A year and a half ago, I spent a week in Gamboa, Panama, an odd little town that was built between 1934 and 1943 to house the dredging division of the Panama Canal Company. I was there for a story that just came out in Smithsonian. Read about some cool frog research.
Gamboa started losing population already in the 1940′s; with the rise of the automobile, people didn’t have to live right next to their job anymore. Today, it almost feels like a ghost town. The schools have all closed. Several of the housing blocks were knocked down decades ago.
But about 300 people still live there. Some work at the dredging division. Some commute to jobs in Panama City. A third or so of the permanent residents are scientists at the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute, and quite a few other scientists do their field work there.
I went to Gamboa to hang out with Karen Warkentin, a biologist at Boston University who has made some neat discoveries about red-eyed tree frogs. The story is in the January issue of Smithsonian.
I fell in love with Gamboa. It’s this odd little American town plopped down between the rainforest and the canal. The Panama Canal Company was American; they built the town and even imported building materials. The houses were designed to catch the breezes in an era before air conditioning.
Extravagantly noisy parrots wake up before dawn each day and fly out to the rainforest to look for food. You can see toucans in the trees along the pleasant, paved streets. Sidewalks are covered in a thin layer of moss and agoutis wander the yards.
Of course, I also fell in love with red-eyed tree frogs. Particularly their embryos–I didn’t see many adults. (Learn why by reading the story.) They’re these little tadpole-like squiggles, living off the yolks stuck on their bellies. Karen introduced me to a whole series of them, from two days old to five days old, under a microscope. I could have stared at them all day. It was just amazing. You can see their little red hearts and their gills, branching thread-like structures that extend outside their bodies, collecting oxygen from the fluid in the egg.
I could go on and on. Read the story and maybe I’ll post some more later about Panama, the frogs, and the canal.