Thursday, August 23, 2012

Surrounded by History (Part 2)

During my time in Panamá, I was lucky enough to be able to help a few amazing biologists with their fieldwork. Some of my greatest memories in biology come from these adventures in the field or simply lending a hand in lab. One of my favorite memories is exploring Fort Grant, which is an abandoned U.S. military post that was used to defend the Panama Canal.

In our post Surrounded by History (Part1) we described the history of our laboratory building which historically was an old Panama Canal train maintenance station that has been long since remodeled as a three-story research facility. Even though it was remodeled, the building still shows clues to its original purpose. The three islands on the Amador Causeway, Naos, Perico, and Flamenco, also have a hidden history. But if you know where to look you can find the clues to its interesting past.

These islands are literally filled with history...

The Panama Canal was completed in 1914 just as
World War I began. But even before then, security around the canal was a major concern. The three islands are located at a perfect strategic point, even pirates used to hide out around them, so naturally they were set up to defend the Pacific side of the canal. The islands became part of Fort Amador and each was fortified with an extensive bunker system and equipped with various guns and missiles throughout the years.

It just so happens that the entrances to a few of the bunkers are hidden behind our laboratory building. I was lucky enough to see inside them! The first time I went through the bunkers I was helping John Delton Hanson, a visiting mammalogist, set traps to catch mice and rats on peak of Naos Island. because the island is so steep and the vegetation is so dense, the best way to climb the Island was to take the dark bunker tunnel.

When you enter the bunker you are faced with a daunting straight staircase. The first things you notice   is the incredible length of the straight stairs, the absolute darkness surrounding, and just how tired your legs get. The stairs seem to go up forever. But that isn't the worst part. Once you're about 3/4 of the way up, you'll notice that you are not alone. The bunker is now home to lots and lots of bats! But they didn't bother us very much. John even tried to catch one!


At the top of the long dark stairway, there is a long dark hallway. The hallway and all the rooms that branch off of it are mostly empty now. The lights, pluming, wiring, just about everything is long gone. Everything, that is, except for a broken blue toilet.

But there was also light at the end of the tunnel! An opening to the top of the hill! Outside I was amazed to find a large cement clearing. I had no idea this existed. From the street and from the lab all of this is completely hidden. I later found out that what we saw was originally the platform for a 14-inch rifle on a disappearing carriage. Isla Naos was fortified with three Batteries: Buell, Burnside and Parke. Batteries Buell and Burnside each had two 14-inch rifles with a range of 18,400 yards (10 miles). Parke had two 6-inch rifles with a range of 6,000 yards.

A similar structure is installed on the third island, Isla Flamenco.
Photo by Life Magazine, 1941

Fort Grant 2012
Fort Grant 2012

The costal defenses were in place until the advent of airpower during World War II. Hawk missiles later replaced these guns.

At the end of the day, we had caught a few mice, but for me, discovering the hidden history inside and atop Naos Island was really a special adventure.

Additional Pictures:

Post by Matt Starr

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Introducing Slipper Snails

A lot of the research in the Collin Lab focuses on slipper snails (sometimes called slipper limpets or slipper shells).  I like to refer to them as slipper snails because they are more than just a shell; they are really cool and complicated animals. 

The Latin name for the genus of slipper snails is Crepidula.

Slipper snails and their relatives all belong to a single family, the Calyptraeidae.  Future posts will explain the questions we are trying to answer, the methods we employ, and some of the things we have discovered. But for now, here are a few quick facts as an introduction to my favorite snails.

New species are being discovered all the time. At the moment, there are about 200 species of calyptraeids.  That is, there are 200 species that have been officially described and named, and which biologists agree represent distinct species.  But nobody really knows how many species have yet to be discovered.

I described and named Crepidula ustulatulina in 2002.

Slipper snails change sex.  Small young animals first develop as males. As they grow they gradually change to become female.  Once female they cannot change back.  This kind of sex change - from male to female - is known as protandry.  Sex change from female to male, which is seen in a number of fishes is known as protogyny.

Slipper snails do not move around much. They don’t have to because they are filter feeders –in other words they filter particles out of the water for food – so they don’t have to search for food.   They attach themselves to the substrate and hunker down in the face of adversity. 

Crepidula fornicata
They often just look like bumps on a rock.

The most important aspect of calyptraeid biology, from the point of view of our research, is that slipper snails display an amazing diversity in how they develop from eggs to adults.  Some species have swimming larvae, some species have large eggs that develop directly into juveniles that look like small adults, in some species the embryos actually eat their siblings as they grow, and in other species the kind of development can change during the life of the mother.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Surrounded by History (Part I)

We work on a small island at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal.

It’s not as remote as it sounds.  Isla Naos is one of three small islands in front of Panama City and is the site of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s (STRI) Naos Laboratories.  In 1912 the islands were connected to Panama City by a  3 km causeway made from rock excavated during the construction of the Panama Canal.  The causeway blocks currents and reduces sedimentation at the entrance of the Canal. And, of course, it means we can drive to work.

The Amador Causeway with Naos, Perico and Flamenco Islands.

It’s not just the large 1914 emblazoned on each end of the building that hints at its history. If you look carefully, among the lab benches and science equipment you can see traces of the building’s story. The third floor has strange metal poles scattered at inconvenient locations through the labs and offices.  These turnbuckles actually act to suspend the floor from the ceiling.

The Collin Lab is officially in STRI’s building 359 
but we call it the “1914 building”.

Turnbuckles hold up the floor.

Our 1914 building was originally a military building.  Gun batteries and later missiles were stationed on the islands to defend the Canal.  In the early days, trains were used to move the small guns from the islands to the mainland. A large space in our 1914 building was originally used to maintain these trains, and used to have tracks running along the floor.  There was a large hoist on an H frame running most of the length and width of what are now the 1st and 2nd floors of the lab. The hoist had an electric winch that could lift rail cars from the track and move them to the side for maintenance.  Now, 100 years later, this historic building houses modern scientific equipment.

 The 1914 building circa 1970.