WyoPanama: Survival Games

Post by Jena Thompson 

Camouflage is a large part of animal survival. The research done in the Panama Isthmus is of tantamount importance to species reaching from the smallest ant to the largest Jaguar, and while the research has quite a bit of diversity from bat behavior, ant pheromone deciphering, to an enormous census of plant life, there is very little research into camouflage in the tropics. The path of biology has been littered with studying the art of camouflage according to Martin Stevens. I spent my time in the little town of Gamboa researching how the nest of the Antshrike bird (Thamnophilus nigriceps) is detected by predators, such as Toucans and Capuchin monkeys, up on Pipeline Road.

Jena, in the Panama forest, carrying the materials needed to install her nest experiments. (Photo © Priscilla Wigington/WyoPanama 2020)

In order to answer this question, I used abandoned and collected nests, molded soy wax into the shape of eggs, and suspended colored placemats below the nests. While working around the heat and humidity to create the eggs was a challenge, the soy wax was the best choice for an environmentally friendly creation for possible animal consumption. Inside the soy wax mold, we placed an elastic cord to ensure we had some part of the wax egg left to indicate which predator was targeting the eggs. The placemats were all spray painted with a grey base, and then six of the total nine were covered with either a complex or simple pattern made of 50% black paint and 50% white paint. The patterns sprayed on with no plot set and made using natural flora as patterning tools.  

Figure 1. Map of Pipeline Road identified via the solid line marked by distance. Image from PTYBirds.com.

My main goal after my college career is to work in conservation veterinary medicine, and this project is a small way to focus on how this ecosystem works. Figuring out and setting up this project was anything but simple. Dr. Kelley was pivotal in the conception of this project. Dr. Kelley helped me conceive this project to look at the ecosystem in a more complete manner. He had done previous work with these types of models focusing on how the speckling of eggs might affect survivability. He showed me how to make the eggs, helped provide the materials, and spent hours talking the project out with me. 

I have to admit that attempting to create soy wax eggs in the Panama heat and humidity was almost comical.  On any given morning when I was not in the field, the rest of our group could find me cursing at my wax covered hands. Spray painting the placemats was probably the simplest and most entertaining part of the set up. It was highly enjoyable figuring out how to make the placemat pattern with modified leaves as stencils. Dr. Kelley also helped me with figuring out how to set the nests out, and what kind of signs to look for in order to place them. It was important that the nests be accessible to predators from above, while still mimicking the natural placement of Antshrike birds nests as much as possible. The most fun I had throughout this entire project was being off the beaten path in the rainforests of Panama. The amount of flora and fauna to see in the twisted maze that is the rainforest is infinite for those who stop and look around.

For more about Jena’s research and the WyoPanama program, visit the following links: WyoPanama course on Facebook | The UWyo Biodiversity Institute’s spring 2020 series on WyoPanama research | WyoPanama course website

Jena (Fremont County, CO) is a junior majoring in Zoology and Pre-Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wyoming. She developed and led her own, independent research project as part of the WyoPanama study abroad course supported by the UWyo Honors College and Travel Abroad program. The course is led by Department of Zoology and Physiology faculty Patrick Kelley and Bethann Garramon Merkle, with invaluable support from TA and international master’s student Laura Gomez-Murillo.


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