Just seconds ago he was a darting illusion among the wet leaves of the forest floor; now on the flat pad of Briant’s index finger perches the teensiest frog. He is still, captive but noble, skin of glistening caramel, liquid black eyes the size of peppercorns, looking everywhere.
“Go ahead, you can touch him,” Briant encourages.
I’m shocked that’s an option, it seems there is no way I could be delicate enough. As gently as I can manage, I set my finger on his folded leg only half an inch long, amazed that something so tiny and gelatinous could propel him two feet in the air. As I remove my finger, it sticks a bit, our skin briefly adhering before slowly melting apart.
Two months ago, when I tracked down biologist and tour guide Briant Dominici amid the concrete jungle of Panama’s capital, he admitted within minutes of our introduction his passion for frogs.
“Some (biologists) do plants, others love the monkeys, or the ocean. I love frogs,” he reiterated, flashing through image after image of brilliant amphibian on his Blackberry.
It was then that I knew he had to see Isla Palenque, to hear as I do each evening the cacophony of “ribbits” echoing from the lagoon. And now he stands here in Palenque’s jungle with the world’s cutest frog on his finger, exclaiming, not for this first time today, that “this is paradise.”
As we duck our heads into the cool crevices of boulders and peek under decomposing logs, I realize that although I am the one leading our group, this frog-loving biologist has forever changed the way I’ll tread these jungle paths, the wonder of darting frogs revealed, and what other miniscule marvels?
“Leaf cutter ants!”
And once again my gaze drops to the forest floor. I would have walked right over the crawling leaf bits parading past me into the jungle on either side, had I not almost tripped over my hiking partners crouched with their heads inches from the ground.
It was among the dew and composting leaves and these otherwise overlooked details of the ground that Briant fell into a deep fascination with nature as a child. His earliest motivation to become a biologist stemmed from a species his Panama City neighbors call a garden pest: the leaf cutter ants we now observe.
“The boys in the neighborhood were playing baseball, but I just had to know where they [the ants] were going.” He remembers following a trail of ants carrying slices of leaf ten times their size back to their nest in his boyhood backyard.
Meanwhile Samuel, Briant’s friend and fellow biologist joining us on this weekend of Isla Palenque discoveries, chuckles in remembrance of his own childhood encounters with leaf cutter ants.
From the time he was a small boy, Samuel Valdez Diaz had knowledge of leaf cutters and many other insects thanks to a pair of books given him by his father, who worked in the United States Canal Zone. From poring over the words and pictures of these volumes, one about bugs and the other about tropical fish, Samuel learned two things: the English language, and how to study the natural world. His mother begged him to put his knowledge to practical use.
“My mother wanted me to do anything to get rid of the leaf cutter ants. They were driving her crazy, shredding her garden to pieces,” he recalls with a big, boyish smile.
He tried everything, even filling the dirt tunnel leading towards the Queen’s nest with gasoline and blowing a gaping black hole into the backyard. It’s the only time he was ever going to get away with such creative pyrotechnics — his mother’s only dismay was that the steadfast critters were only temporarily distracted! Finally, young Samuel dug until he found the hive of the Queen ant, extracted the entire nest and plopped it into one of his aquariums for observation.
Whether it was leaf cutter ants, tropical fish, or even the jaguar Samuel raised from a cub, Samuel’s mother didn’t seem to mind him harboring wildlife in his room, as long as her vegetables, flowers and herbs were intact.
Like Briant, Samuel’s greatest knowledge of the natural world came not from US science books or his college degree in biology, but from the oral tradition of his Panamanian abuelos. Between telling me the genus and species of just about everything we’ve passed over several hours of hiking Isla Palenque, the biologists keep me entertained with flippant local characterizations. Patting a Bursera simaruba, a tall tree with a smooth green trunk that peels a tissue-thin red bark, Briant explains:
“Naked Indian.” Peeling off some of its bark, he shrugs, “you know, because it gets naked.”
Just beyond the Naked Indian tree, Samuel excitedly bends over a shrub to pluck off a leaf that he crushes between his fingers to release its scent.
“When I was a little boy and I had chills, my mother would make a bath for me with this plant, and it would make me feel better.”
He hands it to me and I inhale – this otherwise nondescript kelly-green leaf has a smell not unlike eucalyptus, herbal and soothing. From fuzzy leaves Samuel’s grandfather would roll up and shove in his ear as an earplug, to a coastal plant with a brilliant yellow flower whose leaves can be used to cure indigestion, the insights of two days hiking with Briant and Samuel reveal that Isla Palenque can cure much more than my urban-weary spirit.
On Isla Palenque Briant and Samuel feel most at home with people such as myself, Ben, Mike, and the countless other Amblers on the island who will all drop whatever it is they’re doing to stop and marvel at nature. Panama is a country of only 3 million residents and a more biodiverse body of wildlife than any other Central American nation. Yet, at the Universidad de Panama that is free to Panamanian citizens, Samuel was one of 14 biology majors the year he graduated, and Briant was one of 10 – compared to over 1000 students who graduated with law degrees. The entire scientific community is on a first-name basis.
While Panama City continues to witness new developments in the form of skyscrapers, hotels with hundreds of rooms, massive malls and other modern construction projects to keep up the rapidly growing international business culture fueled by the canal expansion, the biological significance of Panama’s interior often gets tossed by the wayside. Politicians, local and international media, and even lifelong residents looking hopefully towards their country’s better future are placing too much emphasis on international commerce, at the expense of its natural treasures. The people of Panama are one intimately tied to the wilderness – it drenches their history, fuels their myths, and determines their destiny.
“You don’t love what you don’t know,” Samuel tells me, after I inquired as to why he pursued a degree in biology. Case in point, I think, remembering how easily I transformed from ambivalent to adoring of that tiny brown frog just a few hours ago. Briant and Samuel are two active members of a powerful local community of biologists working to ensure that a passion for nature stays very much alive among the people of Panama.
Briant breeds and studies dart frogs in his backyard under the reverent watch of his teenage son; he gave up a prestigious career to start his own Panama tour guide business. His goal is to share his passion for nature with Panama travelers through off-the-beaten-path hikes and tours through stunning wilderness not normally accessible to tourists (yes, he is available for hire and has my highest recommendation). Samuel breeds butterflies at his farm in Penonome and uses the species to foster magical appreciation at special events through butterfly release. He is also a revered advisory member of the tropical aquarium community. They’ve both contributed to numerous biological projects across the country.
In hopes of impressing the biologists with at least a fraction of the wonder they’ve bestowed on me, I lead the last hike of the day to Punta Ballena, site of the blowhole on Isla Palenque. As we ascend the steep incline of the point, the conversation lulls. Soon, we are all drenched in sweat; the path hasn’t been walked in awhile and Samuel works hard with a machete to get us through.
Pulling the last palm branch out of the way, we draw back a curtain on a grand display of blue ocean for miles and miles. The blowhole erupts in a magnificent spray, and we’re all instantly revived, hurrying down the bluff to grab front row seats for her next misty outburst. We watch the pressure build in the small inlet as the waves crash ashore; at once, three of us scream, “SEA TURTLE!” and for a brief moment are allowed a glimpse as the giant creature peeks above the water before diving into the depths.
Just in time for the next blast of ocean spray, Samuel raises his hands as if granted the divine power to project the brilliant fountain of water from the crevice of black rock before him. We smile broadly in the brilliant sunshine, defenseless against the upsurge of joy brought on by this natural spectacle; and from where I stand with these two Panamanian biologists, the future of Panama’s ecology looks just as bright.