Isla Palenque’s beaches evoke one set of sensations, allowing you to envision yourself the pioneer of a paradise that somehow escaped the notice of everyone else on Earth. On the beach, you are the seafaring adventurer who chanced upon these welcoming shores to leave the first footprints on their virgin sand. But venture inland from the beach, and within ten paces you’ll find that you’re the hero in a very different tale.
Here, under shelter of hundred-year-old trees laden with vines and flowering epiphytes of every variety, your imagination shelves Robinson Crusoe and opens up The Jungle Book as you begin to explore a realm teeming with wild creatures and echoing with birdsong.
Even those who have explored Isla Palenque extensively (such as Amble Resorts’ founder and president Benjamin Loomis) know better than to claim they’ve uncovered all the mysteries of this island’s thriving ecosystems. Life exists in a multiplicity of layers; every hike presents a novel opportunity to delve deeper into a unique Panamanian wilderness. By inviting a pair of native Panamanian biologists to lead us on an expert-guided adventure, we turned over a new leaf in our understanding of this jungle-covered paradise island.
Meet the Biologists
Although they graduated four years apart, Briant Dominici and Samuel Valdez Diaz became fast and lifelong friends while still in school at Universidad de Panama. Unlike most of their small graduating classes, both of these biologists decided to forgo a career with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, opting instead to take a more entrepreneurial and hands-on approach to celebrating and preserving the natural world. Briant leads nature and hiking tours in the jungles surrounding Panama City, sharing his extensive knowledge of Panamanian flora & fauna with visitors to the capital; he also breeds and studies frogs (his favorite creatures) in his backyard greenhouse. Samuel applies his knack for all things natural through “butterfly release,” a magical and awe-inspiring display that makes outdoor special events in Panama all the more special. The butterflies are his own, bred at his butterfly farm in Penonome.
They also regularly contribute to biological research projects – for instance, Samuel was part of a project to obtain and test anti-venom for the most poisonous snake in Panama, the fer-de-lance (this anti-venom is now widely available throughout Panama). And they agreed without hesitation to visit Isla Palenque in order to share with us their biological insights into our island’s plant and wildlife species. Thanks to their extensive knowledge of the Panamanian wilderness, owing as much to the folklore of their childhood as to their formal studies, they had lots of jungle wisdom to impart. Take a walk with these native Panamanian biologists, and our friends, through Isla Palenque’s central jungle.
A Biological Survey of Isla Palenque, Panama
Indulge your curiosity about the flora & fauna found on island in Panama by learning more about some of the species featured in the video! Times indicate when to look out for each as you watch “Lessons of the Jungle.”
Howler monkeys (0:00-0:13)
These intelligent, social animals gain their name from the loudest of their vocalizations, which range from adorable squeaks to roars that can be heard from three miles off. Even the most menacing-sounding howler is all bark and no bite – they are generally ambivalent towards humans, and infighting among groups of these monkeys is a rarity. Their expressive faces appear contemplative, wistful even – though captive howler monkeys display a markedly surly demeanor. They’re happiest musing in the treetops of wild habitats such as the protected jungles on Isla Palenque.
Swainson’s hawks (0:39-0:41)
Swainson’s hawks are the saviors of anyone squeamish about creepy crawlies – favorite foods of this beautiful avian species include locusts, grasshoppers, and a variety of other insects, with snakes coming in a close second to bugs. Isla Palenque explorers will see plenty of hoppers about the island — assurance that the island’s hawks are in their element. Traveling from their North American breeding grounds to winter in Central and South America often takes two months – the longest migration endured by any North American raptor. And virtually all the world’s Swainson’s hawks pass through Panama en route to more southerly destinations. Since these hawks typically arrive at their tropical wintergrounds in August or after, this summer’s sightings indicate that Isla Palenque has been hosting a waylaid traveler. Occasionally, a Swainson’s hawk will become lost or disoriented and choose to remain in a warmer locale until their next biologically-scheduled migration.
Virginia opossum (1:28-1:34)
Panama is home to 8 species of opossum, and we’ve observed several on Isla Palenque. Our biologist friends introduced us to the largest and most geographically wide-ranging of these, the Virginia opossum. These marsupials famously feign death when frightened, giving rise to the expression “playing possum.”
Naked Indian (1:35-1:42)
Constantly shedding its reddish bark, the Naked Indian tree calls to mind the peeling effect of tropical sunshine on pale-skinned tourists who fail to slather on the SPF, hence its nickname “Tourist Tree.” There doesn’t seem to be any scientific consensus as to why this tree sheds its bark, but we can speculate that it may simply relate to the tree’s natural growth processes; or, the Naked Indian may have evolved to continually lose its outer layers in order to dislodge external parasites such as burrowing insects, epiphytes, moss, lichen, and other potentially damaging cling-on.
Eye of the deer (1:22-1:27)
Seed dispersal of the Mucuna pruriens plant occurs overwater — consequently, you’ll often find these tokens on Panama’s shorelines, including on the beaches of Isla Palenque. These “deer’s eyes” are regarded as good luck charms throughout Latin America. Beware the plant, though, for its leaves cause extreme itch on contact. Better to let your lucky treasure wash up on shore.
Medicinal plants (0:57-1:05)
Cinco negritos (Lantana camara): These fire-loving flowers rapidly colonize places that have been recently burned. The colorful blossoms are a sight for sore eyes, and the methanolic extract of this plant can be used to heal ulcers and treat respiratory system infections. Lantana camara also have antibacterial properties.
Balsamino (Momordica charantia): Make a tea with the leaves of this indigenous plant found on Isla Palenque, and you’ll have in your cup a veritable panacea – balsamino treats a wide range of ailments, boasts antimalarial properties, and has been shown effective in diabetes management.
Hinojo (Piper auritum): ‘Tis only proper that Isla Palenque, which translates to “Sanctuary Island,” should harbor a species referred to as “the sacred leaf.” Hinojo serves as a local anaesthetic, stimulant, diuretic, headache and would poultice, and cures an embarrassment of other ailments. Its distinctive flavor defies description, prompting comparisons to sassafras, licorice, eucalyptus, anise, nutmeg, mint, and tarragon, and is commonly showcased in Central American cuisine.