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If frogs are everywhere why set the latest ResQ book in Panamá?

Why I wrote about frogs is pretty easy to understand. Rather than take time up in this blog you can listen to the trailer for my book and get the general idea —

Frogs are found everywhere except Antarctica. Why set ResQ in Panamá: Can We Save The Frogs? in this particular Central American country? Come with me as I reflect on this very special place…

I lay in my spare cot under mosquito netting. The power had just gone off for the night and any coolness would be derived from the hours when the utilities had been operating. It was dark, really dark. The handful of people staying at the Liquid Jungle Lab on the island of Canales de Tierra off the west coast of Panamá were cocooned in their rooms for the night. Outside I could hear the howler monkeys calling to each other; how close were they to my cabin? “Who” else was in the neighborhood? A few days back I was in a similarly primitive cottage on Barro Colorado Island in the middle of Lake Gatun, that body of water that forms an essential element of the original Panama Canal. That place was more like a commune of scientists. At meals in the cafeteria there were scientists from every corner of the world who came to this most studied of all tropical rain forests. A short 24-hour visit was filled with a hike to take in the extraordinary diversity of the forest, an encounter with leaf cutter ants marching to their kingdom beneath the ground, spider monkeys, yes more howlers, agoutis, bats, etc. and a trip to the top of the canopy in a gondola hooked to a crane that yielded a panoramic view and an encounter with a curious sloth.

That ecological richness would be enough to capture the heart of this biologist. But Panamá turns out to be so much more. David McCullough chronicled the construction of the Panama Canal in his wonderful book, The Path Between the Seas. What an architectural accomplishment now eclipsed by the new even larger canal. If the canals are the modern path between the two great oceans, then the isthmus of Panamá itself is the path between the two great continents of the Western Hemisphere. Before the isthmus rose creating the land bridge between North and South America, there was one ocean. As the seas were separated so opened a thoroughfare for animals who once could only traverse from one continent to another on a floating log. And so, Panamá is also a treasure trove of fossils that tells the tale of changes that occurred long before humans were part of the landscape.

Panamá is most definitely about the natural world, but it would be myopic to forget about the people. The country is enriched by populations of Native Americans, many originally from South America. If you were to travel to the Darién, that section of land where Colombia and Panamá connect, and the only break in the Pan-American highway between Alaska and the southern tip of Chile and Argentina, you will encounter tribes who live as they have for thousands of years but are also the attendants of our precious natural resources.

I fell in love with Magical Realism, Latin American style, back in the 1980’s. While the genre captured my imagination, it was not until I went to work as Undersecretary for Science at the Smithsonian in 2010 with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) located in Panamá as one of my “charges,” that I began to get a true sense of the derivation of this view of the world. During my tenure I made many trips to STRI, quickly succumbing to the allure of the place. And so, ResQ in Panamá: Can We Save The Frogs?, is a story about species endangerment, for sure, but also my love letter to this magical country.

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