No other country in Central America has highly developed urban areas and dense tropical jungles at such close distance as Panama. You can literally go wildlife watching "over lunch," and return to the office in the afternoon, having added new and astonishing sights to your memory archives. A slow walk for a few hours along Pipeline Road, near Gamboa will on many occasions allow the visitor to see a higher diversity of wildlife than he could see spending a day at any park in Central America. But the possibility of easy access is only the wrapping paper of this special gift.
What else makes Panama so special for the wildlife enthusiast?
Panama is the Central American land bridge with South America and its wildlife shows the strong southern influence. Algae-covered sloths, tiny marmosets and night monkeys make their home in the canopy. The strange bushdog and the giant anteater hunt and forage in the undergrowth, and the capybara, largest rodent in the world, moves in groups along the edge of rivers and lakes. Most of these mammals do not occur farther north into Central America, and Panama provides a unique opportunity to observe these fascinating creatures in their habitat.
Birdwatchers have enjoyed Panama’s natural wealth for over a century and bird collectors operated in this rich environment as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. This is no wonder since Panama is home to many of the most-sought jewels on any birders list. The majestic harpy eagle, largest of the neotropical raptors, is still seen occasionally by birders in the Darien and along Pipeline road, as well as its close relatives, the solitary and the crested eagle. Five species of macaws and a dozen and a half species of parrots, parakeets and parrotlets add more than just a visual treat, a lot of decibels to the jungle’s dawn symphony. Toucans, bell birds, umbrellabirds and motmots, and even the resplendent quetzal, mostly restricted to the cloud forest of Chiriqui, are other beautiful elements to enrich the country’s avifauna, exceeding 900 species.
But natural wealth is not restricted only to terrestrial environments. Panama is fish heaven, whether for the aquarium enthusiast, dip-netting jungle pools and streams, or the deep-sea fisherman trolling offshore. From the small multicolored Killifish and dwarf armored catfish, inhabiting the fresh-water streams and lakes, to the monstrous black marlin off Hannibal Bank and Pinas Bay, Panama has it all. Before the Central American land bridge was formed, Panama was an island which developed many typical freshwater species. As it joined South America and the bridge connected with North America, it started to receive species moving in from adjoining areas, on both versants.
Plant enthusiasts will be equally astonished by the incredible biodiversity found in a country smaller than South Carolina, barely 30,000 square miles. Scientists estimate that over 10,000 species of vascular plants exist in Panama, and many first-time visitors to the lowland rainforests will get the impression that they are all growing right in front of them. But there is more than rainforest in Panama. Dense mangrove thickets fringe large portions of both coastlines, slowly changing into riparian forests, bordering the bodies of water land inwards. The foothills of the central highlands hold tall, broadleaf forests which with increasing altitude, fade into the deep blue-green cloud forests of the upper ranges. The country's highest areas receive frost regularly during the dry season and there is even a report of snow on the summit of Volcan Chiriqui The vast flora covering Panama arose from this broad range of altitude and climatic conditions, combined with a very rich hydrography.
Among the showpiece groups of Panamanian flora are the orchids, with over 1,000 species, ranging from sea-level to the highest mountain peaks. The highest diversity can be found at mid-elevations, where one large tree can have over twenty species growing on trunk and branches, amidst dozens of other epiphytes. Heliconias, a group plants closely related to bananas and birds-of-paradise, display their brightly colored, crab-claw shaped inflorescences in dense thickets along streams and freshwater lakes. These plants evolved together with the hummingbird species that pollinate them, creating an interaction that displays such intense beauty and complexity, that it inspired wildlife artists since the Victorian days.
But Panama's natural world has inspired more than artists and amateur naturalists. Inquisitive visitors will find that this wealthy environment has been studied and documented for well over century. One of the world's most famous centers for the study of tropical ecology and a pioneer project in the field of island biogeography is the island of Barro Colorado, in Lake Gatun. Formed in 1914, when Lake Gatun was flooded it became a permanent study station of the Smithsonian Institute in 1923. Since then, a multidisciplinary team of resident and visiting researchers have kept a highly detailed account of the island’s population dynamics of fauna and flora. This living laboratory has allowed scientist to gain a better understanding of the gradual changes that affect small, isolated areas of tropical forests. But the research programs at Barro Colorado are only one of the many ongoing studies, trying to get a better understanding of the country’s vast natural wealth.
Whether you are only marginally interested in natural history, or enjoying nature is a main goal in your travel plans, Panama will provide you with an experience that can only be surpassed if you come back. And you will.
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