The mangroves of Baja California store tons of carbon in their sediments (in fact 1,000 tons per hectare!– http://datamares.ucsd.edu/eng/projects/mangroves/gulf-mangroves-store-carbon-by-the-ton/), but how does this important ecosystem service vary from region to region? To understand this question, I am trying to gather samples and other data from diverse mangrove across the Americas. This time, I visited…
In 2010, I spent a fantastic semester in Panamá engaged in ecology field courses run in partnership with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). This organization, which has been conducting scientific research in Central America for a century, has field stations all across the country, including a few marine labs, some of which are within close reach of large areas of tropical mangrove forests. Though at that time, my scientific interest in these ecosystems had only recently begun, upon seeing those forests, I knew that I had to return one day for research. Thanks to the National Science Foundation, I have been able to do just that. I was given the chance this summer and fall to return to STRI and to sample mangrove sediments in two areas of Panamá’s Caribbean coast. I am here as an intern in the lab of Dr. Benjamin Turner, an expert on biogeochemistry of tropical soils. Being a part of this group means that this trip is doubly beneficial for me; in addition to collecting samples in new and interesting locations, by working in Ben’s lab I am learning new and sophisticated chemical techniques for probing the belowground world of the mangrove forest.
I spent the bulk of my field time in Bocas del Toro in northwestern Panamá, on the Caribbean coast near the Costa Rican border. The town of Bocas del Toro is situated on Isla Colón, one of a group of islands huddled together in this corner of the Caribbean offshore of the Panamanian mainland. Though the ocean-facing shores of Bocas del Toro are renowned as surfing destinations, the lee sides of these islands consist mainly of calm and protected coastlines and bays. This geography, plus the tropical temperatures and abundant rain, make this area perfect for tall, lush, and productive mangrove forests. And I’m not kidding about the rain. After all my prior work on mangrove sediments in the deserts of Baja California and the Galapagos Islands, the challenges of working in torrential rain in Bocas came as more of a shock than I would have guessed. More days than not, torrential thunderstorms rolled through, frequent but not particularly predictable, and, when it rained, it poured. Sharpies, cardboard boxes of sample jars, and even my supposedly waterproof notebook were no match for the deluge. The damper that the rain put on things, and the fact that my research essentially consists of holding a 3 m steel rod up in the air with my feet in the water, meant that working in lightning storms would not be a good idea. So, we had to work around the dodgy weather, which involved a mix of trying to be ready to go at a moment’s notice and to practice clairvoyance. I’m not sure I was completely successful at that either, but we got all the work done without incident regardless.
Of course, I wouldn’t have had any success at all if it hadn’t been for the support of a range of people whom I need to thank. From the beginning, the staff at the Bocas del Toro STRI research station provided indispensable information, resources, and logistical support. My excellent boat pilot, Eric Brown, navigated the mangroves with ease, graciously accommodated my irregular work schedule, and suffered the multifarious mosquitoes and other biting flies of the mangroves while waiting in the boat for my work to be done. Most deserving of thanks is Abby Cannon, another grad student at SIO who happened to be at the station at the same time as me. Beginning her own very interesting project on the effects of sea turtle herbivory on sea grass ecosystems, Abby was waiting for her permits to come through before she could begin, and so volunteered her free time to assist me for several days in the field. Though I’m able to do my sampling on my own, managing the unwieldy core, sample bottles, camera, notebook, measuring tape, etc. is a challenge, and having the help of an untiring assistant made the process much more efficient.
With help, persistence, and a few less-than-torrentially rainy days, I was able to sample all the forests I had planned to visit, except one. This mangrove forest was the only one of my target sites that is not located on the protected southwest shore of Isla Colón. Rather, it lies in a singular cove on the wave-washed, cliff-lined northeastern coast, exposed to the swell of the wide Atlantic Ocean. Though the cove itself is somewhat protected by lying in the lee of an impressive protruding bluff, getting into the cove would require daring tumultuous surf and dangerous conditions. We tried on two days to visit this site, but each time, the surf was too high to dare approach. The second time, I was close enough to see the mangroves… so close and yet so far. This, the toughest of Isla Colón’s mangrove forests, will keep its secrets for now, but I hope one day to return.
On September 20, I boarded a domestic flight back to Panamá City with two large cardboard boxes full of samples, my coring device (stored in a threatening-looking rifle case of all things), another box of equipment, two suitcases, and a backpack. That may sound like a struggle, but after lugging most of those things through the mangroves over the previous three weeks, the airport was easy. My last ten days in the country began with one, last, short sampling trip to Isla Galeta, 60 kilometers northwest of Panamá City, at the Caribbean terminus of the Panamá Canal. Galeta may be the smallest research station at which I’ve ever worked, with just 4 or 5 researchers stationed there when I visited. I received a warm welcome, and the researchers and staff made it easy to get into the mangroves and to conduct my sampling. The rest of my trip I worked in the soil lab at the Smithsonian in Panamá City. Being indoors after all that adventuring is always a bit dull, especially when you’re passing the hours drying, grinding, and weighing dirt. But, I’m excited to see what results my trove of samples and new-found experience in soil science will yield. Until next time Panamá!
Author: Matthew Coasta
PhD student, SIO
Matthew Costa is a Regents Fellow 2013-4 and NSF Graduate Research Fellow 2014-present, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in biological oceanography as part of the Gulf of California Marine Program. He is interested in community ecology, biodiversity and functional diversity, and coastal ecosystem processes and services. His research focuses on carbon storage in sediments of the mangrove forests in the southern Gulf of California. Prior to study at SIO, he completed a B.A. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University studying mangrove species zonation in Bermuda.