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Cofrin Center for Biodiversity

Panama Travel Course

Every year, a group of students and faculty travel to Panama to participate in a variety of exciting research projects in collaboration with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. This course is designed for junior or senior undergraduate and graduate students with previous biodiversity related research, coursework or travel experience. Students are expected to already have a foundation in ecology and basic statistics. Rather than visiting several locations in Panama we will spend several days at 3 or 4 locations in order to collect data for research projects. These projects were chosen because they offer opportunities to explore an important topic related to biodiversity, as well as to provide unique experiences for students to collect meaningful scientific data. Different faculty will be leading the course each year and may introduce new projects to the course. In alternate years Saint Norbert College joins UW Green Bay in a collaborative research course.

Past projects: acoustic monitoring of tropical birds and bats in pristine tropical rainforest, fossil collection in the Panama Canal Zone with a team of Smithsonian paleontologists, testing of a new rapid assessment protocol to sample arthropods in lowland rainforest and cloud forest, assessment of spider communities in mangrove habitats, monitoring marine organisms in a Caribbean coastal ecosystem, collection and identification of fish species and their parasites in tropical rainforest streams.

Fees and Applications

Application to this course is competitive. Students interested in the course are encouraged to take ecology and one or more biology field courses. Although not required students are encouraged to take the Costa Rica Travel Course first. Interested students should contact the Biodiversity Center to find out more about the application process, as it may change depending on the year. In general students will be expected to provide current transcripts, complete an essay, and provide letters of recommendation when they apply. Students must have a current passport at the time of their application. Application deadlines are usually in late May.

Students should expect to pay between $2000 and $2500. Student fees as well as costs for equipment are subsidized by The 1923 Fund. The 1923 Fund is an active supporter of 3 participating institutions and has long been interested in biodiversity related issues.

Conditions and Locations

We will stay at different locations depending on research activities. Depending on altitude temperatures can vary from between 90ºF and 50ºF. Unlike countries in temperate regions, Panama does not experience highly variable seasons marked by changes in temperature. Instead, Panama 's seasons are divided into wet and dry. The course will take place during the beginning of the dry season, which usually begins around mid to late December. Around this time, strong northeasterly winds known as “trade winds” begin to blow and little or no rain may fall for many weeks in a row. Daytime air temperatures increase slightly to around 30-31ºC (86-88ºF), but nighttime temperatures remain around 22-23ºC (72-73ºF). Relative humidity drops throughout the season, reaching average values as low as 70%. Of course temperatures will be lower at high elevation in the cloud forest at Fortuna.

  • Comfortable lodging is included for the duration of the program.
  • Most meals are provided.
  • The research schedule is busy, but there will also be opportunities to take in the sights and to relax.
  • Recommended travel vaccinations are available at the Centers for Disease Control

In the past we have visited Galeta marine field station near Colon, cloud forests at Fortuna,


Gamboa will be our main housing and research location near Panama City. It is a small town located 30 km north of Panama City on the east bank of the Panama Canal, north of the Chagres River. It was was originally part of the infrastructure of the Panama Canal providing housing for Canal personal and their families. We will be staying in a former school building that STRI has converted to a dormitory facility for field courses using Soberania National Park and nearby sites.

We likely will be developing projects along Pipeline Road, 17+ km corridor that extends into Soberania National Park (Parque Nacional Soberania, or PNS) from Gamboa Township. This road is considered by many to be one of the best birding locations in all of Central America if not the world. The PNS extends for a minimum of 7.5 km in three directions from Gamboa and is entirely covered by tall tropical forests. It has been protected as a National Park since its establishment in 1979. There are 525 species of birds, 105 species of mammals, 55 species of amphibians, and 79 species of reptiles known in the park.

At the Gamboa Field Station, STRI provides laboratories and accommodations for researchers who work at the 22,000-hectare Soberania National Park and nearby STRI facilities. The park is a protected area containing a wide variety of forest and freshwater habitats, administered by Panama’s National Authority for the Environment (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente, or ANAM).

Pipeline Road is the old road used to access the oil pipeline used in the early days of the canal construction. The pipeline is no longer in operation but the road is now famous throughout the world among birders for the diversity of birds found there. It is partly paved and well maintained making it an ideal way to access the rainforest. The Panama Audubon society once counted a world record 357 birds in one of their Christmas bird counts there. For the first six kilometers or so the forest is mostly second growth, but as the road continues the forest is mostly old-growth. A few of the birds we might see include Slaty-tailed, Black-throated Trogons, Golden-collared Manakin, White-bellied Antbird, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and Blue Cotinga. Rarer old-growth species also are possibilities, including Yellow-eared Toucanet and Crimson-bellied Woodpecker. We might also see other vertebrates like anteaters, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, Geoffroy’s tamarin, green iguanas, agoutis, coatimundis, or two- and three-toed sloths.

Bocas del Toro


About Panama

It has been said that the word Panama means "abundance of fish and butterflies," reflecting the extensive biodiversity and unique geography of this isthmus country. Panama is home to the largest neotropical rainforest outside the Amazon Basin, and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are only 80 km apart between the economically important Panama Canal. Panama's great biological diversity derives in part from its tropical climate and variety of habitats but also from its geographical history. More than 64 million years ago Central America was a series of volcanic islands. Movements of the Caribbean plates created a deep ocean that kept the islands and North and South America separated. Terrestrial organisms were isolated but changing sea currents occasionally allowed the movement of species between the Atlantic and Pacific. Around 11 million years ago the climate began changing as water began to accumulate in the polar ice caps. Sea levels dropped and more land was exposed creating a vast archipelago. Changes in currents probably ended transfer between the Atlantic and Pacific, but some animals such as raccoons and sloths probably began to migrate between North and South America. Around 6 million years ago erosion due to uplift in the Andes and the San Blas dumped tons of sediment thousands of meters thick, filling in the areas between the islands. By 4 million years ago the deepest ocean between the islands was probably only 50 meters, and by 3 millions years ago the area was completely filled in creating the Panamanian land bridge. The land bridge allowed the previously distinct floras and faunas of North and South America to mix as species migrated north or south, leading to incredibly rich biodiversity within the isthmus. Despite its small size of 75,900 sq. km. (about the size of S. Carolina) Panama is home to more than 10,000 varieties of plants and more than 1,000 species of birds. As emphasized by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, "This unique history offers opportunities for the study of evolutionary and ecological processes unequaled anywhere else in the world."