamics of vultures in Panama City for his Biology graduation work.  He marked almost a thousand specimens with numbered vinyl ribbons.  Carlos found out that vultures in Panama City usually slept in two areas: Flamenco and Naos Islands (Amador Causeway), and Ancon Hill.  He also proved, through his own observations and observations by other biologists and birdwatchers, that vultures in Panama City did not remain just in the city, but would go all the way to Colón, Barro Colorado Island, Taboga, Chorrera, San Carlos, and even Aguadulce.

Regarding migration patterns, part of the turkey vulture population would migrate, as humans also do, South in October-November, and North by the end of summer.

The blue-gray tanager. this is one of the most common birds in urban areas.  It has a grayish blue color, and both male and female look the same. It is usually found in groups or, at least, in pairs…never on its own. It is not territorial. It seems to be always eager and expecting, if not flying very rapidly. It does not survive if caged, but it would certainly come and visit us if we arrange some bird feeding area with fruits.

knowprose / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The blue-gray tanager is native to Latin America, and its range of distribution goes from Mexico to Bolivia. Biologists call it by its proper name: Thraupis episcopus. In Costa Rica, it is called  “viuda” (widow); in Peru, “violinista” (violinist); in Mexico, “tangará azul” (blue tangara), for example.

Hummingbirds! Flying gems that are only found in the American continent. May its presence continue to amaze us forever! José Martí, an important figure in Latin American literature, once said: “…there is a great wealth of truth on the wings of a hummingbird.” Was this an overstatement? I think it was not. 

Moreover, the smallest hummingbird species in the whole word is endemic to Cuba, the native land of Martí. It is called “zunzuncito” (because of the “...zumm” sound produced by its wings). Its total length from beak to tail is 6 centimeters! Its weight?  Less than 2 grams. The scientific name of the “zuzuncito” is Mellisuga helenae.

The Spanish name for the hummingbird, “colibrí”, came to us from the French via the Carib indigenous people of the Antilles. Since these birds are really small and have an extremely high metabolism, they are forced to visit up to  2500 flowers a day to make up for their daily energy needs.  With an average speed of 30 km/hour, theoretically, the hummingbird needs to fly some 240 km every day! 

There are more than 300 species of hummingbirds and, with 59, Panama has quite a significant share. Please take note of the following: even though their feathers are actually black, gray, white, brown, and dark purple, their singular shape and characteristics reflect and refract light, resulting in those beautiful iridescent tones we are able to see in them. For this reason, we need the right amount of light if we want to watch or capture these colors in our photos... and voilà